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'We're driving straight up the cliff': Theater is back, but recovery proves perilous

Jessica Gelt, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

"It's like, we're driving straight up the cliff … but we're swerving and bumping and jogging, and there's still a cliff there," he says. "We know it's coming, but we have no idea when we're gonna get there. And that makes it even even harder in a way."

The lack of additional funding comes at a perilous moment when operating costs have gone through the roof, they add. Part of that has to do with the continued threat of COVID-19, which has made necessary the extra costs of regular testing for cast and crew, dedicated COVID-19 monitors, additional cleaning and sanitizing, increased front-of-house staff and pricey air filtration systems.

Then there's the wildcard of general inflation, which caused a precipitous rise in the price of lumber for building sets, along with just about every other item needed to stage a production and operate a venue — materials for costumes, food, furniture, soap, sanitizer and paper towels have all skyrocketed in price.

That's in addition to the financial implications of the California Assembly bill AB 5, which went into effect at the beginning of 2020 and extends employee classification status to some gig workers, including actors and other performing artists.

"AB 5 is crippling the smaller theaters," says Snehal Desai, producing artistic director of East West Players, adding that he had to hire an additional staffer just to handle bringing former contractors onto payroll. As an organization adds staff, he says, that, in turn, affects its insurance and liability. "There are all these administrative issues and hidden costs that really pile up."

Martha Demson, board president of the Theatrical Producers League of Los Angeles, an association for small and midsize nonprofit theaters, estimates that for the smallest theaters, the cost of payroll under AB 5 has gone up several-hundred percent.

 

That's why her group, along with the labor union Actors Equity Association, is co-sponsoring SB 116, or the California Equitable Payroll Fund, which seeks to establish a grant program to support small nonprofit performing arts organizations by substantially reimbursing payroll expenses.

"This is something that we need," Demson says. "I think it will help our organizations get to a place where they can be self-sustaining on their own, and right now they cannot. When we talk about this program, we talk about jobs, equity and community."

No matter what legislative battles are won, the performing arts in L.A. won't achieve even footing if audiences continue to keep their distance, according to just about everyone involved. And audience behavior is perhaps the trickiest issue to tackle — yet in some ways, the most unknowable.

If Broadway is a testing ground for trends in the rest of the country, the numbers there are not encouraging. Forbes recently reported that Broadway grosses fell 15% to $29 million in the last week of April, with attendance taking a nosedive as well, leaving at least one-quarter of all seats unoccupied.

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