The Stage Raw Theater Awards, One Year Later: Can We Get It Together?
As Stage Raw prepares for its Second Annual Theater Awards, what has transpired in the 12 months since the First Awards? And can we re-frame the debate over the existence of L.A.’s intimate theaters, which the Stage Raw Awards celebrate, to a discussion of all L.A.’s theaters, which Stage Raw values?
By Steven Leigh Morris
Last year at this time, as Stage Raw was setting the stage (LATC) for its first annual theater awards, Los Angeles member of Actors’ Equity Association (the actors’ and stage managers’ union) were voting on a non-binding referendum presented by their union, to eliminate the 99-Seat Plan in Los Angeles County – the plan that permitted union actors to perform in theaters of up to 99-seats, without a contract but with union health and safety protections, in exchange for expense stipends of, most recently, $15 per performance, paid out by the theaters.
Stage Raw continues to underscore the best work in those very theaters during the 2015 calendar year in its Second Annual Theater Awards, to be held at LATC, hosted by Independent Shakespeare Company’s Dr. Pinch and the Pinchtones. (Thank you David Melville, Melissa Chalsma, and Mary Goodchild.) The Awards are being held Monday night, April 25. Doors open at 6:30, show starts at 7:30 p.m.. Nominees are here. RSVP here.
First some technical issues before reviewing “the year of acting dangerously” in Los Angeles theater:
Four FAQs about the Second Annual Stage Raw Theater Awards:
–-How do I know if I’m a nominee?
The list is here. If your name appears on the list, you are a nominee. But there are also awards for categories, where people’s names do not appear. Here’s how this works:
For Ensemble and Comedy Ensemble categories: If you were an actor/understudy listed in the program for one of the productions listed, you are a nominee.
Production Design: If you were a producer, director or designer listed in the program for one of the productions listed, you are a nominee.
Musical of the Year: If you were a producer, director, writer, composer, choreographer, designer, actor/understudy, or stage manager named in the program for one of the productions listed, you are a nominee.
Revival Production of the Year and Production of the Year: If you were a producer, director, writer, composer, choreographer, designer, actor/understudy, or stage manager named in the program for one of the productions listed, you are a nominee. (Note: If you are a writer in the Revival Production of the Year category, chances are you are probably dead. Even so, you are still a nominee, and you’ll be welcome with or without a pulse.)
How do I RSVP?
By clicking here
Are there comps for nominees?
No. The $25 admission for nominees and guests is a base-line price that allows us to break even. We also have a $100 VIP admission if you’d like to support Stage Raw and its continued coverage and reviews of L.A. theater. This will get you a buffet pre-show dinner, and a signed copy of my book about the theater and barnyard poultry, Fowl Play. (Padaro Press and Open Road Media.) Your contribution will also allow us to continue reviewing your shows, and hosting awards ceremonies like this, along with other programs such as the Digital Play Festival and community forums. Much like under the 99-Seat Plan, our professional writers are essentially volunteers who receive a token stipend for each play they review. This is our modest investment in quality analysis and quality writing, but like NPR, it needs to be supported by viewers like you. Please let me know if you’re a nominee facing an instance of financial hardship that prevents you from paying $25 for admission, and let’s discuss. If you’re a nominee, we want to see you there. I’m at email@example.com
How should I dress?
Cocktail party chic.
As representatives of our 99-seat theaters and Actors Equity Association continue their “facilitated discussions” on determining what terms intimate theaters will continue to produce plays, please join us in a show of unity for our theaters large and small, for how they can work together, in cooperation and maybe even in geography. We’re particularly grateful that a mid-size theater, Independent Shakespeare Company (Dr. Pinch and the Pinchtones), is hosting. This is one in many communitarian gestures of support by mid-size theaters for the entire scene across L.A.
