Observations Along the Road

Theatre Writeups, Musings on the News, Rants and Roadkill Along the Information Superhighway

Category Archive: 'rant'

If It Was Good Enough for George Bush…

Written By: cahwyguy - Sat Jun 27, 2015 @ 10:37 am PST

userpic=soapboxGimme that ol’ time Supreme Court,
Gimme that ol’time Supreme Court,
If it was good enough for George Bush,
It’s good enough for me.

(climbs up on soapbox)

With the decisions of this week, many in the conservative camp are expressing their ire at the Supreme Court. Ted Cruz is out there saying we should have referendums on justices. Others are saying that a decision such as gay marriage shouldn’t be on a 5-4 split. Some are saying that the court was going against the will of the people.

My response: If it was good enough for George Bush…

We have had a number of decisions of the Supreme Court that have gone against “liberal” positions, the most notable being Bush v. Gore, where the court essentially decided an election, going against the will of the people. That single decision singlehandedly probably brought across more negative changes to society than many we have seen. Then there was the Citizens United decision, which was also controversial and non-unanimous.

This week, we have seen equally divided decisions that have gone the other way.

That’s how it works with the Supreme Court. Sometimes your side wins, sometimes you lose. If you don’t like the result, you can see if there is sufficient support to change the laws or the constitution. You might fail there as well. Remember: Sometime God says “no” to what you want.

Just as you learned to live with civil rights and interracial marriage, you can learn to live with gay marriage. It really doesn’t affect you. It is much less impactful than that 5-4 decision I had to learn to live with: Bush v. Gore.

P.S.: As for the confederate flag, it is a piece of history. As with any piece of history, it belongs in a museum. People should be free to use it in the historical context. When it acquires other meanings, the government should not use it because it signals government support of those meanings. Individuals can still use it, but must recognize that it might convey a meaning to someone else other than what they intended. When you display that flag or symbol in a non-historical context, you send the message that you support all the meanings of that symbol, because you cannot control how others interpret it.

(climbs off soapbox, feeling better)


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Work and Hobbies: An Important Cross-Fertilization

Written By: cahwyguy - Tue Jun 16, 2015 @ 7:52 pm PST

userpic=99loveIt is a long held belief of mine that time spent on hobbies isn’t wasted. What you do as a hobby informs what you do at work, and what you do at work informs your hobbies.  Professionally, I do cybersecurity at a Federally Funded Research and Development Center. My hobbies include highways and live theatre. Today over lunch I kept thinking about this cross-fertilization in relation to the debate raging over Bitter Lemon’s decision to solicit payment from theatres for reviews, which was recently highlighted in the LA Times, and has been excoriated across the board  (from the LA Weekly (Steven Leigh Morris) to Howard Sherman (former head of the Theatre Wing) to ACTA to many others). I’ve even discussed it here.

Let me give you an example of this flow. As I noted, one of my hobbies is highways. A number of years ago, I took a day off and went to a Caltrans presentation on making safer highways. The goal was to reduce traffic deaths — reduce the number of times a CHP officer has to go to a door and say, “I’m sorry to inform you…”. They talked about a program from Minnesota DOT called “Toward Zero Death“: a program with the goal of reducing fatalities on the highways to zero. They realized they couldn’t just engineer safer highways, and as a result emphasized the Four “E”s: Education, Enforcement, Emergency Services, Engineering. Each contributed a piece. I heard that and went “Wow! That works perfectly for cybersecurity.” I ordered it differently: Engineering, Education, Enforcement, and Emergency Planning. Engineering means building mechanisms in your systems to provide cybersecurity and protection; Education is educating your users on how to use those mechanisms and how not to do boneheaded things; Enforcement is having policies and making sure they are followed; and Emergency Planning is what is also called Resiliency: making sure your system doesn’t die, but can continue to support the mission in a degraded mode while being repaired. The point here is that my hobby informed my work.

It works the other way around as well. As I wrote earlier, I work for an FFRDC. We provide the government with an independent voice to ensure success of the mission. We are trusted to protect proprietary information, have the highest ethics, and to focus on independently assessing solutions — and not hesitating to tell the vendor when they are wrong, or the government when they are wrong. Note carefully what I just said: even though we are government funded (the FF in FFRDC), we have the ability to tell the government when they are wrong. This is achieved through our strong focus on ethics, our commitment as a corporation to those ethics, an immediate response when an ethics violation is discovered (as in, that person does not work for us anymore and may face penalties, depending on the violation).

Our company is depended upon to conduct independent assessments on behalf of the government, including things like penetration testing. When you look at areas like cybersecurity assurance, having that independent assessor is a must. Similarly, when you look at theatrical reviews and criticism, that independent assessment is a must. The independence of the reviewer is at the heart of the Bitter Lemons debate.

