Why Is There A Fight?

fight, 99 seat theatre, Actors' Equity AssociationThe standoff between Actors’ Equity Association (AEA) and its members moves on without any sign of shifting positions. The word from AEA is that they will not consider any changes to the plan they have promulgated, and the majority of the members continue to insist that their Union not only failed to heed the voice of the members, but is also endangering the theatre community of Los Angeles. How this situation will be resolved is uncertain. But what is not uncertain is that there are fundamental differences that are so deeply engrained in each side, and that there is far more acrimony to this conflict than really should exist.

The problem is that there is a perceptual difference in what AEA is selling and what the realities of Los Angeles – for that matter the American theatre scene – really are. AEA states, Actors and Stage Managers are labor, producers in LA are avaricious and taking advantage of AEA members, and that it is poor business management that isn’t taking advantage of a limitless market which would then support everyone concerned, and finally the hearts and minds of its membership as staunch unionists before they are Artists.

The majority of the membership in Los Angeles believes they are artists, not laborers, and they don’t agree with AEA’s denouncement of producers as a greedy class. The AEA members in LA are all too aware that while there’s ample talent available, the market or audience attendance can not support the costs of all of the productions. And finally, many are being forced to consider, which is more important – Art or AEA.

Throw on top of this AEA’s performance as a Union. In 2014, the average member of AEA earned around $7,400. With less then 6% of the membership making a living wage, it would be difficult to assert that AEA serves the acting labor force as job referral. The red herring of minimum wage as proposed is disingenuous at best and so profoundly cost prohibitive that many, if not most of the current production models in Los Angeles would be severely strained if not outright shut down.

Even if the collected producers in town could come up with what seems to be in excess of ten million dollars a year, it would still not be a solution to the below-poverty level income of the average member of AEA. The problem is that the city of Los Angeles is home to more than 5,000 AEA members, and how does even a fraction of those members work on their craft, follow their passions and perform before audiences, when the current average ticket price for intimate theatre in Los Angeles is under $20 per person. Certainly not enough income to cover the cost of the production. One of the more prominent theatres in Los Angeles, states that the AEA minimum wage would raise their budget by as much as $65,000 per year. Multiply that by 200 companies.

Then there is still an enduring phrase that continues to be repeated, and in fact has been one of the undying utterances of AEA since 1941, “Unscrupulous producers are taking advantage of unwitting actors!” Since the current strife has begun, a challenge has been leveled to name any producer that is taking unfair advantage of actors or any other artists in the production of theatre in Los Angeles. To date, none have been named.

The reality is that most of the producers in town are members of AEA, and they are creating opportunity for themselves and for other members. And while the new AEA proposals do take into account the concept of self-produced work, the disallowance of union participation and the forbiddance of forming legal organizations to create these opportunities puts such profound restrictions on the effort that the result will be a significant decline in productions.

The union, which has previously capped ticket prices at $39.95 on 99 seat shows, now, says theatres can charge anything they want for a show. What is not addressed is that even the larger houses now have to discount tickets. Most small theatres have trouble getting audiences to pay more than $20 per ticket. In fact, many have a problem charging considerably less. That is not because the productions are not worthy of higher ticket prices, it’s because the local culture sees theatre as a form of popular entertainment, that means theatre competes with film and clubs and comedy for the entertainment dollar, and the culture of paying high prices for theatre tickets just doesn’t exist.

And finally, AEA is playing 1930’s politics with its members. “Follow us” AEA cries “and we will get you living wages . . . “, okay, we won’t get you living wages, but we’ll get you minimum wage, and who cares if the hundreds of opportunities are gone for you to act, you will proudly carry the union card. And those that have bought that idea somehow believe that a magic wand will change the entire culture of LA theatre by just making it union.

AEA, though now part of the AFL-CIO, is not doing what unions are supposed to do. They do not help get members jobs. Members are getting their own jobs, and creating their own work, and moving those shows when possible to union contract work. Being a union man/woman, is a noble notion. But if unions get in the way of artists and create nothing in its place, who are they serving?

Just this year, a revival of Spring Awakenings originally produced by Deaf West Theatre here in Los Angeles under the 99-seat plan is opening on Broadway. Twenty some young actors, many of the hearing challenged, will be working on Broadway. Just imagine selling that concept show to the New York producers, “We’re bringing back “Spring Awakening”, a musical, and we’re casting it with hearing impaired kids.” This production didn’t start on Broadway, because there’s a risk. Risk is something that LA Theatre and its artist know, and are willing to take.

99-seat theatre in Los Angeles is perhaps the most energetic incubator of the art in recent history. It has produced thousands of shows, many which have moved to contract, and created thousand of contract workweeks for members of AEA.

So, maybe it’s time that politics and lofty principal be set aside. Maybe it’s time for a real sit down with a willingness to hash it out in a real discussion. Just the way Unions have done since inception, but in this case it’s not about labor vs. management, it’s about a union vs. it members.

About Peter Finlayson

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Peter Finlayson is the Founder, Publisher and Editor-in-chief of FootLights magazine and footlight.click. While working on a prelaw program at the University of Michigan, he happily got involved with the theatre program. Much to his mother’s chagrin, law school never happened, but in a career spanning more than 4 decades, Peter has performed, directed or designed more than 150 productions. In his spare time, he is working on a new play. You can follow him on Twitter @Thtrdog .

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