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Fact and Fantasy

A Game The Whole Family Can Play





In its war against L.A.’s intimate theaters, Actors Equity Association sent out another press release assailing the anemic economics of local theater, and, once again, blaming the 99-seat theaters as being responsible for the malaise.


Notwithstanding the status of California as one of the five least arts funded states in the nation, and notwithstanding the tectonic shift in California philanthropy away from the arts, and not withstanding the union’s consistent failure to support with any evidence its allegation that the removal of 99-seat theaters will generate new employment (as though L.A.’s union actors have been turning down paying work to perform in 99-seat theaters, or as though the existence of 99-seat theaters has somehow impeded the recent emergence of mid-size presenting/producing houses such as The Broad and Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts), the latest press release toys with the facts so playfully, it looks like a game that anybody can play.


Don’t get angry. Play the fact game. It’s fun, and it leads to any conclusion that you desire.


I’d like to use almost the same document that Equity uses to arrive at quite different conclusion. The difference being that the conclusions here actually make sense. This is from Equity’s 2013-2014 Season Theatrical Report.


In that report you’ll find all kinds of interesting factoids. Here’s a sampling:


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First, in the table above, you’ll find that the number of members working per season is cited at 17,522. Actors Equity Association has over 50,000 members. This means that AEA’s national employment rate for the season was about 34%; and the unemployment rate – nobody finding work at all throughout the season – was about 66% across the nation.


Now let’s take a look at the total work weeks, as reported by AEA, further down the same table above.


The number of total work weeks for the season in the Eastern region was 196,712 or 67% of the total. In the central region it was 45,373 or 15.5%, and here in the West, it was 50,627 or 17.3%. If you track the prior seasons, you’ll see that the number of work weeks has been steadily rising in the East and steadily declining in both the Central and the Western regions.


Now, keep in mind, that outside of New York, with its whopping 18,795 members, L.A. has the next largest contingent of Equity members at 8,481 (though that number has obviously dropped, since the 2013-2014 season, since the latest press release quotes L.A. as having “over 7,000 members” not “over 8,000.”


It appears from these numbers that the Western region, though declining, is pretty much keeping pace with the Central region, which is also declining. So if Los Angeles County has such a unique problem that it’s worth the union’s effort to dismantle the 99-Seat Plan here, is it San Francisco’s 1,143 members that’s propping up the West? Or Seattle’s 470 members? Curiously, the press release fails to mention either of those cities on its shining examples list.


So what, exactly, is the problem? Or, what do you do with a problem like Los Angeles?


Here’s the problem.


Almost nowhere outside of New York is it possible to make a living on the stage. And it’s getting harder. According to the table above, in any given week during the 2013-2014 season, only 13.3 percent of all Equity actors were employed. Which means that in any given week, the unemployment rate of union actors across the nation was over 87%.


Given that the lion’s share of employment is on the East Coast, this means that the unemployment in the Central and Western regions likely tops 90%.


And this means there were over 7,000 unionized stage actors in Los Angeles on any given week (of the 2013-2014 season) who wanted to act on the stage, among their peers. We know they wanted to act because they said so. They said so in a 2015 referendum, with a high voter turnout, rejecting their union’s proposal by an unprecedented 67% margin.


Is removing all these actors from the theaters that provide them an opportunity to act really a heroic anthem for the union to be trumpeting – given that these actors are almost all obviously working other jobs to put bread on their tables?


What is the union proposing that they do in the abundant time they’re not finding union contract work — other than to stay off the stage?


Where is the plan, the evidence, even a theory that’s not laughable, to actually address their needs? What is the union doing to provide its members contract work? I hear stories that the union has rebuffed every offer to craft a plan to help small theaters grow into contract houses – but the union will surely have different stories.


This is, after all, now a war about stories.