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Solidarity, Forever!

How one labor union is sewing discord in local theater


AEA's pending referendum

AEA’s pending referendum



“If you want to give it away, get out of the union!”


I’ve heard that cry, all the way from the East Coast.


I teach for Cal State University and I belong to a union I love – the California Faculty Association. I walked into the theater department office at Cal State last week, and the secretary handed me a sizable check, mid-month in what’s normally a monthly pay cycle. I wasn’t expecting it. “What’s this?” I asked. “Your bargaining unit just got you guys a pay raise.”


How can you argue with a union like that, or with unions in general? If I want to take work in a non-union house – say U.S.C. or CalArts, no problem with my union. They’re protecting my ability to choose how I spend my time, and meanwhile, they’re in the trenches with my university’s administration fighting for better pay.


So can we please put to bed the ludicrous argument that because some people, such as me, or Tim Robbins, or city councilman Mitch O’Farrell, feel that the stage actors’ union, Actors Equity Association, is behaving appallingly in its treatment of the 99-Seat Plan and Los Angeles area theater, that we’re union-bashing.


Don Shirley is an esteemed colleague and friend, a rigorous journalistic and skeptic. Also, we’ve been on opposite sides of a philosophical divide for years. This would hardly be worth mentioning, except that this divide cuts to the heart of what might be called the culture war of the 21st century.


Don brings the most recent battle in this war to the fore in his latest post for L.A. Observed on how the L.A. theater scene would be plenty vibrant, thank you very much, if the 99-seat theaters simply disappeared (a likely outcome if the actors union’s “promulgated” plan to change L.A.’s 99-Seat Plan actually goes through) – i.e., there would be sufficient theater for audiences to partake in, from in the remaining contract shows, the number of which Don says is on the rise, using statistics from that union, Actors Equity Association.


In 2002, Don wrote a column in the L.A. Times on Playwrights Arena artistic director Jon Lawrence Rivera, in every sentence measuring the success or the failure of his productions on box office revenue. One of Rivera’s productions, Nick Salamone’s Moscow, transferred to the New York Fringe Festival and received a Fringe First there. It lost money in Los Angeles. So what is its actual value to the civic arena? My rebuttal to Don in a “Counter-Point” editorial argued that there’s more to value than money earned or money spent. The Times entitled the rebuttal, “Assessment of Theater Trips Over the Bottom Line.”


Union actors are being asked to vote in non-binding referendum on its promulgated plan (that’s legal verbiage for non-discussable edict) later this month, but the decision will be made by union councillors from around the U.S., most of which have no first-hand knowledge of how the theater functions in Los Angeles. So the very issue of representation is an issue.


If this lands in the courts, as expected, an outcome could turn on procedural grounds (the union’s handling of the referendum, for example), but more likely, it will be settled on the legality of actors volunteering for a non-profit corporation — a practice unquestioned in charities such as the Red Cross, and non-profit radio stations, and even labor unions.  But recently, volunteering has been called into question for what are regarded as commercial enterprises, such as non-profit restaurants and flea markets. Is an actor volunteering in a theater with an audience capacity of 99 or less, a venture structurally designed to lose money, and in which the actor may leave at any time for any reason, does that actor’s labor constitute a civic function or a commercial one? The future of our theater may well rest on one judge’s answer to that question.


Ivanov at the Odyssey Theatre (Photo by Enci)

Ivanov at the Odyssey Theatre (Photo by Enci)


For those unfamiliar with the current local cataclysm in our theater, a brief history: When the current 99-Seat Plan was finally, reluctantly agreed to by the union in 1989, after being challenged by its own membership, union actors were allowed to volunteer their talent in theaters under the Plan that were, by design, restricted to having 99 seats or less in order to prevent those theaters from making money, ergo to prevent the very exploitation of union actors by producers that the union now claims has been happening since 1989.


One vocal AEA member has been repeatedly tearing up when she talks about the abuse suffered by her fellow volunteers at L.A.’s small theaters after coming to rehearse at a theater after working a full-time job.


