Counterpoint to a Datapoint

point counterpoint lamannaUnder the title “There is Pro99 Data and Then There Are the Facts,” Los Angeles playwright, producer, and stage manager Armina LaManna has published a rebuttal in The Dramatist  to Vanessa Stewart’s earlier article there (a version of which first appeared in Footlights). You may recall that Stewart, aided by Monica Greene, took upon herself the daunting task of capturing the life of any intimate theater show after it closed its original run. Stewart’s article discussed some general observations based on this data.

In today’s rapidly paced world, printed material may lag actual events so it’s possible LaManna has had additional thoughts on the situation since the recent LA Stage Alliance town hall meeting in Los Angeles (where she participated as a panelist). Nevertheless, a few general arguments in LaManna’s piece require examination.

Stewart has claimed her database is an evolving document and she, in fact, has already updated it once. She has made public her desire to take input from the community. Unlike Equity, she has released all the data she has and in raw form. All of these actions represent how good science is done and is quite typical for professionals who look at data.

In response, LaManna cites a few data entries as not accurate. I’ve checked the veracity of her claims.  For example, Stewart’s database currently has the cast size of Theatre @Boston Court’s Everything You Touch  at 8 and the number of actors that went to contract as zero.  To this, LaManna writes:

Only two of the eight cast members from LA’s production of Everything You Touch at Theatre @Boston Court continued to be on contract in NY at the Cherry Lane Theater.

LaManna’s desired refinement only makes Stewart’s case even stronger.  LaManna’s other claims about specific entries similarly do not hold up.  Perhaps LaManna submitted her piece to The Dramatist  before Stewart’s last database update in late June.  Or, perhaps, LaManna did not double-check Stewart’s database before sending her piece out.*

But this is all besides the point.  For while LaManna has quibbles with entries in the database (which can simply be part of the next update), she does not begin to factually rebut the general statistical picture Stewart draws from her data.

Moreover, several other of LaManna’s counterpoints are immediately questionable. For example, she makes the ad hoc – and unproven – implied assumption that Deaf Wests’ Spring Awakening  was going to Broadway from the start since there was “a Broadway producer (Ken Davenport) behind it from the get-go.” In mathematics, this type of error is called “assuming the conclusion.”**

LaManna also makes the broad claim (though she specifically identifies Sacred Fools’ Stoneface) that 99-seat theater creates no new contract opportunities to perform in larger (contract) theaters because the larger theaters produce shows anyway. This is an odd viewpoint because it implies a zero-sum game of productions in the country – which is obviously not the case. Not all theaters are filled at all times. Indeed Spring Awakening  was able to move to Broadway by specifically taking advantage of the fact that the Brooks Atkinson Theater was dark.

And, in Los Angeles, the Colony Theatre is currently dark. I assume it would be helpful when staging a show there to already have terrific word-of-mouth about a show’s success – generated by a previous 99-seat theater run. This is exactly what happened when El Grande Circus de Coca-Cola  moved from the Skylight Theatre to the Colony last year. This larger theater picked up a show – from a 99-seat theater – it previously didn’t have on its schedule.

Furthermore, LaManna’s argument does not consider to whom   the created contract opportunities will go. Attaching oneself to a successful 99-seat show – indeed, to become a reason for the success of a show – makes it much easier, and more probable, for an individual actor to move to a larger theater with a show rather than trying to make that move as just another actor in a general casting call. For example, I don’t think anyone would argue that a certain large group of young Los Angeles actors would have performed on Broadway so early in their careers without Spring Awakening.

So, if we consider the 99-seat production is to actors what the spec script is to writers, it makes perfect sense that 99-seat theater, any  99-seat theater, represents a tremendous opportunity to increase the likelihood of actor career boosting.

LaManna also mishandles data in her piece, specifically Equity’s numbers used to claim that “small markets” have better paying job opportunities than Los Angeles. Here, Equity’s data must first be “normalized” (what professional scientists call it) or “scaled” (what laypeople call it). The easiest way to understand scaling is to think about salary and the cost of living. Can you afford to buy a home on a $100,000 yearly salary? Before answering, most people instinctively first ask “Where is the home?” You could probably buy an estate in a rural town in Nebraska while you would be stuck with a studio in New York City. You have to scale your data based on the cost of living for each city before you can make city-to-city comparisons.

Similarly, I demonstrated that once Equity’s data was scaled by the population of actors in each city, Los Angeles already has plenty of room for paid work. Why there is so much less stage work (of any kind, volunteered or paid) in Los Angeles can be debated. What is clear from properly scaling the data to make city-to-city comparisons is that the volunteerism in L.A. has by no means hindered paid work.

LaManna’s broad assertion that theater in L.A. should be able to operate like theater in Philadelphia is similarly flawed. As I wrote 18 months ago, this is a false equivalence argument, which is a fancy East Coast prep school way of saying “don’t compare apples to oranges.” An example is helpful:

  1. Polar Bears are indigenous to Earth.
  2. Earth is a planet.
  3. Mars is a planet.
  4. Therefore, Polar Bears are indigenous to Mars.

Seems ridiculous, right? Here’s another one:

  1. This Equity plan works in Philadelphia.
  2. Philadelphia is a city in the United States.
  3. Los Angeles is a city in the United States.
  4. Therefore, this Equity plan works in Los Angeles.

It is the particular  ecosystem of Earth that allow polar bears to be indigenous. Specific fauna do not live on just anything named “a planet.”

Similarly, specific plans do not work in just anything named “a city.” One cannot make city-to-city comparisons without considering local culture and local specifics. A singular artistic ecosystem (number of actors, availability of theaters, etc.) makes Los Angeles distinct from other cities in the United States (just as New York and Chicago are). Expecting a particular artistic ecosystem that exists in one city, Philadelphia, to exist in Los Angeles is as logically flawed as expecting the polar bear’s ecosystem on Earth to exist on Mars.