Independence is important in many industries. Both of my parents were accountants. They performed audits, which is an independent financial assessment of a company. Major public corporations depend on independent accountants and independent internal oversight organizations. Yet that paradox of paying the independent arm exists: the corporations pay the auditing firms, the corporations pay their internal oversight organizations. So how is that independence achieved? Typically, there is a requirement for all assessors to sign and adhere to a specific ethical code for their industry. If the organization is internal, there is typical a distinct reporting chain with perhaps only the CEO in common (and sometimes not even then; often auditors report to the Board). The British auditing association describes it thusly: “It is characterised by integrity and an objective approach to the audit process. The concept requires the auditor to carry out his or her work freely and in an objective manner.”

I’ll note that similar processes exist in numerous other industries, such as Internal Affairs departments in law enforcement, or internal investigatory organizations.

Let’s bring this back to the concern at hand: the “Bitter Lemons Imperative” and the perception of pay for play reviews. Certainly, strong ethics rules would preclude a theatre giving money (or providing anything above a nominal value, such as an information packet) to an individual reviewing their show. Yet, if we look at the financial arena, there are ways to address the concern. Let’s learn from what industry does, and insist that:

  • Anyone who writes up a show must subscribe to a code of ethics that prohibits direct payments from the theatre to the reviewer (ideally, it would prohibit providing anything other than a comp ticket or an information package (and I don’t personally support comp tickets, although that is industry practice)).
  • Anyone who writes up a show must disclose any past, present, or future relationships with the theatre or any cast or crew members, and must agree to not let those relationships color their assessment of the show reviewed.
  • Anyone who writes up a show must agree that their assessment of the show will be based solely on the story, performance and presentation, and that their assessment will be honest, even if it is negative.
  • If evidence is uncovered that their writeup was not unbiased but was influenced by a relationship, either personal or financial, then the community will be clearly informed of this so that their writeups may be skewed to take that into account.
  • A list of those writing up theatre who subscribe to these rules will be published and available to the general public.

In an ideal world, journalism outlets would assign reviewers to the shows that are of interest, and the complete independence of the advertising and editorial arms would provide separation between payment and reviewer salary. But times are changing. Independent websites that accept advertising don’t have that strong separation. Papers that still employ reviewers often do not send them to the new theatres, the small theatres, the out of the way theatres. There is no way for these theatres to get independent writeups that sway the audience, either drawing them in or warning them away.

A solution is required to address the changing journalistic and dramatic criticism world. A solution is also required to address the unknown pop-up blogger whose ethics are unknown.

[Edited to Add: Another day, another lunch, and a few more thoughts: One key difference between auditing (and the work I do) and theatre reviews/criticism is that the former can be objective, while the latter is subjective. Any theatre review reflects the opinion of the reviewer, and it not necessarily capable of substantiation with facts. This prevents confirming the independent results, and opens up the aura of “taint” if a reviewer happens to like a show whose review was requested and funded by the production. The solution here, surprisingly, is what Bitter Lemons is already doing: aggregating reviews and looking at the overall consensus. If a single reviewer out of a set of reviewers is “in the pocket” of the theatre, they will show up as anomalous in a particular production’s review set. Over time, statistics might demonstrate that reviewer is a consistent outlier statistically. Of course, this mechanism is destroyed if the community simply produces consistently good theatre (oh, the horrors of consistently good theatre).

Statistical reporting can work well to identify outlier reviews and bias, when looking at an entire season. Of course, the statistics become useless unless editors assign critics to shows they know will be horrible. If people self-pick shows (as I do, and as Steven Stanley does, and I’m sure others as well), we tend to pick shows we’re likely to like. Even if the tickets are comp, we are still investing our time and we don’t want to waste that on two hours we’ll never get back (I Caligula, The Musical , I’m looking at you). This is the most likely explanation of why most reviews are positive, even if there isn’t a financial incentive involved (unless, of course, you are just writing to appear clever — Charles McNulty, I’m looking at you).

In short it boils down to trust in the integrity of the reviewer — or as one trainer put it, you either have ethics in your soul or you don’t. Ethical and honest reviewers will honestly tell you what they think of a production, irrespective of any “bribes” from the theatre, because their goal is not to make that production succeed, but to make theatre as a whole better. Unethical reviewers don’t have that mission, and unscrupulous producers will take advantage of them (Subways are for Sleeping and David Merrick, I’m looking at you).]

The approach taken by Bitter Lemons recognized the need for such a solution, but was a flawed implementation and deserves to be shut down and reconsidered from the ground up to publicly incorporate clear ethics rules and restrictions. I’m not going to attempt to propose a specific solution here; I’ve done so in the past and had it shot down. I do think a solution is needed, and that solution needs strong publicized ethics rules that participants will follow. I’m open to suggestions in the comments (anatomically possible, please — my head won’t fit up my ass).

