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.

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