Monthly Archives: March 2015

What Do I Care How Equity Members Vote? (#iLove99 #NotThisChange)

Today is the first day of voting for Actor’s Equity’s new 99-Seat agreement, wherein actors would FINALLY be valued and paid what they’re worth…. um… minimum wage.

Boy, and I thought I was beginning to UNDERVALUE myself. I was thinking I was worth $8 an hour. But wow, to dream of $9 an hour…? For a part time gig? That would almost (but not quite) cover the expense of driving all the way to rehearsal. Plus, all that time spent performing and rehearsing instead of wasting my life at some minimum wage job will finally be worthwhile. Thank God the union can see the big picture and make clear that all they want is for me to VALUE MY CRAFT.

Here’s the deal people: I’m not in Equity. I’m in SAG-AFTRA. The difference is one is for stage and the other for film/tv/radio. This affects me only in as much as my union will demand reciprocity, which is a very real; no, a very expected possibility. I don’t do 99 seat theatre to get paid. Would I LIKE to be paid to do theatre? OF COURSE!! Would I like to be paid minimum wage at the expense of my theatre company’s ability to take chances and produce the kind of theatre I want to be a part of? HELL NO!!

What I mean by that is 2-fold:
1) My Theatre Co is a Non-profit 501(c)3. That means it is eligible for grants and govt money, it can fund raise without tax penalty, and there are various other benefits. Because of that, shows don’t need to be chosen because of the profit they promise to bring in. Another of the benefits is that we can volunteer our time to productions, in whatever capacity is required. As an actor, I sometimes run the soundboard for a show I’m not performing in. Other times, I help backstage. Still other times, I am a PRODUCER. In the new world order (after Equity makes this happen in spite of the wishes of literally everyone I know in Los Angeles theatre), I – as a “Producer” – will be on the hook for either budgeting for Equity actors (and CA taxes, their EDD expenses, medicare, all of that), or finding another way to provide money when the show itself is already not going to make a profit. Look into it: NO THEATRE IN AMERICA PAYS ITS EXPENSES WITH TICKET SALES ALONE.

What does that mean? It means we, as a company, won’t be able to afford to use union actors. Good job Equity! You’ve succeeded in eliminating the best way your members have to practice their work!! It’s ok though. Equity actors can just join a class. Will that prepare them for actually performing in an actual show in front of a real, paid audience? Perhaps. Of course, its a little like how a writing class makes you ready to write for the LA Times. Thing is, would the LA Times hire a beat writer based on classwork? Or do you suppose they’d want to see some kind of real-world experience? I don’t know the answer to that, but I can guess.

Bottom line: The company can become a for-profit entity, which is unrealistic. Or it can use non-union talent, which is more likely.

2) It’s only because I already belong to my Company that I would even be allowed (under the new proposal) to remain in the way I have been for the past 10 years. Because I belong to SAG-AFTRA and they’d demand I follow their sister-union’s rules – Equity’s rules – if my status changes with Equity, say if I were to join, new rules dictate my status as a company member would be lost. My company, who I have worked with and gained valuable experience and exposure in the process, would suddenly have to pay me minimum wage. Remember when I said they can’t afford that? Well, guess what? They still CAN’T AFFORD TO DO THAT!!

Bottom line: I will not be joining Equity, short of being offered a job at a large theatre with an Equity contract (3 of these exist in Los Angeles). You know, someplace where I would be able to make actual livable money. Not the couple bucks Equity seems to think actors are worth.

This whole thing is so sad. It’s clear to me that the union is only doing this because they have huge membership numbers here in Los Angeles because of the film/tv industry and they think they can squeeze some more dues money out of them. Instead of supporting their membership’s efforts to be more professional and prepared when the larger theatres (Or, God forbid, a movie or tv show) come calling, they are effectively telling them, “Go back to class. That’s the only place you’re allowed to improve your skills. When you aren’t getting paid, you’re not really a professional. Further, you must not respect your talents or craft since you don’t agree you should be paid the very bottom, minimum dollar amount possible.”

