Footlights originally published this letter from actress and producer Vanessa Stewart on March 25, 2016. Vanessa has since updated her database making it even more accurate and a more valuable tool for the theater community. She explains her update in an addendum which follows her original letter below:
I just spent about a year of researching 99-Seat productions that moved to contracts. And here’s what I found (with help from the Los Angeles Theater Community):
- At least 127 productions that began in 99-Seat theaters graduated to a level where the actors received Equity contracts.
- 917 Equity contracts were generated from these shows.
And since the year 2000, exactly 100 of these shows have moved. That’s an average of more than 6 shows moving to contract per year! As our reputation has grown, our community seems to have picked up some steam.
In a recent study, I found the average cast size in a LORT house stood at around 4 parts per show. But under the 99-Seat Plan, there is far more artistic flexibility in incubating new works. When our shows move on, there are on average 7 roles for actors – nearly twice the average LORT cast size.
Another assumption commonly heard is that the majority of actors that originated those roles did not move on with the show. This assertion felt wrong to me, as it hasn’t been my experience. So after lots more research over the last couple of weeks, I uncovered a beautiful fact. Of the shows I was able to track down (90% of the list), a total of 605 originating actors moved on with the show they helped create. This represents 2/3 of the total contracts given, a clear majority. In LA, we sometimes get the feeling that our friends in New York somehow think our work isn’t worthy. However:
- 53 of our shows went straight from the 99 seat community to a contract in New York
- 7 of these became Broadway shows.
It is true. The 99-Seat Plan creates jobs. More than that, it creates careers.
Instead of spending money on doing much needed research to build a workable plan, my union is now spending money to defend itself from an outraged community that feels that it has been disregarded and misunderstood. I realized that our union needed to understand the cold hard facts about the theater scene here if we were going to come to the much wanted workable agreement. And if they’re not going to do the research, I’ll do it for them with the help of my friends – because I owe it to my community.
I have a career because of a theater called Sacred Fools based out of Hollywood. When I was in my 20s, I joined the union after being lucky enough to get a TYA contract with Kingsmen Shakespeare Festival when I was 24. After that, I had a card, but not much of a resume – so I was happy to find the 99-Seat community in Los Angeles where I could work with fellow professionals while doing shows like Cloud 9 and A Clockwork Orange where I happily received a little attention, an agent and gained more life skills. And after a certain point, I found my theatrical home – Sacred Fools Theater Company. I proposed what I thought was a risky show based on Louis Prima and Keely Smith. And they took a chance on me. They invested in me because I invested in them. I volunteered to throw fundraisers for other actors in the company and now they invested in me by producing my show. Suddenly, a show from an unknown actor/writer became a phenomenon. It extended and extended and made the theater lots of money so our motley crew could finally buy an air conditioner. Many LA “luminaries” heard about the show including Taylor Hackford who took over as director and brought us to the Geffen – where Hershey Felder saw it and took us to Chicago, back to the Geffen, to Laguna Playhouse and beyond.
While all this was happening a year ago, my union, that I had at one time been so excited to join, suddenly decided to threaten my community by dismantling the 99-Seat Plan completely. So I felt compelled to combat their proposal with facts, as I’m a pragmatist and I feel like I can change people’s minds with statistics. With the help of Monica Greene, I began this spreadsheet to find shows like mine that had gone from 99 seat theater to a venue that created work/contracts for Equity actors. And I was amazed by the results.
So many journeys are similar to mine. I learned about John Pollono who, like me, wrote himself a part in the amazing Small Engine Repair and got to go to New York because of it. And under the 99-Seat Plan, huge casts are possible! Plays like Odyssey Theatre’s The Chicago Conspiracy Trial (cast of 36), Actors’ Gang Embedded (cast of 13), Sacred Fools’ Absolutely Filthy (cast of 15), or Pacific Resident Theater’s My Antonia (cast of 17) may not have been possible any other way. Many people actually get their Equity card because of this path! In my shows alone, I know of 6 people that joined the union after we moved. And in Deaf West’s Spring Awakening, actors got their first union job on Broadway!
I’ve learned that theater companies like The Actors’ Gang and The Fountain Theatre regularly bring their actors forward to paying jobs. That many people try out their one man shows and wind up Off-Broadway. Risky weird musicals like Reefer Madness, Lovelace, and Re-Animator had a place to incubate and become successful – while Broadway is currently planning 15 shows based on movies!
Some people in New York who don’t understand our fragile artistic ecosystem like to say that producers created plays “off the backs of actors” who worked for a stipend as low as nine dollars a show. What the NYC faction fails to realize is that the “producers” are people like me. They are fellow Equity members and members of other theatrical unions. They are people that spend their own money so that their work, and the work of others, can be seen.
