2 lines that mean everything to LA Theater

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“The context of this case is also important in considering the standard of review. Equity is a labor union, and this matter exclusively involves internal union affairs.”’

These are two key sentences from Actors’ Equity 196 page motion to dismiss the lawsuit filed against them for trying to upend the 99-seat plan.

What’s particularly striking about these two sentences is they are both arguably true and simultaneously tragically false. Los Angeles intimate theater, the home to much of the city’s theatrical soul, is imperiled by “this matter”  does not “exclusively” involve “internal union affairs.”

As the future of so many of LA’s theaters now finds itself embroiled in a court case, it’s difficult to see this as only involving the union’s bureaucratic dealings. It’s a bit like saying the construction of the Walt Disney concert hall was simply a question of engineering. Or that Chris Burden’s street lamps in front of LACMA are simply a form of outdoor illumination. Or that the Pacific Ocean forms the western boundary of Los Angeles County. In one sense these statements are all true. Yet, they miss a deeper point. They miss what these things mean to the cultural and civic life of our city – to our very identity as Angelenos.

While a court will decide the fate of LA theater legally, Los Angeles theater needs to convince its audience that this is more than a “internal union” matter. They need convince their audience that this dispute touches them. That it makes a difference to their lives. That if the new plan succeeds and theaters close, they’ll be poorer for it. This needs to be the work of not just one theater, or just small theaters, but every theater.

As I wrote last week, if Los Angeles’ union stage actors wage their battle only in the court, they are missing both a strategic and an artistic opportunity.

I am not opining on the merit of Actors’ Equity’s motion to have this case dismissed, which was filed this week as a response to the plaintiffs finally serving their lawsuit against their union for radically altering or frankly doing away with the 99 Seat Plan. Sadly, decisions on the strength or relative lack thereof of Equity’s arguments now rests in hands of the court. I am suggesting that if the court of public opinion sees “this matter exclusively involv[ing] internal union affairs,” Los Angeles theater will ultimately lose. Not because of legal wrangling but because theater is ultimately about audience and a failure to engage audience is ultimately a failed theater.  

Other art forms can exist and even wait for their audience to discover them in subsequent decades or centuries. A masterpiece can be found in an attic. The dusty, lost manuscript finally printed by a literary heir. Theater, brilliantly, lacks this longevity. Without an audience today, we have no theater. Its ephemeral, present nature is the very thing that makes it so essential and so fragile.

If theaters cannot convince their audience that their work matters and if they support politically and financially, then we will see the true civic value of LA theater.

A lack of support will be a collective indictment of our city’s theatrical mission telling us that our theaters have not served our city and that this really is just a thing among actors not worthy of the broader public’s attention and support.

That verdict would be far more devastating than anything that could be handed down by a lone judge.