In late summer rumors began circulating of a potential coup within Los Angeles' thronging and boisterous smaller theater scene.
A renegade group of artists and producers, private Facebook messages and lobby whispers revealed, was meeting at undisclosed locales to discuss the 99-Seat Theatre Plan, the agreement with Actors' Equity that permits members to volunteer their services for a minimal stipend to practice their art in a town overrun with out-of-work actors. Mild-mannered firebrands, speaking off-the-record for fear of being blacklisted, alluded to labor lawsuits that would challenge the existing way of doing business.
Eventually the leaderless movement went public with a website and a collective statement, "Re-Imagine LA Theatre," calling on the theater community to come together for a reassessment of the structures determining how theater is produced in Los Angeles — structures these would-be reformers see as "outdated and uncoordinated."
Two issues were highlighted: the "significant obstacles to climbing the ladder of a professional theater career" for young artists and the lack of local and national attention to "the great work being done" here. The first point touches on the consequences of a theater culture that expects artists to work essentially for free. The second concerns the problem of getting noticed in a scene that has such a low barrier for entry.
Pushback came from two groups — leaders of those houses that are flourishing under the existing 99-Seat Theatre Plan and actors who are grateful that their union allows them the liberty of working at the smaller theaters between film and TV gigs.
Money, naturally, is the biggest sticking point. The Re-Imagine group contends that the "policy of hiring professional artists under formal agreements with 'stipends' or 'fees' that are less than minimum wage has serious legal implications," an assertion that doesn't go over well with artistic directors and producers who claim that they can't afford to pay actors those kinds of wages and keep the doors to their shoestring operations open.
Formerly called the Equity Waiver, the 99-Seat Plan has been something of a mixed blessing from its inception, with fervent proponents and equally fervent detractors squaring off in their mutual quest to improve the ecology of Los Angeles theater.
No one wants a return to the polarization and acrimony of the fierce "Equity Wars" of the late 1980s, but the time is ripe for a reexamination of the 99-Seat Plan and the organizational models that have developed around it. Reform will be difficult, but after speaking to passionate theater professionals from across the spectrum in recent weeks, I believe there is a fighting chance.
Bart DeLorenzo, artistic director of the Evidence Room and a regular director at both large and small theaters throughout the region, sees merit in the renewed debate.
"What is great about 99-seat theater is abundant and obvious," he said. "People feel very free to experiment. It's very easy to create art here, and often amazing things happen. L.A. also has some very strange phenomena. Theaters don't graduate and move to another level. And while it's hard everywhere, just the possibility of being a theater artist is much less likely here than in almost any city in America — which is strange because there's so much theater."
The absurd contradictions in this scene have been growing only more conspicuous. The commercialization of L.A.'s larger theaters has accelerated since the recession. Mid-size theaters such as the Colony and East West Players are scarce, leaving an artistic vacuum that the better smaller theaters have been valiantly trying to fill.
Yet those smaller institutions have little incentive to grow. Although it would make sense for the Fountain Theatre, Rogue Machine Theatre or the Theatre @ Boston Court to expand so that they could serve larger audiences and better compensate artists, the system as it is devised makes such a path extremely hard.
The lack of artistically adventurous mid-size houses is the reason some touted new works take so long to get produced here. Agents hold out to get the L.A. premiere at the Mark Taper Forum or the Geffen Playhouse, theaters that will bring in actual revenue for their clients. There's little financial incentive for agents to grant the rights to smaller theaters, which have nonetheless been incredibly resourceful in producing plays by writers such as Sarah Ruhl, Enda Walsh, Tarell Alvin McCraney and David Harrower on our stages.
Yet mid-size art theaters (a somewhat mythological species at the moment) would no doubt have better access to the talent pool of international playwrights and auteurs. L.A. is enviably rich in creative personnel, but no community can be self-sufficient without becoming provincial.
Cause or symptom?
Is the dearth of mid-size theaters a function of the profusion of 99-seat theaters? This is a question that can have no definitive answers, but it's the one that provokes the most heated responses.
John Perrin Flynn, artistic director of Rogue Machine, told me over coffee with Martha Demson, artistic director of the Open Fist Theatre Company, and Michael Seel, executive director of Boston Court Performing Arts Center — all of whom are members of the Theatrical Producers League of Los Angeles/Intimate — that the idea that 99-seat theater is holding back the development of mid-size contract house is nonsense.
Flynn acknowledges that he'd like Rogue Machine to expand, but where's the funding for such a jump? The issues he raises — such as the rise in rents, the difficulty in luring local benefactors and the challenge of building an audience in a traffic-ensnarled metropolis — are as unlikely to find a quick fix as Congress is apt to pass a huge NEA budget increase.
