Dakin Matthews: A Whimsical Look at Equity’s Hypothetical

Dakin Matthews footlights
Dakin Matthews

From veteran actor and scholar Dakin Matthews who is currently appearing on Broadway in Waitress:

In a recent letter to the membership – I assume I was not the only person who got it – an AEA press release (“The Actual Facts”) quoted Mary McColl as comparing Los Angeles to a number of other major American cities in order to “look at the facts.” Being a great believer in fact-based analysis and planning, I appreciated the effort. And I really appreciated getting some hitherto unavailable data and one hypothetical.

The two pieces of data I was particularly grateful for were:

LA 2014-2015 “paid work weeks for Equity members” in Los Angeles County: 6,500.
LA 2014-2015 “unpaid work weeks for actors in Los Angeles County”: 11,013.

And the hypothetical I most enjoyed was the statement that

“If those unpaid work weeks were actually paid work weeks, then 99-seat theatre would represent the second largest source of paid employment in the Western Region—second only to LORT.”

Now, let me first point out one odd thing. The first figure (6500) is for “Equity members” in L.A. county; the second (11013) for “actors” in L.A County. As Equity these days is generally extremely careful in its phrasing, I can only assume that the term “actors” in the second piece of data refers to Equity and non-Equity alike. Staff can correct me if I have misunderstood the meaning here. (I would also point out that many “Equity members” who worked in LA’s most prominent professional theatres were not “LA Equity members,” but members hired out of New York. But let that go.)

But that’s not what fascinates me about the figures or the hypothetical. It’s that Equity has simply invented a category called “unpaid work weeks” in the first place to describe what actors did in Plan theatres for the 2014-2015 season. And what’s my problem with that?

Well first of all, according to Equity’s own definition of what Equity members did and do in 99-seat Plan theatres, it is specifically not “work” at all – it is, by Equity’s own definition: volunteering. Therefore, it can’t be paid, though expenses can be and generally were and are reimbursed by stipends at levels set by Equity itself. So really it’s not fair to call it an “unpaid work week,” is it? It’s begging the question, it’s setting a false premise, it’s illogical. It’s made-up. (And while we’re on the subject, why boast about the low number of “unpaid work weeks” in other major cities? The number is low because they’re simply not allowed.)

So what shall we call “what actors in L.A. County did in 2014-2015 when they volunteered to act in 99-seat Plan theatres for one calendar week?” I suggest that we call it a “mccoll.”

exchange equity pro99 99-seat planNow every time you attempt to make any equivalency, the validity of the equivalency depends upon the actual similarity of the two things being compared. It’s like you don’t say that 1 dollar is automatically equivalent to 1 euro because both have the number one in front of them. You need to find the appropriate “exchange rate.” You need to find out what each term is really worth, before you start comparing them. And certainly before you start exchanging one for the other – even hypothetically.

So what’s a “Paid Work Week” worth in a major American city, and what’s a mccoll worth?

Well, “worth” is a pretty subjective word. What we really need are some criteria to establish the values of both a mccoll and a “paid work week.”

Let’s start with the actor’s investment. The typical Equity actor is contracted for 35-40 hours of rehearsal and generally 7-8 performances a week. The typical mccoll actor is lucky to get 25 hours of rehearsal in any given week, and generally acts in 3-4 performances each week. So by the yardstick of actor investment, a mccoll is worth about half a “paid work week.” It’s half a PWW, from the actor’s point of view. If one were going to move from mccolls to Paid Work Weeks, it would take two mccolls to create one Paid Work Week – just in terms of actor investment.

(From now on I’m going to call a Paid Work Week something more memorable and sonorous – I’m going to call it a “wyman.” And because a mccoll is effectively a half-week, we can now say with some certainty that all three words in the phrase “Paid Work Week” are equally inappropriate anyway.)

But we can’t stop there. Actor involvement is the easiest part of figuring the exchange rate.

Let’s continue with audience investment. After all, audiences pay a lot of the bills, so if you want to move from mccolls to wymans, you need to factor in the audience size that could make it possible. I would estimate in a typical major city (the release cites Boston, Baltimore/DC, Chicago, Minneapolis/St. Paul), an Equity theatre would probably have to run a 600-seat theatre and keep it at least 70% full in order to survive. With an eight performance week, that works out to 3360 audience members a week to support the wymans. The typical 99-seat plan theatre production plays 4 performances/week and is lucky if 25 people come for any performance. (I ran two such theatres for 15 years, and believe me, 15 was about the average paying audience, and I never scheduled more than four performances.) So, in terms of audience size, a mccoll is worth 100 audience units, or seats – or about 1/33 of a wyman.

