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Where be your gibes? Not online!

Theaters see video blogging as a way to grab audiences. But they say Actors' Equity rules stand in their way.

August 03, 2008|David Ng | Times Staff Writer

A RUMPLED Jason Alexander looks out from the video window, his signature sheepish grin beaming across the Internet. The former "Seinfeld" star is about to pitch a new series of shows, but these titles sound nothing like sitcom material.

The online video is the trailer for the upcoming season at Reprise Theatre Company, where Alexander is artistic director. The actor will star in the musical "I Love My Wife" as Alvin, a married New Jerseyite who is contemplating a foursome with another married couple.

"I'll be semi-naked in it," he says, directly addressing the viewer. "Don't want to miss that."

The video (in which Alexander keeps his clothes on) provides a sneak peek for another important launch -- a new video blog that Reprise plans to unveil this month. The blog will feature regular clips that give audiences a glimpse into the backstage process.

Like a growing number of theater companies, Reprise is embracing video blogging as a way to crash the fourth wall and communicate directly with audiences. But video blogging -- which is essentially blogging with a camera instead of a keyboard -- raises a number of thorny issues unique to the theater world. The biggest obstacle is Actors' Equity Assn., which regulates the kind of videos that theater companies can post online.

The union's guidelines vary from theater to theater and city to city. People in the industry say the rules are needlessly complicated and difficult to understand. In today's shoot-and-upload culture, the Equity rule books can be a major nuisance and even a showstopper.

Most theaters must abide by the so-called three-minute rule: A video clip of a rehearsal or performance can't exceed three minutes and can't include a full scene or musical number. The rules were established in 1980 and were originally intended to regulate the kind of theater footage aired on television news shows. For the most part, those rules have remained unchanged for 28 years even as video blogging and other forms of multimedia have become the norm.

Originally, they were designed in part to prevent theaters from using footage of actors to sell tickets. That rationale is still in force today. Certain Equity contracts forbid companies from placing a ticket-purchase hyperlink on the same page as a video.

For theaters with limited marketing budgets, self-made video is a fast and inexpensive way to get their message out.

"The only thing it costs is time," says Greg Reiner, managing director of the Actors' Gang, based in Culver City. "Being a smaller theater, you can adapt and do things quickly."

Video blogs are also important Web-traffic drivers, according to the Pasadena-based Furious Theatre Company. The theater monitors page views and e-mail subscribers, encouraging them to visit the blog. Google searches for "Furious Theatre" consistently list the company's blog ahead of its official website -- an indicator that the blog site is the more popular of the two.

All of this makes the Equity rules concerning video seem painfully old-fashioned, according to theaters.

Reprise ran into difficulty last season when it attempted to film rehearsals of the Rodgers and Hart musical "On Your Toes." According to the theater, its contract didn't require the cast to be notified about taping. But Actors' Equity claimed that cast approval was necessary. Eventually, the theater reached an agreement with the union and notified the actors.

"There's this old-school mentality," says Danny Feldman, managing director of Reprise. "I understand they want to protect the actors, and that's good. But the rules were clearly written in a different era."

Matters become more complicated when video blogs are archived. "They get harder for us to monitor," says Dwane Upp, a Taping and Filming representative at Actors' Equity. Upp says that if a theater wants to post multiple performance videos for a single production, the combined running time can't exceed three minutes.

To stay within those guidelines -- and avoid fines -- Reprise's video blog will consist largely of nonperformance footage, mostly interviews and backstage tours, which aren't regulated by Equity.

Alexander says he wants the blog to maintain a candid and informal feel. "We use an iMac with the built-in camera," explains the actor. "The less veneer-y it looks, the better. We want musical theater to reach out into the L.A. community like it hasn't done before. And I think this is one way to achieve that."

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Tough on the little guys

IN L.A., the majority of theaters are 99-seat houses or smaller. An estimated 250 such companies operate in the metropolitan area, according to the LA Stage Alliance, a nonprofit organization that monitors the performing arts.

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