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NMI Takes AEA to the NLRB, City Garage Sees Its Future, and Showdown in Chi Town: Paul Birchall’s Got It Covered

By Paul Birchall

NMI Vs. AEA VIA NLRB

Scott Guy at NMI’s conference on musical theater. (Photo: Courtesy NMI)

One of the main stories to come out of the recently closed Hollywood Fringe (can it not expand from one month to two, so we can see more of the shows that sold out as soon as tickets went on sale?) was one which I reported on in my last column: The national thespian/stage-managers’ union, Actors’ Equity Association (Equity/AEA), had served papers to union actors performing in a Hollywood Fringe show produced by New Musicals Inc. (NMI). Equity ordered its actors not to work with NMI, which the union has placed on its “Do Not Work” list for refusing to sign Equity’s newly imposed collective bargaining agreement.

Now comes news that NMI, producer of 1001 Minutes of New Musicals in this year’s Hollywood Fringe, has submitted what they call an “initial proposal” with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), complaining about the rationale behind being placed on the Do Not Work list, and about Equity’s refusal to meet with the company to discuss a way of getting off the list. 

Some more details about NMI’s concerns may be found at Footlights, which include the company’s original press release, and also NMI’s request that people involved with the theater community send them their stories about being threatened by Equity for working in theaters of 99-seats or less, by Wednesday, July 6, which is when NMI Executive Director Scott Guy is scheduled to be deposed for his statement to the NLRB. 

According to NMI’s Open Letter to the Theater Community, “The National Labor Relations Board has notified the union of the charges against it. As we understand it, the next steps will be for the NLRB to collect affidavits from our staff and colleagues and gather evidence and corroboration of our charges, at which time we can expect either dismissal, settlement or a trial.  We’re hopeful that there will be a swift conclusion to this matter.” 

The heart of the matter is one of the exemptions to the union’s new contract, which allows “membership companies” to employ union actors as volunteers and thus able to perform in fringe festivals and large ensemble productions that would otherwise be priced out of existence by union salaries. The determination of what constitutes a membership company, however, is made by the union in conformity to standards that NMI, among others, finds arbitrary, capricious and punitive.

In addition to NMI, for example, the union has refused the membership company exemption (or explain its reasons for said refusal) to Interact Theatre Company, despite that troupe’s decades-long history as an ensemble company in Los Angeles. Interact’s most famous (and outspoken) member, John Rubinstein, was particularly vocal in opposing the implementation of the union’s new contract.

“The case, on the face of it, is pretty simple,” Guy told Stage Raw. “We’re asking to be removed from the Do Not Work list.  We’re asking to be recognized as a membership company.” 

Guy noted that AEA’s reasons for declaring NMI a non-membership company are based on two criteria, one of which Guy says is erroneous, the other dubious: AEA claims that NMI didn’t file the application by the April 1st deadline, and that they didn’t apply under their “official” company name: Academy Rep Company.  

“First of all, we applied on March 31, a day before the deadline,” Guy insists.  “And, as far as the name – yes, we have a couple of DBAs, but our professional name is well known.

“We’re turning to the NLRB for help involving the department that deals with employees’ relations to unions, when a union is not treating a business fairly,” Guy added.  “We’re being treated differently from other theater companies, when we’re put on a Do Not Work list and others aren’t. We’re turning to (the NLRB) for their government muscle to get a meeting with the union.”

Guy hopes that the NLRB will broker a meeting between his theater company and Equity (which has steadfastly refused to discuss the issue). “They’ll [NLRB] weigh the evidence in support of the case. At that point, the NLRB may dismiss the case – they have that right – but I think we’ve passed that point. . . So much depends on the NLRB meeting, but whatever happens, we will have options.”

Keep following Stage Raw for more updates. 

CITY GARAGE FINDS A PARKING SPACE, AT LAST

Good news for Santa Monica’s City Garage, the uniquely idiosyncratic theater company run by impresarios Frederique Michel and Charles Duncombe: The Santa Monica City Council has voted to move forward with the arts-focused redevelopment of Bergamot Station — the former 19th century railroad stop and car storage facility, later to become a  manufacturing center and, finally, a light-rail stop and service yard alongside a haven for galleries, museums and the one legit theater. According to Michel’s presser, “[The Council] voted overwhelmingly to approve a plan that will keep the galleries at Bergamot and add new cultural uses, including spaces for a museum, a community arts center, restaurants, cafes, an arts-themed boutique hotel, and space for nonprofits.”

Duncombe adds that the plan allows room for two new theaters, to replace the current City Garage venue, slated to be demolished. Says Michel, “We’re particularly excited that it also includes a small performing arts center which will be the new home of City Garage.” 

