A California Senate bill to provide funding to small, nonprofit performing arts theaters passed with unanimous votes through the Assembly Labor Committee on June 22 and will move forward for further voting from the Assembly Appropriations Committee.
The bill, SB 805, or “Save The Performing Arts Act of 2021,” is aimed at helping small nonprofit performing arts companies, with equal or less than $1.4 million annual revenue, pay all of their workers and performers minimum wage.
SB 805 would direct the California Arts Council to establish the California Nonprofit Performing Arts Paymaster and the Performing Arts Equitable Payroll Fund, both of which would allocate funds, low-cost payroll and paymaster services to small-budget theaters.
Councilmembers Gil Cedillo, District 1, and Kevin de Leon, District 14, proposed a resolution to endorse SB 805 to be voted on by the LA City Council after Sen. Susan Rubio, representing District 22 of LA County, introduced the bill in April 2021.
De Leon, speaking at a Los Angeles Theatre Center press conference, said, “What we know is that these small theaters offer some of the few opportunities to tell the real stories and livelihoods of Latinos, Black, Asian and Indigenous people.
“And not just to tell those stories but to have them be written, produced, directed and performed by people of color.”
The press conference, organized by the SB 805 Coalition consisting of six theater leagues, 45 small 99-seat theaters and six individuals, brought Hollywood stars and Los Angeles’ Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) theater leaders together to speak and advocate for SB 805.
Like many other businesses, small nonprofit theaters are struggling to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic while complying with Assembly Bill 5, which forces companies to reevaluate a worker’s status and effectively provide wages and benefits to all workers, with exception to independent contractors who must meet certain work conditions under California labor laws.
“These 99-seat theaters are the lifeline to our artistic communities, and we need them now, especially during a post-COVID-19 recovery period,” said de Leon.
“The missing piece between these small theaters staying open or closing is immediate funding. Immediate funding will help them comply with Assembly Bill 5.”
An SB 805 Coalition press release cites small nonprofit theaters as “incubators” for playwrights, actors and other artists, particularly in marginalized communities. The release states that, historically, smaller theaters provided “networking opportunities and mentorship for Black, Indigenous and people of color artists to facilitate connections and performance experience necessary for career advancement.”
Edward James Olmos, a multiaward-winning actor, who starred in “Selena,” “Stand and Deliver” and “American Me,” attended the press conference.
“If you have enjoyed any of my performances within the last 50 years, please understand I would never have been able to do that if it wasn’t for small theater,” Olmos said.
Olmos, whose roots in acting go back to performing in small theaters, said, “To back small theater is to give life and blood to all of our future art forms. … All I can say is ‘thank you’ to all of the small theaters for the love, understanding and friendship that they gave me, and if you have enjoyed my work, help other children get to the same level I got to.”
Josefina Lopez, an award-winning writer, the founding artistic director of CASA 0101 Theater and an SB 805 Coalition member, spoke about SB 805 and highlighted its importance of keeping small theaters open because of the outlet it provides for BIPOC performing artists.
About her writing experience and authoring of “Real Women Have Curves,” Lopez said guidance from a former writing teacher encouraged her to write about what she knew in her stories and not what was popular.
With passion and tears, Lopez said, “It took so much courage at 16 years old to decide that I could be somebody aside from what society tells me I should be. I took that leap and said, ‘OK, in my stories Latina women get to win. In my stories, we are not just sex objects.’ Because Hollywood just wants that; that’s all we are in Hollywood.”
Lopez said she was surprised when she wrote her story because, “I had so many women tell me that it was their story, too. All of a sudden my story of oppression and low self-esteem became a universal story of how women are made small.”
For Lopez, theater is more than performing arts and represents a deeper aspect of a life.
“What we do (in theater) is not about doing a silly musical,” she said. “It’s about us fighting for our humanity. As artists, we don’t want to die with our music still left in us. It’s our calling to remind everyone that they are here to elevate the human experience.”
Ben Guillory, co-founder and producing artistic director for The Robey Theatre Company and an SB 805 Coalition member, also highlighted what it means for small nonprofit theaters to receive the support of SB 805.
“I am always amazed and infuriated about this constant conversation for support for performing artists, performing artists who are the heart and soul of our cultures. … We have earned every bit of the support and the love from our communities.”
Guillory said “this is all based in love” about theater production and performing arts.
“What we do is based in love, caring and the need for each other. (Support for small theaters) should not be a question. The legislative powers in Sacramento should know this.”