The Importance of 99-Seat Theatre

When people ask me who I think the best actor of all time is, I usually reply “Someone probably doing community theatre out in the cornfields.”  

If you’ve ever paid attention to the theatre scene in Los Angeles, you will be no stranger to the Equity 99-Seat plan showcase contract.   For those of you who are unfamiliar, the Equity 99-Seat Plan is an agreement with the actors’ union allowing artists to showcase their work for waived payment as long as the theatre matches certain criteria (the most obvious one being that the house must seat 99 patrons or under).  Due to the vast overflow of actors coming into Los Angeles on a daily basis, these productions have become quite popular for actors who want to practice their craft while waiting for their next paid gig.

Most 99-Seat Plan productions are executed by theatre companies (much like the LANCT).  They run on restricted budgets, mostly due to the costliness of producing theatre in Los Angeles, and the shows are usually hit or miss as far as quality and professionalism are concerned.  The one solid thing that they are however, are true grounds for community and artistry.

Twelfth Night: Andrew, Belch, Fabian- Los Angeles New Court Theatre
Callen McLaughlin, Tyler Beveridge, and Greg Fink in “Twelfth Night.”

My brother and I created the Los Angeles New Court Theatre because we were frustrated with the amount of opportunities that existed which actually allowed us to create.  Sometimes I think the glamour and glitz of Hollywood clutter the public eye to how controlled actor performances actually are in mainstream film, television, and even stage.  As an actor your choices are constantly at mercy to not only the director, but multiple producers, and writers.  Countless times I found myself walking away from a job or audition feeling like a watered down version of a prostitute- selling myself to the ideas and demands of the people who put the bread on my table.  It left me starved; then angry; then depressed.  It wasn’t until I finally said, screw it, I’m going to make my own work that I truly became liberated.

Company members for 99-Seat Plan Theatres do not produce to make money.  There is none to be had; most of the time they are playing to houses of ten people max (if they are lucky)- watch the beginning of Tim Burton’s “Ed Wood” (I promise LANCT shows aren’t that bad).  These company members produce because they are hungry to work- and eager to create.  There is seriously no better climate to be a true artist.   When people ask me who the best actor of all time is, I usually reply “Someone probably doing community theatre out in the cornfields.”  These people are the true artists- with complete lack of desperation, love for the craft, willingness to explore without judgment, usually broke, and perhaps incredibly talented- they may have just never had their moment in the sun.

The importance of 99-Seat Plan theaters is that they are the root to the future of theatre, and more significantly they give artists opportunity. These vehicles provide springboards for the unknowns into the incredibly competitive business of artistry. Hundreds of celebrities got their start in LA 99-seat plan theatre, scrapping by just to be able to create, just to be able to act. Eventually, all the cracks they had been making over time gave way and opened a glorious door. Someone once told me there is a little bit of magic in Los Angeles, that everyone has their own shot- it’s just a matter perseverance, dedication, and what cards you pull. Who knows, maybe that terrible production you saw two years ago in a leaky basement off of Melrose will turn into the next major hit: kind of like an indie band gone mainstream radio. Just think of how incredible it would be for you to witness it’s birth.

Go See a Play!

Alex Burkart- Vice President, Los Angeles New Court Theatre

copyright Alex Burkart 2014