“I know it’s 4 weeks away, but I wanted to tell you that CDs, even a boxed set, are not the kind of a birthday present you give to someone you are intimate with.”
It was 7:16 am Sunday morning and I was lying in bed, asleep, next to her. I try to fight my way to full consciousness.
“Huh?” was all I could muster.
“My birthday. My last boyfriend thought CDs were okay gifts for a girlfriend. They’re cold. I’m just letting you know that ahead of time.”
“Right. No CDs. Got it.”
I had never intended on getting her CDs. In fact, I had already picked out an appropriate present and she ended up loving it. But after her preemptive lecture, it looked like I was strong-armed into it. (I knew how pleased she was with the gift because of her intimate “thank you.”)
So imagine my surprise when, just a few months later, I opened up my Christmas present to find two tickets to The Phantom of the Opera at the Pantages. A show she really wanted to see. I mean: “see with me.”
“And since I got you the tickets, maybe you’ll find us an intimate place for dinner before the show.”
That national touring production was the closest I’ve ever come to seeing a proper, full-Equity, Broadway show. I remember the evening for two reasons. First, I never had a desire to see the show and was bored during it – and I rarely get bored. Second, she didn’t like my choice of restaurant.
Anyway, I’m a film guy. Strange, perhaps, since you are reading me in the context of theater, but there you have it. I love the intimacy of film. There’s nothing quite like a close-up. For as long as there is people-watching, there will always be a desire to recreate the experience without the guilt of voyeurism. For me, the limitless expression of the human visage is something to behold. Even as a writer, I prefer a good silent reaction shot over a verbal, pithy bon mot.
That’s why theater was never much of a draw for me. The distance between me and the action is simply too far. Sure, I can enjoy spectacle. Sure, I can thrill over 15 dancers simultaneously tapping on stage. Sure, I can appreciate an accomplished actor’s dramatic performance in a large venue. But performances like these don’t grab me quite like those on the big and small screens.
Then I discovered Los Angeles intimate theater.
Actors’ Equity Association, the stage actors’ union, accidentally established this art form when it responded, in an out-of-court settlement, to its Los Angeles members. Over 25 years ago, Los Angeles actors got special permission from their Union to perform under Union protections without having to receive Union pay. While the LA actors could make a living wage from film and television, most of these roles were less than satisfying artistically. A chance to perform in front of an audience in works where financial returns were not paramount would provide the actors remuneration of a different kind.
To prevent the exploitation of its members, Equity set a size limit for the theaters in which the actors could volunteer: a maximum of 99 seats. This limit made it impossible for producers to profit from ticket revenue. That was the point since Equity permitted producers to employ the actors for essentially no cost. This special 99-Seat Theater Plan was only available to Los Angeles County. Even New York City couldn’t provide such a flexible option in mounting professional productions.
Because 99 seats aren’t that many, the audience is never far from the action. Equity’s intimate theater plan perfectly suited Los Angeles. It made an evening of theater feel like being on a movie set. Only without the false starts and multiple takes.
And intimate theater’s close-ups unspool in real-time and without the interference of a film editor.
Earlier this year, however, Equity decided to put an end to the special cultural scene it had created by implementing a new plan where all productions would be required to pay actors at least minimum wage. Perhaps surprisingly, most LA actors are upset with this new plan that ensures them pay. Why? Because when Equity originally set up the 99-seat plan, it was, by design, not meant to be economically viable based on ticket sales. Consequently, any additional financial burdens on most productions would mean the impossibility of mounting the shows at all. And, besides, LA actors found far more value in intimate theater performances than the promise of piddling minimum wages.
While the Los Angeles Equity actors were all for modifying the old 99-Seat Theater Plan, they overwhelmingly rejected its elimination by a landslide 66% to 34% advisory vote. Just four days after this vote, however, their Union eliminated the old plan anyway. The new plan will commence on June 1, 2016.
As things currently stand, intimate theater as LA knows it is going away. Yet, I remain an optimist. Equity’s membership is made of artists and artists don’t casually destroy art forms. It’s simply bad for the artist and bad for the culture. There should be room to fix things without decimating them.
Unfortunately, the sounds made by actors in New York City indicate many don’t understand Los Angeles intimate theater. How could they? This is a unique art form available only to those in Los Angeles County. These New York stage actors, artists though they be, know less about intimate theater than the Angelenos who sit in the audience.
The new Equity President, Kate Shindle, might be an exception, however. For starters, she, herself, has acted on an LA intimate theater stage. And, as part of her presidential campaign, she became the only senior union officer who has actively conversed, face-to-face, with Los Angeles members on their home turf. She knows first-hand the frustrations of her fellow union members.
Perhaps if Kate Shindle also had direct experience with the LA audience, she could better make the case to the uninitiated back East. Consequently, people should share their personal stories of intimate theater with her. She can be reached by email:
Let’s provide President Shindle with needed documentation to help our local actors. They have willingly volunteered themselves for our cultural and emotional engagement. These artists deserve the opportunity to willingly continue in whatever manner they deem appropriate for their creative enrichment – and ours. Let us encourage Equity to sit down with Los Angeles and find a way to maintain and foster this intimate art form so that other cities, including New York, may experience its richness as well.
Originally published September 15, 2015 in Footlights.