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L.A. Theater’s Witch Hunters

By Paul Birchall

 

Photo credit: Flickr user Robert Mongomery, cc license by 2.0

UPDATE: February 8, 2017. A source close to Actors’ Equity Association (AEA) confirmed that a “Cease and Desist” letter had been sent by the Union to “Equityworksla,” and added that “Equity had absolutely no involvement in this communication to Playwrights Arena.”

 

There has been one disturbing incident of a new bullying tactic by an anonymous party towards the entities that put on intimate shows in our community. It is directly related to the murky waters covering the reciprocal agreements among unions in the entertainment field. A complaint currently being adjudicated by the National Labor Relations Board is the right of one union (Actors’ Equity Association, or AEA) to place, summarily, members of other “reciprocal” unions, such as the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Radio and Television Artists (SAF-AFTRA) on AEA’s “do not work” list.

Though AEA has been claiming that reciprocity is part of its agreements, AEA’s sister unions (including SAG-AFTRA) have been conspicuously quiet on this matter for almost two years, while private conversations with union reps suggest that they have no incentive or desire to enforce reciprocity.

Jon Lawrence Rivera of Playwrights Arena, received an oddly menacing letter, following the posting of ads for his company’s next round of auditions at the breakdown website Actors Access for his company’s next drama Hotel Play.  The show, commissioned by both Playwright’s Arena and Center Theatre Group, is going to be an immersive production, by several playwrights, set within several rooms at the Radisson Midtown Hotel near USC. 

A few days after the ad was posted, Rivera’s casting director Raul Clayton Staggs and Rivera received a letter from a mysterious address Equityworksla@yahoo.com, which, at the bottom of the letter and in small font, stated, “We are in no way authorized to represent AEA and this notification has not been approved or authorized by AEA.  We are concerned, professional members of the L.A. Theatre community and we are in support of their efforts.” 

However, the note then proceeded to list a series of seemingly regulatory rules:  “Please be advised that a series of complaints have been filed with AEA and SAG-AFTRA against your theatre company (Playwrights Arena), your production of The Hotel Play and your casting director (Raul Clayton Staggs) because of the casting notice that appeared this week on Actors’ Access:  While you have the right to produce a non-Union production, it is not OK for you to engage members of any of the other 4As (such as SAG-AFTRA) or other unions/guilds that have agreed to reciprocal arrangements with AEA and the other 4As.

“You are being be advised of the following:

  • Under the reciprocal arrangements, members of SAG-AFTRA, SDC, WGA, DGA, etc. may not accept any kind of work (paid or unpaid) in any theatrical production that is not working under an officially approved contract, code, or agreement sanctioned by AEA. 
  • Under federal and state laws, your company may not refuse to hire union members.  This means you are either completely a union shop or you’re not. 
  • Now that a complaint has been filed with AEA by current members, AEA will have the right to add Playwrights’ Arena and its affiliated producers and casting directors to the Do Not Work List.

“Your production is now on our radar and we will be keeping a careful watch.  If we see any members of SAG-AFTRA, SDC, WGA, DGA, etc. accepting roles or work of any kind with this production without the actors receiving the benefit of a sanctioned agreement with AEA, we will file official complaints with their unions/guilds against those members.  As many of us are members of those unions/guilds we can and will insist on disciplinary action to be taken against anyone who violates these rules.”

According to Rivera, this note came a few days after he received a phone call from an actual representative at AEA, who had called to see if the production would be signing on with AEA’s new Agreement. Rivera says he responded that he had no choice but to take the show non-union, since “the cost of 16 actors surpasses our budget.”  Two days later, the note from “EquityworksLA” arrived. 

The letter acknowledges that Playwrights’ Arena might have the right to not utilize AEA actors, but should also not employ actors from any of the other unions. (The number of AEA actors in the region is under 8,000, while an estimated count of SAG-AFTRA actors in the area is around 160,000. While there is in theory a reciprocity among all unions who have agreed to reciprocity, it is extremely unlikely that any SAG-AFTRA member would be expected to stay away from a non-union stage production, since they aren’t members of AEA. That’s the very question that the NLRB is now considering, i.e. whether such an AEA “policy” constitutes an unfair labor practice, essentially sidelining tens of thousands of local actors from performing on any stage that isn’t sanctioned by an AEA contract.

What, then, is the purpose of the letter?  A request for more information was sent to the EquityworksLA address, but no response has been received. One theory is that “EquityworksLA” represents some individuals who are very close to AEA leadership, but may not be officers or officials within it, a group of self-appointed vigilantes following info on shows, on behalf of AEA.

When informed of the letter, Pro-99 Plaintiff Gary Grossman said “(The letter) is not from Equity and carries no teeth.  There is no penalty or sanction that they can throw at you.  Equity can say that SAG-AFTRA cannot participate in non-AEA shows, but that means nothing until SAG-AFTRA says that, and they haven’t.”  

However, I do find the anonymous nature — dovetailing, as it does, with the more formal call from Equity — to be disturbing, trafficking as it does in nebulously legal “information.”

Our advice is to ignore such notices unless they are clearly from, and authorized by, any of the unions.

 

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