CLAREMONT, Calif. — Anyone involved in a small theater company will tell you, they tend to play a number of roles. Take Beatrice Casagran, co-founder and artistic director of Ophelia’s Jump Productions, for example.
“I helped paint that set,” she said, her shoulder smudged with shimmering silver proof. “You know, when the bathroom needs cleaning, I will do that too. We pour our hearts into this and it’s not about the money.”
But lately, money is very much on Casagran’s mind. Shortly before the pandemic, small companies – “little tiny theaters” as she calls them – faced a big concern. The passage of AB5 meant small nonprofit, often non-Equity theaters would have to pay their actors and staff members a minimum wage. Which would be wonderful Casagran said, but would more than triple her already barely sustainable $200,000 a year budget.
“We want to employ artists but I can’t print money,” she said with an exasperated laugh. “Theater magic doesn’t make that happen. I don’t know how we would do it.”
This is why she has been taking a different stage lately – speaking at press conferences with actors like Edward James Olmos, who credits small theater with launching his career
“I was 17 years old when I started in the theater and I’ve got to tell you, if it wasn’t for the work I did with these theaters, I would not be here today,” Olmos said at an event in late June. “To back small theater is to give lifeblood to the future of our art forms.”
He and Casagran also addressed the Assembly Labor and Employment Committee in support of SB805 – also known as the Save The Performing Arts Act. Casagran, admittedly nervous having to follow Olmos’ remarks, stressed that small theaters “provide a home to new artists whose stories big companies won’t take a chance on.”
The bill would do two main things. The first is to create a paymaster program that essentially would manage payroll services for small theater companies, saving them money and time and ensuring they are meeting all the AB5 requirements correctly.
But the bigger help would be the establishment of a Payroll Fund, money tiny theaters companies can tap into to hire more people and pay them at least minimum wage. This, Casagran says, would allow small theaters to continue to do something her theater has always done.
“We hire people who are underrepresented. We hire LGBTQIA people. We hire neurodiverse people. We hire Latinos. We hire Black people,” she said. “We hire people who are not getting hired at the bigger theater. We are the places where these folks can hone their craft so they can go on to better things.”
Ophelia’s Jump is mounting their first post-COVID production: "Twelfth Night," featuring Marc Antonio Pritchett in the role of Orsino. Oh, and he’s also the fight coordinator. And the co-artistic director of another small theater company, Sacred Fools.
“My entire career was sort of created within small theater like this,” he said. “So the thought that maybe that wouldn’t be around for other folks that come up through it, is horrifying.”
But that, he says, is what’s at stake. Without the “Performing Arts Equitable Payroll Fund” outlined in the bill, he worries small theaters – which make up about 80% of professional theaters in California – could lower their curtains forever. And the ones that do survive will be forced to cut cast sizes even smaller, mounting shows that feature only two or three people.
“That really leads to a lack of diversity almost instantaneously,” he stated. “Lack of opportunities. Lack of diversity. Everything that is the opposite of what 2021 is supposed to be about.”
He says opportunities to not only perform but make connections are vital, especially for unrepresented communities who may not have access to arts education in school or who can’t afford to enroll in acting classes.
“These opportunities mean a lot,” Pritchett stressed. “It is really, really, really important especially for where we are trying to take the world. Closing off avenues of upper mobility for people who have been denied upward mobility is not cool.”
Meanwhile, the state budget – which is waiting for the governor’s signature – includes a $50 million fund to help arts institutions. Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, chair of the Assembly Appropriations Committee, said this money will be used for a grant program that theaters can apply to for assistance.
“These are under $2 million non-profit theaters or groups that need to apply because maybe they had a tough time during COVID or because they need to establish themselves in a way that makes sense with California labor laws,” she said. The only thing that remains in question, she said, is the money to fund a paymaster program.
But Casagran is still worried.
“I’ve actually read the budget, something I never thought I would do in my whole life,” she said.
That $50 million fund Assemblywoman Gonzalez referenced expires in December 2022. The grant money will be an immediate help, but what theaters need, and what SB805 would provide, she says, is a path to long-term sustainability.
“That allows small little tiny companies to be factories for jobs,” she said, “and allows us to employ artists safely and give them opportunities.”
Shakespeare said all the world’s a stage. Casagran hopes to keep it that way.