It’s Gonna Be a Bumpy Ride…

I Support 99 Seat Theatre in Los Angelesuserpic=theatre_ticketsWell, Actors Equity has gone and done it. Not only did they fire a shot across the bow, but war has been declared. They’ve been the aggressor, starting the fight and moving the tanks in despite the wishes of the people. Oh, and us peasants? As usual, we’re the ones that get it in the neck.

What am I talking about? Simple. Perhaps two months ago, Actors Equity (the union that represents stage actors) dropped a proposal that any AEA actor working in intimate theatre (99 seats and under) in Los Angeles must be paid as an employee and at the current prevailing minimum wage for both rehearsals and performances. There were also work place requirements and performance minimum requirements, with limited exceptions solely for membership companies and self-produced works. They claimed that (a) members wanted this, and (b) it was required under California labor law.

The problem was, however, that a majority of Los Angeles AEA actors did not want this. They understood that the nature of Los Angeles theatre is such that most theatres cannot be financially sustained under these rules. The cost for AEA actors would quadruple or more. There would only be small safe productions. Actors would lose the venue they value for the refinement of their craft and for feeding their artistic needs.

AEA held a referendum, and just under 66% of those who voted were against the proposal. Did this stop AEA? No. They voted to impose the new rules anyway.

I’ll say that again: They ignored the wishes of the actors and their members, and eliminated the 99-seat plan.

In doing this, AEA showed disregard not only for their members, but for the audiences that pay the bills and for the other professionals and businesses that their decision impacts. Rosalyn Cohn, over in the private pro99 group on Facebook, posited the following for AEA’s rationale:
(posted with permission)

OMG. This is so obvious. Why didn’t I see this? This has been in the works. NYC has turned into corporate theatre, star vehicle driven like never before and non-union tours abound. Some pretty big Off-Bway houses have closed like the Promenade. LA has big bucks which is WHY AEA is making its presence more known. That’s why they now have their own building. They now want to try to make this the 2nd theatre capital – which we know it is. We 99 Seat Actors who don’t have name recognition, this is what it’s about. I lived it. I lived in NYC for 20 years. It’s now very hard to get a B’way gig if you aren’t a name. Says the Union, “Ummmm, we need dough. Ahhhh, let’s really be smart and stake our claim – you know actors aren’t great with business so they need to be taken care of, uuhhh, we’re in Power, uhhh, they’ll say we know what’s best. We’re the Adult. Uhhh, let’s go to where Film/TV is REALLY prominent. STARS sell TICKETS. Let’s DO AWAY with 99 Seat with no names. Let’s force them to Showcase Code where maybe they can get an agent, maybe a review. Let’s force the Companies who have bigger audiences to MERGE and force them to an AEA contract so we can make money. But, wait, that will cost those theatres most likely $100K+ to produce that show w/insurance bonds and all that. So, hey, aren’t we in the town where there’s lots of CELEBRITY CACHE?!!! I know! We’ll make it so that the STARS can work in Off-Broadway size houses and not have to leave LA. And those other actors with no name and not making us bank, well, they’ll work in those under 50 houses for only 16 shows.” That’s it my friends. You want this? THAT’S WHAT THIS IS.

I’ve said repeatedly: I’m not an actor, I’m a computer scientist. I envy the talents and abilities of actors, and wish that I had their skills to inhabit other personalities. I can, however, explore issues to their logical conclusion. Here are my thoughts on this matter:

  • AEA is insisting that actors be employees. Labor law does not allow volunteers to work in a position for which employees are hired. The implication of this is that a non-profit theatre company cannot simultaneously have volunteer actors and actors on the payroll. Such a situation means that those volunteer actors must be bumped up to be employees, and covered by the same minimum wages rules. This kills 99 seat theatre. It may also be illegal, in the sense that not-for-profit companies have always be permitted to have professionals provide services pro-bono or at below market rates. There is simply no basis for treating the two groups of actors differently under the law. So, either 99 seat theatres are killed by requiring all actors to be employees, or AEA’s action is illegal and discriminatory.
  • But it’s worse. Why should a particular class of work be mandated to be performed by employees in some non-profits, but not all. I posit that if the minimum wage rules apply to professional non-membership non-profits, it would apply to community theatre and other amateur theatre as well, if they charge for admission. This is a major impact, and certainly not what the law intended.
  • But it’s even worse. Logically, if labor law requires actors to be employees, how can it permit an exemption for membership companies or self-produced. The job and the work is the same.

AEA, in my opinion, either no legal leg to stand upon, or has just killed all theatres with volunteers. I personally believe the former, and hope not the latter. I believe AEA completely misses the distinction between the for-profit and non-profit theatre.

Here is my prediction of what I believe will happen:

  • Gentlemen and ladies, start your lawsuits. Except a protracted legal battle similar to the “Waiver Wars” of the 1980s, with actors suing their own union. It is going to be nasty nasty nasty, and will have repercussions for a long time (I know, to me, they have started — I’m seeing some of the pro-AEA actors in a show in early May, and I’m already afraid it will color my reaction to them). The only winners are going to be the lawyers (and the cockroaches, because they always win in the end).
  • Existing membership companies will soldier on because they’ve been granted specific exemptions, but will be unable to partner with other production groups to do innovative work.
  • Development of new work for the stage to be produced in Los Angeles will stop. This will impact not only actors but the film industry, as often such work feeds film work.
  • Non-profit non-membership intimate companies will stop employing AEA actors (and additional union actors, depending on how the 4-As handle reciprocity rules). This has already started: Both REP East (where we subscribe) and Long Beach Playhouse have indicated that — for the duration — AEA actors need not apply.
  • New companies, if they form, will not hire AEA actors. Combined with the previous point, this will mean less work for AEA actors.
  • A significant number of Los Angeles based AEA actors will either drop union membership or go Fi-Core. This means you’ll only see New York Actors in NYC and on tours. Los Angeles will not only not incubate new works, it won’t incubate new actors. In the long run, it may result in the split of the union, with Los Angeles actors creating a union specifically for the Los Angeles theatre scene, and telling AEA not only where to shove it, but how far to stick it in.

