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Squinting Into the Sun

Illustration by Max KornellJust a few years ago, I remember hearing actor William H. Macy, who had swept in from New York to address some local theater conference, advising Los Angeles actors not to work in small theaters because they don’t pay a living wage. Notwithstanding how an entire generation of actors and playwrights, including Bill Pullman, Edward Albee and Sam Shepard, launched their lucrative careers in New York’s wage-free small theaters, I still thought at the time that Mr. Macy’s guidance was well-intentioned folly. Now I’m convinced of it. The midsize, union wage-paying Pasadena Playhouse has discovered that its tried-and-true method of meeting budgets with season subscriptions no longer works, and that it has better luck with individual ticket sales. This may be the first sea change of what’s to be a stormy decade for our local mid-size theaters, which also include the Colony Theater, the Geffen Playhouse, Center Theater Group, and East West Players, all of whose aging subscribers are fading away almost as quickly as other funding sources. To put it more rudely, I can quote Ben Cameron, executive director of Theater Communications Group in New York, who participated in a panel discussion at the REDCAT theater earlier this month: “If you’re dealing with the paradigm of selling tickets, your ship is sinking.”Arts institutions that pay living-wage salaries have never perched so precariously on a cliff’s edge. The reason for this is an ideology that’s been picking up steam since Reagan. This ideology contains an almost manic obsession with replacing all aspects of the public interest with private ownership, and of government philanthropy with corporate profit. Like hospitals and railroads, arts institutions are in the public interest and have depended on public assistance since the end of World War II. They rarely make a profit, and rarely will. That’s why they’re out of favor. Not since the ’20s has there been such a vitriolic, retroactive attack on public stewardship (or support) of anything in the public interest, from hospitals to national forests to Social Security, even when private ownership of public interests proves, again and again, to be criminally inept and corrupt. (As Paul Krugman recently pointed out with his New York Times op-ed on health care, for every vehicle it produces, Toyota spends $97 on health care for its Japanese employees, whereas with private health care in the United States, General Motors was spending $1,500 per vehicle on the same, before it laid off 30,000 employees last week.) It probably goes without saying that government money for the arts won’t be back in any significant way within our lifetime.Private foundations provide at least a few straws to grasp at. But they’re now trying to watch out for those emergency rooms that the government has been abandoning, and abused children, and illiteracy, and new populations rudely thrown into poverty by factory closings, and the shriveling opportunities for their kids to get a college education.These are among the reasons that the sun is setting on America’s regional theaters, as they’ve existed for the past half century. There are also other reasons — cultural and technological, leading to the reality that putting on shows can no longer be the primary purpose of theater. Such a purpose — as a sole purpose — is unsustainable for either profit or nonprofit theaters in an era of funding cutbacks when the Internet, iPods, cell-phone cameras and flat-screen TVs have added to the already tempting distractions of California’s beaches, mountains and amusement parks. Even the film industry is struggling to get audiences into luxurious new movie houses.America’s professional regional theater movement and the National Endowment for the Arts that came on its heels were born in an era when information about the world arrived through a handful of TV and radio networks and a wide array of independently owned, big-city newspapers that treated theater seriously. They were born during post–World War II prosperity, when GIs returned home, curious and concerned for the cultural welfare of their families and their country. Compared to that era, the times we live in today — the way we receive information and perceive our country, its values and its role in the world — are unrecognizable. By not heeding Mr. Macy’s advice, L.A.’s actors have provided a model for what most theater in the country may soon look like. An entirely new paradigm for the performing arts is descending upon us, quickly, and for the theater to survive, it’s going to have to adapt just as quickly, redefining not only its structure, but also its sense of purpose. Our local theater is braced for the impact because it’s halfway along a road of survival — not because of some particular clairvoyance on the part of local artists and arts administrators, but because of an accident that occurred some three decades ago. At that time, when the stage actors’ union, Actors Equity, reluctantly succumbed to the wishes of its West Coast membership and allowed L.A. actors to waive union living-wage requirements when working in theaters of 99 seats or less, it unleashed a burst of professional activity that’s evolved into more than a hundred actor-driven stage companies, and somewhere between 1,500 and 2,000 professional openings a year. The union hadn’t intended for its policy to create a cooperative community of small theaters that would treat their art more as a life than a living, but that’s what happened. Equity’s West Coast office justified its position to its New York headquarters by arguing that this activity was part of a “job search” — i.e., actors showing their wares to casting agents, whose Beemers were presumed to be cruising down Theater Row every Friday night looking for talent. Three decades later, it’s obvious that justification is a joke, though, happily for L.A. theater, New York’s Equity office doesn’t appear to be in on that joke. This is also partly why L.A. theater has such a shoddy reputation for putting on only showcase performances. The reputation, however, hasn’t matched the reality for at least 20 years.Our theaters will have to build upon an activity that many have already started — engaging local communities in the process of creating theater, whether it be play-development workshops (Moving Arts Theater reports that a new play workshop of E.M. Lewis’ Infinite Black Suitcase attracted larger and more enthusiastic crowds than many of its full productions), or apprenticeship programs involving local teens and other audiences of the future. (The 24th Street Theater has an active and successful program with the L.A. Unified School District.) We have so many smaller theaters, not because all our actors want to be movie stars (though they probably do), but largely because theaters provide a much-needed sense of family. That sense may need to be extended to local civic communities rather than just communities of artists. Cornerstone Theater Company, where actors from various local communities intermingle with its own members (who receive Equity salaries), provides a model for that kind of behavior. Everybody’s going to depend on interorganizational relationships, such as fairly new collaborations between smaller and larger theaters: North Hollywood’s storefront Deaf West Theater has co-produced with both Center Theater Group and the Pasadena Playhouse in the past few years. Next year CTG hosts the gypsy Robey Theater Company/Greenway Arts Alliance’s production of Permanent Collection at the CTG’s Kirk Douglas Theater. But there will also need to be the kinds of alliances we’ve rarely seen locally.A national survey published this month by the Wallace Foundation for the Urban Institute shows that L.A.’s most frequent playgoers also attend dance concerts and museums — a finding that challenges the wisdom of “niche marketing” that was so in favor a few years ago. Better cross-pollination here is in order; the sharing of mailing lists and publicity among, say, MOCA, Zombie Joe’s Underground and the L.A. Chamber Orchestra. Theaters will also need to become more engaged in local politics, such as neighborhood councils. “Join somebody else’s lobbying effort, and they’ll return the favor,” City Councilman Eric Garcetti told an audience of theater makers at an October panel about the difficulties theaters face finding space. That’s the kind of politics at which self-involved thespians are notoriously inept; it will change, out of necessity.The most fundamental transformation throughout the country will be a growing shift in notion, from “theater as product” to “theater as a process”: theater in prisons and hospices, serving its original function of uniting and validating communities. It’s not that shows will no longer be produced just for the art, or the entertainment, but that theater’s larger purpose will have to be redefined, or it simply can’t compete in a laissez-faire economy. In the next decade, the term “community theater” may no longer be disparaged as representing something at the bottom of a hierarchy of which Broadway is the pinnacle. Rather, you’ll have to go to Broadway or Vegas to see Broadway shows — the national touring circuits are slowly dissolving — while “community theater” may come to represent a considerably more noble activity than before. Theater’s funders will consist of fewer private investors, governments and foundations, and more colleges, film producers and restaurants that hire the artists in order that they can afford to do theater they love. That theater may not offer a living, but it will provide a calling. More on the future of L.A. theater: Click here for a report on the latest L.A. Weekly–hosted roundtable on new-play development, with guest Gordon Davidson.


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