Thanks for that Equity. I was having trouble valuing myself before. Now that I know I am worth minimum wage, I feel so much better.
I guess it turns out, i DO care. Please, if you have a vote today, VOTE NO. #ILove99 #NotThisChange

Even Actors Have Labor Strife

I haven’t posted anything for a while. Usually, I like to write posts about what I’m up to or what project I’m working on. But it’s been a strange few months. In Los Angeles, where I’ve made a home for myself and belong to a great theatre company, I’ve found that even when I’m not looking for work (Or rather, specifically when I’m not looking), jobs seem to find me. Sometimes it’s a play, sometimes it’s a short film; No matter what, it’s been consistent. In my line of work, there’s a certain amount of blind faith that as long as I do good work and stick with it, the next job opportunity will present itself.

That faith is one of the main reasons I’ve been with my theatre company for so long. Instead of a class, I’ve felt like actual, presentable work is a double edged sword: I get to practice and improve, and I get to add a credit to my resume. Both are great things. Either way, it’s work. And better, practice and improvement ensures I’m ready to be hired for a paid gig. Turns out faith is a little more practical when I’m practiced and ready.

Last year, a group called Re-Imagine LA Theatre began a kind of think-tank wherein they devised a series of proposals aimed at getting theatre companies like mine – and the many many others like it – to pay actors a minimum wage salary for both rehearsal time and performances. Currently, there is something called the “99-Seat Agreement” that exists in Los Angeles (and ONLY Los Angeles) between Actor’s Equity (the union for professional stage actors) and those who produce small theatre. This agreement was a hard-fought victory for small theatre producers back in the 80s and essentially hasn’t been touched since. What it boils down to is that for the past 30 years, an entire industry has grown around the ability to produce theatre in facilities with 99 seats or fewer, without having to compensate the acting talent, be they union or not.

I say “Without having to compensate”, but really the agreement is about the ability of Equity Union actors to participate without forcing the producers to pay them union scale rates, which would be impossible for small theatres and their shoestring budgets. Now, union actors DO get a small stipend for their time; Usually a token amount of $7-$20 per performance and nothing for rehearsals. What the agreement also allows for is labor rules to prevent the actors from being completely taken advantage of: Breaks, length of time between them, water provided backstage, safety requirements, and many other protections that otherwise would not be in place.

There are 2 main sides to the argument.
First, there are the proponents of change. Actor’s Equity is the primary player on this side. They feel that its unfair for a production to take place essentially on the backs of volunteer actors, while other people ARE compensated financially. Normally, a show’s budget allots different amounts for designers (Sound, Set, Lighting), stage managers, the director, musicians (If any live music is involved), and the rights to produce a published work. So why no pay for the actors? Many people, perhaps rightly, feel this is not an equitable arrangement.

On the other side of the line are the producers of 99-Seat theatre, often represented by a group called Pro-99. Their argument is that before any sweeping changes are made to the 99-Seat Agreement, there needs to be a negotiation and a timeframe for implementing any changes that are agreed upon. What isn’t commonly understood is that frequently the actors ARE THE PRODUCERS. So even though unions for those other elements of a production have fought to get some level of compensation for their members, Los Angeles actors actually fought their union for the ability to act in and produce small theatre. It’s not that we don’t like money, or don’t value our work, which are arguments I’ve heard a lot from the pro-change side during this battle. What actors wanted 30 years ago and still want today is the ability to produce new plays that wouldn’t be possible if they couldn’t be done on a shoestring budget. They want to be in shows with large casts. They want to practice performing, not in a classroom, but in a real theatre with a real audience and real, professional actors beside them. They want to meet other working professionals, learn from performing with/opposite actors of different age ranges and abilities. Much of this could be accomplished in a classroom, but it simply isn’t the same thing.

