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This Week’s Roundup: The AEA/Pro-99 War of Words Continues; Cabrillo Music Theater the Latest Casualty for Southern California Theater

By Paul Birchall

Pro-99 Plaintiffs Respond to Kate Shindle

Kate Shindle being interviewed in her New York AEA office (video screen capture courtesy of Broadway World)

Kate Shindle being interviewed in her New York AEA office (video screen capture courtesy of Broadway World)

The fallout following AEA President Kate Shindle’s comments on two podcasts continues this week.

If you recall, last week Shindle made an appearance first on Ken Davenport’s “Producer’s Perspective,” and then on the NY-centric Broadway Bullet podcast. The specific purpose of these interviews was not, it seems, specifically to discuss the Pro-99 movement – but the topic came up, and Shindle ended up trying to justify Equity’s attempts to shut down equity-waiver.

Dakin Matthews, in an article in Footlights, offered a masterful riposte to Shindle’s first interview. Matthews took particular umbrage at Shindle’s notion that the abundance of small 99-seat theaters are somehow responsible for smothering attempts to create more lucrative mid-size theaters — an illogical premise that Matthews noted didn’t hold water. 

“I suspect that it is not the existence of intimate theatres that precludes midsize or smallish theatres in LA,” Matthews opined, “but the impossible economics of such theaters in a geographically spread and industry-dominated city like Los Angeles, which has neither a strong theatre-going tradition, nor scores of super wealthy people interested in theatre, nor a reputation as a tourist destination for theatre-goers, nor the kind of weather that makes indoor arts activities desirable many months of the year, nor actors willing to preclude their screen work by acting in low-paying contract work.”

LA Stage Alliance executive director and Stage Raw publisher Steven Leigh Morris offered his take in an article in LA Stage, in which he agreed with Matthews that the idea of small theaters squeezing out larger theaters is unproven at best, irrational at worst. 

“If those larger theaters have faced financial challenges, the place to look for blame is the shifting ratio between earned income and contributed income,” explained Morris. “In short, for the past two decades, contributed income for many of Southern California mid-size theaters has shriveled. The smaller theaters have nothing to do with that stark reality.”

Morris favors establishing scattered arts communities throughout Los Angeles, a setup that would afford Equity an opportunity to pair with diverse factions within the performance community. “If Equity could help us advocate for arts districts that include theaters large and small, commercial and not, with a diversity of artistic expression and financial models — as well as ethnicity — the end result would be far more fruitful for our union actors and for our city than pointing a flame-thrower at a 99-seat theater scene that’s been steadily evolving for decades,” Morris writes. 

One wonders what prompted Shindle to break the informal gag order that both sides had essentially agreed to. Perhaps she thought it was safe to test the waters to advance an opinion to the membership at large, in hopes of manipulating them into supporting the union side. 

Now that she’s spoken out, the Pro-99 plaintiffs have released their own statement, a letter in two parts aimed to counter the misinformation in Shindle’s remarks. The first part, published in Footlights, directly addresses her contention that producers and actors in small theater are (as she put it) “looking for different things.”

“We are not disparate participants looking for different things. We are looking to do what we dreamed we might do with our lives. We are looking to make art,” note the letter writers. “The theater community is an incubator. It is not self-serving. We know of 127 shows incubated here under the 99-seat plan that went to a larger contract that paid more than minimum wage. At least 909 jobs were created from these shows.”

Last Monday, the plaintiffs released the second part of their rebuttal — which, like Morris, dismisses the notion that small theaters are somehow squeezing out the growth of midsize theaters. The problem, note the plaintiffs, is that the arts are simply not well funded by government agencies or charities — and in California, the situation is even more dire. It’s really a miracle that any theater puts on a show at all.

“The idea that more funding would be available for mid-sized houses if there were fewer intimate theatres is just wrong,” the plaintiffs explain. “The idea that a mid-sized theatre can’t flourish in this community because there are too many intimate theatres is wrong. We won’t get more apples if we have less oranges.”

The article goes on to note, “Closing a number of intimate theatres isn’t going to make funding happen or create “producers” who will find the funding on their own.” It then poses the crucal question. “What will happen if these theatres close is [that] Equity members will be denied an opportunity to pursue what they love in life; what gives them identity in spite of a clear majority’s expressed wishes. What will also happen is [that] Los Angeles will be denied this diverse and thriving arts community, a community that could, if nurtured, generate the kind of excitement that might help create more midsized theatres.

