Jul 14, 2009

Two Coasts, Two Codes

Emilie Beck has a thoughtful response to my two-part series on the history of L.A.'s 99-seat theater plan, essentially coming down against the idea of actors working for mere gas money. I met a lot of young theater professionals in L.A. over the years with exactly her spirit, and I salute it, but I have to quibble with one of her central contentions:
Actors who want to be showcased are not engaged in theatre. They’re engaged in a prolonged audition. There’s an ongoing complaint in LA that theatre lives in the shadow of TV and film. Well, clearly we’ve made it that way. If actors are doing theatre just so they can break into celluloid, then yes, we’re directly in the shadow. Of course, we know that there are actors - and all kinds of other theatre artists - who are dedicated to making theatre here, and they’re not only getting a bad rap from being associated with the showcasers, but they’re often subjected to working with these showcasers, which downgrades the entire experience, both for the artists and the audience. Theatre in its purest, most righteous form is about give and take. The narcissistic act of showcasing is all take. (As in, you took away two hours of my life.)

In my experience, the talent pool in L.A. is a mottled soup of people doing theater for any number of reasons: to work with friends on a play they believe in, to keep their craft sharp, to get in front of industry guests, or just to do something other than wait for a callback. I'm not sure theater in its "purest, most righteous form" exists anywhere, but I know it doesn't exist in L.A. And that's OK. A lot of my favorite theater artists tell the story that they came to L.A. from New York or Chicago or Seattle to seek film and TV work and to give up their bank-breaking theater habit, only to find themselves sucked back into working onstage by the huge network of similarly would-be-former theater artists plying the trade in L.A. And nearly as many theater artists I know would love to get some film and TV work, but they know that doing theater is often the last way to get there.

I also should clarify that while Equity officially views "showcasing" as the only way it can justify allowing its actors to work for next to nothing, that's as bogus a front in L.A. as it is in New York (that's why evenings specifically labeled "showcases" exist). Consider the recently revised "Showcase Code" in New York. The revisions are all in the direction of loosening, not tightening union protections: "Showcase" productions can now extend rehearsal period, run for six consecutive weeks rather than a mere four, charge more at the door, and claim more income. But nobody but Equity calls these productions "showcases"; the rest of us call them Off-Off-Broadway or "indie" theater.

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