A few PSs to address some additional points:

  • There is an argument that any payments by theatres are a slippery slope: if one review organization does it, they all will. Poppycock. There will always be individuals who put ethics above all and refuse payment. Additionally, journalism in general is no longer so high and mighty — we’ve increasingly seen the mix of the editorial and the advertiser (Los Angeles Times, I’m looking at you and your special wrappers). It may be a matter of time, but it may also be that the wrong approach will fail miserably (witness the original attempt at paywalls).
  • There are arguments that there is an important function of an editor in being able to decide what to review. That may be the case, but it also reflects the inherent bias of the editor. They have a concern — not of advertising dollars but of readership — and they direct the reviewers to the better known theatres, the ones that will draw the eyes of the reader. They will not care about the lesser known smaller theatres at all. Don’t believe me? How often does the LA Times review the Center Theatre Group, Pantages, Pasadena Playhouse, Wallis Annenberg, Colony, or Geffen. How does that compare with how often they review intimate theatre? There is not balanced editorial assignments. The papers that attempted to do so (LA Weekly, I’m looking at you) have drastically curtailed their reviews.


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One Man’s Trash

Written By: cahwyguy - Fri May 22, 2015 @ 11:25 am PST

userpic=televisionIt has been a while since lunchtime reading of the news has prompted me to set down my salad and pick up my keyboard. It happened today when I read an article about David Letterman. Now, I’ve mostly been ignoring Letterman — I never quite got into him or his humor, being more of the Carson / Leno / Fallon mold. But this time the problem isn’t specifically Letterman — more, it is his production company or CBS. Why? Well, with the exception of one or two pieces, the rest of David Letterman’s set has gone to the dumpster.

What a waste.

Letterman should have taken a lesson from Survivor, which for years has put props from the season just closed up for auction, with proceeds going to charity. I think that’s a wonderful thing, but most shows don’t bother to do it. Letterman certainly should have — he could have really helped charities, and cleaned out a bunch of stuff that wasn’t wanted. Hell, even Stephen Colbert (who is replacing Dave) auctioned off his desk for charity. For me, it just centers my impression of Letterman as self-centered.

It also highlights one of the few problems I have with the entertainment industry as a whole: they are incredibly wasteful. For example, think of all those car crashes and car stunts in a movie. What do you think happens to the cars? They fill up junkyards. Loads of industrial effort… that is just trashed for entertainment. Think about all the water scenes filmed and the water wasted. Think of all the fictional house and office sets for TVs and movies. Most are used once and trashed. Waste of wood. Waste of plastic. I’ll note its not just movies and TVs — the same is true for ballet, opera, and stage, although often there sets are warehoused and leased out for use to future productions.

Then there is intimate theatre, which often does reuse props and sets. However, that’s more due to the fact they need to save money than any ecological desire. In fact, in smaller theatres, that sofa you are sitting on today was probably in a previous production (and before that, rescued from a thrift store). Don’t believe me? Ask the REP where the piano in the Hydeaway Lounge came from, or the Colony where the Egyptian Coffin came from.

That’s better. Rant is out and lunch is done.

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It’s Gonna Be a Bumpy Ride…

Written By: cahwyguy - Wed Apr 22, 2015 @ 7:45 am PST

I Support 99 Seat Theatre in Los Angelesuserpic=theatre_ticketsWell, Actors Equity has gone and done it. Not only did they fire a shot across the bow, but war has been declared. They’ve been the aggressor, starting the fight and moving the tanks in despite the wishes of the people. Oh, and us peasants? As usual, we’re the ones that get it in the neck.

What am I talking about? Simple. Perhaps two months ago, Actors Equity (the union that represents stage actors) dropped a proposal that any AEA actor working in intimate theatre (99 seats and under) in Los Angeles must be paid as an employee and at the current prevailing minimum wage for both rehearsals and performances. There were also work place requirements and performance minimum requirements, with limited exceptions solely for membership companies and self-produced works. They claimed that (a) members wanted this, and (b) it was required under California labor law.

The problem was, however, that a majority of Los Angeles AEA actors did not want this. They understood that the nature of Los Angeles theatre is such that most theatres cannot be financially sustained under these rules. The cost for AEA actors would quadruple or more. There would only be small safe productions. Actors would lose the venue they value for the refinement of their craft and for feeding their artistic needs.

AEA held a referendum, and just under 66% of those who voted were against the proposal. Did this stop AEA? No. They voted to impose the new rules anyway.

I’ll say that again: They ignored the wishes of the actors and their members, and eliminated the 99-seat plan.

