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The State of West Coast Stage

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It was almost a year ago that the nation was buffeted by the events of Sept. 11. Even before that, the dot-com industry had gone belly-up, and a recession was well underway. All these factors affected the theatre community to one degree or another, whether in ticket sales, corporate giving, individual donations, real estate prices, etc.

As many of our subscription houses gear up for their fall openings, Back Stage West paused to look back at the vagaries of the 2001-'02 theatre season. How did West Coast artists and the organizations that employ them fare during this time of turmoil?

Steady Gigs

James Carpenter is one of the lucky few, a Bay Area Equity actor who makes close to 100 percent of his living--between $20,000 and $40,000 a year--from stage work. This season he worked at Marin Theatre Company, American Conservatory Theater (the Bay Area's biggest theatre, with a LORT A contract), and San Jose Repertory Theatre (LORT C). Now he's appearing in The Seagull at California Shakespeare Festival (LORT D). Although he's aware that theatres are tightening their budgets these days--and he no longer books a year in advance, often being offered a role just as he's about to go on unemployment or, as he joked, plan another career--still, his fortunes have held steady.

His co-cast member, Susannah Schulman, based in Los Angeles, reported a similar scenario. Unlike Carpenter, though, she had to travel: two gigs at South Coast Repertory, Cal Shakes for the entire summer, then Berkeley Repertory Theatre (LORT B) for its fall opener, John Guare's The House of Blue Leaves. Nevertheless this was her luckiest year ever--more work, more money. For the past few years her total income has been from the stage. "Of course I worry about money all the time," she confessed. "As an actor you think every time you're onstage will be your last."

Normal actor insecurity notwithstanding, she is far from feeling the sobering effects of the economic and political situation on her career. In fact, she perceives a benefit: It has engendered, she believes, a depth of creative need and stronger emotional ties among cast members, a generosity of spirit toward working together that she cherishes. "Actors always feel so vagrant and unstable," she said. "[The world situation] has made us clutch each other closer."

Schulman, like Carpenter, annually earns in the $20,000 to $40,000 range--"but much, much closer to $20,000"--and found that theatres have been willing to negotiate with her agent for pay above scale in the usual way. She said it's been a good season for most of her friends as well--a season that was about meaningful work, a great year creatively.

Among the actors in the Bay Area and Los Angeles that BSW spoke with who earn the bulk of their income in related but non-stage work, they too agreed that their theatre gigs held steady last season.

Up in Seattle, R. Hamilton Wright--a longtime member of Seattle Repertory Theatre's ensemble company until the company structure dissolved many years ago--found that last season was, for him, similar to the five or six seasons preceding. He worked at the Intiman Theatre (LORT C) a few times; his old stomping grounds, Seattle Rep (LORT B+); and A Contemporary Theatre (LORT B and C)--all for pretty much the same pay as ever. "I try to get incremental increases," he said, "but during the past three years all the theatres in Seattle have been holding fast on pay." He figures he's probably scoring pretty good contracts, having worked in Seattle for more than 25 years. He does some voiceovers but estimates that 90 percent of his living--in the same range as Carpenter's and Schulman's--comes from stage work.

Still, Wright notices that a lot of his friends must travel more than before to make ends meet. He attributes that to smaller-cast shows in the past three or four years, therefore fewer Equity positions available. Also, co-productions between theatres reduce the number of resident actors used.

Wright is also luckier than many in that he can occasionally afford to take a pay cut to accept a juicy role in a smaller theatre, like the Empty Space (LOA--Letter of Agreement--referenced to LORT). "It's easier to do that if you know something else is coming up that will pay well," he said.

