Coming of Age

For those that want to know how life changes as you gain seniority, let me offer this perspective. Mostly it doesn’t. But what does happen is you, or me in this case, pause for reflection about what has changed around me. As my focus is pretty much aimed on theatre, I thought it time to reflect how theatre has changed in LA, since my early involvement back in 1982.

I qualify for this task, as the editor of FootLights. And as FootLights is a messenger and observer of theatre as an art form, I can unequivocally say that intimate theatre in Los Angeles has experienced some amazing changes.

Back around 1983 or so (memory can get a bit cloudy) I was cast in a show called “Is Nudity Required”. Okay, pretty much anybody that could breathe was at some point cast in that show and it ran for years. The theatre was a tiny house on Ventura Boulevard. The rooms were moldy, the roof leaked (a lot) there was one so-called dressing room about 5’x5’ for a cast of 20. If there were lights, theywere cheap reflectors. We the actors made nothing.

I proceeded on with acting, got a few small parts in film, a couple of appearances on TV, hated both but loved doing theatre. So I joined what I presumed to be one of the few companies at that time, The Knightsbridge Theatre in Pasadena. One small stage in the basement, 99 seats, very little wing space, but it had a dressing room. One dressing room, but it could fit a lot of people. We worked three shows a week in rep, and I was pretty much involved with most of them for a number of years. I loved every minute of it. As we grew and took on a second stage, we had two locations, running 5 shows in rep.

In the meantime, I learned there were a few other theatres in town – The Colony, The Matrix, The Victory. I didn’t get to see their shows, because as you can image, my schedule was a little tight. When I got off that merry-go-round, it was around 2004. I looked around, did a few shows with independent producers who invested very little in costumes, or sets, or lights, or anything that brought up production values.I was sorely disappointed, because during my tenure with The Knightsbridge, I knew a more sellable product was possible, and that it could bring the hope of increasing sales.

Around that time, I realized there was actually a lot of intimate theatre running in LA and what was needed was a cohesive messenger to let the public know. Hence, Footlights.But what I discovered is that same energy that we had invested in my time in Pasadena was being replicated – well replicated – by companies all over town.

At that time, many stages were still pretty bare. Actors often provided their own sense of costume, but lighting got better, sound got better, sets began to look more than representational, the skill level of all the artists involved got better. Now ten years later, we have a robust community of intimate theatre where many of the early challenges have been addressed.

In the past month or so, I’ve had the privilege of seeing over a dozen shows. What was really surprising to me, is that while not all of them were great, (some were) butthey were good, and most were very good. While production values varied, from exceptional to okay, (“okay” being better than most in 2004) all were in comfortable environments with lobbies, and restrooms, and air-conditioning.

Intimate theatre in LA has grown up.Producers are spending money on productions. My expectations (which are pretty high) have been mostly met, and, without exception, the shows have been good. Well directed, well acted, well produced, and in most cases, with pretty good attendance.

So as a report card, I would give our community a solid B+, and in a couple of cases even better. Now, it comes to your turn. Yes, you, the theatre audience. It’s time to pony up. The average production on LA now costs over $25,000. The producers have done everything they can to make your experience worthwhile. What they have not been able to do is to increase their budgets sufficiently due to lack of ticket revenue, to cover the cost of the actors. Most of the actors in these productions make somewhere between $11-$25 a performance.It’s a stipend, not a wage. There are no benefits, no pension, no sick pay. That’s it.

How is that your problem? Well, actors and other artists are understandably upset, and they are in the midst of formulating their own plan to solve the problem. It will come down to you. If we don’t start paying the asking price for a ticket, (which will then help in paying the artists a little bit more) then we may and probably will see a regression in our theatre experience.

Producers could eventually be forced to minimize the production values, or engage non-Equity actors. If we on the other hand, stop looking for discounts, stop asking for comps, and continue to go to shows, we will help improve the financial condition of theatre.

If we love theatre, if we want it to survive, we have to do our part. This is a critical point in the life cycle of LA Theatre. Support it, not just by going, but by paying a fair price for your ticket. It’s worth it.

About Peter Finlayson

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Peter Finlayson is the Founder, Publisher and Editor-in-chief of FootLights magazine and footlight.click. While working on a prelaw program at the University of Michigan, he happily got involved with the theatre program. Much to his mother’s chagrin, law school never happened, but in a career spanning more than 4 decades, Peter has performed, directed or designed more than 150 productions. In his spare time, he is working on a new play. You can follow him on Twitter @Thtrdog .

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