In doing this, AEA showed disregard not only for their members, but for the audiences that pay the bills and for the other professionals and businesses that their decision impacts. Rosalyn Cohn, over in the private pro99 group on Facebook, posited the following for AEA’s rationale:
(posted with permission)

OMG. This is so obvious. Why didn’t I see this? This has been in the works. NYC has turned into corporate theatre, star vehicle driven like never before and non-union tours abound. Some pretty big Off-Bway houses have closed like the Promenade. LA has big bucks which is WHY AEA is making its presence more known. That’s why they now have their own building. They now want to try to make this the 2nd theatre capital – which we know it is. We 99 Seat Actors who don’t have name recognition, this is what it’s about. I lived it. I lived in NYC for 20 years. It’s now very hard to get a B’way gig if you aren’t a name. Says the Union, “Ummmm, we need dough. Ahhhh, let’s really be smart and stake our claim – you know actors aren’t great with business so they need to be taken care of, uuhhh, we’re in Power, uhhh, they’ll say we know what’s best. We’re the Adult. Uhhh, let’s go to where Film/TV is REALLY prominent. STARS sell TICKETS. Let’s DO AWAY with 99 Seat with no names. Let’s force them to Showcase Code where maybe they can get an agent, maybe a review. Let’s force the Companies who have bigger audiences to MERGE and force them to an AEA contract so we can make money. But, wait, that will cost those theatres most likely $100K+ to produce that show w/insurance bonds and all that. So, hey, aren’t we in the town where there’s lots of CELEBRITY CACHE?!!! I know! We’ll make it so that the STARS can work in Off-Broadway size houses and not have to leave LA. And those other actors with no name and not making us bank, well, they’ll work in those under 50 houses for only 16 shows.” That’s it my friends. You want this? THAT’S WHAT THIS IS.

I’ve said repeatedly: I’m not an actor, I’m a computer scientist. I envy the talents and abilities of actors, and wish that I had their skills to inhabit other personalities. I can, however, explore issues to their logical conclusion. Here are my thoughts on this matter:

  • AEA is insisting that actors be employees. Labor law does not allow volunteers to work in a position for which employees are hired. The implication of this is that a non-profit theatre company cannot simultaneously have volunteer actors and actors on the payroll. Such a situation means that those volunteer actors must be bumped up to be employees, and covered by the same minimum wages rules. This kills 99 seat theatre. It may also be illegal, in the sense that not-for-profit companies have always be permitted to have professionals provide services pro-bono or at below market rates. There is simply no basis for treating the two groups of actors differently under the law. So, either 99 seat theatres are killed by requiring all actors to be employees, or AEA’s action is illegal and discriminatory.
  • But it’s worse. Why should a particular class of work be mandated to be performed by employees in some non-profits, but not all. I posit that if the minimum wage rules apply to professional non-membership non-profits, it would apply to community theatre and other amateur theatre as well, if they charge for admission. This is a major impact, and certainly not what the law intended.
  • But it’s even worse. Logically, if labor law requires actors to be employees, how can it permit an exemption for membership companies or self-produced. The job and the work is the same.

AEA, in my opinion, either no legal leg to stand upon, or has just killed all theatres with volunteers. I personally believe the former, and hope not the latter. I believe AEA completely misses the distinction between the for-profit and non-profit theatre.

Here is my prediction of what I believe will happen:

  • Gentlemen and ladies, start your lawsuits. Except a protracted legal battle similar to the “Waiver Wars” of the 1980s, with actors suing their own union. It is going to be nasty nasty nasty, and will have repercussions for a long time (I know, to me, they have started — I’m seeing some of the pro-AEA actors in a show in early May, and I’m already afraid it will color my reaction to them). The only winners are going to be the lawyers (and the cockroaches, because they always win in the end).
  • Existing membership companies will soldier on because they’ve been granted specific exemptions, but will be unable to partner with other production groups to do innovative work.
  • Development of new work for the stage to be produced in Los Angeles will stop. This will impact not only actors but the film industry, as often such work feeds film work.
  • Non-profit non-membership intimate companies will stop employing AEA actors (and additional union actors, depending on how the 4-As handle reciprocity rules). This has already started: Both REP East (where we subscribe) and Long Beach Playhouse have indicated that — for the duration — AEA actors need not apply.
  • New companies, if they form, will not hire AEA actors. Combined with the previous point, this will mean less work for AEA actors.
  • A significant number of Los Angeles based AEA actors will either drop union membership or go Fi-Core. This means you’ll only see New York Actors in NYC and on tours. Los Angeles will not only not incubate new works, it won’t incubate new actors. In the long run, it may result in the split of the union, with Los Angeles actors creating a union specifically for the Los Angeles theatre scene, and telling AEA not only where to shove it, but how far to stick it in.

As audience members, there’s not much we can do other than to bring out the popcorn and watch. The one thing we can do is to remind our local actors that we stand with them, and that we stand with our intimate theatre community. Do what you can. Go see a show.

