The Greater Good?

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

Over the last couple of weeks I've been talking to you about a crisis in LA's small theaters: how Actors' Equity, the actors' union is foisting a new plan on the 99-seat theaters.

The union's plan, in oversimplified terms, is that union actors should be paid minimum wage in LA's under-99-seat theaters. The theater communities response, by and large? 'We're all for change and negotiation but these new rules will make it impossible to be a sustainable small theater.'

So why should you care? What difference does it make if there's less theater in Los Angeles? All of this should matter to you if you care about the future of the performing arts, the importance of our civic fabric, and ultimately the need for charity.

Stick with me this gets a little wonky.

What's being conflated when Equity invokes the minimum wage is the rationale and economics of the for-profit world; what's being obscured are the troubling realities and trends in the non-profit world.

Theater in Los Angeles, theater in America, is largely a non-profit endeavor. To oversimplify things: the commercial, or for-profit theater, is really limited to Broadway shows. So that means for most folks in LA the only place they might have seen a for-profit show is at the Pantages. Even the Ahmanson, where you might catch a similar Broadway tour, is a non-profit. All the theaters you can probably name in LA are non-profits . . . or charities.

Without getting bogged down in the Byzantine subsections or our tax code or the philosophy of charity: the notion behind a non-profit is a recognition that there are activities that the private sector either can't, or won't, engage in -- usually because you can't make any money doing it. So we've decided, through our tax code, to allow these organizations to take donations in money, time and materials and not pay taxes on their sales -- because these activities benefit the greater good.

Just to put a fine point on exactly how non-profit American theaters are. Theater Communications Group, the national service organization for theaters, puts out an annual report that aggregates financial information across the country and across the sector. It compares the earned revenue, basically ticket sales, to contributed revenue, donations and grants. The national average?

Less than 50% of revenue comes from ticket sales.

That means when you buy a ticket at any non-profit theater in America that ticket is covering less than half of the actual cost to put on that show. Someone else is paying for, or subsidizing, the cost of making that art.

We can argue about who should be paying that subsidy. I could flood you with statistics about who isn't. I could bore and frighten you with the trends in philanthropic giving. I could tell you that in Chicago or Seattle public funding for the arts is roughly $11 per person. In LA? $1 per person.

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There's no question that in America, we undervalue the arts.

The reality in LA's small theaters is that it's the actors who are subsidizing the art through the donation of their time and often their money. That's a problem . . . but it's not a problem that's solved by Equity's proposed changes.

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