Fire in the Theatre/Theater
Last night, I took my seat in the back row for RMT’s Rant and Rave, at first alone in a theater full of people. My wife was home with her mother and the dog. I eavesdropped on the laughter, the hugging across rows and over the laps of gracious strangers, and all the genuine how you beens more befitting a rural church social than a short prose program, staged on a Monday night, mere blocks from the epicenter of the 1992 riots. A friendly gentleman of some advancing years asked if the seat to my left was free. Anxious to participate, in some small way, in the family reunion that was happening around me, I made a joke, and told him ‘Yes, but it’ll cost ya.’ It was a joke I thought a man of his age would appreciate, and I was right. He made a remark about having ‘paid his dues’ which I told him I did not doubt, and acknowledged I had still more dues to pay.
I am a talented conversationalist, in so far as I can find something interesting about anybody. This man was certainly interesting. He had lived in Los Angeles for all of his life, more than seventy years at least. He had spent some part of the new millennium restoring a family home in Echo Park, one his grandfather had built, a California craftsman which included a full replica of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s study. His grandfather was a founder of an early 20th century transcendentalist colony in the neighborhood, at the peak of a hill, an idealist cadre which lent its name to nearby Fellowship Park. As a boy, my seatmate attended socialist organizing meetings in that park, where he met the lifelong friend who had invited him to the show and would be performing tonight.
He owned and lived in many places through his many years, landing eventually in Malibu (lucky him) while letting his grandfather’s house, never tearing it down in favor of a faux Spanish Colonial mini-mansion, or some boxy modern thing with space to park six cars. Through the middle and end of that century, when Echo Park was a playground for gangs and addicts, he kept the house in good repair despite trouble finding tenants who wouldn’t tear the copper from the walls. “The only way to find the right people,” he said, was to “put signs all along the telephone poles at the bottom of the hill. The people around here knew the top of the hill was special. Those kinds of tenants appreciate the extra work I’ve done.” Now, as an old man, he feels great pride in the originality and quality of that house, with its studio homage to perhaps the most quotable man who ever wrote in English. While Los Angeles tore itself down, in lieu of newer, more disposable architecture, he stood guard over his ancestor’s tiny slice of the world, a hilltop with uncommon views in which nature and the skyline coexist.
Every artist was first an amateur.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson, Progress of Culture
The evening’s host, an ebullient Brit named Ron Bottitta, who I recognized from various Facebook comment flame wars (in which I was no doubt a key belligerent), took the stage to great applause – the kind of familiar applause that signals an audience of friends who will do as much to make this a special night as will the talent on the stage. Ron welcomed his “fellow dilletantes” and announced that he had thrown out his carefully considered words on the evening’s theme, Adaptation, in lieu of a comment on Equity’s pending abolishment of the 99 Seat Plan. Ron, rightfully in my opinion, pointed to the work of Rogue Machine Theatre as a perfect example of the kind of theater possible under the plan, and a certain victim of the plan’s indirect goal of eliminating or transforming moderately successful small companies into a mold more familiar to their rigid national labor economics. Ron constructed a loud and unwieldy metaphor, comparing the making of theater to the riding of motorcycles. Unlike Robert Pirsig, he focused not on the nature of the bike itself, but the community of like-minded enthusiasts who, in various levels of their professional riding careers, seek the excitement and enrichment of the back roads of our magnificent basin in lieu of the flat, circular, more predictable and hopelessly boring race tracks of the city centre. Let them circle their tracks, Ron says, “some of us want to ride in the canyons.”
But now, he gleeked, here come the mopeds. These special snowflakes (and their even specialer cousins, the scooters), are not fast enough to race for the crowds, not skillful or adventurous enough to take on the mountains, but would rather we tear up the country roads and repurpose that broken asphalt for new, safer race tracks, just like the ones the pros use, but where they can take their 2.1 CCs and putter around without fear of getting lost. The rest of us must trade in our Harleys for Vespas, or get in line to ride in circles.
I do not like riding motorcycles, but I love a well-stretched metaphor. Even more, I love that I had stumbled into what seemed to be a protest, or more accurately, a revival or an exhalation, of what this city stands to lose by demanding that every gig is a job.
The work presented by all six writers was quality. In the first act, Patrick Flanagan brought us to a gun range with his soon-to-be-father-in-law who asked him bluntly, “Would you die for her?” Laura Revness shared some (very useful) tips on how to use shame and humiliation to discipline ungrateful teenagers. And Carl Weintraub, my seatmate’s lifelong friend, shared a chronicle of his own childhood in and around the socialist movement, his father’s bipolar disorder, and his own adaptability that led him to become what every one else wanted him to be, instead of who he was. The writing was sharp, occasionally hilarious, the delivery was direct and real, with only a hint of that NPR smarm that leaks into Moth-imitators nationwide.