As audience members, there’s not much we can do other than to bring out the popcorn and watch. The one thing we can do is to remind our local actors that we stand with them, and that we stand with our intimate theatre community. Do what you can. Go see a show.


Saturday News Chum Stew: Graffiti, Diets, Food, Deaths, and 99 Seat Theatre

Observation StewIt’s Saturday, and that means it is time to clean out the accumulated saved URL links (with a bit of commentary) from the week. Get your fill now — next week’s stew will be chametz-free!

  • Graffiti Busting. Two articles related to graffiti-busting caught my eye. The first looks at the battle that LA’s army of graffiti cleaners face. Many years ago, my mother-in-law was one of those busters. How bad is the problem? Here’s the second article, which notes that LA cleaned up over one square mile of graffiti last year. It is a problem, and I’ve never understood the reason why people enjoy trashing something that belongs to someone else. Hmmm. I wonder if taggers and graffiti artists are the trolls of the real world?
  • Going on a Diet. Were you annoyed when they put Wilbur St. on a road diet? Get ready to be annoyed again. This time, it’s not Wilbur that is changing but Reseda Blvd, between Parthenia and Plummer. They aren’t getting rid of driving lanes (although it looks like the center dual-left is going away); they are converting the conventional bike lanes to protected bike lanes. Be forewarned if you are driving or parking in the area — it will take time for people to get used to them.
  • Food News. A few food-related news items. Fresh and Easy is closing 50 stores — and the one near us in Northridge is one of them. That’s too bad — I like the selection at that store and it was very convenient. Graeters Ice Cream, which we enjoyed when we visited Louisville KY, is opening shop in Caesars in Las Vegas. I think I know where we’re stopping in Vegas, and perhaps it might entice our friend Linda to come west for a visit. Lastly, ever wonder what happens to ugly fruit and vegetables? In a society that demands perfection, do we mock the misformed carrot or potato? The answer is that they are actually becoming more popular.
  • Deaths of Note. Two deaths of note this week. The first, Dr. George Fischbeck, was a long-time weathercaster here in Los Angeles. He had a delivery style and presentation (and longevity) that made him memorable, and was one of those genuinely good people. The second was musician John Renbourne.  I learned of Renbourne through my uncle, Tom Faigin, when I recorded his collection of folk albums for him. Renbourne made a number of classic folk albums: solo, with Bert Jansch, and with his group Pentangle.
  • Revitalizing Congregational Life. Here’s something to chew on: What is the business of a synagogue? Rabbi Larry Hoffman explores the question. He starts by noting the business is not religion. In the past, it was continuity: providing activities that ensured Judaism would continue to the next generation. Today, he argues, it is providing an authentic identity. Do you agree? If so, how do congregations achieve it through the services provided. Great question.
  • The 100 ¥ Store. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you’ve never been in Daiso. Here’s the history of the store, and why it became what it is. The short answer is that it is Japan’s dollar store, but unlike the 99c store, they don’t remainder items — they make their own unique items.
  • Not So Hidden Anymore. Here are two articles on “secret” hiding places: 15 from DIY crafts, and 20 from Family Handyman.  My big concern with all of these is that I’d forget about them. Hiding something does no good if you can’t remember where you hid it, and you leave the valuables in the house when you sell it.
  • Pro99 - Vote No NowTheatre Items of Interest. Thought I wouldn’t have anything on the battle to save 99 seat theatre in LA? Wrong. Here is a collection of editorial cartoons on the subject.  They truly prove that a picture is worth 1000 words. But if you want words, here’s an interesting article on the lies we tell about audience engagement. The article makes the great point about the important of indie (read small and intimate) theatre — and how it often provides the only engagement for young people and for artists and audiences of color. Here’s the great paragraph about that: “In most American urban centers, there’s a vibrant, thriving indie scene—small theatres operating on a shoestring budget, paying people a stipend and operating out of 99-and-under rentals or non-traditional spaces. Think of it as DIY theatre. Indie theatres are now connected via the internet in ways they’ve never been before. The people working within them now have a picture, at least anecdotally, of the national scene, and can see that indie work all over the country is filled with young people, women, and people of color, both as creators and consumers.” It goes on to note: “We don’t, however, care to look at the indie scene.Because we ignore and undervalue indie theatre, we imagine we’re discussing issues in “theatre” when what we’re actually discussing is a particular segment of theatre—one from which women, young people, and people of color are largely shut out.”. What AEA wants to do is destroy indie theatre — and in the process, they are reducing the opportunities for women, young people, and people of color to grow in theatre (and this from a union that protested photoshopping a civil rights protest photo (inadvertently) because they are pro-civil rights. Are you a Los Angeles AEA member? You know what you need to do. Vote “no”, so we can work together to create the change the LA theatre community needs.



When Perceived Reality Isn’t

Doubt (Repertory East)userpic=repeastWhat is reality?

That’s an interesting question. We often think reality is what we see with our eyes, what eyewitnesses tell us. But is that reality? Is that the truth? Perhaps, as Harry Nillsson wrote in The Point, we “see what you want to see, and hear what you want to hear.” This was on my mind as I drove to last night’s show, especially as I was listening to a recent Quirks and Quarks on the subject of implanting false criminal memories. What was the show? Doubt, by John Patrick Shanley (FB), which is running at Rep East Playhouse (FB) in Newhall through April 4, 2015.