The Numbers

The figures aren't in yet to tell us precisely how Equity members on the whole made out last season. Equity publishes its annual reports in December, so the last report appeared two months after Sept. 11. Yet it still offers some indication of the way the wind is blowing, considering that the dot-com bust, which particularly affected the San Francisco/Silicon Valley area, was a given by then. At the time of that report, there were 7,460 Equity members in Los Angeles, 859 in San Francisco, and 421 in Seattle. In Equity's Western Region, that represents a steady growth in membership over the past two decades. And total earnings in the Western Region were higher in the 2000-'01 season (the season tracked in that report) than in the previous season. However, out of the 11,147 Western Region members, only an average of 1,086 were working during any given week--fewer than a decade earlier, when 1,221 were working, and the membership was about the same. Nationally, only 14 percent of the membership was working in any given week in 2000-'01.

How does all this translate into salaries? The Equity report offers some weekly averages for various contracts during the 2000-'01 season. Among some of the West's most common contracts, LORT contracts--used by major theatres, including, in addition to those mentioned in this article, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Laguna Playhouse, South Coast Rep, and others--paid $802 a week; BAT (Bay Area Theatre, a five-tiered contract used by the Bay Area's mid-sized organizations such as the Magic Theatre) paid $259; and HAT (Hollywood Area Theatre) paid $541. Remember that these are averages; levels can vary within each contract, and of course actors with clout can negotiate over minimum.

Producers' Challenges

If the actors barely notice the effect of the economic slump on their chronically low paychecks, theatre managers are more or less obsessed with it and are struggling to prevent shortfalls from undermining the artistic quality of the shows--or the actors' pocketbooks.

"I don't know if there's been much of a change [in the way theatres are operating]," mused Los Angeles Equity field representative Laura Waterbury. Southern California theatres work under Guest Artist contracts, HAT (for mid-sized theatres), WCLO (Western Civic Light Opera), LORT, SPT (Small Professional Theatre), Dinner Theatre, Production Contract (large, for-profit theatres) and COST (Council of Stock Theatres, usually for a season of musicals such as are mounted at La Mirada), or else they operate under the 99-seat code (Los Angeles County only), an agreement similar to the Bay Area's BAPP (Bay Area Project Policy). All Equity contracts are based on number of seats, ticket income, and type of production/organization. "Every year we try to get a little bit more from the theatres," said Waterbury. The WCLO goes up in September. And, "by virtue of the yearly raises that are negotiated into these agreements, raises are automatic." She hypothesizes that where actors are most feeling the pinch is when they're negotiating above minimum. Those types of raises may not be forthcoming in today's marketplace.

At the Globe Theatres in San Diego, which operate on a calendar-year season, 92 Equity contracts--LORT B and C on the three stages--were offered in 2002. That was a little above average. However, said production manager Robert Drake, Sept. 11 made the general economic malaise worse in terms of ticket sales and contributed income. Therefore, the budget for 2003, which was still being debated at BSW press time, will probably be slightly lower. And that will affect the actors to some degree. For one thing, there will be less room for negotiating salaries. "Each year, the cost of living goes up, and the expectation among actors is higher," said Drake. "They're looking for an increase, and it looks like next year we'll go status quo"--which means no increases.

In 2002, said Globe artistic associate Karen Carpenter, some risky artistic decisions were made despite economic realities. The theatre launched an artist-in-residence series, with Jeffrey Hatcher as playwright-in-residence. Complete Female had 14 Equity contracts, along with the even larger-cast Shakespeare staples. "It was important for us artistically to do certain things that we thought would serve the health of the community," said Carpenter. Two plays were specifically chosen because of the events of 9/11: Arthur Miller's All My Sons, which replaced a less relevant but already scheduled play, and Brian Friel's The Faith Healer.

But in the coming year, the Globe will cut back, perhaps 15 percent, in actor weeks. David Edgar's Pentecost may be scotched because of the 14 Equity contracts required, or it may be done as a co-production with some East Coast theatres, possibly Lincoln Center and the Huntington in Boston. Honk is being postponed for a smaller family musical. The challenge, said Carpenter, is to find meritorious scripts with fewer demands. This summer, Pericles is being performed with 23 actors instead of the 80 the script indicates, and many of the company's M.F.A. students are cast. Next season may include Macbeth because it has a small cast, and Richard II, adapted for a cast of nine. "Usually Shakespeare is a protected slot for us," said Carpenter. The company normally offers 14 contracts per Shakespeare play, but now it's down to 10 or 11.

