May 26, 2009

99 Seats

Within months of arriving in L.A. for college in the late 1980s, my campus pastor took me to a tiny theater on Santa Monica Blvd. to see some Tennessee Williams one-acts. But it wasn't until I started Back Stage West in the early '90s that I really discovered L.A.'s small theater scene, as thriving (or moreso) than NY's Off-Off-Broadway, with troupes from the Actors' Gang to Open Fist to Theatre of NOTE to Company of Angels to the Matrix to Pacific Resident Theatre to City Garage to the Odyssey, etc. Not only did I love a lot of what I saw (nearly as much as I didn't, which is a pretty good ratio), and admire the irrepressible vitality of the scene, but I became aware that it was unique in the nation; I learned that the stage actors' union, Equity, had for some reason essentially "waived" its jurisdiction over theaters under 100 seats in L.A. County.

Oh, but I couldn't call it "Equity Waiver"; that apparently was an old, politically incorrect term; it was now the "Equity 99-Seat Theatre Plan." I heard vague murmurs of something called the "Waiver Wars," and I figured they had something to do with the common argument in which I often found myself, over whether the Plan made it too easy to put on too much bad theater in L.A., and whether the glut had driven down the overall quality of the work, and whether actors would ever make more than $5-14 a performance, and whether it was just inevitable in a town crammed with actors looking to get on a stage no matter what.

Well, the "Waiver Wars" had something to do with all of that, but not until I was recently asked to write a history of the 99-Seat Plan by LA Stage (now an online-only magazine) did I realize what a tangled and fascinating story it is, and how many of its players I first got to know in the near-aftermath of battle. Part One of my history is here; Part Two should be coming soon. I won't say this new knowledge changes everything, but it does shed a new light on much of the work I saw and many of the discussions I had over my years on the L.A. scene--and I think for non-L.A. theater folks it may bring a new perspective, at least, to questions about their own work and how it's valued in their respective communities.

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