Now, I’ve seen Doubt before. In fact, I saw it almost exactly 10 years ago at the Pasadena Playhouse, in the West Coast premiere production starring Linda Hunt as Sister Aloysious  and Jonathan Cake as Father Flynn. I remember coming out of that production thinking that this was what theatre should be — drama that makes you think and question, and get insights you might not have seen before. I still think that. That production also seared an image of Doubt in my head: the tall and thin priest (Cake is 6’3″) against the small and feisty nun (Hunt is 4’9″). I’ll note I also saw that production of Doubt on the day John Paul II died, and when all the accusations against priests were in the news.  All these combined to lead me to the conclusion that ultimate guilt of the main characters was evenly divided — I couldn’t tell you if Father Flynn had done what was claimed.

Perhaps at this point I should tell you the story of Doubt. The following is an edited synopsis from what was on Wikipedia: The play is set in the fictional St. Nicholas Church School, in the Bronx, during the fall of 1964. It opens with a sermon by Father Flynn, a beloved and progressive parish priest, addressing the importance of uncertainty. The school’s principal, Sister Aloysius, a rigidly conservative nun insists upon constant vigilance. During a meeting with a younger nun, Sister James, it becomes clear that Aloysius harbors a deep mistrust toward her students, her fellow teachers, and society in general. Naïve and impressionable, James is easily upset by Aloysius’s severe manner and harsh criticism. Aloysius requests that James report to her any odd or suspicious interactions between Father Flynn and the students. Aloysius and Father Flynn are put into direct conflict when she learns from Sister James that the priest met one-on-one with Donald Muller, St. Nicholas’ first African-American student. After a one-on-one meeting with Muller in the rectory, Muller returned with an odd look on his face, an alcohol on his breath. Mysterious circumstances lead her to believe that sexual misconduct occurred. In a private meeting purportedly regarding the Christmas pageant, Aloysius, in the presence of Sister James, openly confronts Flynn with her suspicions. He angrily denies wrongdoing, insisting that he was disciplining Donald for drinking altar wine, claiming to have been protecting the boy from harsher punishment. James is relieved by his explanation. Flynn’s next sermon is on the evils of gossip. Aloysius, dissatisfied with Flynn’s story, meets with Donald’s mother, Mrs. Muller. Despite Aloysius’s attempts to shock her, Mrs. Muller says she supports her son’s relationship with Flynn. She ignores Aloysius’s accusations, noting she’ll look the other way on anything because they only need to make it to graduation in June. Before departing, she hints that Donald may be “that way”, and that Mr. Muller may be beating him consequently. Father Flynn eventually threatens to remove Aloysius from her position if she does not back down. Aloysius informs him that she previously phoned the last parish he was assigned to, discovering a history of past infringements. After declaring his innocence, the priest begins to plead with her, at which point she blackmails him and demands that he resign immediately, or else she will publicly disgrace him with his history. She then leaves the office, disgusted. Flynn calls the bishop to apply for a transfer, where, later, he receives a promotion and is instated as pastor of a nearby parochial school. Learning this, Aloysius reveals to Sister James that the decisive phone call was a fabrication. As a result of this, she is left with great doubt in herself and her faith. With no actual proof that Father Flynn is or is not innocent, the audience is left with its own doubt.

This time I came into the show in a very different state of mind. I’ve been deeply involved in the battle between AEA and Los Angeles actors. I had just been listening to the show on implanted false memories. The presentation dynamic was also different. The REP production starred Georgan George (FB) as Sister Aloysius and Jeff Johnson/FB as Father Flynn. In contrast to Hunt’s tiny powerhouse, George was tall and thin — but equally determined. Johnson wasn’t like Cake either; whereas Cake was tall and Irish, Johnson was… the word that comes to mind is “avuncular.” Rounder and friendlier and seemingly more accessible. This left me with the conclusion — much more so than 10 years ago — that Aloysius was on a witch hunt. She was out to get the man based on a first time impression and a dislike of the changes he was bringing to her church. Those changes took many forms — the Vatican II changes, the change in relationship between Fathers and Nuns, and the changes in society. She didn’t like them, and she didn’t like this man (e.g., “I say it is spinach, and I don’t like it”). Her determination was that of a Republican congressman against President Obama — that of a conspiracy theorist who has aligned the facts to fit their particular version of the story, and any other explanation is just a ruse created by the other side.

The fact that I came away — again — with this impression is a testament to the performance of George (FB) as Aloysius, Johnson/FB as Flynn, and Alli Kelly (FB) as Sister James. George believably gave off that aura of righteous conviction, of someone who truly believed that she was right and how she perceived what she saw to be the truth (which made her doubt at the end even more powerful). Johnson, as I noted before, gave off that avuncular vibe, which made his anger and capitulation at the end even more powerful. Kelly, who provided the innocence factor, truly gave off the joy she felt when teaching her students, and equally radiated pain when forced to do Aloysius’ dirty work and work against the students and Father Flynn. She just wanted to teach. Rounding out the cast was Cherrelle éLan (FB) as Mrs. Muller.  Although she only appeared in one scene, éLan (FB) left the impression of the modern (that is, 1960s) African-American woman in the Jackie Kennedy mode — she didn’t want to rock the boat; she wanted to integrate into her community and not make waves. Great performances, all. I’ll note you can see these actors in action in the trailer that REP produced, which is up on YouTube.

