The Cost of Theatre

As you may be well aware, there is a battle raging as to what the landscape of LA theatre will look like in coming days. At stake is the ability of seasoned actors that are members of Actors Equity Association (AEA) to be able to engage in their art without a contract. For more than 30 years, AEA members have been willing to provide their service for the mutual benefit of self, producers and most importantly, you the audience.

If you’ve been going to intimate theatre for all that time, there’s certainly been some drastic changes.  We have seen huge improvements in production values. We have seen actors move from showcase mentality to sincere profound engagement. We have moved from seeing long-in-the-tooth and short of insight plays to a vast range–  new experimental works to elaborate fully conceived and executed classics.

This evolution has not come cheap. It began when a group of actors that sued their own union for the right to work without contract. That action resulted in a negotiated settlement agreement that has been a thorn in the side of AEA ever since it was written. How did that impact those that sued?  They have mostly stayed in the business. They have spent the intervening years pursuing their artistic dreams and in some cases have achieved dreams far beyond early expectations. For others, they have stayed the course and continue to work in intimate theatre.

Actors too have paid a price. Here it is, thirty years later, and an entire generation of actors and artists have created tens of thousands of plays that have been enjoyed by countless audiences and in that entire time the pay rate has remained a mere stipend, in most cases barely enough to cover the cost of gas.

The loss to actors, if we agree with AEA calculations, for 2014 is approximately $4 million collectively. This is based upon the following factors.

390 99-seat plan shows,

4 weeks rehearsal

6 weeks performance

4 AEA actors per show

$9/hr at 30 hr weeks.

If the minimum wage goes to $15/hr and with added employment costs, the figure becomes more like $10 million per annum.

But rather than pressing for that money, what actors have done is emerge as Artist/entrepreneur/producer. Actors in effect have become part of the production investment. When shows move on, or go to larger houses, so often do the actors.

The higher production values, the higher rent, the general steep rise in production costs have in large part been borne by producers willing to take a risk, and actors that feel their time investment in a show will pay off in some significant way. An increase in audience attendance has helped offset some of the production costs, but has done nothing to improve the plight of actors.

So as with any production, we have to go to the final element of the equation, the audience. The sad part is, that we probably pay less for theatre now then we did 30 years ago. There are more discounts then ever, there are more requests for comps then ever, and because those requests are made to the hopes and dreams of producers and actors, plays are now a very cheap form of entertainment in LA.

Actors are once again fighting with their union so they may continue to bring us more theatre, to infuse the LA zeitgeist with theatre, and they continue to offer their work for a price far below their value.  It is time for us to act,it is time for audiences to invest, not just their time, but also their dollars. Pay the asking price of the tickets. Or offer to pay what you can, but don’t just go for the discount because it’s there. Theatre is the heart and soul of any culture, it’s worthy of investment.


About Peter Finlayson

Peter Finlayson is the Founder, Publisher and Editor-in-chief of FootLights magazine and 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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