The Power of Theatre

The Nigerian Spam Scam Scam (HFF 2015)userpic=acsacAs I wrote in the previous post, I just concluded a week as Local Arrangements Chair for the ACSAC conference. Part of my responsibility was to coordinate some form of dinner entertainment. Luckily, the Hollywood Fringe Festival made that easy, for it was there that I discovered The Nigerian Spam Scam Scam, the duologue based on a true incident.

Here’s the description of the show from the Fringe website, which is as good as the description I might write: ““Please help me transfer $100 million from Bank of Nigeria!” We’ve all gotten this e-mail. Writer performer Dean Cameron did something about it. After he received an email from a Nigerian con artist posing as the wife and son of a dead Nigerian leader, Cameron replied. Posing as a sexually confused Florida millionaire, whose only companions were his cats, houseboy, and personal attorney, Perry Mason. Cameron embarked on a 11 month correspondence with  the bewildered and tenacious Nigerian, impeccably played by co-star Victor Isaac. This hit duologue, taken from actual email threads, documents the hilarious relationship as it descends into a miasma of misunderstanding, desperation, and deception.”

That is literally the show. Two podiums and a digital projector. Dean Cameron (FB, IMDB) relates the story of how he baited along Nigerian spammers, with the ultimate goal of getting them to send him money. Co-star Victor Isaac (FB) provides the voices of the spammer side, from MRS MARIAM ABACHA to IBRAHIM ABACHA to DR DONALD ABAYOMI. The story itself is pretty much just condensed versions of the actual email dialogue, with hysterical side commentary and the occasional visual.

My purpose here is not to review the show again. Rather, I want to talk about something specific to ACSAC — something that made me learn the stresses a producer faces. What stress? Well, consider that in the audience for this show we had a Nigerian Senator (from the newly elected opposition government), and two representatives from the National Assembly Antimoney Laundering & Cybersecurity Coalition of Nigeria. Yes, it is a real organization. How would they react to this show? Would they find it funny? Would they sue us? What have I done?

So, Dean and Victor do the show. Many people are rolling in laughter (especially Gene Spafford, who wants to now book them for a phishing conference). The Nigerians? Straight-faces. They go up and talk to Dean and Victor after the show. Oh, what we would have given to be a fly on that wall.

It turns out that they were worried the audience would believe the actors were portraying real Nigerian officials, and that people might thing the government was behind the scam. We (including one Nigerian student) worked to convince them it was clear that wasn’t the case. This was a true incident, with the words as written in the emails, that was perpetrated by scammers who are running the good name of Nigeria through the mud.

We also worked to convince them that the best way to fight the problem was with the truth. If you read the linked article from the Nigerian News Service, it noted that the goal of the organization is to align Nigeria with the global initiative against terror financing, cybercrimes, currency trafficking and money laundering. The organization was born out of the realization that huge financial losses through such financial crimes had become a threat to the nation, and that the collaboration with strategic partners, particularly the central bank, was to discuss ways to align foreign exchange operations with international best practices. Lastly, in line with the anti-corruption drive of the president, the coalition aimed to meet the expectations of Nigerians to kick out crimes denting the image of the nation internationally.

The upshot of this is that the Nigerian delegation is interested in presenting a case study next year telling a major technical conference the work that Nigeria is doing to prevent crimes such as this, and other forms of fraud that hurt their country.

Step back now, and look at this in perspective: A show from the Hollywood Fringe Festival, presented at a long standing technical conference, has served to encourage a government to tell the world broadly that the image the world has of them is wrong, and that they want to be in the forefront of fighting this type of crime.

The power of theatre. As Dean says at the end of the show, “mic drop”.


A Shot Across The Bow

userpic=99loveLast night, when I got home from seeing Damn Yankees at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB) [writeup this afternoon], I discovered a theatrical shot across the bow in my email. If you recall, back in April and May, there was a lot of press about how the intimate theatre community in Los Angeles was up in arms about the antics of the Actors Equity union, which was attempting to impose a particular wage structure in Los Angeles’s intimate theatre, even after the members in Los Angeles voted that structure down 2 to 1.

Since then, it seemed that AEA had won. They imposed the interim structure, and a number of theatres seemed to be operating within it (at least within the membership company rule). A number of others simply announced they had stopped using AEA actors, limiting themselves to SAG/AFTRA and other non-union actors. It seemed that AEA had divided and conquered. Many were upset at the quiet.

You should be very scared of things that are quiet.

Yesterday, the sleeping giant that is the review committee awoke. From the press release (which you can read in its entirety on the Footlights site, which also has a link to the text of the litigation):

LOS ANGELES (Oct. 17, 2015) — Actors and other members of the Los Angeles theatrical community filed a lawsuit today against Actors’ Equity Association, the union of professional actors and stage managers. The lawsuit challenges the Union’s decision to eliminate its 25-year-old waiver of jurisdiction over small 99-seat theaters, a program popularly known as Equity Waiver. Plaintiffs claim that the Union’s decision to end Equity Waiver will unfairly destroy small theater in Los Angeles and deprive thousands of actors of opportunities to collaborate on creative theatrical projects.

The lawsuit was filed in the Los Angeles federal court. The plaintiffs are Los Angeles-based members of Equity, together with other theatrical artists and theater operators who had entered into a litigation Settlement Agreement with the Union in 1989 that established a system for regulating future changes to the Equity Waiver program.