Finally, consistent with her goal of keeping everything factual, LaManna needs to apply the same level of investigation to Equity’s arguments as well.  I am unaware, however, of any discussion by LaManna concerning Equity’s provable mishandling of numbers in their interpretation of their survey or election results. Just this past week, I demonstrated that Equity’s new website has (among other things) grade school errors in arithmetic. Worse yet, the Executive Director of the Union has contradicted fundamental policy described on the Union’s website. If I want to present myself as a professional actor, I’d certainly want the union representing me to look professional as well.

My remarks are not meant to represent a detailed critique of LaManna’s piece but merely to demonstrate the general lack of precision in her discussion. To make a strong claim that someone isn’t being factual requires far more than a few quibbles and talking point rhetoric. LaManna claims she has dug into Stewart’s database but as a professional scientist with extensive training and experience in how to handle and interpret data, I see little evidence for that claim. There is much more work ahead in data gathering, data processing, and data presentation before a credible assertion can be made that LaManna has a factual grounding that others do not.

Indeed, under scrutiny, the grounded factual arguments have always seemed to be with the Pro99 movement.  Perhaps that is why Equity and those who support its position have been reluctant to deal with the Pro99 numbers directly.

*Update August 31, 2016:  In further reviewing Armina LaManna’s The Dramatist  piece, it is clearly apparent she wrote the article after July 14, 2016 since she referenced an Equity email from that date.  It is therefore clear that LaManna’s work was sloppy and ill-advised because she neglected to fact check before sending the op-ed to The Dramatist.  Had LaManna worked with care, she would have fact checked against the updated database and discovered the myriad of errors in her piece.

It is also obvious that The Dramatist  didn’t fact check the piece before publication either. By the time they received LaManna’s piece, the June update to the database had been available on the Internet for weeks.  The editors would have been able to do the same analysis as I described in this column and come to similar conclusions.

With literally thousands of Los Angeles artists affected by the results of this discussion, the type of factual carelessness exhibited by LaManna and propagated in a prestigious professional magazine should not be tolerated.  It should also be noted that Equity used supportive quotes from LaManna during its referendum campaign despite LaManna complaining about an experience she had as a director and not as an actor or stage manager (see Point #2).

**Update September 1, 2016:   In the comment section below, Phil Allen discusses the budget and development of Spring Awakening.  And makes special mention that, to his knowledge, Broadway was not discussed.  This eyewitness account puts an end to LaManna’s pure speculation.

About Kevin Delin

monsterid
Dr. Kevin Delin earned a PhD in physics from MIT, where he also studied writing under A.R. Gurney and Frank Conroy, and has patented technology at NASA. His adventures include inventing the future with venture capitalists in Silicon Valley and solving national security issues with generals inside the Pentagon. Unable to convince backers to turn his textbook, Foundations of Applied Superconductivity, into the Broadway spectacular it merits, Kevin found other ways to mischief in the entertainment industry. In addition to his own writing, he professionally advises storytellers wanting to ground their work in science. He is a proud member of the Antaeus Playwrights Laboratory and his pieces on science, art, and society have bylines in American Theatre, LA Weekly, Script Magazine, Footlights, and Stage Raw. You can follow him on Twitter @kdelin and read him at kevindelin.com.

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3 comments

  1. Thank you for your analysis Kevin. The shows she mentions: “Fox Cried”, “They Don’t Talk Back”, and “Precious Piglet and Her Pals” haven’t been on my database in months. I’d also like to add that Stoneface enabled three actors to join AEA after we moved to Pasadena Playhouse. I regret that the database wasn’t more scrutinized before this was published in my Guild’s magazine. Like you, I will assume that she was working off the database from June. Thank you for getting out the correct information. I’ve always believed that in order to create a workable plan for actors and theaters, we must first understand how our community works.

    • monsterid

      I’ve just discovered that Armina had access to the updated database before sending in her op-ed. As I outline in an update above, her referencing an Equity email from July 14 indicates the timeline quite clearly. It’s obvious she did not perform typical due diligence and fact check her piece before submission. The magazine editors should also have caught this as well.

  2. I worked on the Deaf West Spring Awakening in its first incarnation at Inner City Arts. There was no discussion of Broadway transfers at any point while I was present, and I was in the room with the creative team every day from the start of tech until opening.

    Producing that much show, with resources that were that scarce, was an all encompassing task. We weren’t sure it was going to work AT ALL. Because the cast and everyone else was so amazing, a miracle happened.

    All of us were amazed at what we did, and we will all be forever grateful for the experience. To insinuate that it was calculated to be a commercial production in its 99 seat version is absurd.

    Deaf West is s brilliant company with an amazing track record for moving shows up. But those shows have always been incredibly long, slow journeys. I worked on both Big River and Pippin at the Taper with Deaf West, and there were New York producers there too. One show went on, one did not.

    But both shows at the Taper were just that. Shows at the Taper.

    Smart NYC producers stalk great talent. Deaf West is that kind of talent. We all know that. So the fact that a New York producer was looking in at Spring Awakening isn’t shocking.

    But I would be happy to show you the sound budgets. Trust me, no one was throwing extra money at ANYTHING. A shoestring would have been a huge step up from our budget.

    And honestly that is the miracle of 99 seat theatre. A “hey let’s see if there might be something to this” production literally exploded off the stage into a juggernaut.

    If there actually HAD been Broadway money in the 99 seat Spring Awakening it wouldn’t have been the same show. The genius of what Michael Arden and the company did was based largely on having to find brilliant solutions to staging problems we couldn’t solve by spending money.

    In any other environment that show would never have been the same.

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