I paid for the arrangements of Louis & Keely from money that I received from my Godmother after she passed. Nobody here is “working off the backs of actors.” If anything our community does quite the opposite.
We lift actors up. We create opportunities. We add to the art form. And, yes, we create contracts.
Los Angeles, CA
Update July 18, 2016:
I’ve made a few changes to my database since my article went out. Some felt the original title of my document was misleading. To say the document was “99 to contract” didn’t best represent what I was trying to do. The point of the spreadsheet was to demonstrate that when AEA allows its artists to volunteer so as to produce their own content, the effort can actually turn into opportunities. Interesting little shows spring up and create paying jobs. I used 1972 as the starting point of the database because that’s when AEA began to allow actors to volunteer in houses under 99 seats under a Waiver agreement. To prevent any confusion, however, I will highlight shows produced before 1988 (when the 99-Seat Plan was put into place by AEA) in blue. A yellow highlight indicates a show that went to NYC under the 99 Seat Plan.
I also realized I neglected to cite my sources in the original database. It’s important to recognize how the data was compiled in the first place. When Monica Greene and I first began a Google spreadsheet, we called for people on Facebook to fill in the blanks with shows that they were in or had heard about that had moved on from waiver. Over time, the spreadsheet was populated with many shows – most of which filled that request, but a few that didn’t. One by one, I vetted the shows by Googling the original reviews, checking Sam French, sometimes Wikipedia, and sometimes texting an actor if they had been in that original show. Some shows slipped through the cracks because of a faulty memory or someone not realizing that just because a show had gone to a theater in NYC didn’t meant it was necessarily on a contract, even if I could find a review for it.
For this update to the database, I decided to raise the sourcing bar even higher. Instead of relying on texts from people, I made sure I would back up each show with 1-3 references from sites. These sites are now included the document for anyone to see and verify. In the vetting process, I lost a few shows which had moved to a showcase code instead of a contract or LOA. I also lost some Waiver shows which, while documented on a company’s original website, had no verifiable data of their next venue because… well the Internet wasn’t around in the 70s.
I wanted to have data to back up everything.
So this is, in fact, an incomplete list and might even be longer. But no matter how many shows I deleted or added, the key figures of merit remained essentially the same every time I explored this history. As I asserted originally: this is a living document. As I discover more, I will revise more. And, as always, I welcome the feedback. Thanks to everyone who provided corrections on my last effort. Feel free to continue doing so. I hope that explicitly showing my sources in this latest version will clear up any questions of the data’s origin.
With regards to the database itself:
- The number of verified shows that began under Waiver or the 99 Seat Plan and moved on to contract or LOA: 121
- Roles created by these shows: 853
- Originating actors that moved to contract or LOA: 550
- Of 121 shows, 72 brought half or more of the original casts to contract or LOA with 59 shows bringing the entire cast along.
- Of 121 shows, 85 of them remounted the same year or one year after the original production.
- Of 121 shows, 8 went to HAT contract because they ran past the 99 Seat Plan performance limit and were on that contract for (on average) 3 months more.
- Of 121 shows, 11 were SPT contracts. At least 7 of these shows disregarded the non-pro ratio and paid all their actors, whether union or non-union, the same amount.
- Of 121 shows, less than 18% (21) did not take any original actors.
- However, of the 853 actors who played the roles in the original productions, 64% (550), nearly two thirds, moved on.
Some specific differences between the updated and original database:
Divorce the Musical went to a showcase, not an Off-Broadway contract. So I dropped it. AKA Eat The Runt looked like it too went to showcase. Dropped. I didn’t realize that Native Voices had not started on the 99-Seat Plan. Dropped. I couldn’t find anything about the Odyssey’s White Marriage so I dropped it with a heavy heart because it was supposed to have been great. The same thing happened with the Cast’s Orphans Revenge and Theatre Wests’ Aesop in Central Park. I also didn’t realize that Prymate had been workshopped prior to LA, so… dropped.
And, to my surprise, I also found new shows like A Bronx Tale which started as a one man show at Theatre West, then went to Broadway, turned into a movie and is headed back to Broadway as a musical based on the movie, which was based originally on a one-man show that started under in 99-Seat.
Once again, thanks for the heads up from those of you in the know.
I will continue to make this document be the most accurate list of LA shows as I possibly can. This archive is our collective legacy. That’s why it’s so important to keep it accurate and to keep it growing. I began it from a spirit of celebrating the community that started my career. I ask anyone who reads it to take it as that, a celebration; especially those readers in our Union – an entity which made this community possible in the first place.
Update July 21, 2016: Database further updated, figures adjusted accordingly.