“They’ve been fainting from exhaustion” she has said, referring to volunteers who actually have every right to leave at any time, or simply to never show up.


“Huh?” replies 24th Street Theater’s co-artistic director Jay McAdams. “The only time I’ve ever seen anyone faint at my theater is when they looked at the box office receipts.”


Since 1989, hundreds of small theaters with varying administrative models have sprung up, actors have formed their own companies and almost two hundred productions have transferred from the 99-Seat Theater Plan to professional contract work in New York, Chicago, London and beyond. In other words, despite being a labor of volunteering one’s art and craft between contract work, the 99-Seat Plan has also been an employment generator, where none before existed.


Equity has now abruptly proposed replacing the 99-Seat Theater Plan with a comparatively short-sighted edict that compels actors to be paid minimum wage at all theaters for rehearsals and performances, imposing on theaters of 99-seats-or-less a financially untenable model.


Equity’s new strategy essentially marginalizes small theaters by removing all union protections from union members who wish to self-produce in theaters of 99-seats-or-less paying actors any less than minimum wage, while banning them from working in or with any non-profit theater in the region for those projects. Furthermore, it torpedoes the ability of membership companies to recruit new members by insisting that, unlike the veterans, newcomers be paid minimum wage for rehearsals and performances, creating a kind of class-divide within membership companies and, for practical purposes, aging them out of existence.


When charged by Equity with being anti-union for defending L.A.’s intimate theaters, Los Angeles City Councilman Mitch O’Farrell snapped back that he is not union-bashing or opposed to the minimum wage, but that this particular issue concerns the right of actors to volunteer at intimate theaters already plagued by soaring rental costs that have driven 50% of them out of business in the past decade. (Most recently, the decades-old Celebration Theatre in Hollywood fled a blistering rent increase. The theater is now a pot dispensary.) Unlike the union, the city councilman believes that small professional theaters at which professional actors give their talent (when they’re not being paid in an industry with over 90% unemployment) actually have something of civic value to offer, and he’d rather not see any more such theaters be priced out of his district for the sake of more pot shops.


Still, citing the income but not the expenses of several 99-seat theaters, theorist Isaac Butler writes in a comment-thread that there are too many theaters in Los Angeles, as though trying to bash in the knuckles of those survivors straining to hang onto L.A.’s rooftop ledges by their finger-tips. As though the very existence of money-losing 99-Seat artistic powerhouses such as Pacific Resident Theatre and Antaeus Company, Theatre @ Boston Court, Rogue Machine and The Fountain Theatre is a) an assault on the quality of theater in general and 2) somehow a threat to the market-share of mid-size and larger ventures such as Center Theatre Group, the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, A Noise Within, The Colony Theatre and the Pantages. There is no proof that the existence of intimate theaters impedes the existence or growth of larger theaters, and Equity’s Executive Director Mary McColl has admitted such. In a march propelled by prejudice, Equity is running a largely un-researched campaign to eviscerate what the union perceives as a nuisance.


McColl’s arguments are bullying and elitist. Aside from banning union actors from volunteering their talents when and where they please, they posit that only organizations with sufficient funds to burn are good enough to partake in the money-losing venture of professional theater, that quality is determined by the thickness of a producer’s wallet and/or their ability to raise money from a rapidly diminishing pool of arts funding.


I can hear a number of theater historians and practitioners from world theater either turning in their graves or gnashing their teeth from the toxic mix of vulgarity and pomposity in the union’s “if you can’t grow up and work with exponentially larger budgets, then leave the union” proposals: Jerzy Grotowski (Towards a Poor Theatre), Eugene Ionesco (“I am an amateur playwright”), Augusto Boal (Theatre of the Oppressed).


