By William Salyers
“Don't let it be forgot
That once there was a spot
For one brief shining moment that was known
- Alan Jay Lerner & Frederick Loewe
Last Wednesday evening, at the Downtown Independent, I attended an advance screening of a remarkable documentary film, “Love 99,” about the struggle to preserve intimate theater in Los Angeles. For those who haven't been following the story, Actors Equity Association, the stage actors union, run by and for its New York base, has been striving to eliminate small production companies in Los Angeles by pricing union members out of their reach.
The documentary's title refers to the now-defunct 99-seat plan, which allowed AEA members to volunteer their craft to small theaters, as long as the capacity was 99 seats or fewer. The plan was arbitrarily discontinued by the union despite an overwhelming vote against the action by its Los Angeles members.
According to the film's Kickstarter page, “filming over 99 hours in September 2015, director Veronica Brady set out to follow 9 working actors, all deeply committed to the 99-seat theatre scene in LA, and document the unique challenges they currently face.”
The film is a beautiful piece of work. It's well shot, well paced, and its subjects are fascinating. Narration is provided by the great Dame Helen Mirren, who, as the old saw goes, could read the phone book and keep listeners enrapt. It's as sympathetic and honest a telling of the intentional destruction of LA's most creative and daring theatre as you are likely to see or hear.
Afterwards, the filmmakers and their stars took a few questions from the audience. Most, as is common in such situations, were of the “Let me tell you my story” variety, rather than actual questions. Unfortunately, I never got to ask mine, which would have been:
So, what now?
The event was attended by a veritable who's who of LA's intimate theater world. Some of the luminaries present were Stage Raw's Steven Leigh Morris, The Blank Theatre's Daniel Henning, LA theatre power couple French and Vanessa Stewart, and Better Lemon's own Enci Box. The camaraderie and bonhomie were palpable. It was a lovely evening that, in the final analysis, felt like nothing so much as a wake.
Platitudes were plentiful. We assured each other that the show would go on, that the drive to create would ultimately overcome the small souls that seek to stifle us; that, to quote Dame Helen's narration, “To actors, freedom of expression is more important than money.”
But that's not true of all those who call themselves actors, is it? Obviously, there are some in Los Angeles who don't agree. These are the people who are suing small producers for back wages and cheering the union on in its slash-and-burn march to the Pacific. These are the people who somehow think that their careers will magically ascend just as soon as AEA forces blood from stones. These are the people who, bless their hearts, went into theater for the money.
These same people think the fight is over. They believe that, with the dismissal of Ed Asner et al vs. Actors Equity Association (the law suit that sought to stay the union's heavy hand), the artists who are most affected will go gentle into that good night.
But ultimately, rulers need the cooperation of those they would rule. People cannot be broken to the will of others without their consent. A man may be forced to his knees, but he can never be forced to kneel.
Some of my friends have placed their faith in the promise of change from within, but Equity will not save us from itself. The staff and council come in two varieties: ineffectual, well-meaning people who want only to be liked, and others who believe we should be punished for ever having dared to stand up for ourselves in the first place. The higher ranks of leadership, along with the Executive Director, fall squarely in the latter camp. If we are to be saved, we must save ourselves.
The union has a favorite tactic: divide and conquer. They have allowed membership company “exemptions,” which they used to pacify some of the largest pockets of resistance, and which they can – and will – revoke as soon as it is politically feasible. Already, some of their collaborators are calling for its elimination. Those companies that live by it now will surely die by it later.
We must not fall to eulogizing what once was, but rather, let us fight harder to keep what is. We must look within ourselves and ask what the Los Angeles theater culture, unique in all the world, is worth to us. Many of us have parted with vast amounts of sweat, effort, time and treasure to protect it. If we let it go now, and give ourselves over to reminiscence and elegy, all of that will have been for nothing.
Any reasonable person can see that art falls under the purvue of free speech. One could further argue that the ritual of theater is sacred, now as in ancient times, and that our right to engage in it – without sacrificing our ability to earn a living – should be sacrosanct.
The time has come for individuals to stand against the bureaucracy of the union and claim their rights as artists. We must be brutally honest with ourselves, and weigh the possibility of one day performing an understudy at the Taper or the Geffen against the very real loss of feeding our souls in the here and now.
Our union does not care about art. They do not care about Los Angeles. They do not care about us. They care about amassing the numbers, the “contract weeks” that justify their existence. They have become as base and mercenary as the producers of old they formed to oppose. Aided and abetted by the self-deluded in our community, those who believe the answer to their problems is to curtail the rights of others, the union will not stop until we are as bereft of opportunity as any other city, save the one where they, themselves, are headquartered.
“Love 99” must be a rallying cry, not a history exhibit. It must make us fierce, not maudlin. Let those who watch it years from now say not that it was a fitting tribute to what was lost, but rather, the cri de coeur that invigorated a new front in the battle to save our our art, our community, and ourselves.
Do you hear the people sing?
Singing a song of angry men?
It is the music of a people
Who will not be slaves again!
- Jean Marc Natel, Alain Albert Boublil, Herbert Kretzmer, Claude Michel Schonberg