[DISCLAIMER: This post contains explicit language.]
TL;dr summary: It’s time for fair wages in LA’s 99-seat theatre community.
“Argue for your limitations, and sure enough they’re yours.” - Richard Bach, American Novelist
MARCH 24, 2015 - There’s a schism happening in the Los Angeles theatre scene. Just Google “LA 99 seat plan” and you’ll be treated to more news and opinion than you care to read. I’m here to offer an outsider’s perspective. I don’t live in California, and I’m not a member of Actors’ Equity Association (the actors’ Union, also known as Equity, or AEA), but I am a lover and follower of theatre. I did get my undergraduate degree in theatre, and I have worked on both sides of the curtain over the years, though I would say that I think my years of DOING theatre are behind me. That said, I have many friends who are working professionals in the performing arts, some are members of AEA. On any controversial issue, sometimes the insider dialogue becomes a feedback loop, an echo chamber. I’m here to offer a different perspective than what I’ve read on this issue. I hope that it will add to the discussion.
The issue: AEA wants its members to be paid at least minimum wage when they work in AEA-sanctioned productions. Currently, when AEA members work in theaters with fewer than 99 seats, they are paid less than minimum wage, often a LOT less. In many cases, they work only for small daily stipends which could equate to less than $2 per hour for their work.
AEA members will soon vote on a proposal regarding the pay structure for actors who work in Los Angeles’ many 99-seat theatres. On March 25, Ballots will be sent to AEA members in good standing who live in Los Angeles County, and voting ends April 17. Then, the AEA governing council will act on the proposal sometime after April 21. The vote itself is advisory in nature: the council will factor in the results of the vote, in addition to other variables. The vote itself is not binding, but it will inform the outcome.
The vote concerns what’s known colloquially as “The 99-seat Plan,” which is essentially a waiver program allowing producers in theaters with fewer than 99 seats to pay their actors a stipend (a sub-minimum-wage rate) for their work. AEA has decided that this program is out of date, and a change in the structure is in order (Twitter is predictably abuzz…the pro-change folks are using the hashtag #Changefor99, while the folks who like the 99-seat plan as-is are using #ILove99). Enjoy reading the twittersphere’s take on the issue if you like.
This post is not about the mechanics (or the rhetoric) of either side of the debate. Lots of other folks are doing that. This is going to be more of a deconstruction of the state of theatre and the performing arts in general, and more specifically a commentary about how I’ve always felt that actors have been under the sheets (in some cases literally) with the exact people who wish to exploit their labor for far too long. This needs to stop. This 99-seat plan schism would be a good issue around which that relationship could/should have a big public breakup.
As I wrote in an earlier post which a lot of you read, “Theatre is a BUSINESS.” Don’t forget that. Like any business, it requires a workforce. If you’re an actor, you’re part of that workforce, just like every stagehand, stitcher, electrician, scenic carpenter, rigger, sound technician and usher. Without you, The Actor, there is no production. It’s a value equation in a sense: on the one hand theatre work has intrinsic value (a total warm fuzzy). On the other, it is essential labor (which feels like a cold prickly to some folks … “my work is not LABOR, unless you mean labor of LOVE.”)
This leads me to the first of the problems I see:
Problem #1: Actors tend to think of themselves first and foremost as artists, not as workers. Many actors like to believe that they alone are the unique and special person who will elevate the work to legendary status and thereby transcend all things. That’s a noble pursuit, and I don’t begrudge anyone for it. But don’t let it get in the way of you getting paid for the hard work that you do. Most actors will tell you (if they’re being honest) that these small theatres in LA are merely places where they hone their craft and stay fresh. LA is the place for film and TV, and therefore you do live theatre between film and TV gigs primarily to demonstrate that you’re still “castable,” that you’re still working, and to keep your skills sharp. Acting, for most, is a perishable skill. If you don’t use it, it begins to atrophy. Even the best actors in the world still work and study and endeavor to improve their skills. Many great film actors, if you press them hard enough, will tell you that they only do film in order to support their love for theatre. That’s because there’s nothing quite like the feel of a live performance – for both the performer and the audience. When you’re on stage, in front of an audience, it’s unlike anything else. It’s infectious. SOLUTION: Actors, sober up to the notion that you are a labor force first and foremost, and make your peace with this. Recognize that it actually gives you tremendous power.
Problem #2: Under the 99-seat plan, actors are volunteering themselves against their will and best interests. It’s one thing to consciously volunteer your time when it’s your own choice to do the project and you do so on your own terms: a pet project, a charitable cause, occasional work for a nonprofit, or helping out a friend. It’s quite another to be expected to work for free just so a for-profit business can stay in business. If a theatre owner has to use free labor to stay in business, perhaps that person is in the wrong business. Theatre is a business: you sell tickets, and people buy them. If you can’t manage to generate enough sales to support your business, it’s time to step back and re-assess your choices, rework your budget, adjust your pricing, or find a new line of work entirely. If you’re a producer who can’t seem to budget for success without needing free labor, maybe you’re not very good at business. Maybe you should go back to doing community theatre in Boise or Birmingham or Bethesda or wherever you came from before you settled on producing 99-seat theatre in Los Angeles. SOLUTION: Actors, you should only work for free on your own terms. Don’t work for free to advance someone else’s agenda, or to prop up their poorly-run business, or to fatten their wallet unless yours is also being fattened. Better yet, actors: produce your own work and get paid for it. Which leads me to…
Problem #3: A lack of empowerment among the actor community. A filmmaker named Alex Munoz said recently, “Green light your own project, don’t wait for others to do it.” Film is different, sure. But the sentiment is the same: Actors, you have the power. If a producer wants to profit from your labor without fair compensation, tell him politely to fuck off. We have always been able to produce our own stuff, and find an audience, and tell a story that moves people. For us to buy in to this notion that the producers hold all the cards and that we, as creative artists are privileged to work for them for no pay, just for the honor of “honing our craft” and “keeping theatre alive” then I got news for you, friends: The joke is on you. Again: “Argue for your limitations and surely they’re yours.” I say to the AEA membership, look at how your brethren in the stagehands union would respond to a free labor proposal. If you asked professional stagehands to work for free, they’d laugh and tell you to go fuck yourself. And yet, are not actors every bit as critical to a production? You can no more mount a production without stagehands than you can without actors. So why have actors agreed to work for free for all these years? SOLUTION: Seek out producers who are interested in fair wages. Figure out who they are, and tell people who they are. Support their shows with your ticket dollars. Audition for their shows. Create demand for the people who support fairness, and the unfair practitioners will have to follow, because the audiences will.