Doubt was directed by Mark Kaplan (FB). I was going to comment on the dissonance created by having a Jewish director create the world of a heavily Catholic school, but I didn’t see it. The way the actors portrayed the scenes felt realistic to me. But then again, what do I know — Mark and I come from the same backgrounds! I do wonder how much the director can adjust the portrayals in this show to lead the audience one way or the other — in a sense, implanting their own layer of false memory on top of the situation. It is an interesting question, but I don’t know how I would just. All I know is I enjoyed the show. Kaplan was assisted in his directoral duties by Kimbyrly M. Valis (FB).

On the technical side, there was the usual REP excellence. Scenic Design was by the REP’s artistic and executive directors, Mikee Schwinn/FB and Ovington Michael Owston (FB) and presented a realistic principal’s office and courtyard. Sound design was by REP resident designer Steven “Nanook” Burkholder/FB; I particularly noted the directionality of the bird sounds. Nice. Lighting was by REP resident designer Tim Christianson/FB and conveyed the mood well. Costume Design was by Janet McAnany (FB); my only question was whether the clerical vestments were correct — but not being Catholic, I have no way to judge. They were close enough for Government work, and I do Government work. J. T. Centonze (FB) was the stage manager.

Doubt” continues at Rep East Playhouse (FB) in Newhall through April 4, 2015. The production I saw was only half-full — and this show deserves better. Everyone should come out and see this excellent story and this excellent cast. REP is offering half-price tickets through their Facebook page; there’s a half-price offer on their main page,  and tickets are up on Goldstar.  There’s no excuse to not go see this show — it is less expensive than a movie, and you get to see some really good people (and the people on stage aren’t half-bad either 🙂 ). Call (661) 288-0000 or visit the REP website for tickets. P.S.: Note also that the next REP show has changed back to what was originally planned, as REP finally got the rights to “Dinner with Friends“, which will run May 8 through June 6. REP will also be holding a fundraiser, “Law & Order: REP”, on June 20.

Pro99 - Vote No NowIf you’ve been reading my write-ups of late, you’ll know I’ve been tying each one to the battle between AEA and Los Angeles actors. Going in, I was going to write something about how REP is an example of what 99 seat theatre can be. But during the show — specifically, during the scene between Sister James and Father Flynn in the courtyard — I was struck with a realization. The story of Doubt is the story of this battle. Sister Aloysius is Actors Equity. They’ve heard a story — they’ve seen a thing or two — they’ve heard a rumor — and they have become deeply suspicious of the producers and actors in Los Angeles. They believe their view of the world is the only view of the world, and they will stop at nothing to get their way. They will slant the facts, they will implant misleading or false stories, they will create innuendo and gossip — all for the sole purpose of keeping the world they want it to be. The actor/producers and producers in Los Angeles are Father Flynn. Friendly and willing to work with everyone, out for the joy of making the world a better place. They are simply trying to do this, but keep having to rebut the false claims and mistrust of Sister A./AEA. The actors are Sister James.  They are in this for the joy of what they do, and they simply want to be able to do it. To be able to teach (act) and spread the joy that teaching (acting) brings to them to the world. The audience is Donald Muller — unseen on the stage, but impacted in so many ways by the witch-hunt of Sister A. (AEA). Now that I’ve presented this analogy, I urge you to go see Doubt at REP East, and I think you’ll agree. AEA is on an unfounded witch hunt.

I’ll wait while you see the show. […] Did you enjoy it?

So what can we do — the Donald Mullers of the world — against Sister Alyosius (AEA). We’re not being molested by the priest; there is a great working relationship between us, Sister James (the local actors), and the priest (producers). But the Sister (AEA) is on a witch hunt to bring us down. I’ll tell you what we can do: We can have a backbone, and stand up to the bullies! If you are free Monday afternoon, 3/23, go out and march with the actors on AEA headquarters. Encourage the AEA actors you know to vote “no” on this proposal. Learn about the situation through the information on Bitter Lemons, through the I Love 99 website, and the I Love 99 Facebook group. Don’t let AEA mislead you and distract you, and make you see something that isn’t there. We want change, but not this change (and a “yes” vote will bring the change we don’t want — it will get Father Flynn transferred).

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: March concludes with “Newsies” at the Pantages (FB) on March 28, followed by Pesach and the Renaissance Faire on April 11 (I haven’t yet decided whether I’m going to a show on the weekend of Pesach, but unless something really calls to me, it is unlikely). The following weekend will see us back at a music store listening to a performance: this time, it is Noel Paul Stookey at McCabes Guitar Shop (FB). After that we’re in Vegas for a week — I haven’t yet determined the shows yet, but Menopause the Musical looks quite likely, possibly Don Rickles at the Orleans, and Penn & Teller are on Goldstar. We may also work in “After the Revolution” at the Chance Theatre (FB). May begins with “Loopholes: The Musical” at the Hudson Main Stage (FB) on May 2. This is followed by “Words By Ira Gershwin – A Musical Play” at The Colony Theatre (FB) on May 9 (and quite likely a visit to Alice – The Musical at Nobel Middle School).  The weekend of May 16 brings “Dinner with Friends” at REP East (FB). The weekend of May 23 brings Confirmation services at TAS, a visit to the Hollywood Bowl, and also has a hold for “Love Again“, a new musical by Doug Haverty and Adryan Russ, at the Lonny Chapman Group Rep (FB).  The last weekend of May currently has a hold for “Fancy Nancy” at the Chance Theatre (FB), “Waterfall“, the new Maltby/Shire musical at the Pasadena Playhouse (FB), and “Murder for Two” at the Geffen Playhouse (FB).  June is equally crazy, as we’ve got the Hollywood Fringe Festival (which should include a production of “Marry Me a Little” by Good People Theatre (FB)), a matinee of the movie Grease at The Colony Theatre (FB), a trip out to see the Lancaster Jethawksour annual drum corps show, and hopefully “Matilda” at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). 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.