The lawsuit alleges that the stage actors’ union violated this Settlement Agreement by improperly interfering with the democratic and due process procedures established in the Agreement to prevent any unilateral Union decision to eliminate the world of intimate theater. The lawsuit complains that Equity’s new rules, including a prohibition on volunteer acting at small theaters and a new wage compensation obligation on these theaters, will force theaters to close, reduce their production runs, or to hire non-union volunteer actors in place of Union actors.

The plaintiffs announced that they would not serve the Complaint on the Union immediately, in the hope that the Union would respond to their request to meet and confer about a mutually acceptable resolution of the small theater controversy.

“Although we have now filed the complaint, we have not yet served it on the Union,” stated Steven Kaplan, lead attorney for the plaintiffs. “We have asked the Union to take this opportunity to avoid the time, expense and acrimony of litigation, and sit down with its members to discuss a mutually advantageous resolution.”

Gary Grossman, a member of Equity and one of the plaintiffs in the 1989 litigation, stated that “This lawsuit became necessary because Equity refused to comply with the preliminary procedural protections built into our 1989 Settlement Agreement. These procedural protections were designed to ensure that, before substantial changes were made to the 99-Seat Theater Plan, meaningful discussions would take place within the small theater community.”

Actor Michael A. Shepperd, also a plaintiff, said, “Our members voted to reject the Union’s actions by a 2-1 margin in one of the largest election turnouts in the organization’s history. We are terribly disappointed that our Union rejected the principle of democracy on which it was founded, and foisted on Union members new rules that will harm all actors in the long run.”

Now, I’m just an audience member. I’m not an actor. I’m not a director. I’m not a creative. I’m not a producer (but then again, I am mounting a one-night production of a fringe show for the ACSAC conference, so perhaps I am). I have no skin in this game other than being someone who buys tickets. Why do I care?

It’s simple:

  • I believe that Los Angeles is a unique theatrical ecosystem. Unlike other cities, actors do not have to depend on the stage to make their living as an actor. Lucrative wages can come from TV and Film. Given this, many (but not all) actors in Los Angeles act because they feel the need to work their craft and exercise their acting muscles on the stage. Remuneration is secondary, and many actors do not feel that it is the paycheck that makes them a professional, it is how they behave.
  • I believe that compensation for the creatives should be worked out in a mutually agreeable arrangement between the theatre company, producers, creatives, and actors involved. If an actor does not like the arrangement, they always have the ability to say no. Unlike other cities, there are plenty of other actors vying for the role. And, in the LA unique creative-driven marketplace, there are plenty of roles available.
  • I believe that, in such an environment, Equity’s primary role should be to ensure safe and non-exploitive work conditions, protecting the physical and mental health of the actors. Equity has abdicated that role in its current proposal with respect to membership companies.
  • I believe that a situation should not exist where some actors are independent contractors or volunteers, and others are employees. That is against the law. That is also what Equity is insisting on in its current “minimum wage” agreement for non-membership companies.

As an audience member, I believe it is in my best interest for the parties to sit down and come to an agreement before more theatres close, and more ancillary support businesses (such as costume and prop shops) go out of business. That hurts the economy of Los Angeles, and means there is less theatre for me to see. Lawsuits are expensive, and it is much better for all parties involved for the money that would have gone into a lawsuit to go towards paying actors and other creatives and keeping theatres afloat, as opposed to lawyers.


A Modest Proposal to Review — Private to Pre-Vetters Only

As you know, I’m an engineer and a scientist by trade. I don’t complain about problems, I design solutions to problems. As such, I’ve been thinking a lot about the problems the Bitter Lemons Imperative created. You may have even read some of my thinking to this point. I have also read through all the published commentary and compliants about what BL did, including the discussions on the pro99 Facebook group. I have also seen, in some of the comments, that there are components of the community that really want the ability to get reviewed when they have been ignored by the media (and they saw this as a way to do so).

I would like to come up with a proposed solution that can be presented to Bitter Lemons that has been pre-vetted by the community — that is, all the kinks have been worked out. I know that a solution is possible: in the accounting business, auditors are paid by the companies they audit, yet have independence in their findings. Corporations also have internal quality control organizations. In my professional life, I’ve done a lot of work with the government’s NIAP/CCEVS program, where commercial labs are paid by vendors to evaluate their products, and validators (such as me) review their work to ensure independence and correctness (before that I was an independent government evaluator for a similar program against the prior criteria). What gives the independence is an agreed upon code of conduct, different reporting chains, independent oversight, and often indirection between the source of funding and the reviewed.

Thinking about this issue, I have come up with the following. Please comment on where additional correction is required and this post will be edited, preserving the changes, until we get to a final solution.


The purpose of this proposal is to do the following:

  1. Provide independent and quality theatrical reviews to organizations that are capable of paying for them.
  2. Provide independent and quality theatrical reviews to organizations that are not regularly reviewed by mainstream theatrical review organizations.
  3. Provide operating funds for the review manager, and remuneration for the reviewers.


