Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The 99 Seat Venue...To Be or Not to Be.

They have this thing in Los Angeles called the "99 Seat Equity Waiver Contract."  Ostensibly it is supposed to let actors do work at a small house, get paid $15 a performance to cover gas, transportation, etc.  It's a stipend, really.  It is a well-meaning concession from Equity, the professional stage actors' union.  Most of the time, as far as I can see anyway, it doesn't work.  Not because of anything Equity did; their idea is almost altruistic in it's inception.  No, it doesn't work because the owners and management of the 99 seat theaters themselves prey on the ambition of the actor to make money.  Or, to be fair, at the very least to break even.

Theatre, like art, is not a democracy.  It can't be.  It is and always shall be an extension of Darwin's survival of the fittest.  This is no one's fault, it's simply supply and demand.  We have community theaters that fill that void without the intrusion of Equity.  The local dentist wants to play Willy Loman, fine.  He can "try out" for the local production of Death of a Salesman.  And the next day the local paper can write, "Saul Goldblatt was astonishing in the role of Willy Loman.  His work as an actor is every bit as good as his work at filling molars."

So what happens, and this is not just Los Angeles but Chicago, too, and as far as I know, NYC, is the producers of the theater, the owners, the management, want more.  They know something very basic.  That the aspiring actor, regardless of his or her talent, will often times pay to act.  Even more, they will pay for the mere prospect of acting.

In Los Angeles the going rate seems to be about 75 to 100 bucks a month.  The actor pays this and is then considered part of a company of professional actors that mount plays in the theater.  The question then becomes, is this professional theatre?  No.  Actually, technically speaking, it's not even community theatre.  The local dentist, Saul Goldblatt, didn't even have to pay $100 a month to do Willy Loman.

A friend of mine who used to be the "financial manager" with a 99 seat theatre here in LA, told me to not think this way.  He says it is best to consider the money spent as an "investment."  This is not a bad rationale.  Okay.  Let's run with that for a second.  If it is an investment, what is the return?  The possibility to do a demanding role at some nebulous point in the future?  Slim as that possibility might be?  What if the actor is simply not very good?  Or downright bad?  Will they still get the shot of doing something they love to do?  Say, play Willy Loman?  Highly doubtful.  They might, however, get to play the waiter in that play.  Show up for six weekends in a row after several years of paying the monthly dues so they can say the line, "Will there be anything else, sir?" in front of 99 people?  Hardly seems sane, does it?

And yet, that's the way it often turns out.  And more, the guy that plays the waiter with the one line after several years of monthly investing of $100 a month, feels delighted to have gotten the chance.  It's a whacky business.

So what is the alternative?  The theater has to pay the rent, after all.  It has to pay for the electricity and water.  It has to pay the bills.  It is hard to imagine any theater in America subsisting entirely on ticket sales.  It's just not feasible.  It's not practical.

Many theaters, not all, mind you, but many, will take just anybody willing to pay the 75 or a hundred bucks a month.  Talent or background or training is simply not a factor.  "You got 75 bucks?  You're in."  Of course, in the short run, this works, because the bills get paid that month.  But in the long run, the old capitalistic supply and demand rears its ugly head and the theatre fails.  Why?  Because there is no one, frankly, very good in the company.  And maybe some friends and family will pay $25 a ticket to come see Esmerelda play Joan of Arc, but the bulk of the theatre-going public will not.  Particularly since Esmerelda just isn't very good.

The truer 99 seat theaters in LA, and there ARE some, offer something for the investment aside from the nebulous promise to use the actor on stage at some unspoken time in the future.  They offer classes.  Acting classes, movement classes, Shakespeare classes, vocal training, dance, voice-over classes, commercial classes, career advisement classes, etc.  And this is included in the sum.  So while waiting for the chance to play Iago one can, at the very least, train.  Work on the craft.  Get better.  Make strides.

Alas, this is rarely done.  Again, a few do, but not most.

So it becomes a kind of catch 22 for most theaters of this size.  They have to stay open, they have to pay the bills, but they can't get any real talent in to do the work they are there for to begin with.  There are a lot of bitter actors around the city of Los Angeles because of this.  But its silly to be bitter, really.  The theaters have no choice.  They have to follow this equation to stay alive.  Theater subsidy, sadly, does not exist on any workable scale in this country.  In Britain the annual arts subsidy is approximately 2 billion dollars.  In America, the NEA has a budget of about 5 million.  Staggering.

Naturally, it would be nice if the theaters said upfront that this is the case.  Sadly, most do not.  They play on the actor's ego, the actor's dreams of glory, the actor's fertile imagination.  They paint a picture of shining moments of pure acting in front of an adoring full house.  Once that is done, the $75 is as good as in their pocket.  Again, this is some, not all.  The 99 seaters with a conscience say upfront, "We're barely making it.  We want to do good work.  We think you're a good actor.  We want to use you in this company.  But we all need to throw money into it.  And you'll never get it back.  But we'll do this and this and this for you.  And maybe, just maybe, you'll get the opportunity to do some satisfying work at some point that others will appreciate."  That's about the best one can hope for.  Be honest upfront, only take actors that are good (to do otherwise is simply not doing anyone any good, least of all the actor himself) and stay true to the mission.  But as a friend of mine always used to say, "Why, that's just too much like right."

There is no clear cut answer to any of this.  The owners have their problems, real problems, indeed, with the daily bills.  And the actor has his problem, again, a very real problem, of deciding whether to throw good money after bad.

So finally, the actor must ask himself a very personal and telling question.  Is this important enough to me that I don't mind paying someone to DO it?  Maybe so.  And if the actor is honest enough with himself to truly assess his talent and concludes that he's not really a great actor and probably never will be, then the 99 seat company is probably the way to go.  But if the actor honestly assesses his worth and concludes he's really good, then he'll do just fine regardless of where he acts.  Like nature, real talent always finds a way.

See you tomorrow.