Understanding Your Customer

Pro99 - Vote No Nowuserpic=theatre_musicalsOne of the most important adages on the Internet is: “If you are using a website for free, you are not the customer… you are the product being sold.” The emphasis here is on understanding who the customer really is. If you are going to sell a product — and create a business selling a product — you must know who your customers are (and ensure you will get more). I’m bringing this up because (a) it is lunchtime (when I can write about ideas), (b) two articles came across my RSS feeds that put the brain in motion, and (c) I’ve got the whole 99 seat discussions that have been going on in my mind. As you know, I’ve been very involved in those discussions, and have been trying to bring the audience viewpoint to them.

The first article was actually a line in a piece by Jay McAdams of 24th Street Theatre on Bitter Lemons: “If you’d of asked anybody in the theatre community last spring what the biggest problem facing 99-seat theatre was, almost everyone would have said lack of audience. Most would have pointed out the need for some sort of large scale marketing campaign to let the world know what LA theatre artists have long professed; that LA is indeed a theatre town.”

The second article was a much more detailed piece by Ken Davenport over at the Producers Perspective that explored the demographics of the Broadway touring audience. This article noted statistics such as:

  • The average age of the Touring Broadway theatregoer was 53 years.
  • Ninety-two percent of Touring Broadway theatregoers were Caucasian.
  • Seventy-six percent of the audience held a college degree and 34% held a graduate degree.
  • Forty-nine percent of national theatregoers reported an annual household income of more than $100,000, compared to only 22% of Americans overall.
  • Women continued to be more likely than men to make the decision to purchase theatre tickets.
  • The most commonly cited sources for show selection (other than being part of the subscription) were: the music, personal recommendation, Tony Awards and articles written about the show.
  • Sixty-two percent of the audience said that some kind of incentive would encourage them to attend theatre more frequently, such as discounts or special perks.
  • Nearly three quarters of respondents said they used Facebook.
  • Theatregoers said that the most effective type of advertising was an email from the show or presenter.

In Los Angeles, this equates to the audience you would find at the Pantages or the Ahmanson. I subscribe at the Colony, and in the past have subscribed at the Pasadena Playhouse. When I go there, what do I see? Again — an older, caucasian, wealthier audience. We feel young — and we’re 55! Even when I go to Cabrillo Music Theatre — a regional house — what do I see: an older audience. I’d even be willing to bet you’ll find similar audiences if you look at regional community theatres that do similar programming: Glendale Center Theatre, Canyon Theatre Guild, etc.

I’ll scream the point of the above: IF OUR AUDIENCE REMAINS OLD AND WHITE, THE FUTURE OF THEATRE IS BLEAK. Don’t believe me? Where is the audience for full opera today?

On the other hand, I subscribe at Repertory East Playhouse, an 81 seat theatre in Newhall that falls on the intimate scale. The audience I see there has a broader mix: young adults (in their 20s-40s). I go to theatres in NoHo and Hollywood and West LA. Again, a much younger — and much more diverse audience. Here’s the message to shout regarding this: INTIMATE THEATRE DRAWS A YOUNGER AUDIENCE DUE TO PRICE AND EDGIER SHOWS.

Now, to bring everything together as lunchtime is coming to a close (and I need to present in under an hour): What will be the impact if the AEA proposal passes? (1) Ticket prices will go up and discounts will go away as theatres have to cover the additional costs of AEA actors, (b) edgier shows will be eschewed in favor of safer fare that will bring in paying audiences; and (c) those safe audiences will be wealther and courted to provide increased donations to cover increased costs. A vicious circle will be created and… let me shout the net effect: WE WILL GIVE UP CREATING NEW AUDIENCES FOR LIVE THEATRE IN FAVOR OF THE WEALTHY, NEARLY DEAD AUDIENCE.

Just a little salad left: The conclusion of this is that AEA is shooting itself in the foot: By destroying the potential of the new audience, 20-30 years down the road, there will be no one to pay to see AEA actors in large AEA shows. So not only is an approach like the 99 seat plan (which does need updating) an incubator for authors, designers, and actors, it is an incubator for new audiences.

Remember folks: without an audience, actors are simply bloggers in the wind.


Adequate Compensation is in the Eye of the Beholder

Pro99 - Vote No Nowuserpic=dramamasksOver the last few weeks, my attention has been caught up in a brewing battle here in Los Angeles: the battle between Equity Actors and their union, AEA. Now I’m not an actor, but I am an audience; as such, I have a stake in this battle (although we audience members are oft forgotten and taken for granted… this is grating on me and I’m starting to think about what I’m going to do on that. More in a subsequent post.) The battle is a nasty one — and one that outsiders won’t understand.

The world of creatives is not the real world. Nowhere is this made clearer than in this battle, where you have the union fighting management for higher wages, and the “employees” fighting the union for the right to earn no salary, just a small stipend. When I present the subject that way, you’re probably thinking the union is on the right side. But you would be wrong, primarily because the creative world is not the normal world.

Consider the life of an actor in Los Angeles. If you are lucky, you earn your living in the TV or movie industry. If you are really lucky, you are acting in front of the camera, likely doing completely unchallenging work such as commercials or sitcoms. If you are ordinarily lucky, you are working behind the camera in an unsung role. If you are typically, you are paying the bills with a non-creative job — working in a traditional job in a traditional workplace. The point is that you are not expecting to earn a living wage on the live theatre stage — there just isn’t the audience in LA to support it.

But there are loads of theatres in LA, you say. Yup, there are. The big ones tend to bring in outside talent, not local actors. The small ones often exist not to make money, but to provide a place for actors to hone and exercise the acting muscle — just like you exercise at the gym. With more use it gets better and stronger.  An interesting aspect to that analogy: you pay the gym to work out; the gym doesn’t pay you.