  1. All reviewers operating under this review proposal must publicly subscribe to the following ethics rules:
    [🎭 Note: This provides a basic level of independence and ethics for the reviewer]

    1. The reviewer agrees to knowingly accept nothing from a venue being reviewed other than a pair of complementary tickets, an information packet on the show, and possibly parking.
    2. The reviewer agrees to disclose any past, present, or future relationships with the theatre or any cast or crew members, and must agree to not let those relationships color their assessment of the show reviewed.
    3. The reviewer agrees that their assessment of the show will be based solely on the story, performance and presentation, and that their assessment will be honest, even if it is negative.
  2. Organizations capable of paying for reviews will pay $160 to the review manager to obtain a review. The review manager will retain $25 of this fee to cover operating expenses, and the remaining $135 will go into the review funding pool.
    [🎭 Note: The amounts have been selected so that those that can afford to pay provide coverage for those unable to pay.]
  3. For every two paid reviews, the review manager will select, based on an editorial decision of the shows currently running or soon to open that have not received sufficient reviews in the past, a third show to receive a review for no charge.
    [🎭 Note: This means that at least one third of the shows reviewed under this proposal get their reviews for free.]
  4. Shows selected for review must agree, at minimum, to provide two complementary tickets per reviewer unless the reviewer refuses. If a show receiving a review for no charge is unable to provide such tickets, the review manager has the option to select a different show for review.
    [🎭 Note: Although I’m not in favor of complementary tickets for reviewers, it appears to be standard industry practice.]
  5. Any show that is reviewed agrees not to disclose to the reviewer whether they are a paid or an unpaid review. If a reviewer indicates that a show made such a disclosure, any review will not be published.
    [🎭 Note: This addresses the other end: a show disclosing to a reviewer that they have paid for the review in order to try to influence the reviewer. If they do so, they’ve wasted their money and get no review.]
  6. Reviewers are paid $90 for each show reviewed, independent of whether the show paid for a review or received it for no charge. The $90 is based upon an estimated average of 3 hours of writing up the review, 2 hours for the show, and 1 hour transit time at the updated LA minimum wage ($15) for each show.
    [🎭 Note: This provides independence of the reviewer from the show. The reviewer has no idea whether the show paid for the review; if they attempt to guess, they have a 1 out of 3 chance of being wrong. [Added 7/2: It also follows the notion of the current idiotic AEA proposal: The reviewer is being paid no more than the actor, who is supposedly getting minimum wage.]]
  7. Reviewers desiring to review under this proposal must (a) subscribe to the ethics rules, (b) apply to the review manager providing samples of recent reviews, and (c) be accepted by the review manager based on the quality of those samples.
    [🎭 Note: This ensures that those reviewers accepted into the pool have some level of quality.]
  8. Reviews generated under this approach will be included in the Lemonmeter. Every 6 months, a comparison will be made of the reviewer’s ratings of a show versus the Lemonmeter rating for the show. If the reviewer is outside the standard deviation (i.e., the consensus opinion), they may be dropped from the review team at the discretion of the review manager.
    [🎭 Note: This protects against a reviewer who does not appear to be reflective of the opinions of the community — it protects against the “I love everything” or the “I hate everything. It provides the closest one could get to independent oversight, as reviewing is subjects and assessment of whether the reviewer followed an objective process is not possible. The oversight, in a sense, is provided by the community coming to the same consensus view.”]
  9. Ideally, there would be separation between the review manager and the advertising component, so that there is no bias in favor of advertisers in selecting unpaid reviews. This may not be possible for a small website, but ideally the unpaid reviews should be selected based on the theatres regularly receiving insufficient reviews to warrant inclusion on the Lemonmeter (e.g., they are being reviewed, but just not getting enough reviews).
    [🎭 Note: The goal here is to prevent bias from the editorial to the selection of the no-pay reviews, addressing the implication that you need to purchase an ad to get a review.]

Let’s address some potential complaints:

  • This will be a slippery slope, and all theatres will have to pay. First, this approach includes free reviews based on editorial decisions, so you don’t have to pay to get reviews. Further, there will always be bloggers and others willing to review a show for tickets.
  • This will encourage other media to charge for reviews. Other media needs no encouragement. Print media is begging for income. This is an attempt to develop a vetted model that will address that need while still addressing conflict of interest concerns and independence. Hopefully, this might even be a model that those forced to go that direction could adopt.
  • How can you charge theatres, and at the same time insist they needn’t pay actors. First and foremost, it is important to remember that no theatre is required to utilize this, and that theatres that don’t use this might still be reviewed for free. Second, I don’t think the position has been that theatres should not pay actors. Rather, the call has been for a tiered system, where creatives (of all types) are paid based upon the theatre’s ability to pay and the budget for the show. If a theatre is budgeting for publicity, this may be part of that budget. If they can’t afford it, they can’t. Nothing is mandatory here; this is just provide an option to those that want to use it. For those that can afford it, budgeting for publicity is part of a production budget, just as is budgeting adequate pay.
  • But this looks like a conflict of interest. In an ideal world, there would be no conflicts of interest; reviewers would be paid by journalistic endeavors with no connection between editorial and advertising. But this isn’t an ideal world; there are micro-conflicts everywhere: comp tickets are a conflict, as is any paper or website that accepts advertising at all.  Even in such a world there can be independence: look at auditors of major corporations (which are independent), quality control organizations, or the Common Criteria Evaluation and Validation Scheme. They achieve that independence through indirection, strong ethical codes, and oversight. That’s the approach here: have a strong ethical code; get feedback on reviewer quality; and make it so there is uncertainty whether the theatre has paid for the review.

I’m aware that people may not like this idea just because it involves money changing hands. If so, no proposal will be satisfactory unless it fits the model of yore. But our focus should be mission success: getting more people — and younger people and new audiences — to the theatre to see shows, and more reviews help to do that. It should be to improve the viability, the vitality, and the visibility of theatre in Southern California. Let’s work together to come up with a workable approach that satisfies concerns. Let’s be sufficiently open-minded to posit that such an approach is possible if we structure it right.

For those that are willing to make suggestions on how to improve this to address concerns, I’m open to your comments.


