Small theaters look into the future
(Originally printed in the L.A. Times "The 99-Seat
May 30, 2017)
by Jessica Gelt
Photograph by Genaro Molina, Los Angeles Times
AT A RECENT open audition for a new league
of 99-seat theaters in L.A., Gary Grossman of the Skylight Theatre Company
invites actors into the theater.
Young actors have waited to audition for
Skylight Theatre since it opened more than 30 years ago, so the crowd
outside the Los Feliz building on a recent Wednesday appeared like any
But it wasn’t. These actors were answering
an open audition call for the newly formed Independent Theatres of Los
Angeles, a group of small theaters looking to cast seasons with actors
willing to essentially volunteer their time in exchange for professional
experience and exposure.
In other words, to act virtually for free.
For decades, theaters with 99 or fewer
seats were allowed to hire members of the Actors’ Equity Assn. for
non-Equity pay, often $7 to $25 per performance. Starting Jan. 1, however,
Equity has required these theaters (with some exemptions) to pay the
union’s actors minimum wage for all time spent on set, including
The 99-seat theater community fought the
change on the grounds that it was not affordable and would effectively
kill small houses on shoestring budgets. The theaters lost the battle with
Equity, but they are not nearly ready to lie down and die.
Enter ITLA, comprising more than a dozen
99-seat theaters, with another dozen or so expected to sign on shortly.
All of the companies — including well-known producers such as Skylight,
Matrix Theatre Company, Odyssey Theatre Ensemble and Santa Monica
Playhouse — found themselves unable to adhere to the new Equity rules,
dubbed the Los Angeles 99-Seat Theater Agreement.
So that is why 10 artistic directors,
associate producers and others were inside the 40-seat black-box Skylight
recently, watching a willowy young woman named Akemi Look audition.
Dressed in black jeans and a fitted black T-shirt, she cartwheeled across
the stage as part of a monologue from “Bike America” by Mike Lew.
Look studied in New York at the Lee
Strasberg institute, and her audition caused a stir. One of the theater
reps asked her to share her phone number.
This doesn’t mean Look will be cast,
though. These general auditions are for shortlisting actors who may be
asked to audition again for specific plays once the ITLA artistic
directors figure out what kind of talent pool they have and thus what
types of plays they can stage.
“We’re opening up a whole new channel, and
it’s helping the theaters look at how we’re going to plan shows for the
next couple of years with this new Equity plan that’s in place,” Skylight
Artistic Director Gary Grossman said. “It’s great for the community to
know that we’re still here, and we’re still going to be doing shows.”
Grossman, wearing festive suspenders and a
serious gaze, stood in his theater’s brick courtyard, tucked between
Skylight Books and its annex on a popular stretch of Vermont Avenue.
Nearly a hundred actors had booked appointments for that afternoon, and
the event attracted a line of more than 100 actors who hadn’t reserved an
The sheer supply of non-Equity actors
looking to be seen by multiple theaters was so great that ITLA decided on
the spot to add three audition dates to its schedule.
When the auditions are done, Grossman said,
ITLA members will have seen more than 900 actors. And that will still
leave hundreds of actors on a waitlist, he said.
Matrix Artistic Director Joseph Stern said
he joined ITLA to help him navigate the new theater terrain after 40 years
of using Equity actors about 80% of the time.
“Now I’m going to do a play with 30 young
people,” Stern said, taking a small break from the marathon auditions.
“For people doing middle-aged plays, it’s not as big of a pool. But
artists will always create their own environments. They adjust.”
The bulk of the actors waiting to be seen
were, indeed, young. But Grossman said he felt all demographics were
represented in fair numbers.
Skylight associate producer Jonathan
Muñoz-Proulx noted the high turnout of actors of color.
“These are the people we want to have a
relationship with, who we want to have on our stages, but they weren’t
necessarily the people we were meeting through Equity,” Muñoz-Proulx said.
“No judgment on Equity, but we’re going to keep working with whoever wants
to work with us, and if you’re Equity, great, that’s a choice you can
make. And if you’re not, then we’re a new home for you.”
Some actors waiting in line, however,
seemed to have minimal knowledge of the 99-seat debate that has roiled the
Los Angeles theater scene for years. They were just excited to have a shot
at another audition, with the bonus of being seen by a multiple theaters.
“I do think this is good for nonunion
actors,” said Noelle Rodriguez, who heard about the auditions through a
teacher on a Facebook group. “There are a lot of shows I can’t get into
because I’m not Equity, and now I’m being seen because of this.”
Ron Esfandiari, who moved to Los Angeles
from Northern California a year and a half ago, agreed with Rodriguez.
“It’s my understanding that they are giving
nonunion people a chance to audition where they didn’t have a chance
before,” he said. “But to us nonunion people, it’s just more opportunity.
We’re not going to undercut anyone, but not everyone acts for the money.
Some people just want to hone their craft and want exposure and experience
in good productions.”
Half an hour later, Esfandiari got both
exposure and experience when he auditioned with a rousing rendition of an
Eric Bogosian monologue.