Now let’s talk about expenses. What does a major city Equity producer spend to support one wyman? Let’s lowball and say he runs a LORT B or LORT C theatre. The minimum weekly salary for an actor in such theatres for the recent season would average out to $800.  (Of course, not all work for minimum, but let that go.)  The cost to the producer when you factor in the total fringe package (estimated at 30%) is higher – $1040. (And that doesn’t even factor in additional expenses when actors are brought in from out of town, usually NYC. We’ll just pretend that doesn’t happen.) The producer cost of stipending a single actor in a 99-seal Plan production would probably average out to a shockingly low $20/week: Four stipends of $10 each per performance week and zero reimbursement for a rehearsal week expenses. So, if there are an equal number of rehearsal and performance weeks, the average cost of an actor week will be $20 from the employer’s point of view; and a mccoll (at $20) is therefore worth 1/52 of a wyman (at $1040).

exchanging dollarsNow let’s talk about box office income. An audience member at a major city LORT theatre might be expected to pay $60-$70 for a single ticket—or about a tenth of a “hamilton,” as we call it in the biz. With 3360 audience members/week that figures out to $218,400 in box office income. Audience members at a typical 99-seat plan theatre can expect to pay an average of no more than $20/ticket. (For the 15 years that I ran two small theatres, the average was $16.)  At 100 attendees (many of them, frankly, fellow actors in LA there to support their comrades), that works out to $2000 of box office income. By that yardstick, a mccoll is valued at less than 1/100 of a wyman.

So I guess we’re sort of triangulating to arrive at some reasonable estimate of the relative value of a mccoll to a wyman, in order to see just how realistic is the hypothesis set forth in Equity’s email that 11,013 mccolls could ever be transformed into 11,013 wymans. In terms of getting actors to work for pay rather than volunteer for stipends, I see no problem at all. But in terms of real-world theatre economics, the idea that anything Equity is currently proposing could ever facilitate turning that many mccolls into wymans is pure fantasy, given the obvious real-world exchange rate of at best 50:1 (in terms of cost to producers) and at worst 100:1 (in terms of box office).

piggy bank broken no moneyAnd even if the fantasy were to become true, according to the terms of Equity’s proposed 99-seat Agreement, 11,013 wymans for LA’s 7000 actors would add – if the jobs were evenly distributed – one week and a half of minimum wage work (maybe $450) for each member – and simultaneously drastically shrink the opportunities for those same actors to practice their art – because all those mccolls would have to perish to fund their hypothetical re-birth as wymans. (Is it cruel to note at this point that the current proposal with its carve-outs would in fact leave many if not most of those mccolls in place in membership companies?)

But, you may say, Equity is not insisting that 99-seat theatres become LORT B or C theatres, just that they pay “minimum wage.” So really we now have a new currency to evaluate: what exactly is the relative value of a paid actor work week under the new agreement? We can’t call those work weeks wymans, because a wyman is a kind of general national average Equity work week. So let’s call them shindles.

A shindle under the new LA agreement would probably pay at best $300, probably less in performance mode – assuming there were now 5 performances of 3 hours each. But let’s say $300 anyway. A shindle, by the way, would give the actor the right to miss any performance or any rehearsal on short notice, not just for other industry work but even for the possibility of industry work (i.e., an audition). It would cost the producer (because of a more limited fringe package) probably $350/actor. Now ticket prices can rise without caps and runs be increased when a theatre pays for shindles, so there is the possibility that shindled productions could increase box office take and help to pay for the increased budget.  However, there is no guarantee that audiences will increase because of the increased performances or because of the higher ticket prices. Indeed, it is market truism that charging higher prices for the exact same product will decrease the customer base.

unbalanced see saw seesawNow how many mccolls does it take to make a shindle? What’s the exchange rate there? The actor investment is now slightly more, but the willingness of actors to work for pay rather than volunteer, if given the chance, was never the real issue. If the mccolll:wyman rate were 50:1, then I’m estimating that the mccoll:shindle rate is closer to 20:1. (I think I’m being generous. The producers investment ratio is already 17.5:1 – $350 per week under Equity’s new agreement compared to $20 per week under the 99-Seat Plan – and the higher ticket prices will likely drive audiences away. And perhaps even more devastating for the producer, every single actor and understudy will almost certainly now have to be on a shindle, not just the Equity members. Once you pay one actor as an employee, under CA Labor Law, it seems you cannot treat anyone else who does the same job as either a volunteer, intern, or independent contractor. So a 20:1 mccoll:shindle exchange rate is extremely generous.) Or to put it another way, 20 volunteer actor weeks will need to disappear to create one minimum wage work week. Twenty mccolls must die, so that one shindle may be born.  Now you have to evaluate whether that is a worthy trade off.

The next question you must ask yourself is: how many shindles does Equity imagine it will actually help create with its new proposal? In fact, all the mccolls die; they don’t exist anymore according to Equity, because mccolls had stipends and Equity protections and oversights. If any new volunteer weeks continue under the new regime, they will probably be from carve-outs for membership companies or other one-off productions. Though there will be no Equity requirement for stipends, the stipends will no doubt continue. And even without Equity oversight, one assumes similar workplace protections will continue, since actors themselves will be the producers. But we can’t call these unprotected Equity work weeks mccolls; so let’s call them dakins. And the exchange rate of mccolls to dakins is probably 1:1 – they’re identical, except that the dakins are an unsecured, unprotected currency – like bitcoins.

joinIf we are to believe Equity’s recent assurances, only 26 companies (out of 180) will “go to wage.” That’s about 1/7. That presumably leaves 154 companies free to use dakins. How many dakins will they use? We don’t know the parameters that AEA used to determine what was or wasn’t a membership company; I don’t believe the companies who succeeded or failed to gain that designation were always told why or why not—but perhaps they were. But from the name, it sounds like it shouldn’t have anything to do with size or budget, just with whether members have a say in running the company and are the primary – maybe even only – beneficiaries of its operations, unless somehow the size of the paid administrative staff is an excluding factor.

