After The Battle

devasted cityLast December, Actors’ Equity Association (AEA) imposed a new plan regarding the use of its members for productions in intimate theatres in Los Angeles County. A two-year battle between AEA and its members, as well as most of the producers of small theatre, was brought to at least a temporary conclusion with the dismissal of a lawsuit brought by AEA members against the union. Even though the dismissal was without prejudice, implying that there were additional avenues that could be pursued, to date the battlefield has been relatively quiet.

There are several reasons for this calm, not the least being that the warriors on the Plaintiff’s side are battle weary, but additionally, the foretold doom of intimate theatre disappearing from the LA Theatre Scene has not come to pass. While there has definitely been an impact on many of our small theatres, most have found a way to persevere and continue to produce.

There is still deep concern that AEA will continue to push their agenda and that companies that are currently protected may still come under attack.  But for many it’s back to business as usual, for now.

This fact may well be the Achilles heel of LA Theatre. While theatre is a collaborative art, and requires a large community of participants to be successful, it is an art form. And art by its very nature is narcissistic. That’s not a condemnation, it’s an observation. Individuals believing they have a vision worthy of expression attack their subject matter with the belief that their unique perspective will have an impact on the society in total.

This is the very definition of the artistic process, and it is an anathema to the concept of community expansion or business development.  There need be no greater argument for the dichotomy of this situation than the fact that there has been a thriving theatre community in Los Angeles for decades, and yet it is so profoundly unknown that many people walk by small theatre unaware that there is a theatre near them.

The primary beneficiaries of theatre in Los Angeles are theatre makers. Even profoundly successful companies such as The Fountain, Circle X, Rogue Machine, Antaeus and Pacific Resident Theatre struggle with audience building and financial stability. And let’s not think they are alone. There are dozens of deserving companies that produce amazing work on a regular basis. The problem is that there is no community wide theatre business plan to assure that the efforts of these theatres become public-at-large knowledge.

There have been numerous attempts made to organize theatres into some common-goal efforts, but because most of the participants are artists, getting past the ME to the WE is neigh on impossible. Every effort to date has been brought to a near screeching halt by concerns that have little or nothing to do with marketing. And for the ultimate success of theatre in LA, the ability to produce and support the artists, audiences must be built.

Until or unless going to intimate theatre is considered both a common local diversion and a draw for the millions of visitors to Los Angeles annually, can there be hope of stability for some of the hundreds of theatres that struggle to make ends meet daily.

AEA has a mission, and that is to assure that as many of its members as possible can earn a living as actors and stage managers. It’s a worthy purpose.  AEA also sees the preponderance of actors in intimate theatre barely make gas money.  Actors just want to act.  It’s part of the dream machine — put in the time and effort and the career will grow.  LA Producers are not the money grubbing villains as accused by a few, they are pragmatic artists dabbling in business, but still promarily artists.

These three factions, AEA, Producers and Actors, must sit down and actually hear the needs and wants of the others. When that occurs, a productive dialogue may occur. The common need for all is more awareness and larger audiences. That would produce the money that that would seed the business process. Then, an organization must be formed that has no other interest than to publicize the merits and benefits of Intimate theatre.  City involvement at least through the auspices of the Tourism Board should definitely be a part of the equation.

And finally, it’s time for those that think that the business of theatre can be handled by the artists to admit failure. The failure is systemic and deep. So deep in fact that for nearly forty years, an advocacy group has been in place to do exactly what is suggested here. The Los Angeles Stage Alliance raises untold funds, and over time has raised millions of dollars, and their impact on marketing of LA Theatre has been less than negligible, it’s been nil.

If the LA Stage Alliance cannot affect influence on marketing of theatre, than its next goal should be building a team of concerned community members who can actually have some impact.  But historically and sadly even to the current new administration, team building is not a part of the vision. In fact, again an artist, Steven Leigh Morris, a well know theatre critic and author has been charged with the task of resuscitating the limping organization. Now in his second year of that effort, there is little evidence suggesting anything other than a personal commitment to change.

Theatre is about community, it’s about comment, it’s about observation, it’s about impact. But right now, LA theatre is all about the artist, and until the focus becomes THEATRE as a viable commodity, the struggle and anguish already built into the arts will just be magnified. The solution is not in the strength of the individual artist, it is in the power of the art form. If we make that a focus of our efforts, audiences will take care of the rest.

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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