Thoughts of a Los Angeles Designer
This post is from a series about Los Angeles theater, the values we apply to our art and business choices, and about how we collectively address challenges and the need for change. These posts reference a Call for Action published on 9/24/14.
I came to Los Angeles thirty years ago. I didn’t intend to make my life here. I was a native New Yorker who had come out west for theater work, and the goal was to, sooner or later, make my way back. I was asked to come work on a television project in Hollywood for two weeks in the fall of 1984. I didn’t initially want to do television, but when I found out that the pay was three times what I had been earning doing summer-stock theater, I quickly changed my mind.
I was lucky. I had a good set of theater skills—drafting and model-making—that I had learned at Adelphi and Brandeis Universities and honed at several prominent regional theaters. Hollywood quickly embraced my transferable theater skills, and that first job led to many others. I did very little theater for a few years. I started getting antsy. I decided I needed to find a way to do more theater design. That’s who I was—a theater designer. I was trained to be one. It was in my blood.
I made some Los Angeles theater contacts and was able to get hired on several “equity waiver” productions. The pay was minimal, but for a young designer it was some experience and portfolio material. I was still doing television work but started finding myself more and more back in the theater. I started working at several slightly larger theaters, and then got into South Coast Repertory. I was progressing as a designer both in pay scale and quality of work. The transition into some of the larger theaters was slow going. Being a west coast designer, I found that many of those jobs went to New York City designers.
In time, work came with the Geffen Playhouse, Pasadena Playhouse and Center Theatre Group as well as a few of LA’s mid-size companies (The Colony, International City Theatre, A Noise Within) and some of the better 99-seat companies (The Theatre @ Boston Court, Antaeus). Over the years it became clear to me that there was a huge gap between our four larger LORT theaters, and everyone else in terms of contract, scale and budget. The 99-seat world has grown much after the “waiver wars,” which culminated in a small group of equity members suing Actors Equity for the right to continue to “waive” the union contract. 99 seat theater has become the pervasive framework for much of Los Angeles theater world. The 99-seat plan makes it cost effective for many to produce on. A lot of Los Angeles actors, who are classically trained in theater came here for television and film work and pay. The 99-seat plan lets them flex their theater muscles and provides freedom to move back and forth between mediums.
I have come to find the 99-seat plan to be a blessing and a curse. It allows for creative freedom and risk taking in production. With such a vast talent pool in Los Angeles, the work often can be amazing. It can also be terrible. Along with getting the acting talent for only a few dollars per performance, the 99-seat plan encourages a lot of under-budgeted production which can bring down the quality of the art and the experience.
In order to try and align better with the growing number of small Los Angeles theater companies (and the low-budgets often associated with Los Angeles small theater shows) and get members work, in the mid ‘90s, my union United Scenic Artists initiated a Southern California (SCMA) contract with fee rates lower than those in any other city in the country. I was then—and now—getting paid less for doing the same work here in Los Angeles than I would in San Francisco, Chicago, Seattle or New York.
I could certainly choose not to work at a lot of small theaters. I could also try and negotiate higher rates. I have done both. But I like to work with good theater artists. It’s hard to say no to a good director or to a good script. As a Los Angeles theater artist, it is almost impossible to not work in 99-seat theater.
The Los Angeles 99-seat plan has no system in place to encourage theaters to grow or any plan to eventually get Equity members back to a living wage. The 99-seat plan was not created with an eye towards the future. Twenty-five years after it was created, Los Angeles needs a revised system in place that will gain back balance.
Actors should get paid for their work. There should be a system and incentives in place to encourage more LA theaters to grow. We should have far more midsize theaters than we do. All other major U.S. theater cities do. I am not an advocate of eradicating the plan, but revising it for today and with an eye towards the next twenty-five years.
I was a New Yorker. I am now an Angelino. I love this city and many of the theater artists here. Los Angeles theater is as good as anywhere else. There has been talk over the years that Los Angeles theater gets no respect. Respect starts from within. We must place a higher value on our work and ourselves. It is time.