L.A Has a Theatre Problem

by Constance Strickland

L.A 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 in a city where artists funding is almost nonexistent, and a city filled with Black and Brown artists who often enough you won’t see on stage.

We are lacking hub spaces, safe spaces, such as the Movement Research at 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 give artists room to take risks while naturally creating work that reflects the myriad of colors and people in our city.

In approaching the communal art space Hauser & Wirth to present work, I was told that their relationship focuses on residencies with CalArts students and alumni only. REDCAT’s quarterly studio program has a history of featuring new works only by CalArts alumni. But it is vital that local institutions, theatres, and galleries, usually led by white males or white females need to open their doors to independent artists not affiliated with academic institutions nor Actor’s Equity Association. The more academic and union qualifications get in the way of the arts, the more we lose the organic expansion along with finding the same artists are in rotation at the same spaces and become the only ones getting supported.

Now, there are programs that are 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 on their resume, or emerging artists, choreographers or dancers who went to post-secondary institutions and 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 education and need support to continue to develop new artistic works.

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). Although these spaces are not perfect in structure and need revamping they are vital to Black and Brown communities and they deserve city funding. Yet, they too must ask themselves how much access are they creating for artists in their communities to afford to rent out space? How are they assisting independent theatre artists in developing new works?

The rising cost of renting space is the number one battle theatre + independent 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?” Yet, How is the leadership and artists’ onstage inside these theatre spaces reflecting the outside community? The questions now need to be: How can we support independent theatre artists, many of whom are artists of color and already underserved, and underrepresented in the arts? How can we create accessible spaces for new independent artists? Many of us have only been surviving by the constant support we receive from our communities, consistent patrons and family and friends supporting our ideas but how do theatre artists in Los Angeles who have no support and are not being nurtured via theatre houses have the chance to rise to the next level of our field? The citizens of the state of California deserve arts access, which includes increased City and State funding that understands not all theatre artists are part of a non-profit, have fiscal sponsorship, or can show an eight or 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. Although A Noise Within has no Black staff, it has taken steps to present LGBTQ, Black, and Brown artistic voices on a wider spectrum. They can do better. It is not enough to just add “diverse” programming to your season with the same Black playwrights being continuously being recycled and reused. We need to widen the lens of what theatre is and can be. That includes Center Theatre Group and Pasadena Playhouse who can risk innovative seasons by using local talent. 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 who help build the work.

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 should be able to get sustainable financial support for creating that work. What are the programs that are out there, and how much actual funding do they give artists? It is vital to our City that politicians find a way to say Los Angeles 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 it take for L.A theatres’ to rise to the occasion to create access and build a theatre legacy that reflects our city?

I’m also requesting all L.A City politicians to step up funding for independent theatre artists and nonprofit theatres and collectives 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.

We are living in an interesting and active time. Many of us have been fighting for a long time for equality and space in theatre for so long we’ve been unable to fully breathe within the work due to stipulations and limitations. Yet, independent artists continue to break barriers and create work within a broken system. For how long will we have to do so? There are days I find myself scared, terrified that the work will not get done. That my ideas will disappear with time and fade with memory if there is not a change in how we 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.