Jerzi Grotowski, Polish theorist, director and author of Towards a Poor Theater

Jerzy Grotowski, Polish theorist, director and author of Towards a Poor Theater


But back to the philosophical divide across which Don and I stand on opposite sides: Don’s argument in his current article and in his reportage dating back years in the L.A. Times stems from the belief that the value of any enterprise and activity is inexorably determined by its capacity to be monetized. This is also the union’s conviction and bias. It reflects a prevailing value system that ultimately denigrates whatever dignity there is in doing one’s job in a particular situation just for the hell of it: of me for instance, a professional writer, penning a column like this, for which I won’t be paid a dime; of a professional actor playacting on a stage because he or she just feels like it, that doing a play, say, for children, or just for the time being, because a contract job hasn’t rolled in for some time, that this pleasure of working for the sheer joy of the work somehow devalues the profession and constitutes a kind of exploitation from which actors need to be protected and banned by their labor union – even against their will.


Solidarity forever? I’ve never seen anything so divisive in this town. More to the point, I’ve never seen our community so galvanized against anything. Now, can we coalesce around some solutions, i.e. a tiered income flow being proposed by the likes of Jeff Marlow, in which actor compensations are determined by fixed percentage of a production’s budget in conjunction with a percentage of its actual revenue?


The Parthenon, Athens

The Parthenon, Athens


Then there’s Christopher Johnson’s brilliant idea of founding a non-denominational/interfaith Church of Dionysus for Los Angeles County (He says he wants it to be a national church, but really now . . .) It would be a registered church based on the creed that live performance is a form of worship, and that a theater stage is sacred. (No problem finding academic credentials for that notion.) If union actors become parishioners (for free, of course), and theaters across the region offer up their stages for “church” performances, Equity’s authority over any member’s right to worship slams right into the First Amendment (freedom of religion) and Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Acts (religious discrimination). I can’t even type this without grinning at the sheer perfection with which it distinguishes theater as a calling from theater as a business, and cements the actors’ right to choose which they prefer to engage at any time – cements it right into the U.S. Constitution, banning both the government and labor unions from meddling with freedom of worship, which is actually at the core of this issue.


There is of course the hypocrisy of Actors Equity Union paying its two executive directors triple digit salaries ($245,864 and $228, 512, respectively, in 2013) that, taken together, exceed the annual income of most 99-seat theaters in L.A.,  while that same union employs almost 40% of its workforce as volunteers — 30 of the union’s 225 employees receive no compensation whatsoever, 56 receive stipends ranging from $50 per year to almost $10,000. The union then has the audacity to condemn L.A.’s intimate theater “producers” (I looked but couldn’t find any in L.A. who actually meet the definition of that word) profiting “off the backs” of volunteer labor. Aside from the kettle-calling-the-teapot-black attack, are we talking about garment workers here? These are UCLA and CalArts graduates scraping by on $50k a year. They were lucky enough to get into the union and now they just want to put on or be in a play with peers they respect. What is this garbage rhetoric about exploiting the workers plucked from The Cradle Will Rock, from another century and a completely different context? 


But the larger frame that makes my teeth itch comes from stats published by William Giraldi in The New Republic, regarding a culture in which everything is monetized:


Between 2008 and September 2012, there were 66 No. 1 songs, almost half of which were performed by only six artists (Katy Perry, Rihanna, Flo Rida, The Black Eyed Peas, Adele, and Lady Gaga); in 2011, Adele’s debut album sold more than 70 percent of all classical albums combined, and more than 60 percent of all jazz albums. Between 1982 and 2002, the number of Americans reading fiction withered by nearly 30 percent. In a 1966 UCLA study, 86 percent of students across the country declared that they intended to have a ‘meaningful philosophy of life’; by 2013, that percentage was amputated by half, ‘meaningful’ no doubt replaced by ‘moneyful.’ Over the past two decades, the number of English majors graduating from Yale University has plummeted by 60 percent; at Stanford University in 2013, only 15 percent of students majored in the humanities.”


This is just the continuation of a decades-long cultural spiral, and I always believed that theater could offer an antidote to this soul-crushing decline of motives that reach beyond money. I’ve always believed that Los Angeles theater, in particular, offered an antidote to a national, regional theater chain that, aside from its endless revivals of now threadbare classics, has cranked out new works for the better part of a decade represented by about 12 playwrights, nine of whom graduated from the Yale School of Drama.


This isn’t a culture, it’s a factory. And it’s our future unless we’re strong enough to defy it.