The closing of "Assassins" last weekend after a disappoint ing run at Los Angeles Theatre Center's 498-seat Tom Bradley Theatre underlines how difficult it is to cross the gap between the many productions in sub-100-seat theaters, where the actors are paid only token fees, and the splashy shows in the big theaters.
Los Angeles Repertory Company's staging of the Stephen Sondheim/John Weidman "Assassins" started last November in LATC's sub-100-seat Theatre 4 and sold out quickly. After several postponements while enough money was being raised, it moved to the Tom Bradley on March 28.
The new venue required Actors' Equity contracts for 20 actors and two stage managers. "Assassins" was one of the largest shows ever to move from the sub-100-seat arena to an Equity contract.
The run was scheduled for 32 performances, but director Peter Ellenstein said he hoped to run at least six months. Depending on sales, he calculated that the show might break even after approximately 12 weeks.
It never came close. The show closed after only 24 performances in the larger hall.
Ellenstein admits making "tons of mistakes." The postponements were no help. "If we hadn't postponed so many times, we would have had a groundswell of support," he said.
He doesn't regret the LATC location. Other venues that might have accommodated the show--the Westwood Playhouse and Canon Theatre--were booked. However, he added, "a big percentage of people are wary of LATC. The Westside crowd is especially leery. If we were around another three months, we might have overcome that."
There wasn't much money for advertising--none for radio, which Ellenstein especially regretted. Equity's Western Regional Director George Ives blamed "the merchandising problem. Peter fell into the trap of thinking that if it's good, the audience will find it." Ives also noted the absence of a substantial subscription base, which would have provided a pre-sold audience.
But if Ellenstein and Ives agree on some of the factors that contributed to the show's demise, they disagree on the role of Equity.
Ellenstein initially proposed opening the show in a mid-sized LATC hall but using only 99 seats in order to stay on Equity's 99-Seat Plan. Then, if the show became a hit, he would move it to a contract and open up the rest of the seating. This would have spared him the expense and time involved in restaging the show.
Equity said no. "It would have set a precedent that we feel would be deadly," Ives said. "Every show would be produced for no money, no rehearsal salary (not required under the 99-Seat Plan). That would be asking the actors to subsidize the theater."
Equity did give the "Assassins" team substantial concessions on the pay scale. Equity later agreed to let the production cut back from eight to four weekly performances--but only after the actors got two full weeks of employment after the Easter/Passover break, when all performances were canceled because of low advance sales.
As it turned out, the actors were paid for eight performances per week in the last two weeks, though they performed only four times each week. By reducing the schedule, the producers were trying to save money on equipment rentals, if not on salaries.
Ellenstein expressed gratitude for Equity's concessions but said "inexperienced producers don't know what is realistic to ask for. And Equity doesn't suggest much to help us. They say, 'We can't come up with a formula.' "
The problem, Ellenstein said, is that Equity still sees negotiations "as a labor-management conflict," with the parties on opposite sides of the table. But his company consists of dues-paying "artist-producers," he said, and he believes that Equity--at least in Los Angeles, where there are few commercial producers--should "get rid of the table" in an attempt "to get actors work."
Ives replied that Ellenstein's attitude "is a little naive." Theater is "a dictatorship." Actors can't decide for themselves how to perform each scene, Ives said, "so if you can't work that way in the process, how can you work that way in the business end?"*