My love affair with Los Angeles theatre began in 1985. I found myself downtown at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, an old bank the city relinquished for $1, to an intrepid soul named Bill Bushnell who staked a claim for a 4 theatre complex, in the middle of serious urban blight.
I was working on a new play written by my friend Bill Mastrosimone. It was about the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. There was a tank on stage. It was, like the theatre itself, way ahead of its time.
Downtown was very different then. We’d jump in our cars after a late rehearsal and run all the red lights to the freeway. The lawyers owned the city until 5 then after that you were on your own. The Alexandria Hotel was across from the theatre, and a lot of ladies lived and worked there. They’d hang out the windows and shout down, laughing at us, wondering what it was that brought us to their hood.
It was theatre - the hard scrapple kind of theatre, born of cheap real estate and passion for change. Here was a chance to work on a promising new play, a play with something to say, art that mattered. Who cared about the chance you took. Crack, gangs, homelessness, and deserted streets - it was all part of the landscape, the beat of the city that unbeknownst to me had begun to get under my skin.
Although I still lived in NYC, I began to think about the sprawling City of Angels and liked flying around town at night with the top down on my rented convertible. I could not tell which way was east, had to remind myself where the ocean lay and for the life of me I could not get over the endless mini strip malls which dotted every corner of the city on streets called Bundy and Sepulveda - boulevards that seemed to go for miles.
I started to hear the phrase “99 seats”. Apparently, there was a way to make a play happen in LA in an intimate space and not pay the actors a salary. I’d run a couple theatres by then so I knew this was a unique approach to producing. Little theatre companies were popping up all over the city, doing balls out crazy things. For thespians, the Wild West was alive and well.
I really liked directing under the 99 Seat contract. It meant you could put on a new play, my reason for existing at that time, for a tenth of what it would cost off Broadway. It meant freedom from commercial pressure, and there seemed to be no end to the talented pool of actors, looking to build a career that could only be described as a triple threat - they would succeed in TV, film and the theatre. One would feed the other, quite literally, but the theatre would give them community and an artistic identity, beyond the commercials, voice-overs and day jobs.
Thirty years on, having moved here permanently and happily, I too have built a directing/producing career that includes TV, film and the theatre and now find myself at the helm of a documentary film about what may be the demise of the 99-seat theatre movement in LA. The theatre world as we know it is an endangered species, being put down, oddly enough, by it’s own Union.
Most Angelenos are unaware that there are nearly 200 intimate theatres operating in their city. Most don’t know that the Actors’ Union will terminate the 99-seat contract in December of 2016 and that the majority of Equity actors based in LA voted overwhelmingly against these changes.
In a city all too familiar with natural disasters, it's perhaps ironic that Los Angeles' 200 intimate theatres and the actors who work on their stages will soon be unprotected, unmoored, and vulnerable to their own deluge of uncertainty.
LOVE 99 - 9 Actors, 99 Hours, 99 Seats - is a film about theatre artists in danger of extinction, whose cultural loss will be felt in every neighborhood in the city. We should be prepared.