By Juliet Bennett Rylah
HOLLYWOOD — City Councilman Mitch O’Farrell has proposed a COVID-19 emergency grant program for theater businesses in District 13, which include the many performing arts spaces that line Hollywood Theatre Row.
O’Farrell introduced the motion, seconded by Council President Nury Martinez, during a City Council meeting Dec. 2.
Live theater has been shut down in Los Angeles County since March due to the ongoing pandemic. Local theaters have been struggling to stay afloat.
The motion instructs the city Department of Cultural Affairs and the City Attorney’s Office to come up with guidelines for an emergency grant program that would give up to $5,000 to nonprofit and for-profit performing arts venues, rehearsal spaces, rental equipment businesses and other production support services in O’Farrell’s district. To qualify, nonprofits or businesses must have fewer than 50 employees, including independent contractors.
The program would take $130,000 from Council District 13 Arts Development Fees, available for cultural and artistic services that the public can access. While theaters can’t host live public performances due to the pandemic, the program would ask each grantee to provide a free online performance, workshop, lesson or other virtual event to the public.
Many theaters and creators have already been experimenting with virtual shows, offering Zoom plays, interactive livestreams and other innovative works. The city of West Hollywood is offering a virtual adaptation of Mae West’s play “The Drag,” while both L.A.-based immersive theater company the Speakeasy Society and Zombie Joe’s Underground Theater in North Hollywood have online shows based on “A Christmas Carol” opening this month.
John Henningsen, owner of Thymele Arts in Hollywood, said he appreciates O’Farrell’s motion, especially because it suggests that the cries of venue operators are being heard.
“Very few officials have even acknowledged that live event venues are struggling or that we are a value to the community,” Henningsen said.
But with venues closed for eight months and counting, Henningsen notes that this short-term relief won’t solve the larger issues that still loom.
“The true test will be when the emergency order is lifted and we are tasked with paying back a year’s worth of back rent in just a few months,” he said. “I fear that without the significant involvement of local, state and national officials, we will see many more live event venues closing once restrictions are lifted, eviction moratoriums are lifted, and we get back to ‘business as usual,’” he said.
Monica Martin is the manager of the Complex Hollywood, one of more than a dozen venues located on Santa Monica Boulevard, between McCadden Place and El Centro Avenue, known as Hollywood Theatre Row.
She was involved in a meeting between O’Farrell and Council District 13 small theater owners and suppliers on Nov. 5 and is happy to see something positive come from it. Still, she shares Henningsen’s concerns. Though the Complex has been around since the 1970s, Martin took ownership only two years ago.
“We were making great progress in bringing positive change to the spaces,” she said. “However, when we are allowed to reopen, if nothing is done in rent forgiveness, we will be in debt so deep it seems insurmountable.”
Martin also notes that what happens to Hollywood’s independent theaters now may affect the larger entertainment industry — one of Los Angeles’s most profitable industries — in the future.
“We are the training grounds for the talent everyone enjoys watching on Netflix, Amazon [and] Hulu,” she said. “Without these small venues on Theatre Row, where will the stars of tomorrow perform and rehearse and study? I plan to do everything in my power to keep our doors open and am thankful we are now part of the conversation.”
The City Council’s Health, Education, Neighborhoods, Parks, Arts, and River Committee will consider the motion before the full City Council revisits it in the coming weeks.
Juliet Bennett Rylah is a freelance reporter who covers Hollywood and West Hollywood. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.