It’s Gonna Be a Bumpy Ride…

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.