Often in this space we talk about theatre as a community, and as a part of a community. But actually, theatre is more. In a very real and substantive way it is a part of the foundation of community and an integral block of our culture. What I mean is that there is such a deep intertwining of values, history and economics, that the mere presence of a theatre not only impacts the residents of a neighborhood on an entertainment level, but the theatre becomes one of the anchors for local economics.
Los Angeles is in many ways a model of this impact. As a city, LA is vast and has many community subsets. Many do not realize that Hollywood, North Hollywood, Silverlake and Echo Park (to name just a few) are not actually cities, they are self defined districts. There may be some civil recognition of these districts, but they are all part of the City of Los Angeles. Each of these districts has and continues to experience a vacillation of economic prosperity and security.
There was a time in the not so distant past when North Hollywood was perceived as a destination for illicit activity. Then, because the social fabric was so uninviting, commercial rental space became available at below market value. Who are the first to take advantage of that rock bottom rents? Small upstart theatre companies, people who had more vision than money. They were willing to sacrifice the creature comforts for an opportunity to present art, to express their concerns in a fashion as old as humanity – story telling. Today there are more than 20 small theatres in North Hollywood, many of them continue to struggle, but some have grown into formidable institutions that have taken projects on to national prominence.
North Hollywood is no longer seen as a den of inequity, it is seen as a cultural center, and as a result, in the immediate area of Lankershim and Magnolia, there is plethora of not just theatres, but restaurants, galleries, clubs, more than ever before. In a recent study offered by the City of Los Angeles, it was reported that intimate theatre in the Hollywood Area was responsible for bringing in over $9 million dollars in related revenue. In every area where a theatre has emerged, the immediate impact is that small business’ see the opportunity to cultivate clients and build in as close a proximity to these theatres as possible.
This is substantial community impact. In virtually every corner of the city there are little pockets of theatres, and as soon as these theatre are even remotely known, the businesses around them begin to prosper. The sad part is that this does not currently work as a two way street. Perhaps the most obvious example of that is the significant decline in the number of theatres on Theater Row in Hollywood. As business begins to prosper, rents go up, and low income theatres are forced out.
The impact goes beyond just restaurants and clubs, the growth of theatre is accompanied by the growth of the cottage industry that supports and supplies theatres. Costumers, designers, prop houses, set shops, the list goes on. These are businesses that have discovered a way to survive and prosper by being a part of the theatre community. These are artists that not only support themselves, but employ others and offer a profound value to the community.
However, the entire experience described here is the natural evolution of any industry in a community. And just as the founders of businesses are generally the last to be paid initially, so to are the creators of theatre. It takes time for the economic balance to flow back at them. And now, we are in the midst of a very dangerous and destructive moment.
Artists, specifically actors understand that they are not the first in line to get paid. They value the opportunity and the hope that their efforts will pay off tomorrow. Because of that spirit of generosity, members of Actors Equity Association (AEA) and those that are not so aligned, have formed a co-operative opportunity, that we know as intimate theatre. It has been a long effort in LA, which goes back in some cases as far back as the 1940’s, but the dream and the consequences of those dreams have not floundered.
AEA on the other hand is working very hard to dismantle the process. Apparently unaware that it is in fact it’s own members that produce theatre, AEA is now insisting that if you are a union actor, your participation in this noble venture be curtailed. In all fairness they are not saying you can’t participate, they are just insisting that their members get paid at least minimum wage. And while on the surface, that certainly sounds like a reasonable proposal, the reality is that to implement that change could cost as much as $10 million per year to sustain the current level of production. That would be an average increase to the bottom line for current companies, somewhere in the neighborhood of $50,000 per year. For many, that more than doubles their current annual budgets.
Because LA is so vast, so diverse and so distinct, every opportunity we have to build our cultural perspective, and to encourage the engine of artistic entrepreneurship, must allow for the full course of the evolutionary process. We have to give the theatre and the communities in which they are engaged enough time to find a way for the theatres, hence the artists that run them, to prosper. To interfere and impose unreasonable terms at this juncture not only endangers the theatres, but also the communities where they live.
Keep an eye out for events coming up regarding this impact. In October, there’s a festival celebrating the artists of theatre and the urgencies that they are now facing. FootLights online (footlights.click), our social media channels, and in our Footlights Passport newsletters will be providing more information as it becomes available.
Remember, it is our responsibility to not just support our culture, but to nurture it and to help it thrive. Without theatre, we have empty streets, forlorn and weary of daily struggle. With theatre we have community and we have hope.