The Sounds of Silence
By Kevin Delin
The other day, I came upon this tweet from Actors’ Equity Association President Kate Shindle:
A lovely sentiment. What is more empowering than being heard?
So imagine my surprise when, a mere two days later, Shindle released this tweet (since deleted):
I don’t know what else William Salyers said to Shindle (besides this and this – which really aren’t that provocative) before his getting this response from her. But it’s clear she meant what she tweeted: her personal twitter account went so far as to “favorite” her AEA President’s twitter account tweet (that’s her personal icon to the far right).
The juxtaposition of the two tweets makes an obvious point: it’s easier to criticize a mess in someone else’s backyard than deal with the mess in your own.
And what a mess it is. The problem to which President Shindle refers is the Union’s insisted-upon change in the way the Los Angeles theater system currently works. Equity’s old “99-Seat Theater Plan” – allowing actors to volunteer in theaters so small that no profit to the producers was possible – had a tremendously positive effect on the creation of stage art in LA. But the future of this city-wide culture vibe came to a screeching halt on February 6, 2015 when Equity announced a new plan that would dramatically upset the stable, but delicate, economics created by its 99-Seat Theater Plan; effectively ending the intimate theater scene in Los Angeles.
The Los Angeles Equity membership was not too happy with this unilateral decision by their Union and organized under a “Pro99” banner. They intended to fight the Equity plan before its formal adoption. Pro99 made a lot of noise about what Equity’s new plan would do to theater in LA. A lot of noise. Enough noise to get attention on the front page of the New York Times.
Meanwhile, the Union itself stayed nearly silent.
Don’t take my word for it. Listen to Kate Shindle. She wrote
“…the Union itself stays nearly silent.”
Shindle wrote this because she was challenging then-Equity President Nick Wyman for his office. In addition to running a campaign about the future of LA theater, Equity was also running a national leadership election.
The two sets of politics were influencing one another.
Candidate Shindle made written overtures to Los Angeles during the noisy debate over the new Equity plan. She promised better messaging. She promised more transparency. She flew out to LA to listen to the actors in Pro99. Was it a campaign trip or a fact-finding trip? Likely both. And by listening to the actors for several hours, informally, face-to-face, over pints of beer, Candidate Shindle experienced first-hand the deep and justified frustration of fellow union members whose voices weren’t yet heard in New York City. She left the City of Angels with lots of goodwill – simply from listening.
In fact, Los Angeles actors had so hungered just to be heard, they were willing to overlook Shindle’s comments on the new Equity plan itself. In fact, she posted on her campaign site that
“I do think that a test drive [of Equity’s new plan] is in order. And that our biggest priority going forward, as a community, should be whether this actually works for our L.A. members. If not, it can and should be adjusted.”
Shindle’s proposal was not a “test drive.” It’s a real commitment to implement something and puts the present intimate theater ecosystem at risk. This is no “test.” For if the new Equity plan doesn’t work, you now have two problems where once you only had one: First you have to fix anything that was broken by the “test drive” (assuming you can even fix it at all) and, second, you must still find a solution to the original problem.
Contrast Shindle’s statement to what then-President Nick Wyman publicly posted on his Facebook page on April 23, 2015, only two days after Equity adopted its new intimate theater plan over LA actors’ clearly stated objections:
“We will all see how things work in the coming months. Nothing is set in stone. Equity now has the ability to meet with individual producers, individual theatres or producer associations to negotiate changes, revisions, improvements, etc. Equity will be scheduling sit-down meetings with groups of members to get their ideas and suggestions. Equity is committed to the future of the bright, vibrant community of LA Theater. Equity Works.”
At the time of this post, the only person in Los Angeles less popular in the theater community than Equity President Wyman – who inexplicably did little to campaign for re-election – was the guy who said “Macbeth” inside a theater during a performance of same. So it wasn’t surprising when Shindle received 305 more votes than Wyman in the national union election and assumed the mantle of President. (Her campaign message about better listening didn’t hurt. Neither did Equity’s official adoption of its new plan only 4 days after LA delivered a 66% to 34% landslide advisory vote against adoption.)
Shindle’s election was the only reshuffling of Equity’s eight top officer positions. Five days after the election, Equity dropped the planned meetings to which Wyman referred. The official announcement stated:
“Attention Los Angeles Members: The small group meetings about the new internal membership rules and agreements originally announced for June are postponed to the fall. The schedule for the Production Contract negotiations has been pushed up and those negotiations will now begin immediately after the July 4th holiday. Because of this change, the final preparations for the negotiations will now be condensed into the month of June.”
Rebecca Metz, then the de facto face of the Pro99 movement, wrote at the time of the cancellations that she encouraged this decision with any individual member of Equity leadership who would listen. In Metz’s view, the meeting cancellations were a “VERY GOOD THING.”[sic] So ended any near-term possibility of Equity leadership meeting with the rank-and-file Angeleno members. So much for hearing the Angeleno voices in the aftermath of the new policy adoption and election of a new union president.
Only three weeks later, rather than engage the membership at large, Shindle, Equity Executive Director Mary McColl, and Western Regional Director Gail Gabler met with Metz and a single group of six of Metz’s choosing in Los Angeles. Apparently, if canceling meetings of small groups of actors was a “VERY GOOD THING,” then not cancelling just one of these meetings was an even better thing.
It was in this meeting Metz found out Equity was, indeed, single-mindedly going through with Shindle’s “test drive” of the new plan as is, completely consistent with Shindle’s public campaign statements. Any unforeseen consequences of the test drive be damned. Metz also discovered Equity was “not interested at all in talking about the process that got us here, whether or not is was fair or smart or productive.” In other words, Shindle and her two executives would decide what they would be willing to hear.
