Whither (or wither) #lathtr art?
Not this or that, but this and that. Because one thing is true, it doesn't necessarily follow that the opposite is not also true. Up & down, back & forth, move ahead & drop back, no straight staircase to the sky but growth in a kind of spiral: success, success, success, then failure & disappointment, then the struggle to get unstuck & push ahead, to keep on keeping on, & the one who finishes last wins. Brecht has Galileo say, 'As much of the truth gets through as we push through; we crawl by inches.'
It is good for actors to get paid. It is good for culture to thrive in our communities. Commercial theater is good for commerce. Non-profit theater is good for art. It is good to volunteer. It is good to earn a salary. A professional actor is someone who gets paid for what she does. A professional actor is someone who practices her profession whether she is paid or not.
It is good to embrace market values, to know what "sells" & how to sell it. It is good to resist the values of the
marketplace, to make art for its own sake. It is good to see a popular actor on stage. It is good to see a young unknown in his first play. It is good for the price of theater tickets be competitive. It is good for theater tickets to be affordable. Not this OR that, but this AND that.
In her seminal 2003 essay Whither (or Wither) Art? Zelda Fichandler, the co-Founder & former Artistic Director of Arena Stage writes about the schism between artists & institutions, the conflicting needs of various constituencies. She calls out to her readers not to prioritize one need over another: "Because one thing is true, it doesn't necessarily follow that the opposite is not also true." Nothing must be excluded from the matrix of the artist & the artistic organization. Art AND money. Risk AND reward. Infrastructure AND freedom. To find the win/win, we embrace the possibility of "AND."
& here we are in 2015, Los Angeles theater: a no-place place, even the phrase 'L.A. theater' was not long ago an oxymoron. A joke. A vanity production. But in these last few decades, that has all changed. Our motives for doing it have changed & our way of doing it has changed & our audiences have changed & our communities have changed. As L.A. productions move from here out into the world; as young actors fresh out of grad school come here to launch their careers; as we continue to build more ensemble companies here than anywhere else on earth; as we strive for excellence rather than agents; as we feed the cultural hunger of our audiences & see them respond with financial & volunteer support ... we see that L.A. theater has evolved into ... #LAThtr. (…& how do I know you know just want I mean by that?)
Generating this evolution/revolution as much as anything? #LAThtr's waiver agreement with AEA, setting the floor for the last quarter-century of work. It has lots of little codicils. But basically it's this: if a theater has 99 seats or less, the actors don't get paid. We work for free, save for a gas stipend. By taking money off the table, we leveraged the power that comes from not being an employee. We come & go as we please, we do the kind of work we want to do, & most of all, we have a voice in how things get done. We have 'artist-in-charge' power. & we don't have the problems that plague theaters elsewhere. We can do large cast plays. We can do risky new plays. We don't need a "name" actor to break even. #lathtr under the current 99-seat plan forged a kind of utopia: we put ART first. (Yes, of course, business still had to happen. But here, it didn't rule the day.)
Now that era may be over. At this defining moment, our community is sweating & shouting & feverish about the curse or the blessing of a decent or indecent proposal (or 2 or 3) that Actors' Equity Association has "promulgated" or will promulgate, or is promulgating (i.e. the act of formally proclaiming or declaring a new statutory or administrative law after its enactment.) "Promulgate" -- the word sounds like something to do with grafting a new herd; it mangles as you say it, it's a a word without iambs, a word voiding creativity. For some of us, this "promulgation" =s a black hole, a star collapsing inward, compressing the light of the last 25 years. Blow out your candles, Laura. It's the end.
For others, this "promulgation" =s the promise of a new #lathtr world, lit by the wattage of AEA's new plan to require actors be paid at least minimum wage for work in small theater. Ironically, most of our annual incomes wouldn't even register the impact of whatever an extra $9 an hour comes to over the course of the the run of a play. But multiply that by 5 or 10 or 15 characters on stage, & it's an extinction event for our network of hundreds of small theaters. For the few that might survive, ART will become the subservient partner to financial exigencies. We get $9 an hour in exchange for utopia.
Of course everything in life is as much what as how. The 'what' of this promulgation (paying actors more money) is arguably a worthy goal. But the 'how' of it -- (the shape proposal itself & how it was brought to the community) was inarguably lame. Uninformed, arrogant, misguided; so much so that a win/win solution didn't have a chance to emerge. There is no "AND" in AEA's equation. It is either this OR that, true OR false, black OR white, good OR bad. Right at the time we found our soul, the corporeal body of the union we're all so proud to be members of, awkwardly & antagonistically asserted its blunt, material presence. &, now it seems, we're supposed to pick this OR that. We we said "We want change. Just not this change." & they sent us a ballot where voting for one thing cancels out the other.
This is the first in a series of trying to articulate my ongoing inner monologue about this thing, ruminations about what I see happening in/to our #lathtr community. Disclaimer: if you haven't already guessed, I am on the "soul" side, the #Pro99 side. But, really, I am on the side that wants "this AND that." Like many, I believe somewhere, there must be a way to achieve material gains without forsaking this vibrant, daring, youthful ecosystem, #LAThtr, aka our soul.
The future grows out of the present while the present seeps
up out of the past. The choices we make today describe the
theater we'll have tomorrow. Process is everything, and
the outcome can't be predicted. It's possible for a theatre to die
of starvation, and that, of course, is very sad. It's also possible
for it to wither away, and that is sadder.
For me it is not about a war between actors & actors, or actors & producers, or actors & our union. For me it is also about a city I call home now, a city that always had a terrible rap to live down re: its elusive, tinsel soul. A city that has inculcated as much suicide as stardom. A city, as Gertrude Stein once said, with no "there, there." For me it is about a way of living in this city, as much as it is about a way of making a living.
& it is about the survival of an art form that is fathomless to more people than not, an art form that can barely catch a breath or a break outside those rarified islands of NYC & the U.K. It is about a failing heart-beat, a climate change, a death-knell. It is an emergency. For me, it is a life or death thing. This is what means "meaning" in my life -- yes, even here in L.A.! & if you are lucky enough to know its secret gardens & Coltrane chord progressions & scattershot miracles -- then, you think -- not just even in L.A. -- but especially in L.A.
Are we seriously considering giving it a good hard kick in the gut & then waiting around to see if it spits out blood? Turns blue & collapses? Bites the dust? Or, is it really a good hard kick to its soul? Will it become callous again, shallow, art-less ego-centric, stupid? Will it revert back to its mean, to what it used to be? & then we all just ride off into some fake Hollywood sunset?
With apologies to Zelda F. -- I call out to whoever is listening: Not this OR that. But this AND that. AND that. AND. AND.
(to be continued!)