This year’s Career Achievement award goes to Skylight Theatre Company’s Gary Grossman, who, as an artistic director, has dedicated the larger part of his stage career promoting new work, and, as a representative of the 99-Seat Theater Review Committee, is involved in the current facilitated discussions with Actors’ Equity Association. Among Grossman’s oft-repeated sentiments is a call for unity, dissolving the divide of big against small, or any version of “us against them.” Grossman aims for a common goal being a place, and a way of creating art, for all of us.
Please join us in a show of unity for our determination to create, to show generosity and wisdom and fortitude and data, even in the face of perceived slights and condescension, even in the face of the acrimony that’s inflamed our community over the past 18 months.
We are in the business of creating new worlds. We can rise above. That’s what we do. Please join us.
Where have we come in 12 months?
Over the past year, the union’s reasoning stemmed from four primary causes.
The first cause was inequity: that under the 99-Seat Plan, actors were essentially volunteering their time, for the love of their craft, while designers, directors and producers in particular were making “six-figure salaries” off the thespians’ backs.
Those six-figure salaries remain unsubstantiated. They were mentioned by one reader in Variety last April, answering actor Noah Wyle’s plea to his fellow union members to reject the union plan aimed at eliminating the 99-Seat Plan. Still, there are elements of truth to the complaint, but the larger shape of economics shows it to be a discriminatory response to inequity, targeting L.A.’s 99-seat theater scene for the kinds of imbalances found also in larger commercial and non-profit theaters across the nation, where union contracts are in place.
It is true that in the more established 99-seat-theaters, some producers and manager types do draw modest-to-moderate salaries, and some don’t, while their actors work for fractional reimbursement stipends, for performances only.
That truth could make the blood boil of anyone with an inclination towards social justice, until you take into account that producers’/managers’ salaries in mid-size and larger theaters have always, also been a fraction of the producers’ salaries. And this inequity is not just because the actors hired for a single production are employed for a fraction of the calendar year, contrasted against producer/managers who are responsible for keeping their theaters solvent throughout the year. This payment inequity of actors contrasted with that of manager/producers also applies to the rate of pay for their respective labor. (There are some mid-size theaters in Southern California that prove an exception to this rule, but not many.)
That a handful of producers in L.A.’s more established 99-seat theaters squeezed out a salary from the work in their theaters where actors received only $15/performance stipends seemed to be a discriminatory justification for eliminating union membership across an entire swath of theatrical activity across the region. A more reasonable remedy would be to redress those inequities by increasing stipends to actors in those theaters with annual budgets that allow for salaried producers. (Some of these established theaters were already raising actor stipends, voluntarily, by almost double the minimum required, long before the union’s National Council voted to eliminate the 99-Seat Plan.) If stipends were tied to a production’s budget, or a theater’s annual operating budget, this would seem a more reasonable form or redress than than banning union actors, against their will, from performing in theaters where those budgets don’t exist, and those producers don’t draw salaries.
Then there was the argument, still in circulation, that the existence of L.A.’s 99-seat theaters, as a financial model, was preventing the emergence of mid-size and larger theaters in the region. How, then, does one explain the emergence and/or growth of mid-size theaters such as the Broad and Wallis Annenberg theaters, A Noise Within, and Independent Shakespeare Company over the past decade, in the midst of up to 200 99-seat-theaters operating in the same geographic swath? How does one explain, historically, the emergence of Los Angeles Theatre Center’s four theaters, East West Players, the Colony Theatre, Cabrillo Music Theatre, La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts – all mid-size or large theaters — during the same time that the number of 99-seat theaters in the region was growing?
