The 10th Los Angeles Theater Network Meeting:
By Paul Birchall
Get any 10 theater people in a room for 15 minutes, and you’ll have 20 different opinions.
In the year since the formation of Los Angeles Theater Network, the group, an informal mix of practitioners and opinion makers — and which was originally envisioned as a hands on group for finding solutions for many of the issues besetting local small theater — has gradually morphed into one of the town’s most promising, pragmatic think tanks on the topics of advocacy, marketing, and diversity.
At the 10th monthly meeting on May 23, held at the picturesque, art-book-filled library at the Downtown L.A. Inner-City Arts complex, the discussion ranged from how to enlarge public awareness of our thriving theater scene to suggestions on how to better connect with the communities that individual theaters serve.
Of course, the big elephant in the room is the bitter conflict between AEA minimum wage and local actors working in the 99-seat theater scene. Any discussion of theater at this time must indeed necessarily center on the local scene’s current struggle for existence. As group chair Jon Lawrence Rivera noted, LATN is neutral on the AEA feud, on the grounds that LATN chooses to deal with issues of advocacy and marketing instead of the casting concerns of individual companies. Still, on their Facebook page, the group has hosted equally shrill diatribes from both sides of the issue.
Present at the meeting was former AEA liaison to the 99-seat theater community Michael Van Duzer, but he was by necessity constrained by the terms of his dismissal contract, and had little to say on the record about the seemingly irrational motivations behind AEA’s local power play. He did, however, note that the theater community is in definite need of a unifying element – and he also informally opined that the inner circles of AEA’s management do not, in fact, have a working knowledge of either L.A. or its theater scene. And this, it can be extrapolated, is indeed likely to be hampering their attempts to politically handle the situation here.
Ashley Steed, member of Son of Semele Ensemble and occasional Stage Raw contributor, mused that the concerns over the AEA campaign are, in some ways, a distraction – one of the purposes of LATN is to find ways of monetizing and marketing the theater scene itself.
“When we first started,” Steed noted, “we were hoping to be focused on the engagement with city leaders, with a campaign to help with rents, visibility, and branding.” With the community’s attention so absorbed by the Equity feud, “(Our point is) how can we move forward? How can we focus our passion to keep the community together after this war is over?”
More discussion turned on matters of marketing for small theaters. Ideas thrown out mostly seemed to suggest the combining of small companies into consortiums to better orchestrate word-of-mouth media campaigns. One notion was to take specific productions and target specific groups that might have a particular interest in the subject matter; larger theater companies, of course, have group sales departments that have been doing this for decades, but it is unusual for small companies to have the marketing power to do this. Local performance artist Brian Sonia-Wallace discussed his use of social media in marketing: During his production of a show called Bike Odyssey, he reached out to Instagram users, offering free tickets to heads of bike user groups with thousands of users.
Another notion mentioned, which perhaps was spurred by the discussion of site specific shows like Bike Odyssey, was the idea of bringing theater into the community and staging shows where the community is, instead of in out-of-the-way theaters. Dolores Chavez, theater director of the Inner-City Arts Rosenthal Theater, noted that intimate theater companies are frequently going about their marketing the wrong way, trying to drag audiences to their shows, when they should instead be embedding themselves within their communities to discover what it is their audiences want to see. “We need to build relationships with communities,” noted Chavez. “Always, your question should be, how am I in service to my audience? How are we telling the stories we want to tell that you, this community, wants to hear?”
Part of the concern, it was agreed, was the need to stop trying to compare Los Angeles theater to the theater of other cities. Or even the need to compare theater in one part of town to another. “Do what feels authentic to your organization,” suggested Chavez.
Steed and Rivera floated the idea of staging a “Theaterpalooza,” a one day “convention” for numerous theater companies at one spot, ostensibly somewhere central and familiar to the general public. Alternate notions were a general ticket for theater companies all over town, or trying to figure out a way to link local theater works to events like Burning Man.
It was left to Footlights publisher Peter Finlayson, a frequent opinion muse in the recent AEA conflict, to attempt to grapple with the concepts of industry-wide advocacy for the theater community to a general public. “We need to develop the message that theater is worth going to,” he noted. Suggesting that theater’s strongest “buy in” is the “buzz” that comes from seeing entertainment that is live. Finlayson stated half-jokingly but with a soupcon of messianic zeal, “It would be great to create the sense that theater is almost an alternative to religion.”
The Next meeting will be during the Hollywood Fringe Festival, at a Fringe venue yet to be selected.