Actors in 99 seat theatre haven’t been compensated through salary. They have been compensated through the work, and through the connections they have made in the industry. Often those are more valuable than the $300 that might be earned.

Actors Equity (AEA) wants to change that. They want to mandate that most non-profit theatres pay minimum wage to actors, treat them as employees (with all the employee overhead), and have formal contracts with AEA that include compensation to the union for their services. This would increase that cost of theatres already operating on a slim margin, and put many out of business. Yes, a theatre may raise a lot of money. Much of that goes to rent, insurance, equipment rental, operating costs, and outreach to the community. It doesn’t go to salaries — no one is becoming rich on 99 seat theatre.

The actors want to change the current 99 seat plan, but not this way. They want to work with producers, other creatives, and equity to create a realistic plan that will work, and is likely tiered. A plan that will permit 99-seaters to grow and become equity houses; one that does not impose by fiat.

What’s troublesome is the union tactics. There is intense misreprentation going on. The union says a yes vote is one for a proposal that can be changed, but they have also said the yes is just on this proposal as written. Further, the union has indicated privately that if this passes, they intend to bring the minimum wage fight to New York. The actors are for change, but not this change, and are urging other actors to vote “no”.

Why do I care? I’m an audience member. I can’t vote. I don’t run a theater.

I do, however, buy tickets. I do, however, enjoy the wide variety of shows in Los Angeles. I do, however, enjoy the theatre on the edge that is created here. I do, however, enjoy being able to see both Equity and future Equity actors on stage. I do, however, enjoy being able to critique and provide constructive criticism to them to make them better. I might lose all of that if this passes.

If you are an audience member like me, let your actors know you support them. If they are AEA, educate them and encourage them to vote this proposal down. Write Equity and let them know you don’t approve of their tactics, and that if they continue their tactics, you will be perfectly willing to support, attend, and encourage non-Equity productions in Southern California. Let them know the only party that this action will hurt is AEA — they will lose public support, they will lose members, and people will learn that non-Equity actors can be just as talented as Equity actors. Let them know that Southern California audiences support those who make and act in our 99-seat houses.


California Highway Headlines for February 2015

userpic=roadgeekingIf you’re reading this post, one of two thoughts are going through your mind. You might be thinking, “Wait a minute‽ I thought this was a blog about theatre.” If that’s you, calm down. I talk about many things in the blog — not just theatre — but I’m going add something just for you at the end. Alternatively, you might be thinking “About damn time. This is a site about highways, and we’ve had precious little highway stuff.” To you, I would agree. A lot of that is due to the changing budgets — we’re seeing less funds for roads, and the nature of work funded today tends not to be the work that reaches the threshhold for the highway pages. February has been a quiet month. So let’s go through what few headlines I have, and then I want to alert you to an issue of interest to everyone — and I’ll connect both highways and theatres! I promise!

  • Caltrans Making Case To Implode Part Of Old Bay Bridge. Part of the old Bay Bridge may be brought down with explosives. Caltrans says the explosives would be used to remove a large concrete pillar from the old eastern span.
  • Richmond-San Rafael Bridge closer to getting new lane, bike path. An extra lane of traffic and a new bike path are a vote, and about three years, away from coming to an increasingly congested bay crossing — the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge. A committee of the Bay Area Toll Authority approved $4.65 million in funding Wednesday to complete the design of a new eastbound lane and a bike and pedestrian lane in both directions. The full board is expected to approve the plan when it meets Feb. 25.
  • Say Goodbye to Those Pretty Lights on the Bay Bridge . If you notice a pall cast over San Francisco next month, it’s because it will be literally darker here after the famous Bay Lights are turned off — for now. Known for its luminosity and picture-perfect profile, the brilliant display, which consists of 25,000 LED white lights running 1.8 miles across the western span of the Bay Bridge, was installed in 2013, making it the world’s largest LED light sculpture.
  • The Story of the Cahuenga Pass. The story of Cahuenga Pass is featured on the cover of this 1949 issue of California Highways.

I Support 99 Seat Theatre in Los AngelesTheatre and highways: a lovely pair. From the Road Theatre Company in North Hollywood to the Route 66 Theatre in Chicago; from classic stories about the road such as “The Grapes of Wrath” (which takes place along Route 66 and off Route 99) to more modern parodies such as “CHiP: The Musical” (which played the Falcon — itself near Route 134 — a few years ago). Here in Los Angeles there are loads of small theatres directly on or near streets that used to be state highways: From REP East, on former Route 126; the large cluster of theatres along Lankersheim Blvd (the former state route that became Route 170); the Odyssey Theatre complex along former Route 7 (what become I-405) in West LA; to the theatre district along Santa Monica Blvd (former Route 2 and US 66) in Hollywood. These are all 99 seat and under theatres, and they are theatres whose existence is threatened by a proposal from AEA. This proposal would require these theatres to pay their actors minimum wage for rehearsals and performances, raising their costs overnight at least 10 fold — or more, depending on the number of AEA actors. On the surface, the union is doing this to protect “the dignity of actors” (even though the actors in Los Angeles do not want it); underneath, the real reason may be buried in the small print: if the theatre treats the actor as employee and there is an AEA contract, the AEA gets paid its fees first (whereas it gets little now). The larger community — from actors to producers to stage managers to creatives to audiences are saying, collectively, “Change is needed, but not this change.” We want to rework how intimate theatre is done, but not with this heavy handed solution forced from non-Californians. Learn more about the controversy at the I Love 99 website, and follow their Facebook group and Twitter feed.  If you are an AEA member, vote “No” (and tell your friends). If you are not, spread the word.