Paying for Reviews, Take 2

userpic=99loveTime to wade back into the frey. While finishing my salad at lunch, I was reading another take on the “Pay for Review” situation that I stepped into yesterday. For background, read the introduction on my previous post. I want to say upfront that I do not like, do not approve, do not condone, theatres paying for reviews.

That said, there are two arguments in this discussion that may be red herrings: the argument that theatres cannot afford these reviews, and the argument that if this works, everyone will do it. The two are connected, and let me show why they are wrong.

  1. Theatres cannot afford to pay for reviews. One of the key things that seems to be forgotten is that no one is holding a gun to the head of a theatre company and making them pay for a review. They can always just ignore the Bitter Lemons Imperative and do what they did before: send out press comps and hope that someone comes. Although the option is there, a theatre that uses it end up with egg on its face if it uses it either due to quality of the result, the tainted nature of the result, or what it implies about the show. Furthermore, they may not want a review from Bitter Lemons, seeing the unpredictable quality that comes out and its reputation as a review source. That’s true even for unsolicited reviews: consider the power of an “LA Times” recommendation vs. a recommendation the North Valley Chamber of Commerce Newsletter (or even this blog 🙂 ). However, that’s neither here nor there. If theatre companies don’t have the money, they just don’t have to pay.
  2. But Everyone Will Want To Charge. Two schools of thought here. One is that, given the nature of journalism, press outlets may finally stop giving free coverage, unless it is real news, to non-advertisers. They’ll cover your theatre if it burns down or someone dies in a rehearsal. A review, especially a good one? That’s advertising. So — independent of what Bitter Lemons has done — papers may try to start charging anyway. So, you say, perhaps Bitter Lemons will start the trend. Papers will then start charging more and more, and theatres just cannot afford it. This brings us back to the previous point. If they don’t have the money, they don’t have to pay and Bitter Lemons will demonstrate that the idea was a failure. The theatres will just shift even more to word of mouth, recognized theatre bloggers for whom sufficient payment is free tickets, social media promotions, and promotion sites such as Goldstar. Human nature being what it is, you can always find people that will review for free.

Again, let me emphasize that I am not supporting theatre companies paying for reviews. I personally feel it is an incredible conflict of interest (whether real or just perceived) that devalues the review, devalues the theatre, and devalues the publication. That, alone, to me is a reason not to do this. But the two arguments above — affordability and slippery slope — are poor arguments.

P.S.: Lastly, you might say this hurts the “pro99” cause. It only does if theatres buy into it (thereby demonstrating they have the hidden cash in the budget). If they ignore it, they will succeed if they invite legitimate independent theatre critics and recognized bloggers with traditional perqs (accommodating those like me who feel free tickets are also a conflict of interest), and double down on the social media and postcards. If you ignore the “imperative” and just plain and simply do good and compelling work, you’ll succeed far better.

P.P.S.: With respect to these points, the larger theatres (major houses with seating above 300 or so) may be able to afford this. There, well, you get what you pay for. They are also the theatres that can pay $$$ for newspaper advertising, which may make the print journalists in mercenary mode more likely to send the critic. They are also the theatres that tend to get reviewed, and they may not pay for it simply because a Bitter Lemons review buys them no additional attendees. Most importantly, their greyhair audience wouldn’t be able to find Bitter Lemons (<granny-voice>”Where do I find that, Sonny? At my grocery store? I asked, and they said all lemons were bitter.” </end-granny-voice>)



Paying for Reviews… The Right Way

userpic=99loveIn the last few days, there has been a… discussion… over on one of my Facebook groups regarding a decision by Bitter Lemons to allow theatres to pay money to get a critic to review their show. General reaction to the decision has been poor, there have even been a few blogs (one, two, three) railing against the issue. There has even been criticism on Bitter Lemons itself.

Now, when I first heard about it, I thought it might be a good way for theatres that are never reviewed to get known. But the discussion has made me realize that that benefit is offset by too many negatives: it looks like pay for good reviews, theatres would be upset paying for bad reviews. It also takes away money that theatres don’t have, according to our pro99 arguments. In short, it’s a bad idea. [I’ll also note that if it is done, there must be transparency: such paid reviews must be clearly marked and segregated.] [ETA: Edited to add emphasis. Note that the segregation mentioned in the previous bracketed comment is so that people can clearly know to ignore the pay-for-play review — I suggested on BL that a glyph such as 💩 (a steaming pile of poo) be used.]

But I’m not an actor. I’m an engineer. I solve problems. These are the problems as I see it:

  1. Bitter Lemons needs to raise funds to support their work.
  2. We need to increase the amount of theatre criticism being published.
  3. Lesser known theatres and theatres off the beaten path with no reputation need an equal chance to be reviewed.

I thought about this a bit, and was musing about how even comp tickets provided to reviewers are a conflict of interest. True independence would be critics buying their own tickets to shows (something I do). This would be just like Consumers Reports buying cars off the lot, not having them be provided by manufactures.