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Understanding Your Customer

Written By: cahwyguy - Tue Mar 17, 2015 @ 11:38 am PST

Pro99 - Vote No Nowuserpic=theatre_musicalsOne of the most important adages on the Internet is: “If you are using a website for free, you are not the customer… you are the product being sold.” The emphasis here is on understanding who the customer really is. If you are going to sell a product — and create a business selling a product — you must know who your customers are (and ensure you will get more). I’m bringing this up because (a) it is lunchtime (when I can write about ideas), (b) two articles came across my RSS feeds that put the brain in motion, and (c) I’ve got the whole 99 seat discussions that have been going on in my mind. As you know, I’ve been very involved in those discussions, and have been trying to bring the audience viewpoint to them.

The first article was actually a line in a piece by Jay McAdams of 24th Street Theatre on Bitter Lemons: “If you’d of asked anybody in the theatre community last spring what the biggest problem facing 99-seat theatre was, almost everyone would have said lack of audience. Most would have pointed out the need for some sort of large scale marketing campaign to let the world know what LA theatre artists have long professed; that LA is indeed a theatre town.”

The second article was a much more detailed piece by Ken Davenport over at the Producers Perspective that explored the demographics of the Broadway touring audience. This article noted statistics such as:

  • The average age of the Touring Broadway theatregoer was 53 years.
  • Ninety-two percent of Touring Broadway theatregoers were Caucasian.
  • Seventy-six percent of the audience held a college degree and 34% held a graduate degree.
  • Forty-nine percent of national theatregoers reported an annual household income of more than $100,000, compared to only 22% of Americans overall.
  • Women continued to be more likely than men to make the decision to purchase theatre tickets.
  • The most commonly cited sources for show selection (other than being part of the subscription) were: the music, personal recommendation, Tony Awards and articles written about the show.
  • Sixty-two percent of the audience said that some kind of incentive would encourage them to attend theatre more frequently, such as discounts or special perks.
  • Nearly three quarters of respondents said they used Facebook.
  • Theatregoers said that the most effective type of advertising was an email from the show or presenter.

In Los Angeles, this equates to the audience you would find at the Pantages or the Ahmanson. I subscribe at the Colony, and in the past have subscribed at the Pasadena Playhouse. When I go there, what do I see? Again — an older, caucasian, wealthier audience. We feel young — and we’re 55! Even when I go to Cabrillo Music Theatre — a regional house — what do I see: an older audience. I’d even be willing to bet you’ll find similar audiences if you look at regional community theatres that do similar programming: Glendale Center Theatre, Canyon Theatre Guild, etc.

I’ll scream the point of the above: IF OUR AUDIENCE REMAINS OLD AND WHITE, THE FUTURE OF THEATRE IS BLEAK. Don’t believe me? Where is the audience for full opera today?

On the other hand, I subscribe at Repertory East Playhouse, an 81 seat theatre in Newhall that falls on the intimate scale. The audience I see there has a broader mix: young adults (in their 20s-40s). I go to theatres in NoHo and Hollywood and West LA. Again, a much younger — and much more diverse audience. Here’s the message to shout regarding this: INTIMATE THEATRE DRAWS A YOUNGER AUDIENCE DUE TO PRICE AND EDGIER SHOWS.

Now, to bring everything together as lunchtime is coming to a close (and I need to present in under an hour): What will be the impact if the AEA proposal passes? (1) Ticket prices will go up and discounts will go away as theatres have to cover the additional costs of AEA actors, (b) edgier shows will be eschewed in favor of safer fare that will bring in paying audiences; and (c) those safe audiences will be wealther and courted to provide increased donations to cover increased costs. A vicious circle will be created and… let me shout the net effect: WE WILL GIVE UP CREATING NEW AUDIENCES FOR LIVE THEATRE IN FAVOR OF THE WEALTHY, NEARLY DEAD AUDIENCE.

Just a little salad left: The conclusion of this is that AEA is shooting itself in the foot: By destroying the potential of the new audience, 20-30 years down the road, there will be no one to pay to see AEA actors in large AEA shows. So not only is an approach like the 99 seat plan (which does need updating) an incubator for authors, designers, and actors, it is an incubator for new audiences.

Remember folks: without an audience, actors are simply bloggers in the wind.

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Adequate Compensation is in the Eye of the Beholder

Written By: cahwyguy - Sat Mar 07, 2015 @ 9:22 am PST

Pro99 - Vote No Nowuserpic=dramamasksOver the last few weeks, my attention has been caught up in a brewing battle here in Los Angeles: the battle between Equity Actors and their union, AEA. Now I’m not an actor, but I am an audience; as such, I have a stake in this battle (although we audience members are oft forgotten and taken for granted… this is grating on me and I’m starting to think about what I’m going to do on that. More in a subsequent post.) The battle is a nasty one — and one that outsiders won’t understand.

The world of creatives is not the real world. Nowhere is this made clearer than in this battle, where you have the union fighting management for higher wages, and the “employees” fighting the union for the right to earn no salary, just a small stipend. When I present the subject that way, you’re probably thinking the union is on the right side. But you would be wrong, primarily because the creative world is not the normal world.