Adds Duncombe: “One [theater] would be dedicated to City Garage but what we are proposing is that, if we can show sufficient institutional strength, we would have the chance to curate the entire center with a really rich mix of theater, dance, music and performance art — presenting and producing companies from across L.A. County with a special emphasis on local groups.”

Duncombe estimates that such an outcome is about five years away.

An article in the Santa Monica Daily Press further explains the redevelopment complex, which is a major reversal of earlier plans to create a more corporate setting for the Expo-line station adjacent area.  “The Council’s vote locked in long-term protections for existing art galleries and arts-related tenants by tying rent increases to the Consumer Price Index,” explains the article. 

Santa Monica Councilmember Kevin McKeown adds, “The plan approved by the Arts Commission, the Bergamot Committee, and now the Council represents a major shift from the original proposal years ago to disrupt the galleries to excavate underground parking. Instead, galleries will be retained and guaranteed subsidized rent, while Santa Monica gets a new arts museum, and other community benefits making Bergamot a truly public space.” 

It couldn’t happen to a nicer company, as City Garage is a theater group that crafts assertively stylized, non-commercial theater based steadfastly on artistry and sophistication. In their press release, the executives of City Garage note, “For us, it is an opportunity, over the next five years, to expand and professionalize the program so we can be ready for the new space.”

Punishing a Critic for Cluelessness?

Have you been following this puzzling story involving the Chicago Sun Times theater critic Hedy Weiss, and how theater companies in Chicago had purportedly banded together to refuse her press tickets to their shows? The fracas arose from a review Weiss wrote a review of Antoinette Newandu’s play Pass Over at Steppenwolf Theatre Company. It was a generally positive review, but Newandu and Steppenwolf found some of Weiss’s generalizations about race to be out of line and protested, in an article in American Theatre, the nature of white privilege which inevitably informed Weiss’s sensibility in reviewing Newandu’s play. The debate sparked the formation of a group called the Chicago Theater Accountability Coalition, which rallied behind the notion of convincing 70 Chicago-area theaters not to offer press comps to Weiss to see their shows.

However, a June 23 update in the Chicago Reader noted that Steppenwolf Theatre, in its official response, was encouraging better community dialogue, with “no mention of cutting Weiss from its list of invited critics.” Meanwhile, the Chicago Theater Accountability Coalition appears to have changed its mind; no list of theaters removing Weiss from their press invites has been forthcoming.

As Diep Tran discusses in the American Theater piece, Weiss has often been proven socially tone deaf in her approaches towards issue works. Notes Tran, “This is hardly the first time she has stirred controversy, whether calling Tony Kushner a “self-loathing Jew” (in a 2004 review of Caroline, or Change), praising a recent production of In the Heights with a white lead actor in a role written as Dominican-American as having an “unusually ‘authentic’ cast,” or wondering aloud—in an infamous 2013 review of Jonas Hassen Khemiri’s Invasion!, a satire of anti-Arab hysteria—“What practical alternative to profiling would you suggest?” 

I don’t particularly want to address the politics or the question of white privilege in criticism. I do look forward to the day when the critical press pool will be more diverse, in age, gender and ethnicity. However, it would be even nicer if the trade paid enough to entice people to do it: These days, theater reviewing, like play writing, is a hobby, except for maybe a handful of individuals across the nation. It’s a challenge to find a diverse crowd for those sorts of income-challenged avocations.

Weiss came to review a play I was in when I lived in Chicago 35 years ago. She was gracious and intimidatingly glare-y at the opening night party but still ate some of the very nice canapes served by the producers at the Griffin Theater on Chicago’s North Side. At that time, I was young – and Weiss had already been reviewing plays for a couple of decades.

But the larger issue, beyond the generational/attitudinal divide and the understandable and justifiable anger directed at Weiss, is that she is guilty really of little more than cluelessness and perhaps of a complacency that comes from being comfortable in such a long career. The attack against her was personal and raised freedom-of-speech concerns.

Two questions: Do we collectively “ban” those for expressing views we find objectionable? Are the arts not supposed to be a place of refuge, where any and all ideas, however offensive, have an open forum? To its credit, Chicago theater has answered no and yes to those two questions.

Weiss is not the only drama critic in Chicago. Her writings can be contrasted against those of her colleagues in an open-market of opinions and attitudes. For a community to revoke Weiss’s press privileges would have been a lame way of treating someone who is basically a functional repository of a city’s theatrical memory, however oblivious to changing cultural norms or how constricted her perspective has become. Kudos to Chicago for rising to the occasion and reminding us of what theater is actually for.

 

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