You may be aware that actors in Los Angeles are presently trying to prevent their union, Actors’ Equity Association (AEA), from up-ending the local intimate theater culture. At its core, intimate theater is a place where no one expects to make any money. For when the house size is 99 seats or less (and often much less), there is no way to amortize your investment even if you have a hit. And while no one intentionally tries to lose money in small theater, it’s tremendously freeing when you don’t even have to pretend to attempt a return on investment. It’s this freedom that the LA actors want to preserve at all costs – even if that cost is some sort of nominal monetary compensation.

In fact, especially if the cost is merely a nominal compensation.

So the LA actors are fighting rather loudly to maintain their artistic spaces. One of the ways they are fighting is running for union office. There’s something so American about that. Y’know: lazily ignore a governing body until it becomes so inbred and ossified that you realize, in a panic, you should have been paying attention and voting for years and now you have to wrest control back overnight.

And naturally, these LA candidates trying to save intimate theater – who, truth be told, are a pretty smart lot – are campaigning on a platform of… well… saving intimate theater. The reaction they are getting from union members outside of Los Angeles, particularly those from New York City, is interesting. There are constant claims that AEA is a national union and people can’t run on local issues, they have to think nationally.

Which kinda makes sense, right? You don’t want someone running for President of the United States on a platform of solely fixing the potholes in another town’s roads. (Fixing potholes in your town’s roads might be a different story.)

So let’s look at just how “local” Los Angeles is in terms of AEA membership. The 2013-2014 AEA annual report has a convenient table of membership numbers in the top ten union cities. Of course, New York City has the largest population because Broadway. I get it.

Los Angeles is the city with the second largest population of union members. How many is that? LA has 10% more members than the rest of the list combined! In fact, first place NYC has about twice as many actors as second place LA, but second place LA has four times the number of actors as third place Chicago. As far as AEA is concerned, by any reasonable measure, the membership distribution is:

NYC + LA + “the rest”

The Los Angeles membership is so large, that even the intimate theater actor subset (conservatively estimated at 4200) is multiple times the size of any other city on the list (except New York).

One more bit of perspective: The total membership of AEA is 42,405. Therefore, Los Angeles actors represent 20% of the union! Furthermore, according to AEA statistics, the Western Region population is 27% of the union. As a result, Los Angeles, alone, by itself, represents 74% of the Western Region.

In other words, any local Los Angeles issue is automatically a regional one! And likely a national one, too.

Bottom line? The size of the Los Angeles stage acting community means that local dominant theater issues here will drive the theater dialogue across the country. And that national dialogue now includes the fight to preserve intimate theater in LA.


Originally published April 30, 2015 in Footlights.