Consider the life of an actor in Los Angeles. If you are lucky, you earn your living in the TV or movie industry. If you are really lucky, you are acting in front of the camera, likely doing completely unchallenging work such as commercials or sitcoms. If you are ordinarily lucky, you are working behind the camera in an unsung role. If you are typically, you are paying the bills with a non-creative job — working in a traditional job in a traditional workplace. The point is that you are not expecting to earn a living wage on the live theatre stage — there just isn’t the audience in LA to support it.

But there are loads of theatres in LA, you say. Yup, there are. The big ones tend to bring in outside talent, not local actors. The small ones often exist not to make money, but to provide a place for actors to hone and exercise the acting muscle — just like you exercise at the gym. With more use it gets better and stronger.  An interesting aspect to that analogy: you pay the gym to work out; the gym doesn’t pay you.

Actors in 99 seat theatre haven’t been compensated through salary. They have been compensated through the work, and through the connections they have made in the industry. Often those are more valuable than the $300 that might be earned.

Actors Equity (AEA) wants to change that. They want to mandate that most non-profit theatres pay minimum wage to actors, treat them as employees (with all the employee overhead), and have formal contracts with AEA that include compensation to the union for their services. This would increase that cost of theatres already operating on a slim margin, and put many out of business. Yes, a theatre may raise a lot of money. Much of that goes to rent, insurance, equipment rental, operating costs, and outreach to the community. It doesn’t go to salaries — no one is becoming rich on 99 seat theatre.

The actors want to change the current 99 seat plan, but not this way. They want to work with producers, other creatives, and equity to create a realistic plan that will work, and is likely tiered. A plan that will permit 99-seaters to grow and become equity houses; one that does not impose by fiat.

What’s troublesome is the union tactics. There is intense misreprentation going on. The union says a yes vote is one for a proposal that can be changed, but they have also said the yes is just on this proposal as written. Further, the union has indicated privately that if this passes, they intend to bring the minimum wage fight to New York. The actors are for change, but not this change, and are urging other actors to vote “no”.

Why do I care? I’m an audience member. I can’t vote. I don’t run a theater.

I do, however, buy tickets. I do, however, enjoy the wide variety of shows in Los Angeles. I do, however, enjoy the theatre on the edge that is created here. I do, however, enjoy being able to see both Equity and future Equity actors on stage. I do, however, enjoy being able to critique and provide constructive criticism to them to make them better. I might lose all of that if this passes.

If you are an audience member like me, let your actors know you support them. If they are AEA, educate them and encourage them to vote this proposal down. Write Equity and let them know you don’t approve of their tactics, and that if they continue their tactics, you will be perfectly willing to support, attend, and encourage non-Equity productions in Southern California. Let them know the only party that this action will hurt is AEA — they will lose public support, they will lose members, and people will learn that non-Equity actors can be just as talented as Equity actors. Let them know that Southern California audiences support those who make and act in our 99-seat houses.

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#Pro99: Employees, Volunteers, and the Minimum Wage

Written By: cahwyguy - Sat Feb 28, 2015 @ 12:57 pm PST

Pro99 - Vote No Nowuserpic=fountain-penWhen the urge gets in ’em, actors just gotta act. I’m not an actor, but I am a blogger… and when the urge gets in me, I’ve got write a post*. This time the urge was triggered by two comments on Facebook on my last post: one said, “a business which cannot afford to pay its workers a decent wage doesn’t deserve to survive“; the other said “I actually heard from some folks this week making the argument that any kind of volunteer work should be illegal and require the payment of at least the minimum wage plus benefits.” Both of these are common arguments you might hear in response to the AEA proposal, but when you start thinking about them — really thinking about them — the problems surface and it become clear why this proposal must be opposed.

I’m an engineer and a logical thinker. So, in general, should people be able to volunteer their time? Why shouldn’t everyone be paid a decent wage for what they do? On the surface, that makes sense and seems ethical. But what about people who volunteer for your church or synagogue? Should the Sisterhood ladies be paid for setting up an Oneg? The Brotherhood for cooking at a barbeque? It is clear there are some organizations that should accept volunteers. It’s not just religious: consider other charities such as Doctors Without Borders. Their doctors are skilled — and require a certain skillset — and yet are often volunteers or are not paid what they would get on the market. Look at lawyers who volunteer their time for charities, or professional fundraisers who help charities. All of this volunteering is permitted — and in fact, encouraged by our tax code (remember, you can deduct charitable miles).

