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Recently I have been approached by an increasing number of people about the theatre scene in Kansas City; actors contemplating a move, students researching life after college, even reporters keen to examine the arts scene.  Robert Trussell at the KC Star wrote an interesting article about the business of acting recently here.  I’ve been working in Kansas City for a little more than three years now and apparently that makes me an expert!  😉  Not really.  But I do feel like I have learned a lot about the theatre community here in the heart of America.

Kansas City theatre is, without a doubt, thriving.  Early in my days in KC, to gauge my new theatrical home, I set out to count how many theatres were currently functioning in the area.  My unscientific count lead to discovering 19 professional (paying their actors) theatre companies, a dozen more sporadic companies (in pay and production), and 10 established amateur companies.  And I’m sure I missed some (especially on the community theatre side).   Opportunities abound, clearly.  Even with the recent closure of one of the biggest theatres (in employment and visibility), The American Heartland Theatre, there are plenty of courageous artists and producers living and working in this city.  Connections between artists and connections to the audience communities are very important to me, and Kansas City has not disappointed.

But, back to the question of the posting.  For those of you that don’t know, Equity is shorthand for Actors Equity Association (the trade union for actors and stage managers).  Acting is a glamorous business on the outside.  We are raised on entertainment these days and we glorify celebrities.  Who wouldn’t want to be an actor?  This has been true for many years; theatre, film, tv have always offered a pathway to fame and fortune to the eye of the beholder.  This illusion is mostly due to selection bias, of course, but it is no less seductive.  Quickly, a history lesson:

A long time ago, as theatre and film grew in popularity more people decided to try grab their share of the riches so evidenced in their actor celebrities.   Everywhere you turned in New York was someone claiming to be the next Barrymore (we’re talking  John, not Drew- but the example works either way) or Booth or Bernhardt.   This led, as capitalism often does, to a fair bit of worker abuse.  In this case we’ll focus on actor abuse.  Directors, by virtue of the vast availability of actors on every street corner, could demand virtually anything from the poor sap they hired under the threat of immediate replacement.  This was not a unique problem, of course, nor did it have a unique solution.  Unionize!  Actors Equity came about to stop this exploitation, giving actors the ability to fight back collectively.  It worked well, especially where large numbers of actors and theatres concentrated.  We all know where these theatrical metropolises are: New York (still), Chicago, and Los Angeles (film counts as well people).

Unfortunately, the idea that these are the only places theatre excels (or even exists) is all too pervasive.  Kansas City theatre is very much alive and well, filled to brimming with quality and opportunity.  Yet,  every person who learns that I am an actor immediately asks: “When are you moving to Broadway?” or “So you’re headed to L.A.?”  Or, from the more informed audience member: “Are you Equity?”

Unfortunately, this perception is bad for theatre.  The concept that good theatre is only available in New York, LA or Chicago and only by Equity members has serious consequences on theatre and the artists involved.  Even inside the industry the idea that Equity status is tied to talent all too often raises its pernicious head.  These over-saturated cities are actually damaging to most theatre artists.  For every new artist who gets cast in a Broadway play there are 2000 who moved to New York and auditioned for it.  (And there are 3 already famous film/tv stars who were pre-cast.)  The numbers are even harsher in LA I’m sure, for the saying goes, “you can’t throw a stone in LA without hitting half a dozen extras with new scripts.”

Equity is not a marker of talent.  It is a marker of slightly higher wages, more restrictive rules for artists (and their job selection), and collective bargaining for benefits.  These can be very good benefits to artists.  But too often they keep artists tied to the bigger markets (and therefore higher living expenses) and larger theatres that can afford Equity contracts (but most cut corners in other ways).  An Equity Actor cannot perform outside of an Equity contract and theatre.  What happens when a new theatre, imaginative in scope and execution, passionate about new plays, yet (as many new companies are) slight in resources attracts the attention of a established, talented Equity actor.  They believe in each others’ talent and mission.  Yet, the actor cannot use his talents to support the growth of a potentially innovative and exciting new theatrical endeavor.  This new company doesn’t have the resources to establish an Equity contract (let alone pay the slightly higher Equity wage).  Yet, the public would be more likely to fill the seats of this new company in order to see the Equity Actor they recognize as inherently better than the non-Equity actor.  These innovative companies often struggle to attract audiences to new work because of the fear of the unknown- unknown play, unknown company, unknown actors.  Yet the more established, known companies, not only rarely do new work, rarely hire larger Equity casts (cause they can’t afford them).  Therefore, communities can support far fewer Equity actors.  These actors, working far less now that they are no longer free to do non-Equity roles, are forced to move to bigger, more expensive markets.  Suddenly the big Equity theatre that used to fill their seats on the promise of seeing your favorite Equity actor in a brand new play has lost their marquee name to Chicago.  Now they are forced to do Guys and Dolls for the 25th time to draw in an audience to see an unknown cast, but in a beloved classic that everyone (probably) wants to see (again).  No room for a new, exciting playwright.

So what is the point?  Stay local.  Perform local.  Support local theatres that hire local artists.  I’d rather get paid a bit less per job, yet work more often.  This way we can develop a relationship with the community that will in return support the theatre that will support the artist- and back and forth.  Kansas City, for the most part, does this wonderfully.  But we need your help to continue.

Eat local.  Art local.

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