When Martha Demson moved to LA from the East Coast as a young actress studying under Sanford Meisner in the early ‘90s, her first steps through the doors of Open Fist Theatre Company changed her life forever. The nonprofit organization, which became home to generations of artistic talent, was paying $3,000 a month for its theater and the acre parking lot that surrounded it.
“We had no money for production budgets. Everything was recycled and repurposed from movie sets and anything we could borrow, but we did have dreams,” said Demson, president of the Theatre Producers of Southern California and artistic director of Open Fist. “We argued about our dreams and we changed our dreams endlessly, but that wasn’t the point. The point was not only that we had dreams but that we could imagine ourselves still dreaming in the future.”
Today the $3,000 that used to pay for rent can’t even cover the costs of the company’s monthly COVID-19 tests. The rent has tripled, along with construction costs for sets and costumes.
“It was the faith in our future dreams that pulled us forward,” Demson described. “Thirty years later, our dreams are dim. … We’re still losing $15,000 a month, and we’re one of the lucky ones. … When we look at our future, it gets shorter every day.”
California legislators, artist labor unions, performing arts employers, arts advocates and Hollywood stars recently met at Boston Court Theatre to urge Gov. Gavin Newsom to sign Senate Bill 1116, which was authored by Sen. Anthony J. Portantino and Sen. Susan Rubio to invest in arts jobs and prevent the demise of more performing arts organizations by establishing the Equitable Payroll Fund for the nonprofit arts sector.
“We’re here to help these severely impacted live venues survive,” Portantino said. “So many of our young people first get introduced to the arts through that theater down the street, whether they’re volunteering or going to their first show.”
For Rubio, her love for the theater began as a child when she earned the lead role in an elementary school show.
“It really did inspire me,” she described. “It gave me hope. I come from an inner-city community in Downtown Los Angeles back in the ‘70s where children like myself just didn’t have that. You didn’t have access to the arts. You didn’t have access to movie theaters. It was very difficult to be part of the larger community. And so when I started doing these little shows in elementary, it just opened my eyes.”
During the pandemic, the live arts industry was crushed due to the inability for people to gather in large groups indoors. A study from the National Endowment for the Arts found that the unemployment rates for artists in 2021 remained 7.2%, double the pre-pandemic level nationally.
“I happen to have the honor of representing the densest square mile of theaters outside of New York’s Broadway, between Lankershim Boulevard and Magnolia,” Assemblymember Adrin Nazarian said. “There were more than 22 small theaers. Ten of them have not reopened yet after COVID, so this was high time for us to take appropriate steps to make these investments necessary.”
According to a survey commissioned by Arts for LA of over 70 performing arts organizations throughout the county, theater operating capacity and audience attendance were down 50% while ticket revenues were down by one-third from pre-pandemic levels.
“Producing theater is very, very hard,” said Kate Shindle, president of the Actors’ Equity Association. “Producing not-for-profit theater is harder, especially as we all grapple with the impact of COVID on the live performing arts.”
Shindle expressed her belief that California has underinvested in the live arts for years, citing its rank as 28th in the nation in per capita arts funding.
“It’s not a coincidence that communities across the nation change for the better when the arts move in, but it is a bitter pill when that same growth prices those same theaters out of those neighborhoods,” Shindle said. “A 2018 UNESCO study reported that ‘the largest subsidy for the arts comes not from governments, patrons or the private sector, but from artists themselves in the form of unpaid or underpaid labor.’ It is time to change that.”
The aim of SB 1116 is to address the impacts of the pandemic on the live arts industry by providing nonprofit organizations in need with grants to help bring artists, actors, choreographers, dancers, designers, directors, musicians, producers, stage managers, technicians and all other personnel back onto payrolls.
“SB 1116 is the result of a nearly unprecedented collaboration, at least in my experience between employers, workers and lawmakers,” Shindle described. “It’s especially important to theaters attempting to serve historically underrepresented and marginalized communities, which often don’t even qualify for the grants given to their multimillion-dollar counterparts.”
The bill will provide funding for both production and nonproduction employees and include safeguards against employee misclassification. It will also require employers to provide their policies on harassment prevention as well as diversity, equity and inclusion to encourage safe and inclusive workspaces for all workers, whether or not their job is funded by a grant. Through SB 1116, theaters in need will be able to receive large reimbursements, which are scaled back as they grow.
“SB 1116 is an investment in jobs. It’s an investment in small businesses,” Arts for LA CEO Gustavo Herrera said. “It’s also an investment in the economic development of regions across the state of California and here in Los Angeles. … According to 2022 study by the Otis report, Los Angeles arts, culture and entertainment generated over $160 billion in revenue, almost 1 million jobs in the region. I want us to make no mistake about this: arts, culture and entertainment are key industry sectors here in Los Angeles that drive the economic growth of the region alongside retail, alongside transportation, alongside hospitality.”
For the bill’s author, Portantino, SB 1116 isn’t just about economic growth and job security. It’s about saving the spaces where people of all ages and backgrounds can come together and express themselves and their dreams through performance.
“Great theater is about challenging how we think and encouraging us to fantasize about the world we aspire to,” Portantino said. “Let’s do more than fantasize and inspire. Let’s get this bill signed so we can just plain support the arts and artists across California that entertain us, that challenge us and our conventions, and inspire us to be a better society. … The show must go on.”
Though LA’s live arts and entertainment sector continues to feel the financial toll of the pandemic with many theaters still struggling to survive, many arts advocates throughout the community expressed a sense of hope.
“Coming out of COVID, I feel every day how much our community is excited to be back, how much they crave the opportunity to laugh and to cry and to feel empathy, and to dream together in order to build a better world,” Demson said. “California’s small performing arts community brings people together to tell the stories that reflect our identity and let us know who we are and who we can be together. If we lose our small performing arts organizations, not only will we lose our dreams, but we will lose the dreamers of tomorrow.”