On the other hand, the 27-year-old Colony Theatre Company has taken a quantum leap in the other direction, bouncing from a 99-seat space to a 276-seater under an LOA referenced to HAT, with a weekly salary of $210. The current season--June to May--offers 35 or 36 roles, only three of them non-contract. "My goal is to go to LORT eventually," said cofounder/producing director Barbara Beckley.

Will changes at the Colony affect the larger L.A. talent pool? Not much. For one thing, the Colony has long maintained an acting company, now with 60 members. More than half are already in Equity; the rest will join. "[For] the ones who don't consider it an opportunity, my intention is to change their minds," said Beckley. "Professional actors are members of Equity, end of story." Shows are traditionally cast for company talents, although the theatre has started to do outside casting. For example, in the current production of You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown, three of the six cast members were selected from the Equity open call.

Another reason the Colony's new status won't result in lots more work for Equity actors is that the group will no longer be able to afford large-cast musicals. "I'm not considering it a bad trade-off," said Beckley. "While we were able to use a lot of actors before, we weren't able to pay them much. More important, there was no health coverage. Now an actor does one show with us and they've got health coverage for a year." Not only that, but actors will appreciate the new artistic opportunities: As an Equity house, the Colony suddenly has access to new plays, like its recent, boffo production of Moises Kaufman's The Laramie Project. In its former incarnation, the rights to such hot projects were unavailable.

Despite her enthusiasm, Beckley admitted that change is hard. The company is suffering from culture shock. Still, the new undertaking is a hopeful harbinger for actors in a depressed theatrical economy.

If any West Coast area was harder hit by the recession than the Bay Area, it may have been Seattle. So says Seattle Rep's associate artistic director, Jerry Manning, citing the fall of the NASDAQ and, two days after 9/11, Boeing's layoff of 20,000 employees. "The entire airline industry suffered, which is a big deal in Seattle," he said. But Seattle Rep was well prepared. The management, said Manning, is fiscally conservative. The theatre, which has an 850-seat and a 250-seat venue, has held steady for the past two years in terms of roles available and salaries, and the same will be true next season. With nine full productions per season--plus staged readings and workshops--the Rep is the biggest employer of actors, with A Contemporary Theatre close behind. The Seattle Children's Theatre, too, is a huge employer of Equity actors, sometimes offering 18-week contracts, so actors get a year's worth of health coverage in one show.

Another factor that has affected Seattle's actors in recent years is changes in artistic leadership at Seattle Rep, the Intiman, and A.C.T. As Wright pointed out, such changes make established actors nervous for their futures, while for those who work less often, new leadership represents new opportunities.

Some theatres in the West report business as usual, among them the Mark Taper Forum (LORT A)--The House of Bernarda Alba is providing work for 16 Equity actors--and Berkeley Rep (LORT B).

But others, like the Colony, are specifically choosing smaller-cast shows. At the Los Angeles Equity office, business representative Don Hill said that theatres on the WCLO contract have been dying over the past decade: San Bernardino, Long Beach Civic Light Opera, and Music Theatre of Southern California (the latter a victim of 9/11, but they'd been struggling for three to five years). They're being replaced by other forms. One is the concert version of the Broadway musical, which uses fewer actors.

But Hill also noted positive signs for actors. One is enormous growth of Guest Artist contracts in the Western Region. "Colleges and universities are realizing they can afford to bring in an Equity guest artist here and there," he said. For the first time ever, there is an Equity presence at the Hollywood Bowl, which presented The Music Man. There's even been a new agreement established with casinos in Las Vegas and Tahoe. And in the San Diego area, five out of seven developing theatres went to contract over the past three years. "As some things are dying," said Hill, "we're trying to see where jobs can be created."