When I had just graduated from college and moved to New York to learn about the pinnacle of professional theatre in America, I was able to secure an internship with a major Broadway Management company. If not for that incredible experience, I would not have had a hand in laying the groundwork for Mama Mia and eventual Tony Award-winner Thoroughly Modern Millie, nor would I have worked as a PR Assistant for Chicago and Annie Get Your Gun. Those were seminal experiences for me. Not just making me feel like I had accomplished some major goals, but also providing me with invaluable contacts and experience. Now imagine that Management company was forced to hire an assistant instead of an intern. Armed with a Fine Arts degree and no experience to speak of, it’s possible I may have still been qualified; But at the same time, they likely would have gone with a more experienced person who already had the contacts and knew the wheres and whos of the Broadway business. In short, I would not have had that job.

Now imagine a red-hot small theatre scene in a town built on film & television. Unlike any other city in America, the sheer number of actors that live and work here is astounding (a 2012 article I read estimated over 100,000). Those actors need to act. They need to practice. They need to learn. Most of them will not be successful, meaning they won’t be able to make a living as an actor. Should that mean they stop trying? Because it’s hard to be successful, does that mean there’s no point in following a dream? That’s mostly rhetorical, but the answer is NO.

Theatre in Los Angeles has a few things going for it. Again, there are lots of actors, which means there are plenty of young, spirited, talented, creative people all trying to share their talent with the world in the hope that it will amount to success. Because it’s a film/television town, and in spite of the large number of people that want to be seen by agents/casting people/producers/directors/etc…, there is an ability to experiment that is unique to this city. Because a few actors can get together and produce a show, the LA theatre scene is bursting with opportunity – New plays, great parts for all ages & genders, plays with large casts… I could list a thousand things that are unique and fantastic about Los Angeles Theatre.

If the current proposal from Actor’s Equity is passed (How it gets to that point is another very large problem), the fear is most of those uniquely wonderful things will be lost. Overnight. Shows suddenly cost much more to produce, so goodbye large casts. The prohibitive cost makes risky theatre even more risky and less doable. Goodbye new plays and experimental theatre. The fine print in Equity’s proposal states that no union members may join a membership company without rules dictating they get paid while the rest of the company doesn’t, creating a poisonous internal tiered pay structure where some are paid for the same time spent as some who are volunteering.  Similarly, actors who are current members of a company (actors like me) and who join Equity then must be paid in spite of their tenure at their own theatre company. Remember at the beginning of the post when I said i was in one of the many similar small theatre companies? Well, without the ability to add young talent, those companies will die out. Goodbye theatre companies.

What am I getting at here? Clearly, fear is a driving force on the Pro-99 side. And there certainly are a lot of “what ifs” should the union’s proposal pass. I must also say I’m not without feelings that fall on both sides of the argument. For example, should small theatres have as a goal, growing to the point where they have a union contract? Or is that too much to ask of a company that’s working day-to-day, production-to-production? That’s a debatable question and it opens the door for the possibility of making changes.  Maybe Equity has a point there, that a goal of a small theatre company SHOULD, on some level, be to get to the point where there is some kind of pay for the actors, be it profit sharing or a budget-based share of the show. Regardless, what is brewing now is truly awful. A union exists to back its members, not to jeopardize (or outright eliminate) the field on which they play.  And that is what Los Angeles’ Actor’s Equity branch is unapologetically doing: Promoting one side of the argument, acting oddly hypocritical in its tactics (using actors as ‘volunteers’ to phone bank other less-informed members on eliminating their right to volunteer), and worst of all, holding a regional vote that is literally pointless, as a national council will ultimately decide the outcome.

Theatre will find a way. That’s one of the good things about creative people – they don’t give up. Hopefully an accord will be reached and instead of actors battling their union, that energy can be dedicated to another great year of outstanding, unique, sometimes unwatchable (but never devoid of passion) Los Angeles theatre. I have faith.