LA Has a Theatre Problem

by Constance Strickland

LA has a theatre problem. We live in a city where hundreds of theatre artists are cooped up in small spaces trying to find ways to create new work.

We are lacking hub spaces, safe spaces such as the Judson Church, BAM, Performance Space122, HERE and GIBNEY – all in New York – where one can develop new works. We need to continue to build houses that allow artists room to take risks while naturally creating work that reflects the people in our city.

In approaching the communal arts space Hauser & Wirth to present work, I was told that their relationship focuses on residencies with CalArts students and alumni. REDCAT’s quarterly studio program has a history of featuring new works by CalArts alumni. But it is vital that local institutions, theatre houses, and galleries open their doors to independent artists not affiliated with academic institutions. The more academic qualifications get in the way of the arts, the more we we lose the organic expansion and find that the same artists in rotation at the same spaces are the only ones getting supported.

We have programs that are being funded by the Center Theatre Group (CTG) and the City’s Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA), including the DCA COLA Fellowship program, providing support to individual artists who can show 15 years showing on their resume or emerging artists – choreographers or dancers who went to post-secondary instruction only need to show 8 years on their submission resume. Yet we still need to make room for independent theatre artists who are not affiliated with a theatre and have not received extensive support.

The DCA also has the Performing Arts Programs, where they currently manage four City-owned theatres: the Warner Grand Theatre (San Pedro), the Vision Theatre (Leimert Park), the Barnsdall Gallery Theatre (East Hollywood), and the Madrid Theatre (Canoga Park). I addition, they oversee two City-owned, operator-managed theatre: the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center (West Adams, managed by Ebony Repertory Theatre) and the Los Angeles Theatre Center/The NEW LATC (Downtown Los Angeles, managed by the Latino Theater Company). Yet how much are these theatre houses charging to rent out space to independent theatre artists?

The rising cost of renting space is the number one battle theatre artists are facing. Many of us are hustling – using parks, our houses, gyms, or begging to use educational spaces. Yes, everyone has to pay the rent but what can the City do to make these City-managed theatres more affordably accessible to theatre artists building new work? The conversation in theatre for a long time has been, “How do we get people into the seats? How can our audience members reflect our city?” The question now needs to be: How can we support independent theatre artists, many of whom are artists of color and already underserved, and underrepresented in the arts? Many of us have only been surviving by the constant support we receive from our communities, but how do theatre artists here who have no support and are not being nurtured via theatre houses have the chance to rise to the next level? We need even more City and State funding that understands not all theatre artists are part of a non-profit, have fiscal sponsorship, or can show a fifteen-year producing resume.

Congratulations to A Noise Within for taking a risk on its community of storytellers with Noise Now. This is a pioneering move that is leading the way to break monopoly within our theatre community. Theatre companies throughout the State should be finding ways to create programming that makes way for new voices. It is not enough to just add “diverse” programming to your season with the same playwrights being continuously being redirected. We need to widen the lens of what theatre is and can be. The times are changing and artists and audiences of all backgrounds are hungry to hear new voices that capture the human spirit. It’s no secret that we are losing a generation of artists due to theatre artists having no time, space, and financial resources to imagine, experiment, develop, then share with our communities.

We are missing theatre artists Made in LA., local playwrights writing beautiful plays, avant-garde artists daring to create socially relevant, brave new works… who are able to get suitable financial support for doing it. What are the programs that are out there, and how much actual funding do they give artists? It is vital to the City that politicians find a way to say our theatre artists matter, too. Queens, New York offers the Artists for the Creation of Original Artistic Work Grant. From Minnesota to Seattle, we’re seeing artists given the opportunity to grow and contribute their voices on a variety of local stages. What will LA do rise to the occasion?

I’m calling on the LA City politicians to step up funding for independent theatre artists and to nonprofit theatres who do not usually get any funding at all so they can risk helping new artistic voices. I’m calling on Mitch O’Farrell, David Ryu, Mayor Eric Garcetti, Governor Newsom, Senators Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris to focus, invest and fight for the arts and artists living in Los Angeles.

I’ll say it again. We are losing a generation of artists to other professional fields, or who are moving to affordable states. Or they stay and struggle to create what they can with the little resources available and their own funds. With this becoming a regular occurrence, we are not able to gauge the times accurately – a multitude of artist’s voices are not being cultivated. There are state grants available but the scope is not wide enough and the requirements can often be limiting, leaving many artists out of the application pool.

There are days I find myself scared, terrified that the work will not get done. That my ideas will disappear with time and memory if there is not a change in how we consider, support and nurture theatre artists.

Diep Tran recently stated in American Theatre Magazine, “The price for total and complete artistic freedom is that almost nobody makes a living wage, let alone a living, doing it. If they do, they either have personal money or they have a partner who can support them and allow them to do the work.” This is true, and if this continues to be so, we will be left with a skewed perspective of our artistic truth during the 21st century. 

Department of Cultural Affairs Grant + Richard Sherwood Grant Links for Individual Artists:

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