I don't have the numbers in front of me, in fact I'm not sure the numbers exist anywhere, but I honestly think Los Angeles has more small theaters than New York and Chicago combined. Odd for a town that is not a 'theatre town.' I lived in NY, off and on (I was on the road a lot) for fifteen years. Another ten years in the miserable city of Chicago. And now, of course, Los Angeles. There are dozens and dozens of small 99 seat houses in The Valley here and another gaggle of them on theatre row in Hollywood. You can't swing a dead cat in this city without hitting a small theatre.
In Chicago they're called 'storefront' theaters, in NY they're called off-off Broadway. Here, they're called 'Equity Waiver' theaters. About half or more of them are 'pay to act' theaters. That is to say, one joins the company, pays 75 bucks a month, and gets cast in a play. Or, as in the case of a theater in which I was recently and briefly involved, you pay 75 bucks a month and get to paint a set. They should call it a 'pay to paint' theater.
In Chicago I was the playwright-in-residence for a small theater for a long while called Redtwist (actually, it was called 'Actors Workshop' but they changed their name). Redtwist did not require 'dues.' Instead, they offered a variety of classes from highly qualified teachers that the company members were encouraged to attend. The classes cost money, of course. But everyone benefitted. I don't see a lot of that in LA, certainly not in the theaters I know of. I suppose some actors might want to pay 75 bucks to get their picture in a lobby, but I can't imagine why.
In any event, my buddy Jimmy Barbour and I often talk of opening our own small, repertory theater here in Los Angeles. NoHo would be ideal, although Burbank would be a good spot, too. We want to use the Chicago prototype; offer classes (scene study, audition technique, musical theatre classes, voice classes, directing classes, maybe even dance classes) and make the monetary commitment to the theater more of an 'investment' rather than 'a chance to act in front of people' kind of thing. The entry process would be tough. The auditions would be based on talent rather than 'um, do you have any money? Yes? Okay, you're in.'
Jim and I differ here, but personally, I'd like the theater to be completely about new plays, new work. I really have no interest in mounting another Death of a Salesman or another Odd Couple. Use the space entirely for new work - cast, directed and produced from within the company. It's sort of like a movie theater opening and showing old films. Yes, there's certainly a niche for that, but I'm not moved by that notion. But like any other art form, one would have to be really, really picky about what was put on display for public consumption. International play competitions, pay the playwrights for their work (for some reason, a lot of theaters in LA think playwrights are so anxious to have their words spoken, they'll relinquish their writing for free) and at least give the actors a nominal fee to let them know their work is appreciated. In LA, the Equity Waiver program, actors are supposed to get 15 bucks a show to cover gas, etc. Most theaters either simply ignore this or they demand that the money go straight back into the theater's coffers. Criminal. Not to mention really disrespectful.
Now, it's easy to sit on the sidelines and say all of this, but there is a way to do it. The Chicago theaters do it, a lot of NY theaters do it. Why not here? Why is it Los Angeles holds such a small premium on the actors' work? Because actors are a dime a dozen? Yes. As callous as that sounds, that is precisely the reason.
In our small theater (it's still a pipe dream at this point, but I honestly think we'll do it eventually) we would spend a considerable chunk of our budget on marketing and publicity. Let's face it. If no one comes to see the work, why do it? It's like acting in the shower. The last small theater I in which I was involved routinely played to 3 or 4 people in the audience. The cast numbered about 20, so it was a bit awkward, to say the least. What's the point in that? I honestly don't know. So it's crucial to get butts in the seats. The friends and family plan of live theater, I call it.
Anyway, it's fun to dream. It's fun to plan it. It's fun to map it all out. Someday. Mark my word. Someday.
See you tomorrow.