Re-Imagine This! #Pro99

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

Okay, let's imagine someone walks into your office and says: you're underpaid.  What's more your career should be going better and hey, you look nice today.  Next, they say they've got the answer to your problems - just sign on the line that is dotted.

Sounds a little like a scam, right? 

Well, that's more or less what's been happening in LA's intimate theater community for the last couple of months.  Right after Labor Day, I told you about a campaign afoot to "Re-Imagine" LA's 99-seat theater.

In a nutshell, the vast majority of LA theater happens in houses with less than 99 seats.   I won't bore you with all the gory details but the reasons for that have to do, at least superficially, with union contracts. The 99-Seat Plan basically makes it possible to produce theater in LA on a shoestring budget and pay actors a 'stipend' that basically amounts to gas money - as long as you have less than 99 seats. 

This plan means that theater in LA is a labor of love with art being the only reward.  A little back of the envelope math suggests that actors probably make around $1.75 an hour.  Which, of course, is nowhere near minimum wage.  One more quick fact - it's long been rumored that Actors' Equity, the actors' union, wants to get rid of the 99-seat plan.  Afterall, if actors aren't making any money neither is the union.

So in late summer, a website pops up with a call to action to "Re-Imagine LA Theater."  Now, if you read it quickly, it seems to make sense. It seems to promise more money and bigger houses.  And if you're a theater artist and someone says you should be paid more - it's tough to disagree.  

After all, there's something seductively Piketty-ian about the argument.  Surely, if you're not getting paid enough someone else must be getting that money.  Isn't there a lot of talk about income inequality?  And 99 seats sounds a lot like the 99 percent.  Surely, a new union contract is the answer, right?

The trouble is: there are no robber barons of 99-seat theater.  Trust me, no one in LA theater is part of the one percent and the reasons for that have nothing to do with union contracts.  It's all about audience and basic economics.  

Now, if "Re-Imagining LA Theater" was the catalyst for tackling the broader question of audience and, more significantly, the caliber of theater being produced I'd be all for it.  But rather than being a force to bring the community together it's been divisive and distracting: providing fodder for the union to get rid of a plan that makes them no money.

It’s all ultimately about leadership.  Tackling the big problems of LA Theater is going to require leaders.  Ironically, the website itself is something of an Ichabod Crane with no stated head.  Meanwhile the folks actually making LA theater run are too busy battling their own deficits to be able to grapple with the broader problems. 

Until that vacuum is filled everything else is just a scam.

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