by Rachel Fain
Los Angeles is peppered with small theater companies performing in intimate spaces. They are tiny nonprofits, operating on a shoestring and dependent on dedicated volunteers. Many are nomadic, renting space as they need it. These Los Angeles theater companies are, perhaps, the true pioneers of the pop-up movement now popular with restaurants and retail shops.
Others have found permanent homes, shoehorned into storefronts and carved out of warehouses or similar not-quite-traditional spaces. A few have shiny, new theaters built by the largesse of a few generous and stalwart donors.
None of these companies is rich. They operate under the 99-Seat Plan agreement withActors’ Equity, the theater actors’ union. This limits their costs, but also caps the audience at 99 per performance. It can be very difficult to pay a crew, let alone turn a profit, when your income is so limited. And many of these 99-Seat Plan theaters have even fewer than 99 seats, making filling those seats for every performance very important. The people who run the box offices of these intimate theaters have jobs that look very different from their counterparts at larger venues.
The Fountain Theatre has occupied its home, on Fountain Avenue near Normandie, since 1990. James Bennett has managed the box office for about three years, while finishing a degree in communications. He inherited the position from a high school friend who held the job before him. He is one of four full-time employees at the Fountain—plus two part-timers.
The fact that the Fountain employs a part-time parking attendant speaks to its focus on “superlative service,” Bennett says. As the only box office staffer, Bennett knows his patrons “by name, by voice, by face.” He takes great pride in not only being able to recognize them in person or on the phone, but also knowing where they like to sit—yes, unlike most intimate houses, this theater has assigned seating. He alone processes all ticket orders from the phone and online, assigns seats, and prints out the tickets each day. It may be apocryphal, but the story goes that the theater started assigning seats after two patrons got into a fistfight over front row center—and the theater has only six seats in front row center.
Assigning seats clears up problems in the theater, but creates other challenges. “Sometimes people have specific needs that overlap with other people that have the same specific needs,” says Bennett, “and I am of the opinion that nobody is more important than anybody else, ever, so sometimes I have to give someone something that they don’t exactly know they want, yet.”
Bennett finds the front row too close anyway, and when his mother or girlfriend comes to the theater, he puts her in C20 or A25. He also recommends a couple of specific pairs of seats in the third row, because they face an aisle and have ample legroom. He tries to seat his tallest subscribers in these locations. “The Fountain is an intimate theater and we try to convey that experience through all levels of service,” Bennett explains.
Rachel Fain writes for LA Stage Times