Performing Arts Relief Act Could Be Final Lifeline for California’s 99-Seat Theaters

Josefina López’s play about Latina seamstresses had 20 productions across the country, but she could not get a production of it in Los Angeles. To bring the play to its hometown she decided to rent a small theater in Silver Lake and produce it herself. It came to be adapted into the movie “Real Women Have Curves,” which won the Audience Award and Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 2002 and was preserved by the Library of Congress in the U.S. National Film Registry in 2019.

In 2008, between her three jobs, Vanessa Stewart seized her opportunity as a member of Sacred Fools Theater Company and took the leap to write a full-length play. She was able to produce “Louis & Keely: Live at the Sahara” at the 99-seat theater, which got the attention of director Taylor Hackford, who took the play to the Geffen Playhouse where it ran for eight months and pulled in over a million dollars.

The success of López, Stewart and countless others (think the Oscar-nominated Kemp Powers) was made possible by the accessibility of 99-seat theaters. However, the passage of AB 5 in 2019 put the existence of these theaters under threat because previously considered independent contractors (actors, stage crew, etc.) were now labeled employees who had to be paid minimum wage.

“I did the math. If AB 5 had been in existence and we had no protection, my show would have cost between $40,000 and $50,000,” Stewart said of the original “Louis & Keely” run, which was produced for $7,500 at Sacred Fools.

Enter SB 805, which is up for a hearing by the California Senate Labor, Public Employment and Retirement Committee on April 26. If passed, the bill would greenlight low-cost payroll and paymaster services for small nonprofit performing arts organizations that make $1.4 million a year or less. It would also create a fund to award grants so that these theaters could hire and pay employees at least the minimum wage. López and Stewart are part of a coalition of 40 small 99-seat nonprofit theaters and freelance performers rallying around SB 805’s passage.

“I was a teacher for 17 years and I saw theater, the arts [and] music just disappear from our public schools, and it had to do with funding,” said Sen. Susan Rubio (D-Baldwin Park), who authored the bill. “I grew up in downtown Los Angeles in a time where there was just a lot of gangs, drugs, violence, all the bad elements you don’t want a little girl being around. But nonetheless, I was a very creative child and the arts allowed me to express myself and put my energy in a positive way… That’s why I felt so compelled to help elevate this issue and help to push for a policy that can save small theaters.”

Providing a lifeline to the 99-seat theaters would safeguard more than the survival of these establishments—it would ensure the vibrance of whole communities.

“Wherever there’s a theater, every business around that theater thrives,” Stewart said. “Culture is so important in society and I think now it’s really very much the time that people are going to need that sort of thing. It’s the right time, I think, to fund the arts, to reinvest in the arts, to reinvest in human infrastructure.”

In addition to economic incentives, cultural ripples reverb through communities. The swath of 99-seat theaters throughout California serve as incubators for emerging artists to go on to establish careers along the industry pipeline. The institutions are also affordable entertainment spaces for locals to enjoy productions of plays and musicals that reflect themselves instead of the standard stories put on by white, male industry gatekeepers.

For López, it’s why she started her own theater, Casa 0101 Theater in L.A. neighborhood Boyle Heights. She said she knew that her stories as a Latina woman would never be seen as commercial, and therefore would not get to a big stage.

“I’m in shock that we had to be in a situation where we have to fight and put so much energy to convince people the value of theater and to let us have an existence. A society without theaters is a society that’s not willing to look at itself because writers and theaters hold a mirror up to society. This is the most important time in the history of the U.S. to have to look in the mirror and say, ‘We deserve better. We can be better.’”

To be made law, SB 805 will also have to make it through the Senate Appropriations Committee, the Senate floor and then the State Assembly. Under the labor committee, SB 805 will be presented to state senators Dave Cortese (D-San Jose), Rosilicie Ochoa-Bogh (R-Yucaipa), María Elena Durazo (D-Los Angeles), John Laird (D-Santa Cruz) and Josh Newman (D-Fullerton) at Monday’s hearing.

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