Problem #4: The misplaced, yet lingering fear that a failing economy is still wreaking havoc within the Los Angeles Theatre Community. Last time I checked, Los Angeles is in CALIFORNIA. The California economy is quite strong right now (impending water shortages notwithstanding) and it’s not easy for a producer to argue the widespread detriment of theatre in macroeconomic terms. So any arguments about “the economy is weak” are pretty much null and void right now for theatre in Los Angeles. But so many people love to argue for their limitations. So many excuses why “we can’t survive without free labor” happen in every industry. And this is nothing new. It’s called slavery (at worst) or exploitation (at best). And I don’t buy it. So many actors are arguing the producer’s point for them now. It’s staggering.
Furthermore, there’s the persistent mythology that A) making money in the arts is hard, and that B) the only true art is created in poverty. Yeah OK. You’re a “starving artist.” Keep telling yourselves it has to be that way. Again, argue for your limitations, and they’re yours to keep. You’re making it very easy on the producer when you argue his point for him. He’s not going to debate you if you argue that you want to be impoverished. He’ll take it. SOLUTION: Remind producers that California has a strong, vibrant and growing economy, and that they can find a way to afford to pay you a fair wage for your work.
Problem #5: The ILove99 side seem to be arguing this as if it’s a zero-sum game; as if a vote for fair wages will instantly put small theaters out of business. That’s the great thing about American Theatre. You can’t kill it. Nope. It won’t die. It’s like a fucking cockroach. You try to burn it, poison it, or step on it and it just scurries off and finds a new corner to inhabit. It’s fantastic that way. But let’s also remember, theatre (outside of NYC) has in fact already been considerably marginalized in recent years. Attendance is down nationwide over the last generation, absolutely. It’s hard to compete for mass audiences in the age of YouTube-enabled smartphones and the Xbox. But this is not a zero-sum game. Adding fair wages for actors back into the equation need not subtract from somewhere else in the production budget. New, business-savvy producers and artists will crop up who find ways to innovate, to attract paying audiences, because don’t forget: the whole reason we do theatre in the first place is because we all desperately want to make real human connections with each other. There is NOTHING like live performance. There is nothing like the shared experience of an audience. It’s a fundamental part of our humanity to watch someone act out a story for us. This will never die, despite what the technology futurists tell you. SOLUTION: Innovate! And believe in the power of live performance.
Problem #6: There’s an argument being put forward by the producers that “we only want what’s best for you.” This whole “we’re here for the actors” tone is on display in this article. Go ahead. Read it. You know what that tone is? It’s 20 pounds of bullshit in a 10-pound bag. It’s disingenuous. Once again, AEA’s membership has largely been duped into believing that the producers actually want what’s best for the workers. Nope. They want what’s best for their wallets. And that means exploiting cheap labor at every opportunity. Their attitude is “Oh yeah? You want to be paid more than this other actress who will work for free? Then OK fuck you. I’ll ‘hire’ her and pay her nothing. Because she’ll work for free, and free labor equals a future full of theatre opportunities for you.” SOLUTION: Don’t be fooled. Open your eyes. The producer who supports this plan as-is only wants maximum cash at minimum cost. Don’t ever forget that.
So where do we go from here? As I was writing this post, I wrestled with this issue quite a bit. It’s complex, and it’s frustrating at times. And confusing rhetoric is flying all around. Especially troubling are the high number of prominent celebrities who have weighed in on the side of the producers. The playwright Neil LaBute, and a host of actors like Tim Robbins, Jason Alexander, French Stewart and Kirsten Vangsness all seem to believe that professional actors working for free is a good and noble thing and that it should continue. Many of them marched in Los Angeles over this past weekend to protest the change. I had a hard time wrapping my head around that, because A) people like Tim Robbins have come out in support of social causes in the past, and B) AEA has always stood on the side of the labor movement as a whole. Robbins even seems to be suggesting that actors actually WANT to work for free. I scratched my head at that one.
But on the positive side, People like Samuel L. Jackson will be voting “YES” on the proposal. So that’s a good thing. In a recent letter to the AEA membership, he wrote “… fair is fair. Other cities across the country have vibrant intimate theatre communities, while managing to pay actors. Surely LA has as many resources to be mined and cultivated like any other city, and its theatrical producers should be encouraged to do so.”
I agree with Mr. Jackson. If I were an LA-based AEA member, I’d vote YES on this proposal as well. Fair is fair. It’s time.
Thank you for reading.