On Monday night at the Barnsdall Gallery Theatre, the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs, LA Stage Alliance (was anyone from LASA actually there??), and Arts for LA organized a “town hall” for the LA theatre community alongside and a panel of LA theatre peeps to make use of a visit from the National Endowment for the Arts Director of Theatre and Musical Theatre (and previous LA resident and theatre-maker!), Greg Reiner.
If you are paying attention to the news at all, you know that along with a lot of other really important programs and organizations, the NEA is on the chopping block in our new “administration.” “Administration” implies that there’s some sort of order and organization going on, so we’ll just leave those quotation marks there. Anyway, the chopping block is a very familiar place for us theatre folks. We live there. We know what it looks, feels, and smells like. For some of us (cough cough, people in their 20’s and early 30’s), thanks to the economy crash, it’s all we’ve ever known. It’s like growing up in an abusive home where abuse is what you believe to be normal, and yeah, it sucks, and you have a feeling that if lots of things were different you could be in a much better, happier, healthier situation, but at least in a gross way that abuse is familiar and what you’re used to. As we cradle our love for theatre and the arts, constantly kicking away the haters, we are honest with ourselves that we are always last on the list to get money and first on the list to get eliminated.
The program included quite an impressive list of people, but what I was not at all impressed with, despite the nice turnout (Greg Reiner claimed during his up at bat that this was the largest turnout he’d seen for any town hall he’d done in the country!), I was very frustrated with the people who I didn’t see. The only way that I or anyone I knew at the meeting even found out about its existence was through a random Facebook event that we weren’t invited to but just happened to see floating around on Facebook a day or two before the actual event. I’m sure there were reasons for the lack of organization in inviting people from the community and that this was possibly put together last minute, but the huge absence of main players from the 99 seat theatre scene made me wonder who this meeting was meant to be for, as they clearly weren’t interested in inviting and involving people who are really making consistent work in the trenches and fighting the good fight.
Even though I haven’t heard anything from the Theatre Producers League in a while (guys, what’s up??), it was terribly disheartening to hear people bring up needs in the community that TPLLA is totally already working on. There is SUCH a huge disconnect between these various arts entities and that is something we really need to resolve. I was so frustrated that I literally almost jumped out of my chair to run on the stage and be like, “YOU GUYS– we already got this!” A bunch of different groups working separately on solutions for the same issues at the same time is a waste of time and energy. We need one group/org to represent us and lead the others, and we have to come to an agreement about who that’s going to be. Is it LASA? Is it TPLLA? Is it the DCA? Arts for LA? Is LA Theatre Network even still a group?
In terms of the content of the meeting, it was mainly all the reps at these different organizations telling us how much they care about theatre, which, ok cool, but some interesting and topical conversations did come out of the questions to the panel.
Some cool things that came up:
- Talking about defining LA theatre for outsiders. You guys all totally know what that means. Others usually have their own made-up assumption of what LA theatre is or isn’t, and damned if they aren’t SO READY to share that opinion with you at a party: “There is NO good theatre in Los Angeles.” “If you really want to do theatre, you have to go to New York.” “All the theatre in LA is just actors who wanna get famous in film waiting around for their big break.” Etc, etc, etc… What IS very special about LA theatre and makes us awesome is the cross-pollination of various mediums coming together, everyone being excellent in what they bring to the table. Our abundance of sub-sub-groups is a big positive and makes for delicious niche theatre. Nancy Keystone, who I have a HUGE art-crush on and definitely theatre-stalked for a while, said that LA is “endlessly discoverable.” Is that not the best
- Supporting FRINGE is supporting the entire LA theatre scene because that is where we are growing and evolving amazing work! Panel, suits, and theatre folks working in education or in offices— if you say that you are “involved in/a member of/representing the LA theatre community,” and you have never been to see a show at Fringe, you need to check yourself.
- Leslie Ishii (zot zot UCI!!!) talked about how she has been researching sustainability in relation to the arts for a while now, and how we can look at the recently passed homelessness measure to set better models for how we look after our artist population. We are, when it comes down to it, a vulnerable population. (btw, Mental health IS TOTALLY A SUSTAINABILITY ISSUE!!!!!! If we want to continue to make art, we need to be able to sustain ourselves emotionally and psychologically!!!! Cue Maureen taking care of your heart and feelings via Artists Unbound, coming to a multi-use room near you)
- Nancy Keystone brought up the unfortunately pertinent issue that we (theatre/theatre-makers) are not considered important in the bigger sphere/country. This is something my super rad friend and Arts Administrator/Future Policy-Maker and Superhero Lia Kozatch and I talk about a lot, and unfortunately it’s absolutely true. We are not taken seriously and we are not valued. And I don’t think that’s just me being a martyr. As a society and an economy, the US does not value performing arts (again, we live on the chopping block.) The fix for this is so huge and will take so many years and layers of value-shifting, I don’t know if I’ll see if happen in my lifetime.
I don’t know why they called this gathering a “town hall.” For me, that phrase conjures up the image of a Parks & Recreation/Leslie Knope-style meeting where the people in the community get to have their voices heard by the people who are supposed to represent them. Unfortunately there was neither time nor opportunity for anyone in the audience to speak after the presentation was over. A few questions were asked after Greg Reiner spoke, but we didn’t have time to really dig into anything important. To me it was a meeting for the suits to say, “We know what you guys are doing is meaningful and you deserve support and especially funding……… but there is no support and there is no funding and we’re super super sorrryyyyyyyy….”
In a time when so many of us are negatively affected by the government and are freaking out about what the future holds, we need action, not words. We don’t want the “town hall” version of “thoughts and prayers” on Twitter. We want a plan. We want things we can DO. BECAUSE WE ARE DOERS AND MAKERS.
One of my other lovely theatre cohorts at the meeting, the illustrious Greg Crafts, asked Greg Reiner and the other desk peeps what we, as a theatre community who care very much about taking action, can DO to help these organizations survive and show that there are citizens who will fight for them. Reiner responded that we should talk to people at LASA and Arts for LA and ask them. If there was indeed anyone there from LASA or Arts for LA (again, neither of which seem to have taken the reins of the community that I really think someone needs to friction’ take!!!), they didn’t share anything with us about what that support would look like.
TLDR: Our usual money/support people love us but are stuck and they also don’t know who the LA theatre community actually is.