Re-Imagine supporters aren't the only ones who see things differently. Mary McColl, executive director of Actors' Equity, told me that producers she has had conversations with believe that the 99-seat theaters have had an inhibiting effect on the development of mid-size theaters.
L.A. theater is unimaginable to me without the constellation of smaller theaters in which some of the finest actors working today get the opportunity to perform in plays that are being passed over by the increasingly risk-averse subscription houses.
Indeed, this year I've attended theater in London, Stratford-upon-Avon, New York, Ashland and all across Southern California, and three of the best shows I've seen were performed here by actors at pocket stages earning no more than gas money and a cup of coffee for their labors: "Top Girls" at the Antaeus Company and "Stupid ... Bird" and "Happy Days" at the Theatre @ Boston Court.
These smaller theater offerings were the product of a confluence of great acting talent and breathtaking institutional resourcefulness. No one should want to dismantle this 99-seat network.
Demson, an actor turned producer, was passionate about the indispensability of the 99-Seat Plan to actors wanting to practice their collaborative craft, and she pointed to the boon of intimate theater "in a film town" that craves this kind of close contact.
Any threat to the freedom of actors to participate in this work raises hackles. Demson said that those making the push for minimum wage compensation were by and large "not in the first tier of excellence" and didn't understand that "the art is the reward." Flynn added that these people "are not getting work in the industry."
Diana Wyenn, a theater artist serving as spokeswoman for Re-Imagine L.A. Theatre, countered via email by listing some of the better-known members of this growing movement, including Tom Buderwitz, one of the most in-demand set designers in Southern California. There is no official leadership, and it was difficult to find anyone willing to talk on the record after my introductory meeting with Re-Imagine representatives. But other supporters prominent in the community include actor Ezra Buzzington, playwright and artistic director Jon Lawrence Rivera, and Danielle Brazell from the Department of Cultural Affairs.
A time to listen
Regardless of their generational position or employment history in the entertainment industry, those endorsing the Re-Imagine call to action deserve to have their voices considered by those who have a seat at the negotiating table with Equity. The group's central premise can't be dismissed: The institutional structures of Los Angeles theater are too weak for an urban center of this size and cultural prestige.
Modification to union agreements that points the way toward growth and development is the obvious answer. How to get there is much more complicated.
There are reasons for optimism, however. Actors' Equity has unveiled a plan to survey the active membership here (more than 8,000 people) about Los Angeles theater in its many forms. Focus groups will follow next month, and then the Western Regional Board will apprise the National Council about the wishes of its members.
If this sounds like more bureaucratic wheel-spinning, McColl made clear that with a $7-million investment in Actors' Equity's new digs in North Hollywood there is a renewed focus on Los Angeles and a recognition that institutional development serves the long-term interests of union members. "This is a turning point for Los Angeles theater," she said. "And we intend to be at the forefront of it."
One issue that will have to be thrashed out is just how unique the situation is here. McColl said that she sees "the same kind of difficulties of actors and stage managers across the country," and that they've begun to hire staff with experience in working with companies who want to move to contract houses.
But Laura Zucker, executive director of the Los Angeles County Arts Commission who for 10 years was the producing director of the Back Alley Theatre, said that "looking at parallel contracts at other places in the country hasn't proved particularly fruitful in moving the situation forward." "The solution," she contends, "is different in each market."
L.A. certainly has its own singular assets and liabilities. One imposed liability that Zucker would like to see amended concerns real estate. She called the requirement that 99-seat theater take place in "unexpandable" real estate "the largest strategic mistake that Equity could possibly have made." "Equity says you can't have a 99-seat theater if you can seat 150 or 199," she explained. "Equity should want theaters to have a capacity to grow, but these theaters literally can't grow in the spaces they occupy."
An "accordion model" that allows the smaller theaters to temporarily expand is one that Demson believes should be strongly considered. Another area of agreement among 99-seat producers I talked to is the need for a ladder of contracts that considers the grueling economic conditions of making theater here.
DeLorenzo believes the strongest point in the Re-Imagine document is the item about "different operational models with different intentions and purposes" being "awkwardly shoved together."
"A bunch of graduating seniors in a remount of their college production, producers wanting to do a cheap out-of-town tryout and a company that's been around 20 to 30 years working with the most esteemed artists in the community can all be operating under the same agreement," he said. "Why do we treat these incredibly divergent things as though they were the same?"
Talk of contracts and union negotiations only fills me with gratitude that I went to drama school and not law school. Yet the future of a vital art and community resource is at stake in these negotiating details. There are entrenched interests that will be hard to reconcile, but everyone I spoke to wants to see the theater evolve institutionally and artistically. The brainpower and good faith are in place to work out a flexible, multiform deal that both protects what has been created and paves the way for new possibility.