So, you say, to do this everyone in such an organization must be a volunteer. That’s not true. Consider your church or synagogue. They have paid clergy and paid staff as well as volunteers. Most charitable organizations have paid executive directors. You can have both paid staff and volunteers. So when should a volunteer become paid staff? That’s a great question — and I think the answer is fundamental. One might think the answer is hours: typically a volunteer is not full time. I would tend to think that volunteers should have a cap on the number of hours they may volunteer — but hours does not an employee make. There are many part-time employees. That’s why I’m discounting hours as the factor. I think the real time an employee become necessary is when you can not find a person with the appropriate skill willing to take on the job either unpaid or below market.  Looking at the theatre, there is clearly the law of supply and demand here. There are lots and lots of actors, and depending on the position and the role, you may be able to use a non-Equity volunteers to replace an Equity actor. However, if the role is unique, the answer might be different. Other creatives are not so plentiful, but even then you can often find volunteers willing to take on the task for the experience. Gee, that sounds like interning :-)

Now you’re probably saying that this means any organization could get around the minimum wage. If you think that, you’re missing a clear distinction. All the organizations I’ve mentioned above are charitable — recognized by the IRS as a 501(c)(3) organization. Their intent is not to make profit; any surplus is to be returned to the community through good work. So lets consider the example of an unpaid intern. There have been recent rulings that unpaid interns in commercial businesses — be they engineering or film and television — are not acceptable.  Yet volunteers are acceptable in charities (and I don’t think I’ve seen a ruling on interns at charities, but they seem analogous to volunteers).

The real factor that should come into play on whether volunteering is permitted should be: is the concern FOR-PROFIT or NON-PROFIT. Yet is it precisely this concern that is ignored by the AEA proposal. The proposal should be that the only companies that could accept volunteer or underpaid actors should be NON-PROFIT theatres. Commercial theatre ventures — even if under 99 seats — should have to pay minimum wage. Yet the proposal, as I understand it, prohibits non-profit theatres from accepting volunteers. That’s wrong, and that should be the main reason to vote “no” and oppose it — it goes against the definition of what a non-profit is.

Once the proposal in this form is disposed of, a new motion should be made to bring in a proper plan. We’ve seen a number out there; I’ve noted the 99 to HAT proposal at Bitter Lemons earlier. The thought experiment behind this post has led to a few additional things:

  • First, the 99-to-HAT notion must be for non-profit theatres. What AEA is proposing may be reasonable for any intimate FOR-PROFITs out there — being FOR-PROFIT, they should have the ability to charge what they believe the market will bear, and have investors who will take the risk of that in exchange for the benefit of a profitable performance. NON-PROFIT and FOR-PROFIT are different beasts.
  • Second, if AEA is truly concerned about the actor, they should have contracts with any theatre — NON-PROFIT or FOR-PROFIT — employing any AEA actor. These contracts shouldn’t be punitive to volunteers, but must protect the working conditions of the actor — breaks, facilities, safety, and other factors. Remember that unions came into being not just to raise wages, but because of incidents like Triangle Shirtwaist, which had dangerous working conditions.

To move to a proposal that can be win – win – win, and that balances the needs of the creatives, producers, and audience, the current proposal must be rejected. Those who have the ability (i.e., the actors and the producers) should then move to create a new committee that has representatives of all stakeholders to establish fair and equitable rules for all. Hopefully, the audience stakeholder can be remembered in this as well.

*: I’m also a programmer, and there the creative urge is the same. When I see a solution to a problem, well, coders gotta code, designers gotta design, and architects gotta architect. I’ve been doing a lot of that the last few months as I’ve been turning my multiyear analysis of NIST SP 800-53 and CNSSI No 1253 into a tool for Subject Matter Experts …. and boy has exercising that muscle felt good. I truly understand the actors, even if I can’t act.

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Climate Change is Coming! Let’s Stop It Before It Drowns Our Theatres!

Written By: cahwyguy - Fri Feb 27, 2015 @ 8:30 pm PST

I Support 99 Seat Theatre in Los Angelesuserpic=theatre_musicalsAbout two weeks ago, I wrote a post about a situation unfolding here in Los Angeles with our intimate theatres (under 100 seats). The post concerned a move by Actors Equity, the stage actor’s labor union, to replace the “99 seat plan” (itself the successor to what was called “Equity Waiver” theatre) with a new plan that many felt would destroy intimate theatre as it is in Southern California. This new proposal (described in this article, but seemingly unavailable to those not in Equity) would essentially destroy non-profit theatre companies: individual actors could mount showcase productions with no legal protections; membership groups (who could not add to their members) could pay below minimum wage, and any other 99 seat and under theatre that used Equity actors would be required to pay those actors minimum wage for a minimum of 3 hours for each performance, and for rehearsal time.

Now, on the surface of this, you’re probably going — actors are people too (despite what some folks have said in the past). They deserve to be paid at least minimum wage, and to be able to make a living from the theatre. In an ideal world (cue the chirping birds and shining sun), I’d agree with you. Even in a slightly imperfect world — perhaps New York — this might work. Such a world understands and supports live theatre, and is willing to pay ticket prices that permit payment of such wages. Actors in such an imperfect world would not have other lucrative acting opportunities available to them that might make up for poor live theatre pay.

