Wednesday, March 25, 2015
Save L.A.'s theater scene
And then actors have the added hurdle of competition. There are always hundreds of other actors vying for the same few parts. It’s a blessing I’m a terrible actor.
Equity is a union that represents actors in the theater. As a member of the WGA and DGA you know I’m very pro union. Especially in the movie and TV business where major conglomerates are now in control and care only about making huge profits. Unions provide at least a modicum of protection for the little insignificant people who actually make the product.
Likewise, when there are big Broadway productions and theatergoers are paying hundreds of dollars for tickets, the actors deserve their fair share. Leaving it to the goodness of benevolent producers would ensure that these actors would starve. Equity provides a valuable service.
Here in Los Angeles we have two tiers of theaters. Large theaters like the Taper Forum and Pantages, and small theaters of 99 seats or less. There are not that many large theaters in LA. And of those, many feature roadshow productions of big Broadway hits. WICKED was here recently. I’m surprised THE SOUND OF MUSIC isn’t playing. The point is there are not a lot of parts for actors.
No one really makes money in these theaters. You’re lucky if you break even. People put a tremendous amount of time and effort into shows that will be seen by a precious few or fewer. Even if you sell out every seat for twenty performances at $20 a ticket you’ll probably still lose money. We're not talking Time-Warner.
So why do we do it? Because we love the theater. Because we can practice our craft. Because of the camaraderie. For actors, it’s a showcase. And many intimate shows have gone on to bigger venues or even Broadway keeping the original casts. For playwrights, it’s a chance to present your vision without network or studio interference. Trust me, if you’re a writer and you want to make money – you write spec screenplays or TV pilots. You don’t write a play for God sakes!
Up until now there has been an Equity Waiver that has allowed these 99-seat theaters to mount plays without having to pay actors more than car fare. On the other hand, it means more chances to “be hired.” And again, it’s not like everyone is getting rich but them. Viacom does not own 99-seat theaters in NoHo.
Also, the actors have a choice. If they don’t want to take low or no paying jobs that's their prerogative. This isn’t jury duty.
Now Equity wants to eliminate the waiver. There is a referendum that would force these small theaters to pay minimum wage for every hour of rehearsal and performance. You could make the argument that that’s reasonable. And I think we all could agree that no one, actors especially, should be taken advantage of.
But producers claim that those concessions would add so much to the cost of productions that they would not be worth doing. They’re losing money as it is.
So the end result might be this: 99-seat productions go away. Theaters close. And then who benefits? Equity actors are getting minimum wage of nothing. Potential roles will no longer exist. If you’re an Equity actor you better get cast in PIPPIN or you’re out of luck.
To me this is shortsighted. There is the real danger that if this referendum passes it will kill the small theater scene in Los Angeles. Or producers will only seek non-Equity actors. And you might want to be a non-Equity actor in that case because suddenly your competition for parts might go down from 100 to 10.
Actors themselves don't want this. On Monday a large group of them picketed their own union.
I’m a playwright so I have a horse in this race. I’d love to have 99-seat theaters as options for mounting one of my plays. But that's not my only option.
My greater concern is for the actors themselves. Casting directors go to these Equity Waiver Theaters. These productions provide the opportunity to do the thing you love. The theater scene is shrinking already. Even Equity theaters primarily want plays with only two to four actors now. Twenty years ago plays would routinely have eight to ten parts.
Equity actors will get a chance to vote, although I’m told the Board ultimately will decide. So essentially they could ignore the wishes of its membership. The scuttlebutt is that’s what they plan to do. They want to adopt this referendum. Ballots should be received by members today. The only way to get the Board’s attention is to resoundingly vote NO.