And certain topics simply weren’t going to be heard at all.
Could this be from the same empathetic @AEAPresident who had tweeted about “helping Indian and Pakistani women find their voices?”
Institutions love silence. Silence accelerates forgetting.
After Shindle’s election, Equity, as an organization, fell really silent. It was in its interest to do so. The Equity officers don’t even have to run down the clock all the way to the final plan implementation date of June 1, 2016. The actual fail-safe deadline for LA theater is much closer than that.
Like shooting skeet, setting up a theater season requires leading the target. One can’t hold off plans while challenging your union in court. New fundraising strategies must be put in place. New visions of the theaters must be developed for the donors. At some point, even if Equity were to lose a legal challenge, the damage to the local theater ecosystem will have already been done. It’s so much easier to destroy than create. Once the field has been cleared, Equity can have things, in Shindle’s words, “adjusted.” To its liking, of course.
And that’s in the best case scenario where Equity loses a legal challenge.
So Equity’s lack of community engagement in Los Angeles – its silence – continues.
Veteran Broadway actor Dakin Matthews has felt the silence. He’s tried to directly engage Shindle on a Facebook comment thread where she had previously been posting. He asked her a simple question: “If I think my union has acted illegally, but I do not want to sue, what are my options according to my union’s procedures and labor law in general?” No answer came. In fact, Matthews has not been able to get an answer from any union representative.
Noted LA theater critic (and Editor-in-Chief of Stage Raw, the publisher of this article), Steven Leigh Morris has made repeated requests to Equity, including Equity Press Representative Maria Somma, for on-the-record comments. These have been met with more silence.
It’s frustrating to be met with institutional silence. Institutions can engage in a form of “Mother-May-I?” deciding how they may be approached to give the appearance that they be approached at all. The “tone” of the approach becomes very important. And the institution can arbitrarily – and capriciously – decide what is an appropriate tone.
So we enter a cycle: The more Equity is silent, the more frustrated LA actors become. The more frustrated LA actors become, the more the tone of the conversation rises. The more the tone of the conversation rises, the more justification Equity will claim to be silent until things calm down. That is the context of President Shindle’s previously mentioned tweet regarding William Salyers.
And Equity’s silence hasn’t been limited to Los Angeles. The Union has been conveniently silent to its membership on the East Coast. For example, when someone noticed that the Antaeus Theatre Company in LA had a huge reported bank account, Equity did nothing to curb that conversation – despite knowing that the bank account was for a new theater complex. Equity has also been silent on the known serious flaws in the interpretation of their survey results – an interpretation which was used to justify changing the 99-Seat Theater Plan. These are but a few of the issues on which Equity has been silent.
The silences Equity made in New York City have been even more damaging than the lack of communication to Los Angeles. The New York silences have kept members in the dark. Little wonder the Equity Councillors – much less the rank-and-file union members – lack an understanding of the present LA theater scene and misinterpret comments out of Los Angeles, particularly the meaning of the landslide referendum vote against the Union.
Shindle has been in office now for 12 weeks. That’s the same period Equity took to go from announcing its new intimate theater plan to formally adopting it over LA’s landslide objections. The LA theater world changed dramatically in the 12 weeks prior to Shindle’s election. Not much has happened since.
Those familiar with Union processes continually state it takes time for Equity to get anything done. The counter-example of Equity’s warp-speed adoption of its new plan notwithstanding, it does seem like getting 83 actors on the Council to agree on anything will be a long uphill battle. Especially when they’ve been misinformed. Working from a set of common facts is therefore an important first step in making good decisions.
This is where the new union president can make a crucial contribution to her organization.
For though she’s neither an Indian nor a Pakistani woman, I sure wish Kate Shindle could find her voice. She’s in the unique position to walk the union back from the bad information that has tainted and tarnished the discussion for the past six months. President Shindle hasn’t yet coupled herself irrevocably to the provably wrong statements made on the Union’s behalf prior to her election. Ex-President Nick Wyman is no longer around. And Executive Director Mary McColl is supposed to be merely a hired gun – after all, she used to work for the Broadway producers – and therefore only executes Council policy and does not form it.
Kate Shindle can set the factual record straight to the rank-and-file membership. This does not require the involvement – or approval – of Equity’s 83 councillors. Therefore, it can be done immediately. There is no good reason for dragging the bad information Equity previously promulgated into the present. But Shindle’s first presidential message shows a woman still in search of her voice. She describes her meeting with Metz:
“…I met with some of the most passionate Pro99 members to discuss what comes next. I want to help Los Angeles theatre succeed, and we had what I felt was a very productive conversation.”
That’s not quite how Metz depicted that same meeting. Then again, it’s possible that Shindle thought making it clear to Los Angeles actors that Equity’s misleading statements and kangaroo procedures weren’t going to be discussed or corrected – ever – as a productive conversation.
Because she traveled to LA prior to her election, Kate Shindle is in a singular position to understand the disconnect between what was imagined by the New York Equity members and what was actually happening in Los Angeles over the past six months. She can begin to correct the record – not just to the Equity Council but to all Equity members – immediately. It’s an action that requires no special permissions, only the will to act. And the new President needs to break Equity’s silence of omissions quickly before they become fodder for more damage to the Union’s reputation.
Candidate Shindle gave Los Angeles a promise to listen. Now Los Angeles needs from President Shindle a promise to speak.
Read Kevin Delin’s “The Greek Referendum Through the Eyes of AEA”
Read Kevin Delin’s “Matter; Doesn’t Matter” analysis of the AEA national election.