First published in the Sept. 17 print issue of the Burbank Leader.
By Zane Hill and Gavin J. Quinton
A new state bill is heading to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk that is seen as a lifeline for small community theaters and will hopefully help bolster the payroll funding for nonprofit playhouses.
Senate Bill 1116, a measure authored by state Sen. Anthony Portantino and approved by both legislative chambers in Sacramento, seeks to create a payroll fund to support small nonprofit performing arts venues, or SNPAOs.
For the Victory Theatre, that funding is the difference between life and death.
“I’m watching theatres going out of business,” said Maria Gobetti, founder of the Victory Theatre Center. “There were 20 theatres in NoHo — now there are seven … I’m used to the stress, but if they don’t release this money soon, we’re in trouble — it’s not just the Victory, it’s all small theaters — we are in dire need of help.”
Gobetti and co-founder Tom Ormeny have produced hundreds of productions during the Victory Theatre’s 43-year run, winning dozens of nominations and awards.
Just before the COVID-19 quarantine was mandated, the Victory Theatre invested $20,000 into new production. When the state announced mandatory business closures, that money was lost.
Just before that, California passed Assembly Bill 5 which restricted theaters like the Victory Theatre from using volunteer actors and staff. This meant that payroll costs for theaters would soar. In response, the Victory has had to cut the size of its casts for future shows.
“With AB 5, a $20,000 budget becomes a $50,000 budget. It’s beyond the means of most theatres. Most small theatres can’t make that kind of money back,” Gobetti said. “We’re praying that Gov. Newsom will sign SB 1116 into law, and more than that, we are hoping that the payroll reimbursements will go for three years, rather than one year,” she added.
Activists and labor leaders have expressed their support for the bill written by Portantino that would bolster payroll funding for nonprofit theaters.
Portantino, a Burbank Democrat, said the effort comes at a time when small community theaters are struggling in the aftermath of the pandemic.
“Our vibrant arts community drives much of California’s creative economy. Despite strong community support, neighborhood theaters have suffered from under-investment and COVID-19 shutdown impacts,” Portantino said in a statement.
Prior to the pandemic, California ranked 28th in state arts funding on a per-capita basis. The chronic long-term underfunding of the industry amounted to a “double hit” when the pandemic shut down much of the live arts, he added.
The bill establishes a grant program designed to support live performances — and workers directly — by providing substantial reimbursements of payroll expenses.
“California’s live arts industry — and the thousands of workers who fuel it — has still not fully recovered from the COVID shutdown, which exacerbated decades of underinvestment in the arts,” said Kate Shindle, president of Actors’ Equity Association.
“The live arts are a huge economic driver in communities across California. SB 1116 came together after a long, intense, unprecedented, and productive collaboration between workers and our small nonprofit employers, and will ensure that taxpayer dollars support fair wages, safety and benefits. At the same time, the structure of this bill incentivizes growth and sustainability for nonprofit employers,” she added.
The EPF will begin to stabilize SNPAOs immediately, Portantino said, preventing more closures and helping these organizations grow quickly to self-sustainability. The EPF will provide the greatest percent reimbursement to the smallest organizations. Since labor costs in the performing arts are relatively flat, these historically underfunded organizations are the hardest hit and most at risk. As SNPAOs grow, the percentage of payroll expenses that is reimbursed decreases as organizations are better able to absorb these costs. When an SNPAO reaches $2 million, they graduate out of the program.
“Small performing arts organizations are incubators for talent and imagination. This creativity fuels innovation in our communities and our creative industries and lifts up our sense of who we are as Californians,” said Martha Demson, board president of the Theatre Producers of Southern California.
“Sadly, these vital organizations are facing overwhelming challenges that are threatening to shut down California’s SNPAOs permanently. The Equitable Payroll Fund is an innovative program, which offers SNPAOs a solution for today’s existential crisis and a pathway to a sustainable future. Much like film industry tax credits, the EPF is designed to help retain jobs and support equitable work opportunities for tens of thousands of creative workers each year,” she added.
The Victory Theatre’s new play, “Home Front,” a 3-person play written by Tony Award winner Warren Leight, will open at the end of October.