Critic's Notebook

In 99-seat tussle, don't lose sight: Common goal is a healthy theater scene

Charles McNulty
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Theater Critic
One critic's perspective on the 99-seat theater debate

One of the unrecognized ironies of the whole Actors' Equity brouhaha is that the union representing actors seems to understand better than most that the Los Angeles theater scene cannot remain hostage to actors who want the freedom to use the stage as a sideline.

Producers have built flourishing shoestring operations on the backs of virtually unpaid actors. If the majority of performers aren't complaining, why should their union interfere?

With its recent decision about changes to membership rules and agreements after a long and hotly politicized referendum, Actors' Equity has been accused of ignoring its members and of setting out to destroy the city's unique ecosystem of small theater.

That's not the way I see it. I believe that the union is concerned about the future of Los Angeles theater, recognizing that institutional growth over the long haul is in the best interest of its membership. Only time will tell whether L.A. is capable of such growth.

Veterans of the 99-seat theater wars who fought for the freedom of actors to work for what amounts to carfare believe by and large that Equity is making a huge mistake, putting at risk one of the city's great cultural resources: its constellation of pocket stages. As they see it, midsize theater hasn't evolved in L.A. not because of the proliferation of small theater but because of economic infeasibility and a lack of audience demand.

I believe that the city can support adventurous midsize theater if the right leadership emerges. What's needed is a new generation of artistic visionaries who have the passion, idealism and commitment of Mark Taper Forum founder Gordon Davidson. Those who recognize that audiences are created, not found. Who want to operate within an institution large enough to attract and compensate the best artists but small enough so that it doesn't have to follow in the increasingly commercial footsteps of the nonprofit behemoths.

Maybe this is a critic's pipe dream. I'm aware that tampering with the status quo is a gamble that could leave the city with less than it currently has. But after covering Los Angeles theater for the last 10 years, I don't quite share the sentimental view of some of my colleagues.

While I am the first to admit that some of the best work in town is done at the 99-seat theaters, I don't think it's accurate to characterize this scene as a flourishing hotbed of experiment. Los Angeles is deficient in auteur-driven and devised work. Small theaters for the most part can't afford to produce such offerings and the regional theaters are in general too timid to go near it.

You might not know it from local programming, but this is one of the most exciting periods in American playwriting in at least a generation. A cadre of trailblazing talents has emerged, yet their work has fallen through the city's producing cracks. This is reason some important new plays by Annie Baker, Young Jean Lee, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and Quiara Alegría Hudes, among others, have yet to grace our stages.

The other major problem with the current intimate theater landscape is that it has encouraged an every-man-for-himself mentality. Artists are too often working in a vacuum, filled with righteous self-congratulation for making theater in an industry town yet divorced from the larger life of the art form they profess to love.

Admittedly, this isn't just a small-theater issue. How many times will Sarah Ruhl's "Eurydice" be produced by big, medium and little companies before it dawns on somebody that the play has had multiple productions in the region and maybe it's time to sample one of her more recent efforts?

If audience demand is doubted, perhaps it's because producers have encouraged atomization through their programming. It still amazes me that major productions in L.A. open on the same night, forcing a critic to make choices when it would be so much more sensible for producers to work in tandem when planning their calendars. Small theaters, operating like islands, contribute to the sense of centerlessness and disconnection.

Rather than cling to outmoded beliefs about L.A., I want the city to have a greater mindfulness of itself as an inevitable theater capital, a place where artists from around the world hope to be invited and where local theater artists can imagine paying at least a portion of their rent through their art. Whether Equity's latest changes are the ideal prescription to put us on this path is another story.

In their response to membership feedback, the National Council of Actors' Equity conceded one crucial point to the opposition, making it possible for registered 99-seat membership companies to collaborate with new Equity members over time, ensuring that a company such as Rogue Machine Theatre won't be phased out any time soon. (The fear was that membership theaters would grow moribund if unable to bring in new talent on the old pay scale.)

This is not the doomsday scenario many in the Pro-99 campaign are claiming. Actors looking to exercise their craft between Hollywood gigs can choose from a menu of showcase and self-producing options.

John Perrin Flynn, founding artistic director of Rogue Machine Theatre and an outspoken opponent of Equity's proposed changes, told me via email that "everyone is trying to assess the impact and it is very difficult to judge right now." He acknowledged that his most pressing concern is what to do about the "unsustainable" rent hike at his current venue. But he had a couple of objections: "The problem with the membership rule is [the National] Council can change it whenever they want without recourse" and "if the existing membership companies flourish won't that defeat the purpose of these changes?"

In other words, have the modifications that Equity has agreed upon made it less likely that the best of the 99-seat theaters will one day become midsize institutions, and once the union sees this won't they just rewrite the rules? An Equity representative responded by saying that the organization will "hold meetings with independent producers and multi-employer groups to discuss how they can utilize these contracts and hire our members."

But the battle isn't over by a long shot. On social media, Pro-99 advocates are declaring war. I just hope that amid all the cannon fire both sides keep in mind what it is they're fighting for.

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