There was also the assertion that the shoddy quality of productions in the 99-seat theaters was holding back the cultural ecosystem of the region, and that eliminating the smaller theaters would drive up quality. Well, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but since the inception of the 99-Seat Plan in 1989, at least 200 productions have transferred to contract work (mid-size and larger theaters) in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York. That’s at least one empirical measure that counters haughty presumptions of a cultural wasteland in L.A.’s smaller theaters. Add to that the slightly offensive presumption that higher productions budgets necessarily lead to higher production standards. Sometimes yes, sometimes no. I’ve seen excruciating work in theaters large and small. I’ve also seen work I’ve remembered years later, as mind-bending and heart-wrenching experiences, in theaters ranging from the mid-size Los Angeles Theatre Center and Independent Shakespeare Company, to tiny venues such as Son of Semele Ensemble and the Tamarind Theatre – yes, even before the Tamarind was occupied by Upright Citizens Brigade. That was decades ago when Robey Theatre Company rented the place. (Memories of their riveting 1999 production of Thomas Gibbons’s Bee-Luther-Hatchee still linger.) Furthermore, it’s unlikely that a newspaper such as the L.A. Weekly would have invested in and dedicated 36 years to its annual theater awards program honoring the work of only theaters of up-to-99-seats – a program continued by Stage Raw last year– if shoddy quality in that arena were a generally acknowledged concern by those in-the-know.
And finally, there was the argument that the 99-Seat Plan wasn’t really legal, and that investigations by federal and state agencies were already underway; hence it was imperative that the union protect itself from litigation by eliminating the 99-Seat Plan. We’ve since learned that two to three years ago, some people from the L.A. stage community who were raising these very arguments were actually attempting to instigate a lawsuit against some small theaters for violation of labor law. In a private conversation, one labor attorney who was approached by these would-be-plaintiffs recalled declining to represent them but offering instead pro bono mediation to the affected parties. That offer was reportedly ignored. There has been no litigation against 99-Seat theaters concerning issues of labor law that we know of. Nor have any local theaters that we know of been targets of investigation by state or federal agencies for violations of labor law. Meanwhile, volunteering for non-profit organizations, including theaters offering stipends to reimburse expenses, continues to be a legal in California.
The outcome of last year’s referendum is lodged in every local union actor’s memory, regardless of which side they’re on: a landslide 67% repudiation of the union’s plan to kill the 99-seat plan — a repudiation that was swiftly overturned by the union’s National Council, leading to a lawsuit (filed, but not served) by some union actors against their union – similar to what happened three decades earlier over much the same issues. The filing of the recent lawsuit led to the aforementioned facilitated discussions that are still underway, and being held within a cone of public silence. Godspeed to all involved for a fruitful outcome.
Particularly striking about all of these four causes is the way they artificially divided the smaller theaters from the mid-size and larger ones. The paltry subsidies, grants and gifts (contrasted against, say, the financial support for the arts in New York) is the underlying cause of the pain suffered by theaters large and small here. That, and the soaring cost of real estate, which has been rendering non-profit arts organizations homeless up and down the West Coast.
With the possible exception of the Pantages, there isn’t a theater in Los Angeles, large or small, that doesn’t operate near the break-even point at best, and with a deficit as the norm.
The key to our kingdom is not banning union actors from participating in an entire swath of theatrical activity because those theaters’ budgets aren’t big enough, or because the small theaters pay producers more than they pay actors – which, when true, is hardly unique to small theaters. The key is to find a way to pay union actors as much as possible while keeping our theaters solvent. The key is to cluster our theaters, large and small, into districts that become destinations for visitors and residents, to brand those districts, and to insist that the theaters within those districts make an earnest attempt at youth and community engagement and at diversity, on and behind their stages, in exchange for some form of rent subsidy that will keep them stable fixtures in those neighborhoods. Programs to subsidize rents for non-profits in San Francisco are already underway. There’s no reason we can’t do this here.
As in the larger political arena, the past 12 months have been so divisive for our stage community, the rhetoric so turbulent, and some of the tactics employed so cynical, sometimes it’s hard to see past that. These remain contentious times for all of us. We walk on turf described by all sides as a minefield. The outcome of these talks with the union is very much to be determined by the ability by all sides to cross the gulf of incomprehension that appears to divide the East Coast and the West on these issues, and to find a means of talking where earnest good will supersedes the impulse for revenge.