Paul Birchall’s Got It Covered:
This Week’s Roundup: IRS Red Tape for the Nonprofit Arts, New York Report, 99-Seat Lawsuit Update, and Stage Raw’s Second Annual Holiday Festivus
By Paul Birchall
IRS to Arts Donors: Drop Dead
The Performing Arts Alliance (PAA) has been raising the alarm about the latest threat against the economic lifeblood of the nation’s nonprofit theaters, orchestras, opera and dance companies and their artists. And this time, it’s not coming from a crippling recession or the opening of a new front in the culture wars. It’s coming courtesy of our friends at the Internal Revenue Service.
The D.C.-based Alliance, which lobbies on behalf of America’s professional nonprofit arts institutions, has issued an Action Alert on a proposed IRS regulation that for the first time would allow — but not require — 501(c)s to collect their donors’ Social Security numbers or taxpayer identification numbers to substantiate gifts. The new rule was published in September for public comment, but its language has attracted little attention in spite of what could be its devastating impact on donations should it be enacted.
The deadline for comment is Wednesday, December 16.
According to the Alliance, the rule, which is being offered as an option to the traditional contribution receipt issued to donors with the dollar amount and the disclaimer that the charity did not provide any goods or services in exchange for the contribution, will kick in with gifts of $250 or more.
The problem, the Alliance argues, is that at a time when identity thieves are routinely plundering the high-security databases of major banks and giant retailers — and when the IRS itself is urging taxpayers to never give out their Social Security numbers unless “absolutely necessary” — even offering a voluntary option to nonprofits to become repositories for sensitive personal information will jeopardize donor giving while putting arts institutions under the crosshairs of hackers.
“This is just like another nail in the coffin of the performing arts scene,” insisted Jay McAdams, the executive director of South L.A.’s 24th Street Theatre. Jay, who spoke to me by phone, said the proposed change would impact all of the city’s nonprofit theater companies, but would particularly affect 99-seat stages, whose individual donors typically give in the hundreds rather than the thousands of dollars, and do it online with a credit card.
“If I’ve got to give you my Social Security number on [an online] form, I’m probably going to click off of it,” he said. “So why wouldn’t a donor do that? … A $300 donation is a pretty big deal for a lot of 99-seat theaters. I would guess that the vast majority of 99-seat theaters have very few donors at the $300 level. You know? So if you’re going to put a barrier in there at $250 to jump over, you’re just hurting the small guys.”
Nonprofits also point out that, bureaucracies being bureaucracies, the fact that the IRS is now insisting that the proposed rule will be voluntary doesn’t mean that it will not become mandatory in the future.
The Alliance urges interested parties to weigh in by posting comments to the IRS on the PAA’s Action Alert page. The responses need to be filed by Wednesday, so there isn’t much time.
These Vagabond Shoes
Early this week, I flew back from New York where I was vacationing with family. It was my mother’s birthday party, and also a fine opportunity to see some shows in the Big Apple. Now, I know what you’re thinking: I must have gone to see hot Broadway musicals like Hamilton, An American in Paris, or our own L.A.-bred production of Spring Awakening (which has announced a new national tour, by the way), and what have you. Frankly, I did no such thing: Instead, I dove into Off-Off-Broadway, the equivalent of the 99-seat scene I tend to gravitate towards here at home.
It was a treat to get even a slight taste. While it is useless to generalize in terms of our own theater scene, I can say that Los Angeles and New York are quite comparable in terms of professional skill and polish. What New York has that is different from L.A. is public and municipal support at an exponentially higher level. Hop into a cab, and backseat video monitors blare ads for the Off-Broadway production of Clever Little Lies, featuring Marlo Thomas. Head into Tribeca, and audiences willingly climb up four creepy steep flights of stairs in a ramshackle industrial loft building to pack the vibrant and exciting production of In the Soundless Awe in New Light Theater Project’s attic-sized performance space — a show that, due to the Actors Equity Association-mandated “Basic Showcase” code, may only run 16 performances over 4 weeks.
But don’t get me started; the code, which governs Off-Off-Broadway’s small-budget, independent productions, is enough to make any theater lover insane. New York is replete with productions of almost astonishing virtuosity and talent — shows rightly known the world over — but due to this crazy code, they must close in no more than a month. It’s terrible.
And, yet, it’s still better than the revolting Los Angeles 99-Seat Agreement that is being renegotiated for our city. In New York, 16 performances may turn the ephemeral life of a theatrical production into a mayfly-like blink of an eye, but at least the shows go up with little other interference. I wonder how L.A. would fare if a similar system were established here?
Noises Off, Talks On
By now, you will have heard that the plaintiffs for the Pro-99 seat movement and the AEA folks are continuing to meet privately to debate the future of Los Angeles’ intimate theater. Very little news is coming out of these meetings, and I’ve said already that I think this is a good thing: The less we know, the more progress is being made and the more hopeful the plaintiffs are of succeeding.
One thing that seems interesting, though. If you look at the December 7 press release that has been circulating, beneath the notice that the plaintiffs won’t serve the lawsuit while the discussions are taking place, there’s the sentence, “The plaintiffs have withdrawn with prejudice any claims or causes of action against Mary McColl, executive director of Actors’ Equity Association.” The phrase “with prejudice” literally means the suit against McColl can never be filed again. But what on earth does it imply? Does it mean, as I suspect, that the union wasn’t willing to talk until charges against her were dropped? If it took that kind of pressure to get the AEA leader to the table, it does suggest that the negotiations are quite a bit more charged than was thought.
Perhaps news of what is going on behind the closed doors will be leaked at the various holiday stage parties around town, where no secret can withstand spiked 99-seat egg nog for long.
Let’s Have a Festivus!
Yes, it’s Christmas and lord knows the Theater loves a party. I am no exception. And I just want to say, if you invite me to your theater’s party, I will almost surely come. And you would love me at your party! I am a bon vivant and I will regale you under the table with glorious theater tales and bits of ancient lore. Think: a cross between Bob Cratchit, Falstaff and the Eleusinian Mysteries.
Actually, of course I am lying. Not lying about coming to your Christmas party (I would certainly do that), just about being a life-of-the-party kind of guy. I am more of an eavesdropping on other folks’ conversations and write them down for my column sort of a fellow.
One seasonal festivity that I definitely won’t be missing and to which you’re all invited is the Stage Raw second annual Festivus party, which is going to take place at the Skylight Theatre, 1816 N. Vermont Ave on Monday December 21. There will be hot music courtesy of Jake Broder and his sizzling jazz trio from Sacred Fools’ hit musical Miravel, plenty of Christmas spirits, a nosh spread and, onstage, live performances by David Melville and Jessica Emmanuel, and an excerpt from Brooke Bishop’s poignant documentary-theater piece on lifelong love affairs, How Love Lasts!
Last year’s event showcased a wonderfully broad range of talent, from acoustic guitar music to Alan Mandell’s recitation of Beckett, to the inimitable John Fleck. Oh, that was a fun night — and, yes, there was plentiful of gossip to boot, as you’d expect from an SRO bacchanal packed with cocktail-lubricated partiers and containing more than a few theater journos.
The event costs a paltry $10, but feel free to pay more as the proceeds will pay for Stage Raw’s outstanding community-supported stage coverage. So swing on by and have some fun even if you’re skint. Or stay home and offer your support from afar by buying tickets online anyway to help insure there’ll be another Festivus party — and the online arts journal that hosts it — next year.