A Shot Across The Bow

userpic=99loveLast night, when I got home from seeing Damn Yankees at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB) [writeup this afternoon], I discovered a theatrical shot across the bow in my email. If you recall, back in April and May, there was a lot of press about how the intimate theatre community in Los Angeles was up in arms about the antics of the Actors Equity union, which was attempting to impose a particular wage structure in Los Angeles’s intimate theatre, even after the members in Los Angeles voted that structure down 2 to 1.

Since then, it seemed that AEA had won. They imposed the interim structure, and a number of theatres seemed to be operating within it (at least within the membership company rule). A number of others simply announced they had stopped using AEA actors, limiting themselves to SAG/AFTRA and other non-union actors. It seemed that AEA had divided and conquered. Many were upset at the quiet.

You should be very scared of things that are quiet.

Yesterday, the sleeping giant that is the review committee awoke. From the press release (which you can read in its entirety on the Footlights site, which also has a link to the text of the litigation):

LOS ANGELES (Oct. 17, 2015) — Actors and other members of the Los Angeles theatrical community filed a lawsuit today against Actors’ Equity Association, the union of professional actors and stage managers. The lawsuit challenges the Union’s decision to eliminate its 25-year-old waiver of jurisdiction over small 99-seat theaters, a program popularly known as Equity Waiver. Plaintiffs claim that the Union’s decision to end Equity Waiver will unfairly destroy small theater in Los Angeles and deprive thousands of actors of opportunities to collaborate on creative theatrical projects.

The lawsuit was filed in the Los Angeles federal court. The plaintiffs are Los Angeles-based members of Equity, together with other theatrical artists and theater operators who had entered into a litigation Settlement Agreement with the Union in 1989 that established a system for regulating future changes to the Equity Waiver program.

The lawsuit alleges that the stage actors’ union violated this Settlement Agreement by improperly interfering with the democratic and due process procedures established in the Agreement to prevent any unilateral Union decision to eliminate the world of intimate theater. The lawsuit complains that Equity’s new rules, including a prohibition on volunteer acting at small theaters and a new wage compensation obligation on these theaters, will force theaters to close, reduce their production runs, or to hire non-union volunteer actors in place of Union actors.

The plaintiffs announced that they would not serve the Complaint on the Union immediately, in the hope that the Union would respond to their request to meet and confer about a mutually acceptable resolution of the small theater controversy.

“Although we have now filed the complaint, we have not yet served it on the Union,” stated Steven Kaplan, lead attorney for the plaintiffs. “We have asked the Union to take this opportunity to avoid the time, expense and acrimony of litigation, and sit down with its members to discuss a mutually advantageous resolution.”

Gary Grossman, a member of Equity and one of the plaintiffs in the 1989 litigation, stated that “This lawsuit became necessary because Equity refused to comply with the preliminary procedural protections built into our 1989 Settlement Agreement. These procedural protections were designed to ensure that, before substantial changes were made to the 99-Seat Theater Plan, meaningful discussions would take place within the small theater community.”

Actor Michael A. Shepperd, also a plaintiff, said, “Our members voted to reject the Union’s actions by a 2-1 margin in one of the largest election turnouts in the organization’s history. We are terribly disappointed that our Union rejected the principle of democracy on which it was founded, and foisted on Union members new rules that will harm all actors in the long run.”

Now, I’m just an audience member. I’m not an actor. I’m not a director. I’m not a creative. I’m not a producer (but then again, I am mounting a one-night production of a fringe show for the ACSAC conference, so perhaps I am). I have no skin in this game other than being someone who buys tickets. Why do I care?

It’s simple:

  • I believe that Los Angeles is a unique theatrical ecosystem. Unlike other cities, actors do not have to depend on the stage to make their living as an actor. Lucrative wages can come from TV and Film. Given this, many (but not all) actors in Los Angeles act because they feel the need to work their craft and exercise their acting muscles on the stage. Remuneration is secondary, and many actors do not feel that it is the paycheck that makes them a professional, it is how they behave.
  • I believe that compensation for the creatives should be worked out in a mutually agreeable arrangement between the theatre company, producers, creatives, and actors involved. If an actor does not like the arrangement, they always have the ability to say no. Unlike other cities, there are plenty of other actors vying for the role. And, in the LA unique creative-driven marketplace, there are plenty of roles available.
  • I believe that, in such an environment, Equity’s primary role should be to ensure safe and non-exploitive work conditions, protecting the physical and mental health of the actors. Equity has abdicated that role in its current proposal with respect to membership companies.
  • I believe that a situation should not exist where some actors are independent contractors or volunteers, and others are employees. That is against the law. That is also what Equity is insisting on in its current “minimum wage” agreement for non-membership companies.

As an audience member, I believe it is in my best interest for the parties to sit down and come to an agreement before more theatres close, and more ancillary support businesses (such as costume and prop shops) go out of business. That hurts the economy of Los Angeles, and means there is less theatre for me to see. Lawsuits are expensive, and it is much better for all parties involved for the money that would have gone into a lawsuit to go towards paying actors and other creatives and keeping theatres afloat, as opposed to lawyers.


2 Replies to “A Shot Across The Bow”

  1. Your last bullet point is interesting, because that is how the entire IT world works. Some are employees, some are employees of firms with a contract, some are pure independent contractors (hopefully under an LLC). I have never heard anyone question the legality of these arrangements. I am curious to which section of the U.S. Code you think that scenario violates.

    Why would stage acting be different? Note that I am not saying that independent actors, unprotected, is a good thing. But there always will be those who don’t want to be members of the union. I remember when my mother was teaching, she did not like UTLA, which was too radical for her tastes; she preferred PELA, but they never won certification.

    Aside: MCA/Universal programmers are unionized. Analysts are not. Guess who gets the 3 a.m. phone call? 🙂

    1. It was my understanding from labor law; it had come up in a discussion of AEA’s minimum wage proposal. In particular, as I recall, it has to do with volunteering services. You can’t have someone volunteering services (which is what actors currently do under the 99 seat plan) for the exact same job for which someone else is an employee (and AEA was insisting that actors be employees and get minimum wage). Under the current approach, all are contractors, either getting a particular stipend or a contracted amount for a number of performances.

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