To convince LA to care about small theaters, start with the audience

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LA Theater should go to court, but which court?

The lawsuit affectionately known as “Ed Asner, Tom Bower, Gregg Daniel, John Flynn, Maria Gobetti, Gary Grossman, Ed Harris, Salome Jens, Veralyn Jones, Karen Kondazian, Simon Levy, Amy Madigan, Tom Ormeny, Lawrence Pressman, Michael A. Shepperd, Joseph Stern, French Stewart and Vanessa Stewart v. Actors’ Equity Association” has finally been served.  

Barring a moment of common sense or a third act deus ex machina, litigation is on the horizon. LA’s actors are going to end up in the United States District Court for the Central District of California – Western Division.  

I’m not sure that’s the right court. I’m not suggesting some legal strategy. I’m suggesting that the right “court” to tip the balance in this dispute won’t happen in front of a judge but in the court of public opinion.

That’s both good news and bad news for Los Angeles’ intimate theater.

It’s good news because if the actors can get their acts together, not only will it be a cheaper battle to wage, it’s also the battle that could have truly meaningful outcomes for both the theater and the city.

It’s bad news because, at least up to this point, Actors’ Equity has crafted more shrewdly political talking points. Their narrative is easier to grasp and digest in small soundbites. That’s compounded by a theater community that’s already struggling to find unity and a robust audience.

Except for a few conspicuous moments last year, this kerfuffle between the actors’ union, Actors’ Equity, and Los Angeles union actors has been waged mostly inside the theater community. There were a few weeks when the debate gained enough traction to warrant segments on KCRW’s “Which Way LA?” and “Press Play.”  The New York Times even ran a piece. Those moments have been the exception.

The debate, such as it is, has happened mostly among actors. You can follow the broad outlines through the #PRO99 hashtag. If that’s where this conversation remains, even if the plaintiffs (i.e. actors) prevail, LA theater will ultimately lose.

What Los Angeles theater truly needs, both to weather this battle and to reach its potential, is meaningful support from beyond the theater community. To get there, LA theater needs to get better at articulating why it matters. Put simply, “why would Los Angeles be poorer, culturally, civically, economically, without 99 seat theater?”  That’s a question that is not being argued or answered. Not only is the debate mostly contained to theater folks, the arguments are mostly about how this radical change is going to harm theater folks. Is it any wonder the arguments are not gaining broader traction?

Los Angeles theater is failing to connect with its audience.

Who is that audience? Well, let’s start with the simplest answer: the actual audience. Every weekend night, Angelenos are sitting in theater seats across our sprawling landmass. What do they know about this dispute? Do they know what they could do to help? Do they know why this matters? Do they care? Unless they are die hard audience members or actors (which, let’s face it is meaningful percentage of LA’s theater audience), the answer is likely “no.” That’s a wasted opportunity.

Whether it’s a lobby board or a program note or a curtain raiser, LA theaters need to bring the audience into this fight. In a coordinated city-wide appeal, every theater should begin informing and engaging their audience in this crisis – every single night.

To be clear, the crisis is not primarily driven by Actors’ Equity or by this lawsuit. It’s driven by the lack of support for small theater in Los Angeles. What kind of support? Everything from butts in seats to donations and civic, political support.

If we focused more broadly on the support necessary for a sophisticated, sustainable theater ecosystem in Los Angeles, we’d quickly see that the existing audience is not enough. After all, if the theater community had a robust audience this would not be an issue because we’d have a vibrant mid-sized theater scene and the economics support to match it.

This is where some of the bad news comes in.  

Actors’ Equity has made severally very shrewd gestures that make this broader support more challenging than it should be. First, Equity has cast this as a union dispute. Of course, it is but it’s more of an intra-union dispute than an inflatable rat in front of a wealthy company dispute. When you hear a union is fighting, especially if you’ve got a liberal bent, you likely think of the latter rather than the former. You assume the little guy is the union and the goliath is some fat cat. You may even conjure up pictures of Sally Fields holding up a cardboard “strike” sign. The story you don’t jump to is union members suing their own union.  

Equity has leveraged this narrative by linking their argument to minimum wage. As I’ve written before, by linking to the minimum wage and both the national political struggle to it (again, an admirable liberal cause) and the Piketty-an sense of gross income inequality, Equity taps into several powerful political and ideological veins. The union has cast their opponents as being against minimum wage. That’s not a desirable political position to be standing in and it’s not one that is easily explained away. You can do it but it takes a couple hundred words (believe me, I’ve tried).  To make things worse, if you oppose the union, at least the union suggests, you are against paying artists.

To argue against Equity, you need to first argue why you are, seemingly, against both the minimum wage and valuing artists. Before you’ve even begun, you’re digging yourself out of a political and ideological deficit.  That’s clever politics on Actors’ Equity’s part.

Those are the hurdles that LA theaters need to cross first with their audience and then with the broader community. Ultimately, LA theater is going to need support from the city and state’s civic and political leaders. That’s not just a “hey, it’d be great to get civic support for theater ‘cause it’s neat” statement – that’s likely a legislative reality. If the recent EDD audits of California theaters are a dangerous omen of what’s to come, small theaters statewide are going to need legislative relief to avoid anything but minimum wage. Again, you see how clever Equity’s strategy has been. Once you begin rolling the ball away from actors as volunteers, it’s a slippery bureaucratic slope to minimum wage.

See why the court of public opinion is so important?

For me, until we see the theater community banding together and arguing their case in the broader arena of public opinion, Equity is winning. The Twitter rants and meaningful statistics about the number of shows that have moved from 99-seat theater to paying contracts are important first steps but they are steps that only matter to theater folks.

Theater folks won’t be enough to win this battle.