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Why don't plays start on time? Because of you

Curtains are routinely held because of the region's nightmarish traffic, and most venues aren't penalized for it.

August 10, 2003|Don Shirley | Times Staff Writer

You're waiting ... and waiting. And still the play doesn't start.

You've done your part. You battled the traffic to get to the theater on time, monitoring the radio traffic reports and employing all your L.A. insider's knowledge of shortcuts. You allowed enough time to park -- and, after several minutes of circling around the theater or through the parking garage, you found a space. Your tickets were in hand -- or at least you ordered them in advance for faster pickup.

Now, you're seated, yet the announced starting time has come and gone. The credits and cute comments in the actors' bios in the program are beginning to pall. The stockpile of fascinating conversational topics between you and your companion has run dry. Your cell phone is turned off, your hard candy is unwrapped -- and still no show.

It would be difficult to prove that L.A. theatrical performances take longer to get started than those in other cities. Unlike airlines, theaters do not have to report their delays to the feds.

But there are several reasons why late starts appear to be especially prevalent in L.A. theaters.

The most obvious is that in such a spread-out area, where people routinely drive long distances to go to theaters as well as everywhere else, many more opportunities for delays exist than in more compact cities or theater districts. Often, after surviving an especially brutal traffic jam and arriving at a theater in the nick of time, or even late, you'll be told that the show will start a few minutes late to accommodate other people like you, who were caught in that same congestion. Sometimes those people include some of the actors.

There's another reason for L.A. late starts that probably doesn't occur to most theatergoers -- in L.A., a much smaller proportion of professional productions use union contracts than in most other cities.

In theaters that operate on union contracts for stagehands and musicians, overtime payments are required if a performance lasts longer than the contracts allow -- usually three hours. So the producers at these theaters have an incentive to start the show relatively soon, regardless of how many stragglers are in the parking lot.

Broadway shows operate on union contracts. So do their touring versions at, say, the Pantages or the Ahmanson theaters in L.A. The Mark Taper Forum employs union stagehands, and productions there tend to start more promptly than in most L.A. theaters (though not exactly on time -- it's highly unlikely that an "8 p.m." Taper show will start before 8:03, said Taper associate general manager Susan Barton. And on opening nights when artistic director Gordon Davidson is in a chatty mood -- watch out).

Most of L.A.'s 1,000-plus professional productions each year do not employ union stagehands or musicians. With L.A.'s enormous surplus of professional actors feeding a continuous supply of relatively low-budget productions, the proportion of L.A. shows that use union contracts is small.

Michael Van Duzer, who supervises the sub-100-seat theaters for Actors' Equity, estimates that performances in his bailiwick start, on average, about 15 minutes after the announced curtain time. Not only do these productions lack an incentive from the unions to start on time, but they have a compelling incentive to accommodate latecomers. If eight people are late to one of these shows, they make up a relatively large percentage of the audience; if eight are late to "The Producers" at the Pantages, it's just a drop in the bucket.

At these small theaters, people sometimes drive up to the curb, holler through the car window that they have arrived, and then go find a place to park, Van Duzer said. The theater staff takes note of their imminent arrival and holds the curtain. If you tried something like that at the Pantages, no one would even hear you.

Small theaters with their own parking lot or a valet parking service "have much less of an issue with this," he added. If the Theatre Row district on Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood didn't have valet parking, he estimated, shows would routinely start 30 minutes late.

Another reason why many L.A. performances start late is that most L.A. theaters are nonprofit institutions that must raise money beyond the ticket revenue. Performances are often preceded by little speeches that ask for donations or season subscriptions -- appeals that most commercial producers never have to make, except to their own investors.

Sometimes these speeches aren't so little, as theatergoers at Civic Light Opera of South Bay Cities know well, after years of listening to the stand-up comedy routines of producer James Blackman. The musicians' union suggests that these speeches should begin before the announced curtain time if the producers want to avoid overtime.

So will all of this make you feel better about your next wait for a play to begin? Probably not. On the other hand, the next time you find yourself arriving at 8:05 and praying out loud, "Please hold the curtain, please hold the curtain" as you park, you may find that your prayers have been answered.

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