Buying cars off the lot. Like Consumers Reports. Then it hit me…

Perhaps that’s the model we need to move to (and I think someone suggested something like this in the discussion). Theatres and individuals can pay into a fund managed by Bitter Lemons to get reviews for theatres in general, just like people can donate to the Consumers Union foundation. [My wife pointed out that even Consumers Union prohibits manufacturers from donating; in that vein, my original notion was wrong. If we create such a fund — indeed, if reviews are funded — it can only be done by media outlets or perhaps non-profits with no connection to theatre production. Again, this averts any actual or perceived conflict of interest.] This fund can then send critics out to theatres that traditionally don’t get a sufficient threshhold of reviews on Bitter Lemons. That may well be the theatre that has donated, but the theatre did not fund that particular review — there’s not a direct causation of the payment to the review like you have now. In fact, it might be in the interest of larger theatres that regularly get reviewed — and have the funds — to contribute to this fund to help the entire Theatre community get visibility. [The indirect payment notion goes away if we do not permit funding by theatrical entities. The last notion has been pointed out to me to be unworkable — small theatres don’t have the funds to spare; larger theatres would not spare them.]

This, my friends, meets the three goals: (1) Bitter Lemons can still get its cut for reviews; (2) more theatre reviews are published; and (3) theatres that don’t get reviewed get reviewed. It does away with the negative: the theatre is not directly paying for the review of its show. It also permits the “haves” in the community to help those who have not.

[When one raises ideas up the flagpole, sometimes they get shot down. Sometimes it is a BB gun, sometimes a bazooka. In any case, it appears that I, like Colin, didn’t think this through completely. I would still like to come up with a solution to get the theatres that don’t have visibility — and cannot afford publicists — visibility. I have some other ideas to address that, but any idea that does address it must be done under the auspices and funding of a media outlet, not even indirectly funded by the entities reviewed.]

I have suggested this idea to Colin. We shall see what happens.


Figuring the Factors

userpic=theatre_ticketsThis morning, as I was getting ready to write up last night’s show at the Colony, my mind was swirling about mathematics and theatre. I was thinking about tiers and when shows could go to contract; about discussions I had had with Barbera Beckley before the show about audiences and what they could and would pay. I was thinking about the whole AEA kerfuffle, and I’ve realized that we may have it wrong — and a lot of this is because we keep trying to build things on dependent factors without data. Before I could tackle my writeup, I had to get this out of my head.

I’ve seen a number of proposals for tiering, and most are based on show budget. I think — to some degree — that’s wrong. You can’t determine whether you can pay the actors from budget alone. The budget of a three-actor show is very different than a show like Candide with a large ensemble. This got me thinking about what are the independent factors that might go into whether a show had the potential to earn sufficient funds to cover the rent and pay the actors. If you can look at shows and work out the factors from the existing data, you can come up — mathematically — with a good algorithm that might permit adequate tiering. I’ll note that by “pay the actors”, I mean all actors. If you treat any actor as an employee, you need to treat all of them as an employee. Pay rates might differ based on various factors, but some can’t be volunteer and some employees.

So let’s think a bit about common factors and whether they are independent. Here are some that come to my head:

  • Theatre Rental. Independent and Fixed. Your rental cost is based on time, location, and quality of the facility.  Cheap facilities make it easier to pay actors; shows in expensive locations make it harder.
  • Number of Actors. The number of actors in a show has a direct bearing on operating costs. This should capture the total costs that vary based on actors — not only what you pay them, but their costumes, sound, makeup, wigs — things that vary based on more or less actors.
  • Musical or Play? This is the play vs. musical distinction. Musicals have increased operating costs due to musicians; they also tend to have a better draws as audiences tend to go to musicals.
  • New or Old? This is another significant factor in a show. New and unique shows may draw better for audiences looking for something new; on the other hand, they may be more difficult to promote because the show is not as well known.
  • Star Power. I don’t just mean actor-power here. Having a “well-known” somewhere in the credits — be it the director, an actor, the playwright — may draw the audiences in. For example, I can feel confident if I go to a local musical Nick directs that it will be well worth seeing.
  • Creative Cost. This is the fixed creative cost — the budget for the fixed aspects of the show such as set, lighting, and publicity.  This would include both the costs of the creative team (people) as well as the cost of materials (set) and equipment rental (lights). This might be where budget based tiering could come into play.
  • Number of Seats. I was thinking about average ticket price as a factor — but it is dependent. Number of seats is a different factor. It is independent of the show, yet a key determinate of how much you make.

There are two additional factors that come into play: Length of Run and Ticket Price. I’m not yet sure about these and the impact on paying the actors. The length of run is clearly a factor under control of the producer. They help cover the fixed one-time costs, they help a little on fixed recurring costs (such as rental), and they have no effect on salaries (number of performances per week is a better factor on that). Ticket price should be set on cost in order that you can pay the actors appropriately. The problem is that sometime that needed ticket price is more than the audience can bear. This isn’t Broadway where you can name any price. The other factors must be such that the audience will be willing to pay it. We can’t quantify “willingness to pay”, but we can know that anticipated average per-patron income, taking into account comp, discount, promotional, and full price sales based on data, and we can determine that by company and community. We can then determine, based on that number and the factors above, the amount that actors can be paid.

It is important to note the factors that do not appear in the above. Membership companies? Makes no difference. Self-produced? Not a factor in and of itself. Both go to the creative costs, if anything. Budgets also don’t quite come into play fully because they are a product of the factors above. Note that I said “fully” into play. The budget can increase costs — fancier sets, more publicity — but doesn’t always translate into income.

As for what to pay the actors — that’s a can of worm I’m not going to tackle. I do believe that if you treat one actor as an employee you should treat them all — AEA or not — as employees. You can’t mix volunteers and employees in the same job; that’s the law. There’s also a distinction between exempt and non-exempt employees. The discussion to date has been simplistic, thinking actors are non-exempt employees. Non-exempt employees are typically hourly; there are requirements for breaks and lunch hours and overtime and such. Exempt employees — think white-collar professionals such as doctors, lawyers, and yes, computer scientists — have a fixed salary. They have different rules for overtime and breaks and such. I would tend to think actors would be non-exempt, meaning you could have a fixed salary for a fixed task. It is something that should be explored. I do believe there are factors that should go into actor pay once you are beyond the employee / volunteer distinction — that’s where union status, experience, “draw”, and other performance based factors can come into play.