Cabrillo Music Theatre Suspends Production

Cabrillo Music Theatre's production of

Cabrillo Music Theatre’s production of “Memphis” (Courtesy Cabrillo Theatre)

Dismaying news out of Thousand Oaks, as the venerable Cabrillo Music Theatre, a stalwart of local productions of grand musicals, announced its plan to “suspend production at the conclusion of their 2015-2016 season.”

 The company released a statement Monday, declaring that “escalating theater costs, unmet commitments by the Civic Arts Plaza box office, a reduction in essential grant income from key funders, and a decline in ticket sales have created an insurmountable challenge.”

The statement goes on to say, “Continuing to produce musicals at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, under the terms and conditions mandated by the City of Thousand Oaks, (is) fiscally irresponsible.” Although productions of the Children of Eden and the Little Mermaid will proceed as planned, other productions, including Evita, Tarzan, Sister Act, and Peter Pan, already scheduled and selling subscription series tickets, have been cancelled. Refunds can be arranged with the City of Thousand Oaks-operated box office. 

“Unfortunately, the absence of Cabrillo Music Theatre will result in a significant loss of income to local businesses, restaurants, and stores, who benefitted by Cabrillo’s direct investments in the community,” the release adds, underscoring the fallout from the closure in unusual detail.

Although I must confess that I have rarely ventured as far as Thousand Oaks to attend a show at Cabrillo, the company’s estimable reputation for staging lavish, family friendly musicals extends far beyond its local area. My colleague, Stage Raw critic Jenny Lower, expressed shock at learning of the company’s close. “I am heartbroken over the announcement of Cabrillo’s closure,” she told me. “I have vivid memories driving home from the Civic Arts Plaza with my parents and sister as we discussed the casting, costuming, choreography, and staging of various productions. It’s fair to say that I became a theater critic because of those early experiences attending Cabrillo musicals.”

I was curious about the decision to close, and so I reached out to Cabrillo’s artistic director Lewis Wilkenfeld. He graciously assented to a quick interview, held over the phone as he drove to rehearsal for Children of Eden. As I suspected, the key to the closure was in the phrase “unmet commitments by the Civic Arts Plaza box office.” 

Wilkenfeld noted that the Civic Arts Plaza, the local government-owned complex from which Cabrillo rented their space, had been operating at a deficit for some time. The complex had not only doubled the company’s rent; they were also pressuring them to move all their productions out of their traditional larger theater space, the Kavli. “They forced us to move into the much smaller Scherr (Forum Theater),” Wilkenfeld explained. The reason: The city wanted to use the larger space for rentals of touring concerts, shows, and events. 

The lack of a stable residence created further financial issues for Cabrillo: “This year’s show in the Scherr Forum was an optional show for the subscription season, and most of our subscribers weren’t even aware that [it] was part of the package,” Wilkenfeld noted in frustration. “We lost $120,000 just in subscriber tickets — and that doesn’t even include the money from single ticket purchases.”

There have also been ongoing run-ins between Cabrillo producers and the box office staff, which is hired and controlled by the City. “The city holds all the box office receipts until after the show is over,” Wilkenfeld told me. “We’re spending a fortune on shows like Little Mermaid, but we have no cash back yet.”

Many customers also had problems with the city’s staff. “People hate dealing with them,” Wilkenfeld told me. He added, “We had so many complaints about the ushers. We wanted a personal relationship with our customers. When you can’t guarantee treatment of them….” 

Wilkenfeld did say that relations with the city staff have gotten better over the last year, and ascribed most of the problems to a “previous management.” Still, costs have continued to rise and rise. For the company, the situation finally reached a breaking point. 

Although the company’s future is uncertain, Wilkenfeld doubts that Cabrillo will rise again. “The board would like to see it reinvented,” he says. “But these productions…I want to do in the way I want to do them” he says, speaking for himself.” My personal journey with Cabrillo is certainly ending.”

Stage Raw’s Lower put the end of the company into a critical context. “Cabrillo presented a rare blend of Equity and professional performers, alongside talented driven youngsters,” she says. “There’s no obvious local professional alternative for the scale and caliber of shows Cabrillo puts on. Its absence is going to leave a huge void in the Ventura County theater scene.”

Before heading into rehearsal, Wilkenfeld added a final note, “If people have sympathy for us, they should come and see Children of Heaven! If they do that, they’ll send the message that you support locally produced live theater.”