#Pro99: Employees, Volunteers, and the Minimum Wage

Pro99 - Vote No Nowuserpic=fountain-penWhen the urge gets in ’em, actors just gotta act. I’m not an actor, but I am a blogger… and when the urge gets in me, I’ve got write a post*. This time the urge was triggered by two comments on Facebook on my last post: one said, “a business which cannot afford to pay its workers a decent wage doesn’t deserve to survive“; the other said “I actually heard from some folks this week making the argument that any kind of volunteer work should be illegal and require the payment of at least the minimum wage plus benefits.” Both of these are common arguments you might hear in response to the AEA proposal, but when you start thinking about them — really thinking about them — the problems surface and it become clear why this proposal must be opposed.

I’m an engineer and a logical thinker. So, in general, should people be able to volunteer their time? Why shouldn’t everyone be paid a decent wage for what they do? On the surface, that makes sense and seems ethical. But what about people who volunteer for your church or synagogue? Should the Sisterhood ladies be paid for setting up an Oneg? The Brotherhood for cooking at a barbeque? It is clear there are some organizations that should accept volunteers. It’s not just religious: consider other charities such as Doctors Without Borders. Their doctors are skilled — and require a certain skillset — and yet are often volunteers or are not paid what they would get on the market. Look at lawyers who volunteer their time for charities, or professional fundraisers who help charities. All of this volunteering is permitted — and in fact, encouraged by our tax code (remember, you can deduct charitable miles).

So, you say, to do this everyone in such an organization must be a volunteer. That’s not true. Consider your church or synagogue. They have paid clergy and paid staff as well as volunteers. Most charitable organizations have paid executive directors. You can have both paid staff and volunteers. So when should a volunteer become paid staff? That’s a great question — and I think the answer is fundamental. One might think the answer is hours: typically a volunteer is not full time. I would tend to think that volunteers should have a cap on the number of hours they may volunteer — but hours does not an employee make. There are many part-time employees. That’s why I’m discounting hours as the factor. I think the real time an employee become necessary is when you can not find a person with the appropriate skill willing to take on the job either unpaid or below market.  Looking at the theatre, there is clearly the law of supply and demand here. There are lots and lots of actors, and depending on the position and the role, you may be able to use a non-Equity volunteers to replace an Equity actor. However, if the role is unique, the answer might be different. Other creatives are not so plentiful, but even then you can often find volunteers willing to take on the task for the experience. Gee, that sounds like interning 🙂

Now you’re probably saying that this means any organization could get around the minimum wage. If you think that, you’re missing a clear distinction. All the organizations I’ve mentioned above are charitable — recognized by the IRS as a 501(c)(3) organization. Their intent is not to make profit; any surplus is to be returned to the community through good work. So lets consider the example of an unpaid intern. There have been recent rulings that unpaid interns in commercial businesses — be they engineering or film and television — are not acceptable.  Yet volunteers are acceptable in charities (and I don’t think I’ve seen a ruling on interns at charities, but they seem analogous to volunteers).

The real factor that should come into play on whether volunteering is permitted should be: is the concern FOR-PROFIT or NON-PROFIT. Yet is it precisely this concern that is ignored by the AEA proposal. The proposal should be that the only companies that could accept volunteer or underpaid actors should be NON-PROFIT theatres. Commercial theatre ventures — even if under 99 seats — should have to pay minimum wage. Yet the proposal, as I understand it, prohibits non-profit theatres from accepting volunteers. That’s wrong, and that should be the main reason to vote “no” and oppose it — it goes against the definition of what a non-profit is.

Once the proposal in this form is disposed of, a new motion should be made to bring in a proper plan. We’ve seen a number out there; I’ve noted the 99 to HAT proposal at Bitter Lemons earlier. The thought experiment behind this post has led to a few additional things:

  • First, the 99-to-HAT notion must be for non-profit theatres. What AEA is proposing may be reasonable for any intimate FOR-PROFITs out there — being FOR-PROFIT, they should have the ability to charge what they believe the market will bear, and have investors who will take the risk of that in exchange for the benefit of a profitable performance. NON-PROFIT and FOR-PROFIT are different beasts.
  • Second, if AEA is truly concerned about the actor, they should have contracts with any theatre — NON-PROFIT or FOR-PROFIT — employing any AEA actor. These contracts shouldn’t be punitive to volunteers, but must protect the working conditions of the actor — breaks, facilities, safety, and other factors. Remember that unions came into being not just to raise wages, but because of incidents like Triangle Shirtwaist, which had dangerous working conditions.

To move to a proposal that can be win – win – win, and that balances the needs of the creatives, producers, and audience, the current proposal must be rejected. Those who have the ability (i.e., the actors and the producers) should then move to create a new committee that has representatives of all stakeholders to establish fair and equitable rules for all. Hopefully, the audience stakeholder can be remembered in this as well.

*: I’m also a programmer, and there the creative urge is the same. When I see a solution to a problem, well, coders gotta code, designers gotta design, and architects gotta architect. I’ve been doing a lot of that the last few months as I’ve been turning my multiyear analysis of NIST SP 800-53 and CNSSI No 1253 into a tool for Subject Matter Experts …. and boy has exercising that muscle felt good. I truly understand the actors, even if I can’t act.


Climate Change is Coming! Let’s Stop It Before It Drowns Our Theatres!