As I’ve written before — I’m just an audience member (and a computer scientist and a mathematician). I can help identify what might be the factors that come into play, but I can’t plug in the numbers. What is clear, however, is that budget is not the sole simplistic factor. Being able to pay the actors at one budget level for a particular play doesn’t mean that for a different play, with different draw and number of actors, that budget will permit the same pay.

One of my favorite podcasts is Freakonomics. They emphasize that decisions must be made on hard data. The Los Angeles needs to determine the true independent factors for its productions — at any size theatre. What needs to be determined next is what values of those factors would permit appropriate levels of actor pay? This is what should go into the tiering discussion.

But… but…

The above is a pure mathematical approach. It is what we should pay the actors if we assume we are doing this based solely on profit and income and such. That’s the bean counter in me. But, as I’ve learned from this discussion, many LA actors don’t do this for the money. They do this for the challenge and the experience and the need to feed the soul. These are intangible forms of payment that offset dollars for many (not all; I’m sure there are mercenaries out there). The payment via intangibles is also independent of membership companies — but it does say that a given production has — as an additional factor — some intangible factor that comes into play that captures this. It would relate to the meatiness of the roles, the value of working with a particular creative or actor or company, the “payment to the soul”.

I don’t know how to address this; I don’t believe that I — a 30 year cybersecurity professional — could solve this nut. But I did want to share my musings on all the factors in the hope that someone might be able to piece them together algorithmically, and figure out a way to have that algorithm balance the “soul payment” vs. the “wallet payment” aspects as well.

Thoughts? What do you see as the key independent factors that we are forgetting to discuss?



«Form»ing an Opinion

Loopholes - The Musical (Hudson/Theatre Planners)userpic=theatre2A few months ago, I heard about a new musical coming to Los Angeles (I don’t recall the source). The musical was called “Loopholes“, and it was a musical about taxes and the IRS. Now, I’m the son of two accountants (my dad was one of the last PAs in California; my mom one of the first woman CPAs), and I’m married to the daughter of a CPA. Naturally, I had to go see this show, and blocked off a date in my calendar. A month or so later ticketing for the show opens, and I quickly grab tickets for when we return from vacation. By now, you’ve probably figured out where I was last night 🙂 : I was at the Hudson Mainstage (FB) in Hollywood seeing “Loopholes“, a musical parody.

Loopholes“, which features book and lyrics by Stan Rich (FB), and music and lyrics by Ronnie Jayne (FB), is ostensibly based on a true story of what happened to Rich in the 1980s and 1990s. The IRS had disallowed losses the author incurred from a tax shelter, but allowed only the gains. Despite numerous attempts to close the case, the IRS kept delaying and adding interest on the penalty. Eventually they IRS calculated a revised amount, which was 10% of the original demand. However, they still insisted on the full penalty. The battle went on for 15 years, until the IRS hit a block and could no longer go against the taxpayer. After resolving the situation, the taxpayer wanted to create a win-win situation… and so wrote a musical spoof of the situation. This was presented as “Taxpayer Taxpayer” until shortly after 9/11. It was then set aside for a decade, then reworked, updated, and adapted… resulting in this production.

The basic story above forms the plot of the musical, which was directed and dramaturged by Kiff Scholl (FB). Names, of course, were changed to protect… well, I’m guessing names were changed to avoid legal issues. The names chosen will give you quite an idea of the show. Our lead protagonist is Izzy Rich; his accountant is Harry Grim; the IRS agents are Eileen Holmes, Sheila Peel, and Howie Catchem; the therapist is Marsha Mellow.  Yes, all of these names result in puns, which include the resultant beat for laughter (of which there was a lot in the audience).

These names reflect both the strength and the weakness of this show, which is hard to put into words. In many ways, the show reflects the author well. By this I mean that those who use (and sometimes abuse) tax shelters often try too hard; the attempt to get everything right and cross every “T” often raises flags that might not otherwise be raised. I’m guessing it is something like that which first caught the eyes of the IRS. Similarly, this show — which is funny and cute and entertaining — tries just a little bit too hard. There are points where it self-consciously pushes the humor, becomes self-referential, recognizes it is a show on a stage, highlights the fact that you just heard a joke, or goes for the obvious pun. These points become a little grating. Mind you, they aren’t enough to make this a bad show or destroy the entertainment value; rather, they just leave you with the “trying too hard” taste.

I don’t blame the author for this — this is his first show and his first musical, and it was written first as a musical comedy spoof for groups and to attempt to laugh and derive something positive from a bad experience. As a musical comedy spoof it does well. If it wants to transition into a musical with longer life — and perhaps a deeper message and commentary on the power of the IRS — it could likely do with a bit more reshaping. The director, Scholl, is also listed as the Dramaturge, and in this capacity I believe a little more could have been done to take off a bit of the earnestness edge. I think there is a great message and a great story here that could move this from a musical spoof to something much more, but that more work is required to turn this into something with greater gravitas and longevity.