However — and this is the problem in Los Angeles — Los Angeles is far far from being a perfect world. Just ask anyone from San Francisco (hear that, Mr. Roadshow — pick on us for saying “the 405”, will ya??). In Los Angeles, there are many opportunities for actors to make reasonable money acting — there is television and film work, which comes up on short notice and pays well. What LA doesn’t provide is easy — and inexpensive — opportunties to practice the craft. Sure, you can pay for classes … or you can get paid (even if it is just gas and bus fare) to practice on stage as part of a show. Such practice has the side benefit of getting you seen by others in the industry, and permits networking that gets you those lucrative jobs.

I should note that I’m not talking from experience. I’m not an actor. I could never be an actor — I can’t inhabit a role. I’m not a director or producer or other creative. I’m a logically thinking engineer who attends a lot of theatre, and who has been reading what the actors and others have been saying about this proposal. I’m a blogger that some consider a reviewer (I hesitate to use the “critic” term); I attend lots and lots of threatre. In other words, I’m a professional audience. I’ve been trying, in my little way, to capture the audience point of view. Here’s my perspective.

Back in January 2014, I saw an excellent production of Sex and Education at the Colony Theatre. If you aren’t familiar with that show, it concerns an English teacher giving her last test before a well-earned retirement. She catches the star football player, who has already been offered a football scholarship, passing a note to a cheerleader to get her to sleep with him. The note is riddled with grammatical problems, and she refuses to pass him until he rewrites the note as a proper persuasive essay. In doing so, he learns not to think about what he wants to get out of the arrangement; he has to convince the cheerleader why it is to her benefit to sleep with him. This is a very important lesson.

So in this discussion, it is pointless to talk about what the actors want, or even what the producers want (and no one cares what the audience wants). What is important is what Equity wants, and what Equity wants is to protect the financial health of its members. Get that: its members. It doesn’t care about non-union people. It doesn’t care about the health of theatres. It doesn’t care about ticket prices. It wants Equity members to be paid minimum wage — the demand of other unions — and to be able to sanction employers (read “producers”) who hire Equity actors and fail to pay them that.

Pure and simple, the plan they propose will not do that. Los Angeles is a market with three types of theatre goers: those that only know of the “big” theatres that book tours; those that attend any and all theatre in Los Angeles; and those that are friends of actors that attend for free. The big musical tour crew won’t care about this proposal — they don’t even care if they see a non-Equity tour (I’m looking at you, Pantages). The rest of the folks rarely pay full price — they quest for the discount ticket. They will not pay what is required to permit non-profits to pay minimum page. A few non-profits might survive with equity actors, but the rest will not. They will either close — or more likely — employ non-union actors or actors working under assumed names (no sanction for the theatre there). That will hurt, not help, the union.

Everyone seems to agree that the current 99-seat plan is broken. But AEA’s proposal is not the answer. On Facebook, the AEA conciliators suggest voting for the plan to initiate the change — but I’ve seen no guarantees that the plan will change if voted in. Certainly, it is not in AEA’s interest to change it. I’ve seen some excellent proposals that increase actor renumeration based on the budget and size of the theatre. These can only be considered if this AEA proposal is voted down (and even that might not stop it, as the vote is only advisory).

Pro99 - Vote No NowI’m not an AEA member. I can’t vote. If you are an AEA member, I urge you to vote the proposal down.  I urge you, in membership meetings, to use Roberts Rules to your advantage, and introduce motions to consider a different proposal and reject this one. See if you can find a win-win, not the current proposed lose-lose.

Everyone can learn more about this. The LA 99 Theatre Community has posted a large number of articles on the subject. There have been numerous position statements on the subject, all of which Colin over at Bitter Lemons has collected. [ETA: And the I Love 99 folks have created a new Facebook community you should like.] Read learn.

But as I’ve said: I’m an audience member. What can I do? We don’t want to take actions that will hurt our actors or our theatres. I think the answer is to be there and to support. We can let our theatres know we support them. We can let them know of the economic impact we provide to the community at large — not just the tickets we buy, but the restaurants we support. This will encourage public officials to come out on the side of the 99 seat theatres. We can encourage actors we know to vote against the plan. We may also have services and skills that we can provide to the pro-99 community. We may not be able to act, but we know how to work computers, to build mailing lists, to analyze data. Audiences consist of not only unpaid actors, but lawyers, labor specialists, engineers, and problem solvers. We can bring our expertise to the fore to help.

Lastly, we can spread the word. Those of you on Twitter and other services supporting hashtags, use the tags #pro99 #LAthtr #ILove99. Don’t be passive. Speak up and keep LA’s intimate theatre community vibrant. Oh, and go see a show or two while you’re at it!

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