[Below is the pre-show speech I’d love to hear in every theater in Los Angeles, every night, until the disagreement with Actors Equity is settled.]
Hi, thanks for coming to the theater!
I’m the artistic director here and we’re all so excited to share this play with you tonight but first, I need to take a couple minutes of your time. Don’t worry it will be quick and it doesn’t have to do with candy wrappers, cell phones and emergency exits (which by the way are right over there). As to the candy and the cellphones, you’re adults, I trust you’ll do the right thing.
No, what I have to talk about tonight is more important than that and really it’s all about you and our remarkable city.
Take a minute. Look around.
Don’t look at the stage, you’ll get to stare at it for the next hour or so. Look around the audience. I want you to look at each other. Maybe you see familiar faces. Maybe you see someone you’d love to date. Maybe you see a bunch of strangers. We’re all here together. We’ve all made our way here, tonight, to share something together.
That’s remarkable. That’s remarkable in Los Angeles. Think about the times in LA that you get to sit in a room with a group of strangers and experience something together. I’m not talking about a meal, or a movie – I’m talking about something where you, the audience – matter. Something that’s unique to tonight and unique to Los Angeles.
Our friends at the Steppenwolf theater in Chicago have a great way of thinking about their theater – which I don’t think they’ll mind if I share with you and borrow from. At Steppenwolf, they think of their theater as the public square where difficult ideas are debated and shared with people who don’t know each other.
That’s pretty great, right? Changes how you think about those strangers in the audience. Changes how you think about tonight’s play, doesn’t it?
Ideas like this didn’t start in Chicago, or New York, for that matter. You have to look further east and further back than that.
The play you’re going to see tonight has as its ancestors the ancient Greeks and a society that was just working out a new form of government – democracy. They still had some kinks to work out but what they had figured out, the ancient Greeks, was that for a city to function properly, for a society to function properly, theater was essential. So essential that they required each of their would be Senators to attend a theater festival before they could serve in government. That’s how deeply they revered both the power of theater and the potential of civic engagement.
A lot has changed since ancient Greece. What hasn’t is the power and potential of a room of people sharing a play.
Not a movie or a meal, which are both important but frankly serve different purposes. That same movie could be playing to thousands of people in hundreds of different towns across the country. The same story, playing in the same dark room unchanged.
This play is only happening here. And it’s only happening right now, just for you here in Los Angeles, in this humble room. Your presence makes it special. Your engagement makes it unique. We’ve made this piece especially for you and we believe it has something to say to Los Angeles, right now. That’s why we made it.
So why am I going on about this?
Because, this room, this theater is in jeopardy. Not just this one but similar theaters all over Los Angeles, both bigger and smaller than this one. You’ve heard me talk before about how theater doesn’t really make economic sense – in today’s gross terms. The price of your ticket doesn’t cover our costs. Our theater is, in one way or another, subsidized. We rely on donors and foundations and, to a truly small extent, government funding.
We also rely on our actors and our staff. They make a tremendous sacrifice to bring tonight’s show to you. Not just the sacrifice of a lifetime of craft and dedication whether it be to acting or to a spreadsheet but also in terms of getting paid. Our staff, like our donors, are subsidizing the show you’re going to see tonight.
You may have heard there’s something of a kerfuffle between Actors’ Equity, the actors union, and Los Angeles based union stage actors. I won’t bore you with all the details but it comes down to this:
A national union thinks that Los Angeles actors should be paid minimum wage and get rid of something called the 99-seat plan that’s been around since the late 1980’s and made small theater in LA possible.
I can see some of you in the audience scratching your heads, you just talked about sacrifice. “Who’s not for minimum wage, right?”
Well, when they put this to a vote of LA union actors, two thirds voted against it. Despite this overwhelming turnout and support to keep the existing plan in place or to change it incrementally, this union, Actors’ Equity made a decision at a meeting in New York to do away with a plan that’s made so much great theater, so much great art possible. So many small rooms like this have been filled with strangers while difficult ideas have been debated.
That idea is being threatened based on priorities and ideas that are not coming from Los Angeles.
I’d be happy to go into all the details and history of this dispute with you after the show in the lobby. It’s not as good as the story we’re going to tell you tonight – but it’s certainly filled with drama and history.
Long story short, a group of actors is now suing the union and to a great extent, the future of LA theater could be decided in a courtroom. Everyone on stage tonight, every actor in this show thinks that’s wrong. We shouldn’t have to sue our union for right to make the work that we love and are freely willing to make for you, the audience. We might disagree about what’s right but we’re sure that’s wrong.
Why am I telling you, the audience, this tale?
Because if you care about theater in LA, theater in LA needs your help. Of course, we need you to come to theater. We need you to tell your friends. We need you, if you can, to donate.
Right now, we need more than that. We need you to care about LA theater. We need you to become engaged. We need your good ideas, we need you to help change our city.
We don’t know what the future of Los Angeles theater holds… but we do know there will be no theater without you – the audience. Please, help us craft a way forward that’s appropriate for Los Angeles. We are willing to sacrifice to bring this show to you.
If you value that, if you value being able to sit in a room with strangers and hear things you disagree with, see things that plumb the depth and test the heights of what’s possible as frail, flawed humans, then please get involved. Help us continue this great tradition of art in Los Angeles.
There’s a petition in the lobby, and a packet of info with the numbers of our elected officials and civic leaders who could make a difference, and there’s also a donation form, if you can swing it.
Thank you. Thank you for believing in theater. Thank you being part of the civic fabric of Los Angeles.
Now, please, enjoy the show…