Theatre’s Economic Reality

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

In light of Labor Day and Mayor Garcetti's floating a higher minimum wage, now's a great time to focus on some of the backstage 'labor' drama of LA theater’s 99-seat plan.

Forgive me if this starts out a little numbers heavy and 'inside baseball'. Stick with me and we'll come out the other side to the bigger point.

To understand this particular drama you have to understand a little bit about LA's theater ecosystem. If LA theater were a pyramid it would have a really wide base with really, really steep sides. At the bottom of that pyramid, in terms of numbers of seats not quality, would be the under 99-seat theaters - there's a ton of them. At the top of the pyramid would be our resident theaters - Center Theater Group, The Geffen - there are only a couple of them. In between those two levels there isn't a lot of middle ground or midsize theaters.

The 99-seat plan concerns the bottom of that pyramid. Without getting bogged down in too many details, it's basically a deal with the actor's union, Actor's Equity, that allows union actors to perform in these small theaters at a reduced rate. And it is a radically reduced rate - actors under this plan do rehearsals for free (up to 36 hours a week) and are only paid $7 to $14 a performance: that's a performance not per hour. So god help you if you're in a 3 hour production of Lear. Put it this way - if you do the math, a typical 99-seat actor is likely being paid less than a $1.75 an hour.

Without going into the broader economics - it's easy to see that actors are subsidizing the ticket price with their time.

The rationale for these waiver plans is working in small theaters is a way to be seen and cast in more lucrative work - in LA that means film and television.

Now, there's a fair bit of consternation in the theater community that this 99-seat plan might be tweaked significantly or even eliminated, as similar 'waiver' plans have across the country have been. If you want to catch a little of this tempest in a teapot you can follow the posts at LA's once productive and fertile forum - BCT or Big Cheap Theater on Yahoo. Tragically, these conversations reflect both the passion and the myopia of LA Theater. They tread the familiar ground - 'LA Theater doesn't get the respect it should'; 'people are making money on the backs of actors'; 'where is the broader support?'; 'if you scrap the plan there would be drastically less theater in LA'.

There's no arguing with this last point - without the plan you'd see drastically less sanctioned union theater in LA. I'll leave it to you whether that'd be a good thing or a bad.

What's missing from this dialogue is the broader point and economic reality - all non-profit theater is subsidized. There isn't a non-profit theater in Los Angeles, from the largest to the smallest, where the ticket price reflects the actual price of the show. When you pay for a ticket someone else is picking up the bulk of the cost - either donors or the folks working on the art by taking less money. Usually, it’s both.

The challenge for theater everywhere, whether it's only 99 seats or 2000, is how to articulate this reality and excite that level of support while making art that’s worthy of that subsidy.

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