But I’ll note that my opinion may be a little jaded due to my upbringing. You spend your life in a CPA office, surrounded with bad tax jokes, and they no longer become quite as funny. The audience sitting around me was truly enjoying this show (including the guy behind me who was singing along, even though he didn’t know the lyrics, sigh). There was lots of laughter, and even I found myself laughing out loud at a few of the jokes and scenes. I truly believe that I’m the oddity here — I think that this is a show that, despite its excessive earnestness, will make audiences laugh and will serve to entertain.

Another example of the “trying too hard” is found in the music: this is a 90 minute show, with no intermission. The program lists 35 songs — and this isn’t a sung-through opera. Many of these are only song snippets, and I’d estimate that perhaps 85-90% of them are parodies of other well-known songs. That doesn’t destroy the humor (after all, who can’t love “Sittin’ in the Schvitz” as a parody of “Putting On The Ritz”), but it’s odd for a musical that makes it appear as if it was a original musical. The few songs that I didn’t recognize as parodies were quite good (“Think Like a Winner”); again I found myself wishing the show had amped up the originality instead of going for the easy joke. Perhaps that’s part of the problem — scenes, characters, names were often there for the easy, funny joke, whereas I (trained after all these years for musicals with deeper meaning) was looking for something with a bit more depth. A uniform 5′ deep pool is still refreshing on a hot day, but it is safe; sometimes you want to jump off that diving board into the 10′ deep end.

If I was to summarize the book and music aspects of Loopholes, it would be that this show is funny and entertaining for what it is, but it left me wishing it was a bit more. I truly believe that there is a story here that can be musicalized, but to do so the author needs to decide what is the story he truly wants to tell — is the focus poking fun at the IRS, or is the story about “Izzy”‘s growth from a cold-business man to someone who finds a new attitude and a new relationship. The latter, if you look at this from high above, is the real story; the IRS is not the villain but the player who helps shape our leads journey. Telling that story — with truly new and original lyrics — could move this from the musical spoof/parody that it is into something much greater: a story of individual growth and attitude, with some humorous pointed commentary songs along the way. The verdict? Funny and entertaining and great, with some seeds that — if nurtured properly — can turn this into much more.

Part of what makes the presentation entertaining is the cast, who are fun and  entertaining and a joy to watch — plus they all sing well. If the cast has a problem, overall, it is more in the direction — again, it tries a little too hard. The cast seems someone conscious that they are on a stage and are trying to make the audience laugh. Relax, and have fun kids. Luckily, the problem appears a bit less in the lead positions: Bruce Nozick (FB) as Izzy Rich and Caryn Richman (FB) as Dr. Marsha Mellow. Nozick brings a gentle humor to Izzy (as well as a lovely voice). He permits you to see both the businessman and the exasperation. As for Richman: She was wonderful to see on stage (full disclosure: I’ve enjoyed her acting since I first saw her on New Gidget; I’m amazed at how she has seemingly not aged since then (whereas I’ve … well, let’s say I was much younger then)). She sang well, emoted well, and related to the other characters well — and was just fun to watch.

In supporting roles (on the Izzy side) were Perry Lambert (FB) as Harry Grim and Julia Cardia (FB) as Brenda, Izzy’s secretary.  Lambert was great as the accountant and quite funny in his role. His scenes as the Rabbi and in the steamroom were great. He also sang and moved well. I’m sure I’ve seen him in a past show, but I can’t put my finger on it. Cardia as Brenda was surprising. I think her best moments were when Harry brought in the backup singers, and she would watch them and slowing move in, joining in on the actions. Subtly funny, which is the humor I tend to like.

The primary IRS agents (although they played other roles as well) were Brad Griffith (FB) as Howie Catchem (also: the Wolf, Willie Nelson); Camille Licate (FB) as Eileen Holmes (also Nicole Kidme); and Taji Coleman (FB) as Sheila Peel (also Mrs. Lamaz). Griffith was fun to watch — he had a wonderful warmth with an undertone of evil — just what you need for an IRS agent 🙂 . Licate seemed to be enjoying herself as Eileen — the newbie IRS agent. She projected an aura of fun and naivete, singing strongly and clearly enjoying being on stage. Coleman performed well in her roles but there was a little something missing last night that I couldn’t pinpoint — she didn’t have the same energy and enthusiasm as the rest of the cast. My wife thought it was just her characters; my guess is that she was just having a slightly off night — and that happens sometimes. Irrespective of that, all three worked well together in their main IRS roles and were a fun team.

Rounding out the cast in multiple ensemble roles were Ryan Brady (FB) as Sam Flushing / IRS Supervisor / Pig #3 / Pete Rose / Bailiff and Nora King (FB) as Jude Gleo Grief / Pig #1 / Lois / IRS Receptionist. Brady had a nice warmth to him, and was hilarious as the plumber in “Flush It Down”. Please pass me the brain bleach for that rear dancing shot :-). King caught my eye the minute I saw her on stage — she just radiated enthusiasm and fun and happiness to be her characters — and that’s what I love to see. She was just wonderful in all her roles, and especially how she rocked the towel in the steambath scenes and rocked the gavel in her courtroom scenes.

Music was provided by the co-lyricist, Ronnie Jayne (FB), who served as musical director and on-stage accompanist. Lindsay Martin (FB)’s choreography worked reasonably well. There were a few points where it came off as a little forced, but I think that goes to the whole “trying too hard” vibe I picked up and discussed earlier. Overall, the movement worked well and fit the book and plotline. Rita Cofield (FB) was the stage manager, assisted by Ashley D. Clark/FB.