Every experiment, by multitudes or by individuals, that has a sensual and selfish aim, will fail.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson, Napoleon, or, Man of the World
After the intermission, and a reminder from the co-AD to buy the company’s semi-nude Shakespeare calendar for $20 because rents had gone up, John Perrin Flynn took the stage. He nodded appreciatively to the supportive crowd, looking like a beleaguered, academic Santa Claus, or what George Lucas might have looked like announcing the foreclosure of Skywalker Ranch in an alternate universe where he had fought and lost to commercial forces seeking to ‘update and improve’ his legendary franchise. I had never heard him speak before, he is very soft spoken, especially for a bloodsucking producer who intimidates his workforce, as Mary McColl and Backstage would have you imagine.
During the intermission, my seatmate leaned over and asked me if I knew anything about this 99 Seat thing. He was not a frequent attendee to the theater, making the trip from Malibu only when his friend Carl invited him. He didn’t understand how a union could ban people from working for free. I explained the situation to him as best I could. LA is full of actors, I said, and most of them can’t make a living while acting, so they work in other jobs. Additionally, they work on their craft, rehearsing scenes with partners, analyzing scripts and characters, and when possible, performing for live audiences, a key element to real practice as an entertainer. Years ago, many of these actors petitioned their professional union (which they valued highly as professionals themselves and seekers of more remunerative work) to be free to work for semi-established theaters of 99 seats or fewer, for essentially nothing. They wanted to be free to volunteer their professional talents in exchange for basic workplace protections, a small travel stipend, and the freedom to walk away if paying work (especially in TV and Film, this is Hollywood we’re talking about) came along. The union resisted, the actors sued, the judge decided, and 99 Seat was born. With that allowance in place, along with LA’s flat geography, venue mix, and the concurrent oversupply of aspiring writers, directors and would-be producers, a unique and fiercely independent theater ecosystem developed, one that generated more new plays than any other city in the world. Some was good, most was bad, but all of it was an expression of a city teeming with artistic talent and ambition, yearning for the public to bear witness. Now, seeing the green shoots of potential success (pushed forth largely by the lifelong efforts of people like John Perrin Flynn), Actor’s Equity Association believes the time has arrived, politically and economically, to force these productions into a traditional employer status, to pay their members minimum wage, and pressure and shame the companies who do not comply.
Flynn spoke of the coming change as “monumental and instantaneous” and followed with the historical lesson that “we know what happens when change is instantaneous and monumental: catastrophe.” The crowd crowed Amen. He warned that companies like RMT would simply not exist if their actors, many of whom have germinated careers of some renown as part of Rogue’s productions, were forced by their union to demand the minimum wage for everything they do, forcing RMT to bear the costs of being a traditional employer to every actor that steps into their studio, with all the added burdens that comes with. Flynn urged action, from union members especially, but there was a resignation in the speech which troubled me. I admire John Flynn, and John Pollono, (a producer of Rant and Rave and the writer and star of Small Engine Repair, one of my personal favorite plays of the last decade, I am not alone in this opinion) who had invited me to attend. When I think of companies like Rogue Machine folding, I feel an even greater sense of loss than I do for my own. I, personally, can adapt to anything. I started my career during the worst economic disaster in a hundred years. I founded a company with my friends at 22 which thrives to this day. I’ll get by. But people can move around, they can stretch and grow and bend. Companies need shared values, and vision. Houses need foundations. People can run from fire. This house is burning down. (The arsonist is from New York.)
For the hand can never execute any thing higher than the character can inspire.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson, Art, Essays: First Series.
The second act may have been even better than the first. Tim Bagley described how difficult it was to date for the first time as a middle aged man, having lost the love of his life to AIDS and spending his teenage years in the closet, he had little experience and had to learn to adapt. Leigh Curran shared the story of her mother’s final weeks, and how love is watching someone die. Jean Marie Black talked about her liver cancer (trust me, this entire evening was full of laughter and dare I say, catharsis) with stories of ambushing her friends with the news as if surprise could blunt the grim. She let us chuckle at the hardly comforting thought that it is pointless to save money when you know you’re doing to die.
I wondered how John Flynn and other producers of his caliber were thinking about their company’s fortunes, and should the nearly inevitable happen, as it almost always does, how would the great and tiny theaters of this city’s strange garden spend their final days? Ranting and raving, it seems, and aching for a forgotten future, where grandchildren dutifully care for a modest house with a fantastic view.