Thursday, October 27, 2011

Death to Dues

art by Hugh MacLeod, commissioned for C. David Gammel

I've been meaning to tackle this subject for some time, in language hard and unflinching.  A list of references out the wazoo, maybe even an interview with an Actor's Equity rep.  Truth is, I'm too busy doing things (i.e. producing, writing and performing) to write a massive expose on the subject.  Maybe someone with more time on their hands will pull the string on this moth eaten sweater, and make the frontpage of Backstage, LA Weekly, or at least get a bump on Bitter Lemons.

That this is not as big a controversy as casting director workshops once were is a testament to how marginalized theatre is in this town.  You remember casting director workshops, right?  Actors paying for access to casting directors under the auspices of a class?  Some were legit, sure.  Many of them weren't.  There was a pretty big stink made, and now if you want to deliver a casting director workshop, you have to be bonded and licensed.  Even to this libertarian, that sounds like a good idea.  Los Angeles makes actors do stupid things.  Paying people for a chance to be seen is one of those things.

I've ranted about how unconscionable the dues-paying model is (here).  For those of you too lazy to click through, here is the salient point: If a theatre company cannot fund itself with fundraising and box office receipts alone, it doesn’t deserve to exist.  Too harsh?  I co-founded (and since left) a company that started with the dues-paying model as a way of funding ourselves.  We called it our "life blood".  Keep in mind, if it looks like I'm pointing fingers, I'm just as guilty of perpetuating an unethical system as the next guy.

A few things to consider:
  • Per the Los Angeles 99-Seat Plan, "The Producer may not, in order to supplement the production budget, request or require financial contributions or loans; accept kickbacks, tuition, fees, assessments or payments of any kind from cast members or Stage Managers."  (Note:  This language does not specify "4 As members" but rather the more general "cast members.")  A company producing under the 99-Seat Plan that also requires its members to pay dues is in open violation of the plan.
  • 93% of the companies that produce Ovation-worthy theatre in LA are NOT dues paying companies, based on a survey of the 44 companies who were nominated for the 2010/11 season. There are only three companies that charge dues, and two of those companies offer some sort of regular acting class in exchange.  I realize that correlation is not causation, but it is worth it to note that arguably the most professional theatre being produced in Los Angeles doesn't dip its fingers into its actor's pockets.
  • A professional is one who gets paid.  That's the simple, dictionary definition.  I'd say an actor who is serious about her craft, who applies professional standards yet defers payment is still, in essence, a professional.  But what would you call an actor who applies the same professional standards, yet pays to be a part of a theatre company?  Considering how much theatre is produced in this town that doesn't require remuneration from the cast?
  • One of the arguments I've heard in defense of the dues-paying model is "It keeps the flakes at bay." The absolute illogic of this statement is staggering.  If anything, the dues-paying model keeps the flakes in charge.  Think about it:  If your company's life blood comes from the actors and not the audience you may rarely feel the pinch of bad programming, low production values, etc.  Fundraisers can break-even or barely profit, and no one will really notice.  In short, you don't have to try as hard.  The dues-paying model is unethical, amateurish, and ultimately a hindrance to creating better theatre.
If you run a dues-paying company and it seems too scary to go cold turkey and drop the dues requirement all at once, you could take baby steps.  Maybe switch to a "Pay What You Can" model for dues until you have the confidence to get rid of them all together.  People seem to love the PWYC model.  It does great things for audience numbers and box office take, or so we're told.  Maybe extend the same courtesy to your company members that you extend to your audience.

Finally, what's good for casting director workshops is good for dues-paying theatre companies.  Theatre companies dead set on maintaining their dues-paying model ought to be bonded by the State of California.  A $50,000 bond ... now that will keep the flakes at bay.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Sketch Comedy Sucks

Never in my wildest dreams did I see myself as part of a sketch comedy troupe. A mime troupe, maybe. Possibly a dance troupe. Like every other young man in America, I had visions of perhaps making it to Saturday Night Live -- as a host if not a regular cast member. This was a vision fuelled by men such as Phil Hartman and Mike Meyers, and far too many lonely Saturday nights spent at home in my teen years.
Flash forward [muffle-muffle] years, and here I am. Hollywood, California. Geographically and culturally removed from "Live! From New York!" by a continent-sized ... well, continent. And what have I learned?
Sketch comedy sucks. It's too often done poorly, with little rehearsal or attention to sound comedy writing. It co-occupies a niche of suck with bad improv (which is to say "most" improv); a lonely cubbyhole of despair full of cheap shots, easy targets, and pandering. My God! The pandering!
To say "I hate sketch comedy" would be too strong, too virulent, and too truthful. But I also love sketch comedy, when done "right." What do I mean by "right?"
  • The moment when Dave Foley realizes he's eating eggs that Chicken Lady laid.
  • Whenever Robert Webb begins singing "Devil's Gallop," whilst manically running around.
  • When Phil Hartman's Anal Retentive Chef discovers a piece of pepper that is bigger than the rest.
  • When the cast of "The Jew, The Italian & The Red Head Gay" and (inexplicably) "Godspell" catch their breath after singing the theme song.
In a word, when it's funny.  To be a part of a sketch comedy troupe and be able to live with myself, it has to be good.  It has to be funny.

Die Grüppe was forged at a theatre company Phillip Kelly and I helped co-found, and is now under the umbrella of Merry War Theatre Group. We (and by "we" I mean a talented group of writers and performers that I consider myself lucky to be counted among) have been hard at work crafting a new show.  The material is written, a director is on board, and we are narrowing in on dates. Die Grüppe is back.

We just went live with our Facebook page. Give us a "like," won't you? 

Wednesday, October 19, 2011


From Hugh MacLeod (author of Ignore Everybody, among other things):
There’re a lot of smart people out there starting and driving businesses focused on changing the way we do things—especially in marketing and technology. Unfortunately, far too many companies still rely on tweaking what exists as opposed to reinventing.
I can personally vouch for the "tweaking what exists" when it comes to theatre.  You do what you know, and you tweak that.  It takes considerable courage and drive to part with preconceptions of How Things Ought To Be and really get down to building a company that really does something that matters.  Worse, it takes no effort to tweak away while convincing yourself you're reinventing.

There's a great quote from my favorite sci-fi author, Robert Heinlein, from his book The Cat Who Walked Through Walls:
The hardest part about gaining any new idea is sweeping out the false idea occupying that niche. As long as that niche is occupied, evidence and proof and logical demonstration get nowhere. But once the niche is emptied of the wrong idea that has been filling it — once you can honestly say, "I don't know", then it becomes possible to get at the truth.
I don't know.  I study, I theorize, I opine, I experiment, but I don't know.  And I hope I never do.  It keeps me flexible.

Hugh again:
So it comes down to knocking out some walls, and encouraging others to do the same. You’ve seen what this old method can do, so get it out of the way to let new ideas work some magic for a little while…
Until, of course, it’s time to trash that for whatever is next.
I've said it before and I'll say it again:  Theatre is the phoenix's art.  If you're not reinventing, what the hell are you doing?