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The show goes on for small theaters, who get a win after Newsom signs bill

The small theater community could not have written a happier ending on Thursday, Sept. 29, when Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Senate Bill 1116 into law, a measure introduced by state Sen. Anthony J. Portantino, D-Burbank, which seeks to create a payroll fund to support small nonprofit performing arts venues.

“I am ecstatic and grateful that Governor Newsom recognized the importance of live performing arts in California,” Portantino said. “This vibrant community drives much of California’s creative economy.  Despite strong community support, neighborhood theaters have suffered from under-investment and COVID-19 shutdown impacts. Investment in the arts helps all generations of Californians.  In many cases, local theaters introduce young people to the arts and create opportunities for excellent careers with living wages.  Collectively, we must lift the curtain and turn on the lights.”

The new law establishes the Equitable Payroll Fund (EPF), a grant program designed to support live performances, and workers directly, by reimbursing payroll expenses.

Martha Demson, board president of the Theatre Producers of Southern California, said this is landmark legislation for the live performing arts in California.

“Once funded, the Equitable Payroll Fund will save hundreds of vibrant theatre, music, and dance organizations that are currently in great jeopardy of shutting down,” she said. “The investment will lead directly to thousands of jobs for artists. It will create access and a path to upward mobility for underrepresented creative workers, and it will ensure that our small nonprofit performing arts organizations remain an engine for economic growth and well-being in local communities.”

California state Sen. Anthony Portantino urges Gov. Gavin Newsom to sign his Senate Bill 1116, The Performing Arts Equitable Payroll Fund, during a press conference on Thursday, September 8, 2022 at Boston Court theatre in Pasadena. (Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

Cheryl Rizzo, managing director of Boston Court Theatre in Pasadena, said the next step is getting the bill funded in the next legislative budget cycle.

“We were so thrilled and stunned,” Rizzo said. “Those of us who regularly worked on this had a group meeting the next morning, patted ourselves and each other on the back, and immediately got to work on figuring out how to fund it.”

The campaign, more than 18 months in the making, got its impetus from a bill proposed by staet Sen. Susan Rubio, D-Baldwin Park, in 2021.

“Equity and access are at the heart of this bill. We need to ensure performing arts are available to everyone, not just the privileged few,” Rubio said. “Last year, as the pandemic threatened to close small theaters in our most vulnerable communities, I was proud to help with legislation and secure millions in funding. The work continued this year, and it must not end. It is too important to our youth and the economic vitality of businesses around these theaters.”

Rizzo said small theaters are crucial to the arts and culture world.

“We develop the work that ends up at large regional theaters  and even on Broadway,” she said. “The theatre community has always known that we are a fundamental part of the arts ecosystem and it is incredibly meaningful to us that the state of California now recognizes that, too.”

Actor Leo Marks of Los Angeles said the legislative victory may have changed the landscape of arts funding in California.

“We are saying that small theater matters,” Marks said in a Facebook post. “A group of scrappy folks who knew nothing, went from having an idea, a vision that we could do better, (saw) that small nonprofit performing arts organizations were gonna be in trouble, and we didn’t just whine and cry about it, we saw we could do something about it, and we did. Democracy works.”


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