I Support 99 Seat Theatre in Los Angelesuserpic=theatre_musicalsAbout two weeks ago, I wrote a post about a situation unfolding here in Los Angeles with our intimate theatres (under 100 seats). The post concerned a move by Actors Equity, the stage actor’s labor union, to replace the “99 seat plan” (itself the successor to what was called “Equity Waiver” theatre) with a new plan that many felt would destroy intimate theatre as it is in Southern California. This new proposal (described in this article, but seemingly unavailable to those not in Equity) would essentially destroy non-profit theatre companies: individual actors could mount showcase productions with no legal protections; membership groups (who could not add to their members) could pay below minimum wage, and any other 99 seat and under theatre that used Equity actors would be required to pay those actors minimum wage for a minimum of 3 hours for each performance, and for rehearsal time.

Now, on the surface of this, you’re probably going — actors are people too (despite what some folks have said in the past). They deserve to be paid at least minimum wage, and to be able to make a living from the theatre. In an ideal world (cue the chirping birds and shining sun), I’d agree with you. Even in a slightly imperfect world — perhaps New York — this might work. Such a world understands and supports live theatre, and is willing to pay ticket prices that permit payment of such wages. Actors in such an imperfect world would not have other lucrative acting opportunities available to them that might make up for poor live theatre pay.

However — and this is the problem in Los Angeles — Los Angeles is far far from being a perfect world. Just ask anyone from San Francisco (hear that, Mr. Roadshow — pick on us for saying “the 405”, will ya??). In Los Angeles, there are many opportunities for actors to make reasonable money acting — there is television and film work, which comes up on short notice and pays well. What LA doesn’t provide is easy — and inexpensive — opportunties to practice the craft. Sure, you can pay for classes … or you can get paid (even if it is just gas and bus fare) to practice on stage as part of a show. Such practice has the side benefit of getting you seen by others in the industry, and permits networking that gets you those lucrative jobs.

I should note that I’m not talking from experience. I’m not an actor. I could never be an actor — I can’t inhabit a role. I’m not a director or producer or other creative. I’m a logically thinking engineer who attends a lot of theatre, and who has been reading what the actors and others have been saying about this proposal. I’m a blogger that some consider a reviewer (I hesitate to use the “critic” term); I attend lots and lots of threatre. In other words, I’m a professional audience. I’ve been trying, in my little way, to capture the audience point of view. Here’s my perspective.

Back in January 2014, I saw an excellent production of Sex and Education at the Colony Theatre. If you aren’t familiar with that show, it concerns an English teacher giving her last test before a well-earned retirement. She catches the star football player, who has already been offered a football scholarship, passing a note to a cheerleader to get her to sleep with him. The note is riddled with grammatical problems, and she refuses to pass him until he rewrites the note as a proper persuasive essay. In doing so, he learns not to think about what he wants to get out of the arrangement; he has to convince the cheerleader why it is to her benefit to sleep with him. This is a very important lesson.

So in this discussion, it is pointless to talk about what the actors want, or even what the producers want (and no one cares what the audience wants). What is important is what Equity wants, and what Equity wants is to protect the financial health of its members. Get that: its members. It doesn’t care about non-union people. It doesn’t care about the health of theatres. It doesn’t care about ticket prices. It wants Equity members to be paid minimum wage — the demand of other unions — and to be able to sanction employers (read “producers”) who hire Equity actors and fail to pay them that.

Pure and simple, the plan they propose will not do that. Los Angeles is a market with three types of theatre goers: those that only know of the “big” theatres that book tours; those that attend any and all theatre in Los Angeles; and those that are friends of actors that attend for free. The big musical tour crew won’t care about this proposal — they don’t even care if they see a non-Equity tour (I’m looking at you, Pantages). The rest of the folks rarely pay full price — they quest for the discount ticket. They will not pay what is required to permit non-profits to pay minimum page. A few non-profits might survive with equity actors, but the rest will not. They will either close — or more likely — employ non-union actors or actors working under assumed names (no sanction for the theatre there). That will hurt, not help, the union.

Everyone seems to agree that the current 99-seat plan is broken. But AEA’s proposal is not the answer. On Facebook, the AEA conciliators suggest voting for the plan to initiate the change — but I’ve seen no guarantees that the plan will change if voted in. Certainly, it is not in AEA’s interest to change it. I’ve seen some excellent proposals that increase actor renumeration based on the budget and size of the theatre. These can only be considered if this AEA proposal is voted down (and even that might not stop it, as the vote is only advisory).

Pro99 - Vote No NowI’m not an AEA member. I can’t vote. If you are an AEA member, I urge you to vote the proposal down.  I urge you, in membership meetings, to use Roberts Rules to your advantage, and introduce motions to consider a different proposal and reject this one. See if you can find a win-win, not the current proposed lose-lose.

Everyone can learn more about this. The LA 99 Theatre Community has posted a large number of articles on the subject. There have been numerous position statements on the subject, all of which Colin over at Bitter Lemons has collected. [ETA: And the I Love 99 folks have created a new Facebook community you should like.] Read learn.

But as I’ve said: I’m an audience member. What can I do? We don’t want to take actions that will hurt our actors or our theatres. I think the answer is to be there and to support. We can let our theatres know we support them. We can let them know of the economic impact we provide to the community at large — not just the tickets we buy, but the restaurants we support. This will encourage public officials to come out on the side of the 99 seat theatres. We can encourage actors we know to vote against the plan. We may also have services and skills that we can provide to the pro-99 community. We may not be able to act, but we know how to work computers, to build mailing lists, to analyze data. Audiences consist of not only unpaid actors, but lawyers, labor specialists, engineers, and problem solvers. We can bring our expertise to the fore to help.

Lastly, we can spread the word. Those of you on Twitter and other services supporting hashtags, use the tags #pro99 #LAthtr #ILove99. Don’t be passive. Speak up and keep LA’s intimate theatre community vibrant. Oh, and go see a show or two while you’re at it!