Mar 31, 2015

An Open Letter to Both Sides

Dear New York theater friends who think this L.A. 99-seat thing sounds like B.S. and a clear-cut case of exploitation that Equity has every good reason to shut down: I might not go so far as to say "if YOU lived in L.A. you'd work under the plan and/or understand why it's not all bad," but suffice it to say that the folks I got to know there over 15-plus years, whose work helped shape my taste and whose community I felt a part of, are all opposed to Equity's proposed changes (I can think of maybe two exceptions). Without relitigating the substance of the argument, I'll just say: I'm the same person I was then, and those menschy L.A. theater folks I know and respect are my colleagues and friends as much as you are. It's not hard, in other words, to imagine you in their position (and vice versa). They're neither a bunch of celebrities doing this as a hobby nor a bunch of quasi-amateurs; with the usual allowance for percentages of jerks and mediocrities (some of whom have had the largest presence in these debates, I'll concede), they're first-class theater artists and part of the national theater scene.

Which leads me to...Dear LA theater friends: You are part of the national theater scene. Those of us who are following the debate in L.A. aren't just rubbernecking at a good brawl; some of us actually care about what that scene and its business model might mean for the rest of the country. If you insist on calling yourself volunteers, and that you're doing it solely for the art and not the money, but then you also want to build and stand by legitimate nonprofit institutions that run seasons, sell tickets, take donations, even pay a fair number of folks to keep them going and raise money to keep them going, then you have understand how this looks to a national theater (and nonprofit arts) field that typically feels as underfunded and undervalued as you do but still has found ways (with exceptions) to pay artists and/or prioritize artist compensation. The argument over artist compensation vs. other financial priorities fieldwide is far from settled, but it seems clear to me that the right side of the argument is that artists deserve to be paid, and it's entirely fair to hold nonprofit institutions to account on this score.

The other side of that argument, of course, isn't necessarily that artists don't deserve to be paid--it's that they deserve a chance to seek other rewards from practicing their art apart than strictly monetary ones, and no one, least of their union, should prevent them from doing so. I hear that argument loud and clear, but I don't buy its logical conclusion--that monetary and other rewards are mutually exclusive.

I may speak only for myself here, but while I don't want to see L.A.'s great small theaters wither and choke under a punitive, restrictive new regime, I would love to see the business/producing acumen of L.A. theaters rise to the level of the great work I've seen on its stages. I can vouch personally that L.A. has great theater to offer, but it's the work on the stage that L.A. theater folks should be proud of, not the non-remunerative business model they work under. I think there's a place for non-paying laboratory theater, up to a certain budget level (hello, NY Showcase code), but it's a model I hope smart people are seriously looking for ways to grow out of rather than perpetuate.

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