While Los Angeles is world renowned as the Entertainment Capital of the World, most consider that “Entertainment” as film, television and music. But live theatre is a part of that “Entertainment Capital” title. Los Angeles produces more theatre on a regular basis than anywhere else in the world. Now for us, that’s not a big surprise, but to the world it’s astounding. Theatre in LA?
Since it’s early history, the film industry has brought stage performers to LA. And because stage performers want to be on stage, and because any actor who does both film and stage will tell you stage is by far their preference, Actors began forming theatre companies and building theatre edifices so as to put up their work. Some theatres, like the El Centro Theatre originally built by Charlie Chaplin, are still in existence. (and Rumor has it that the El Centro will again soon be occupied and open.)
But there’s a problem. In fact, it’s been a problem virtually from the beginning. As a general rule, most theatre productions cost more to produce then they makes. For those like Charlie Chaplin, that was not a huge issue. He wanted to put up shows for the art, not for the money. There was a common willingness amongst artists to waive their fees, so that they could participate in the art form they so deeply loved.
It’s important to understand that many of these early artists were also involved in the unionization of actors, both on stage and screen. So an issue became apparent –Actors were working but not getting paid. A waiver plan was drawn up between those making theatre and Actor’s Equity Association (AEA).
By the time this plan got to the 70’s, this waiver plan proved to have some significant problems. Much of it was on working conditions and the abuse of the waiver for shows that would run indefinitely, earning some producers a living while paying nothing to actors. Simultaneously, new actors coming into LA discovered, or at least believed that if they could get involved in these shows, it would offer then the break they needed to get work in film and TV. So a proliferation of intimate theatre began.
AEA decided at that point enough was enough, and by edict tried to eliminate the waiver code. And much like today, AEA discovered that their members were not in line with that idea. Much internal wrangling occurred. So new codes were drawn up, agreements reluctantly made which set certain standards and set into motion a long process of AEA resentment against LA intimate theatre. Think of it, a union that was being told by it’s members what it wanted. Unthinkable right?
This is all background to bring us to today. One of the great challenges faced by the theatre makers in LA, and largely not addressed, was that there was a lack of cohesion, in the same sense as Broadway is a cohesive point for theatre in Manhattan. There exists this notion that when one goes to New York, one should go see something on Broadway. Even to people that don’t normally go to theatre, it’s sort of like visiting the Statue of Liberty. It took a profound effort by many good marketers to create that profound identifying linkage. It required years of effort, and most importantly, significant contribution both financially and artistically from those that produce on Broadway. It meant that the Broadway Producers League would focus on Broadway as the selling point, and individual producers would contribute to that effort.
Because of many factors: geographic spread, creating theatre being a passion more than a living, budget constraints and low audience turnout, Los Angeles has to date not invested all of their focus to that issue. Creating shows and having a loose confederacy of knowing others was sufficient. All three hundred plus companies in LA concentrated their interest at producing the best work they could, and hoping that audiences would find them.
As AEA has once again gone on the attack, trying to infuse changes that could prove devastating to our culture, theatre companies are finally speaking to each other. More than the semi-annual get-togethers, but talking about policy, production values, equitable compensation for artists, marketing, and how to build a sustainable future. Because the theatre community as a whole is under attack, theatre participants, from writers to actors, producers to designers, and everyone in-between is reaching out to others, learning what we all need to know together to grow.
So, thank you AEA for doing what we could not do for ourselves, bring our community to accept that we are all in this art together. We now have more artistic resources, we have better lines of communication, and we have a common goal. You have accomplished a lot for an organization that wants to essentially shut us down.