In other Southland trends, Hill notices a plethora of light comedies, comedy routines, and self-produced one-person shows. He attributes the comedies to an audience need to cope with stress.

The Fallout

At Theatre Bay Area, the service organization for 300-some companies in Northern California, director of company services Trevor Allen noted that, with San Francisco and Silicon Valley hit so hard by the collapse of high-tech startups, many marginally employed actors--those in less demand than, for example, Jim Carpenter--have been moving to New York and Los Angeles in hopes of finding more work. "The actors who were doing mainstage shows at San Jose Rep and TheatreWorks, and maybe one show a year under a BAPP, not for the money but for a good role--that isn't really happening now," Allen said. "Actors are saying times are tight, budgets are strapped at every level." He noted that these days, the same 100 or 200 Equity actors get a certain amount of income, although mostly not a living wage. The rest are scrambling.

On the other hand, Walnut Creek may be seeing more Equity roles opening up, as Marin Theatre Company artistic director Lee Sankowich takes on the additional job of artistic director at Center Repertory Theatre. Marin has been operating on a BAT at the highest tier (80 percent Equity, $495/week), and until recently, Center Rep has worked with a Guest Artist contract. Now, because Sankowich hopes to move entire productions--like next season's world premiere of a recently discovered Tennessee Williams play with nine Equity roles--over the San Rafael Bridge, Center Rep will be on an LOA referenced to LORT D. Projects like that translate into more work weeks for the actors who are cast, but not necessarily work for more actors.

Marin Theatre casting director Annie Stuart noted a few other changes in the scene that affect local actors. San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater has a company now--albeit of only three actors, but since those three are regularly cast in good roles, the perception is that fewer good roles are available at A.C.T. (not to be confused with Seattle's A.C.T.) for the talent pool at large. On the other hand, she pointed out that at California Shakespeare Festival, artistic director Jonathan Moscone is increasingly casting locals.

Stuart said there have always been very few Equity jobs available in the Bay Area, and this season was no exception. Actors, she said, are eager to join Equity, "but what they don't understand is that you're locking yourself out of career opportunities. A.C.T. gives ingenue roles to M.F.A. students, not to someone off the street who just joined Equity. Or they, or Berkeley Rep, hire those roles out of town." Most of the Bay Area actors who make a living on the stage tend to be white men over 40, she observed.

At the San Francisco Equity office, business rep Jane Shaffer estimates that the same number of Equity positions were available this past season as the season before. None of the BAT theatres or LORT theatres requested emergency concessions, nor have they cut employment, as far as she can tell. "Most of our theatres are used to having no money," she sighed. "So when the economic downturn hits, they have slightly less money." If any of the theatres had been particularly hard hit by 9/11 in terms of ticket sales, it would show up in their box office tallies, and they could go down a notch in tier, but that scenario hasn't materialized.

In any case, as elsewhere, the dot-com bust affected Bay Area theatres more than did the events following Sept. 11. In fact, since the dot-commers left, there's been a benefit for smaller theatres: More spaces suitable for performing are now available.

They Will Survive

Despite all, actors and theatres soldier on. Sacrifices are made at all levels. Jim Carpenter goes on unemployment occasionally. And he said that, sadly, if he's offered several roles simultaneously, he finds himself opting for the higher paycheck rather than the juicier role simply because it's so expensive to live in the Bay Area. He and his wife, Cassandra, who owns a costume design studio, have been married 29 years, chose not to have children because of the demands and uncertainties of their professions, live modestly, and still find it hard to make ends meet.

"When it's not the dot-com boom-or-bust, it'll be something else--maybe an earthquake," predicted Equity's Jane Shaffer wryly. For better or worse, theatre artists and organizations know how to adapt--it's pretty much bred in the bone. BSW

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