Turning to the technical: The set design was by Charles G. Sleichter and worked well in its simplicity. There was a backdrop that supported some projections, and two side panels that identified location or hid major props. Add a desk, and that was essentially it… but it worked. The lighting design by Donny Jackson (FB) worked well to establish the mood, and was otherwise non-obtrusive. The sound design by David B. Marling (FB) provided good sound effects. Murray Burn‘s costumes worked well and established the characters well; I particularly liked the little touches such as the green in all the IRS costumes. Casting was by Raul Clayton Staggs (FB). Publicity was by Kuker & Lee. Loopholes was produced by Theatre Planners (Racquel Lehrman and Victoria Watson); Bobbe Rothbart/FB was the co-executive producer.

Loopholes continues at the Hudson Theatre through Sunday, May 17. Even though it tries too hard, it is genuinely funny and entertaining and well worth seeing. Tickets are available through Plays411; discount tickets may be available through Goldstar and other sources.

I Support 99 Seat Theatre in Los Angeles[ETA: This show is a great example of the intimate theatre battle in Los Angeles. No, I don’t mean to paint AEA as the evil IRS, and the pro99-ers as trying to find loopholes. Rather, this is a production in an intimate theatre by a non-membership company, a theatre with more than 50 seats, by a non-profit. It features a mix of AEA and non-AEA actors (and AEA actors on both sides of the pro99 debate). It is precisely the type of production that would be hurt by the new rules, because they would have to pay minimum wage to the 7 AEA actors in the show. Given labor laws, the remaining 3 actors would also have to be paid minimum wage, because you cannot have “volunteers” doing the same job as employees (and from what I saw, they were certainly professional). Add in the creative designers, factor in theatre rental and the fact that many tickets are not full price but discounted via Goldstar, Plays411, LA Stage Tix, or other sources… and this would be a money loser. Yet it is shows like these that need to get off the ground; shows like these that need the dramaturgy and audience feedback to move forward. I Love 99 (FB) is a community of people that love LA’s intimate theatre and want to save it: AEA actors, non-AEA actors, creatives, technical people, stage managers, producers, critics, and audience members working together. LA has built a unique community thanks to the 99 seat plan: let’s figure out how to move the community forward in a plan that benefits all stakeholders. Follow us on Facebook, and learn about what you can do from our web page.]

Dining Notes: A wonderful find if you are seeing shows at the Hudson, the Blank, or the Complex (hint: remember this for Fringe Festival) is Eat This Cafe (FB), which is on the corner and is part of the Hudson complex of theatres. Although not on their online menu, gluten-free bread is available. They have wonderful salads and sandwiches. Note also that the Hudson’s cafe often has gluten-free muffins.

Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre critic; I am, however, a regular theatre audience. I’ve been attending live theatre in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.

Upcoming Shows: Our next theatre is Tuesday night, when we’re going to the alumni performance of Alice – The Musical at Nobel Middle School. This is followed by “Words By Ira Gershwin – A Musical Play” at The Colony Theatre (FB) on May 9.  The weekend of May 16 brings “Dinner with Friends” at REP East (FB), and may also bring “Violet: The Musical” at the Monroe Forum Theatre (FB) (I’m just waiting for them to show up on Goldstar). The weekend of May 23 brings Confirmation services at TAS, a visit to the Hollywood Bowl, and “Love Again“, a new musical by Doug Haverty and Adryan Russ, at the Lonny Chapman Group Rep (FB).  The last weekend of May brings “Entropy” at Theatre of Note (FB) on Saturday, and “Waterfall“, the new Maltby/Shire musical at the Pasadena Playhouse (FB) on Sunday. June looks to be exhausting with the bounty that the Hollywood Fringe Festival (FB) brings (ticketing is now open). June starts with a matinee of the movie Grease at The Colony Theatre (FB), followed by Clybourne Park (HFF) at the Lounge Theatre (FB) on Saturday, and a trip out to see the Lancaster Jethawks on Sunday. The second weekend of June brings Max and Elsa. No Music. No Children. (HFF) at Theatre Asylum (FB) and  Wombat Man (HFF) at Underground Theatre (FB) on Saturday, and Marry Me a Little (HFF) by Good People Theatre (FB) at the Lillian Theatre (FB) on Sunday. The craziness continues into the third weekend of June, with Nigerian Spam Scam Scam (HFF) at Theatre Asylum (FB) and Merely Players (HFF) at the Lounge Theatre (FB) on Saturday, and Uncle Impossible’s Funtime Variety & Ice Cream Social, (HFF) at the Complex Theatres (FB) on Sunday (and possibly “Matilda” at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) in the afternoon, depending on Hottix availability, although July 4th weekend is more likely). The Fringe craziness ends with Medium Size Me, (HFF) at the Complex Theatres (FB) on Thursday 6/25 and Might As Well Live: Stories By Dorothy Parker (HFF) at the Complex Theatres (FB) on Saturday. June ends with our annual drum corps show in Riverside on Sunday. July begins with “Murder for Two” at the Geffen Playhouse (FB) on July 3rd, and possibly Matilda. July 11th brings “Jesus Christ Superstar” at REP East (FB). The following weekend is open, although it might bring “As You Like It” at Theatricum Botanicum (FB) (depending on their schedule and Goldstar).  July 25th brings “Lombardi” at the Lonny Chapman Group Rep (FB), with the annual Operaworks show the next day. August may bring “Green Grow The Lilacs” at Theatricum Botanicum (FB), the summer Mus-ique show, and “The Fabulous Lipitones” at  The Colony Theatre (FB). After that we’ll need a vacation! As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Bitter-Lemons, and Musicals in LA, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411.