Letter: What 99-Seats Means to Vanessa Stewart

Actress and writer Vanessa Stewart is well-known to the Los Angeles theater community and Footlights readers.  With her husband, French, she is a popular host of LA theater award ceremonies and also a Plaintiff in the suit against her own Union, Actors’ Equity.  She compiled an extensive production database proving, once and for all time, just how valuable the Equity 99-Seat Plan was to Equity members.  Today, Vanessa posted on Facebook a more personal view of the Plan which is republished here with her permission: 

So I was suffering my “late-20s” crisis in Los Angeles that I think a lot of actors go through. My career had lost momentum because my personal life had thrown off my focus and drive. I was working three jobs and my theater company Sacred Fools had to pull the plug on a show I had proposed because we couldn’t raise enough money to see it through. (We were short about $5k.) It was Christmas time and I was depressed, so I decided to pack up and go home. I quit my jobs. I gave notice to my apartment and roommate. I bought a one way ticket back to Louisiana with no money in my pocket to speak of. If I was going to start over, I wanted to do it around my family.

Mom and Dad hated to see me give up my dream. They took me to dinner, asked what I needed. What could they do? It seemed hopeless. I just wanted to do my show. Dad gave Mom a look, then asked if they loaned me that $5k, could I get it done? I almost choked on my food.

louis keely vanessa stewart sacred fools geffen footlights posterI got on the phone- asked my company if there was still room for my show in the season. Asked Jake Broder if he was still interested in doing it and asked if he wanted to come on board to help with the writing. (I never thought Jake would be interested in my little waiver play, being the Broadway guy he was. Lucky me he came along.) Corey Klemow passed a hat around the Fools on New Years Eve to get a one way plane ticket back to town. James Cooper gave me a place to crash while we finished writing. My godmother had passed after Katrina and left me enough cash to hire someone to do the arrangements. We cobbled our little show together and opened Louis and Keely: Live at the Sahara  on May 8, 2008.

I never expected anything from it. All I really wanted was an agent. And I got one. But also: awards, recognition, connections, a reputation and a career of sorts. Sacred Fools was able to buy an air conditioner and L&K  went on to create jobs for (at this point) over 60 people now. We’ve been to the Geffen twice, Chicago and Laguna. Last year alone, we created 66 work weeks for Equity actors.

And that’s why I became a Plaintiff. Not because I’m a greedy producer, but because I want actors like me who need an opportunity to be able to create one for themselves in a way that is possible. Our ecosystem here has made it possible for artists to help each other. Our community has supported each other’s work for over 30 years and I’m not the only one who has benefited. After a year and a half of fighting for the right to continue working in this way, it seems the union has prevailed. Our landscape will shift. But I want to express my gratitude that I had this opportunity to thrive as an artist, and I am regretful that some people refused to recognize the importance of having a garden in which to plant their artistic seeds.

But to those that did support the efforts of the 99 Seat community – gratitude. We will find our North Star.

About Peter Finlayson

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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One comment

  1. Vanessa, you are a rock star and a continuing inspiration to us all. Your commitment to the invaluable institution that is unique to Los Angeles has been unwavering and remarkable. It is a genuine tragedy that our own union’s present leadership refuses to try to understand what has happened here and how it benefits so many of its own members. Equity’s blind efforts to shoehorn us into a New York-centric box is short-sighted. I salute you for your heroic efforts to collect the actual data on what 99-seat theatre can do. The fight does seem to be lost, for now at least, but as someone said just recently, “I am not giving up, and neither should you.” Rock on, you talented woman!

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