Prologue to Disaster

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA theater for KCRW.

This week I want to tell you about warring parties. About a cold peace settlement that dissolves into a dirty war: a conflict filled with ideology, greed, and cold, cynical pragmatism.

God, it'd be great if I were talking about a play, wouldn't it?

Sadly, most of the drama in LA theater right now is happening off-stage and is swirling around Actor's Equity, the stage actors' union, and what's called the 99-seat Plan and it's untimely, but seemingly unavoidable, demise.

Forgive me, this is going to get a little 'inside baseball' but the bigger issues and underlying philosophies certainly touch everyone in the arts and have more to do with the civic fabric of Los Angeles than any of us would like to admit.

So here's the prologue.

I've told you about the pyramid that is LA theater several times. Dealing with number of seats, not quality, we've got a ton of small theaters at the bottom, less than 99 seats; only a couple of mid-sized theaters, say 200-300 seats; and then even fewer large theaters 500 seats and above. We've got a really wide base that stratifies into a rarified few: not a healthy ecosystem theatrically or economically. Very few plays, and even fewer companies, make the leap from the bottom up. On that, pretty much everyone agrees.

Now, those theaters under 99 seats are largely volunteer efforts. As I wrote about back in October, the current union 'contract', which isn't really a contract but a 'plan,' allows union actors to work in LA theaters of less than 99 seats for a stipend of only $7 to $15 per show. Basically, gas money. These actors don't get paid for rehearsals. So, if you do some back-of-the-envelope math, they end up making around $1.75 an hour: truly a labor of love.

One last piece of history, the current plan is actually a settlement to a lawsuit, dating back to the late 80's, where union actors sued their own union for the right to practice their craft in LA's smaller theaters for what looks more like an honoraria than a wage.

Now, up to this point, everyone's more or less in agreement. What comes next is where the sparks start to fly. Actors' Equity wants to do away with the 99-seat plan and, if you listen to the majority of the LA theater community, with small theater itself.

Next week I'll tackle the insidious brilliance of Equity's strategy, what comes next and why - whether you're a theater lover or not - you should care.

Meanwhile, if you're looking for a little onstage drama, here are three picks for this weekend.

Go see the final weekend of "Four Larks immersive junkyard opera, "The Temptation of St. Antony" in downtown LA.

For something a little larger and mainstream: the Taper's production of Arthur Miller's "The Price" is beautifully acted and an ironic breath of fresh air.

Or for the truly adventurous, catch the dance/theater riff on  Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" created by Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company and the SITI Company at UCLA.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA theater for KCRW.