The Tough Questions

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

Over the past several weeks, I've been telling you about the kerfuffle turned farce that's on the verge of tragedy that is the struggle of union actors against their own union.

If you're late to the party, the basics are the union is arguing that actors in LA's 99-seat theaters should be paid a minimum wage. Actors are arguing that there's no money in small theater and they should be allowed to 'volunteer' for a non-profit in the same way you might volunteer for the Red Cross. It's charity work not commerce.

The larger picture in the American theater would seem to support this: on average, across America, theaters cover less than half of their expenses through ticket sales. The rest comes from the generosity of donors and funders.

But the nagging questions are why does small theater in LA matter? Where's the audience rallying to support us? Why should you care?

I fear that even articulating the questions reveals the poverty of the discourse.

The metric of the current conversation, wisely and insidiously dictated by the union, is money. Now this makes perfect sense for the union. After all, as a 'labor union' the last thing you need sneaking into a wage negotiation is a bunch of folks chanting 'hey, we love our work so much we're willing to do it for free.'

But money is a terribly poor metric for art — especially the performing arts.

In pure economic terms, the performing arts have the deck stacked against them. Think about that wunderkind of American productivity — agriculture. "The United States feeds three times as many people with one-third as many farmers on one-third less farmland than in 1900." * Think about that. Apply it to the theater and you begin to see our problem. To keep up, a twelve-person production of Hamlet from 1900, would need to do the same play with only four actors, with triple the nightly audience, and, oh yeah, you have to shrink the set.

The arts can't compete . . . nor should they on purely economic terms. After all, there is nothing you can own by going to the theater: there is no canvas to hang over the sofa, no relic to warehouse as an investment. In the performing arts all you have is your experience and, with luck, memory.

If money is the only metric then 99-seat theater is an epic failure -- and frankly, the American theater writ large isn't far behind.

So what's to be done?

We must remember. We must remember that the art form we call western theater has its roots in ancient Greece -- that the Greeks so revered the power of theater that they required that would-be senators attend a play festival before serving in their newly hatched democracy.

But LA is no Athens.

While there is value to a community of actors honing their craft, at some point we have to, as a community, ask why? Why does theater matter? And we have to answer those questions not for New York or Chicago or Athens but for Los Angeles.

What we've lost is cultural relevance. What we've ceded to others is the power of community. Until we regain those — it's just a bunch of actors sweating in the valley.

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

* Page 99 from It's Getting Better All the Time: 110 Greatest Trends of the Last 100 Years (Google eBook)