It therefore seems fair to assume that at least 1/2, and maybe 2/3, of all current mccolls will transform into dakins. Notice I reject the seemingly logical choice 6/7 (the 154 companies out of 180) because I suspect the 26 marked for wages are prolific producers. I will go with 3/5 just to be safe. That means 3/5 of the 11,013 mccolls (“unpaid work weeks”) are now classified as 6608 dakins, leaving a balance of 4405 mccolls to become shindles. Which means (at a generous 20:1 mccoll:shindle exchange rate) the new agreement will produce a total of 220 shindles among the 26 affected theater companies. Given the typical 6 day work week for Equity actors, that means an additional 1320 minimum wage days to be apportioned out to Equity’s resident 7013 actors in LA. Or to put it in blunt terms, if every Equity actor worked under the new agreement, each actor would get one-fifth of typical workday (1320/7013=0.19, rounded up). And how much is that? Well, one fifth a maximum workday of 8 hours works out to 1.6 hours; and at current LA minimum wage ($10.50), that mean $16.80.

Yes, an additional $16.80 for each LA Equity actor.

For the entire year.

Now I admit that much of my analysis is estimated; it might even be considered hypothetical. As for my estimates, if anyone has better ones, I’ll gladly accept them. But Equity’s press release started the hypothetical business, so I figured it was important to follow it to its logical conclusion.  Hypotheticals, after all, are not excused from the laws of logic, even when they posit a fanciful premise. And if you’re going to posit a fanciful premise, at least it ought to offer a coherent solution to the problem. If all the mccolls were transformed into wymans, LA actors’ employment picture would be only marginally better, 2-½ weeks employment per year per member, instead of about one. An equally fanciful, but at least problem solving, hypothesis might be Steven Leigh Morris winning the Powerball Lottery and donating all his winnings to LA’s intimate theatre.

In other words, the hypothesis in Equity’s press release is hardly factual, laughably inept, and not even being seriously considered. Its equivalencies are demonstrably false. And its only purpose seems to be to make LA Equity members look bad and to persuade membership—local and national—into believing that LA actors are somehow at fault for their dismal employment prospects for stage work, and that wishful thinking, or impossible proposals, will magically create paying work.

Perhaps Equity still does not realize it, but the data it supplies actually tends to prove (as Kevin Delin makes clear) the heart of the Pro99 argument: The real-world, really weird economics of LA theatre simply preclude the kinds of made-up, unrealistic, and finally irresponsible solutions that Equity is trying, even with the best of intentions, to impose, more or less unilaterally, on its LA members.

About Kevin Delin

Kevin Delin took a few writing courses (among other things) at MIT from playwright A.R. Gurney and author Frank Conroy. In addition to writing a monthly column for Footlights, he uses his extensive tech background, including a PhD in Physics, and work experience in both Silicon Valley and NASA to advise those who want to ground their entertainment in science. He's also contributed pieces about art and culture to American Theatre, LA Weekly, Script Magazine, and Stage Raw. You can follow him on Twitter @kdelin and find his other writings at kevindelin.com.

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  1. Brilliant. Thank you, Dakin.

  2. Mr Matthews’ entire oh-so-clever, wanly Dickensian treatise rests upon a false premise from it’s opening. The “typical actor” probably rehearses significantly less than 35-40 hours per week, and unquestionably performs fewer than 7-8 shows per week. Take Broadway out of the equation, and the numbers will be clear. Take out LORT and you find out where the theatrical rubber truly hits the road. If Mr Matthews really cares to find out how most of his colleagues make their theatrical livings and adjusts his sarcastic numbers accordingly, I will be interested. Until then, clever lies are still lies.

    • George Spelvin, U.S. theatrical convention used in the credits commonly to conceal dual roles or for a corpse or other anthropomorphic props. (Encyclopedia Britannica)

    • The typical Equity actor is not paid by the hour–the new LA agreement is an exception– he or she is paid by the week, which typically means he or she is contracted for 35-40 hours. I didn’t use Broadway in my figuring. Take away LORT , and you take away the typical mainstay contract for major American cities. Thanks at least for thinking I was clever, I was aiming at whimsy. But I did not lie, and I typically dismiss charges that I make things up from people who can’t even write with making up their own name.

  3. Thanks, Dakin. You da man!

  4. Wendy Worthington

    George Spelvin doesn’t buy your math, Dakin. His career is as fictional as the one Equity would have us believe in, so I suppose that is only right.

    Brilliant. A world of mccolls, shindles, and wymans awaits.

  5. Ya gotta love Dakin! If AEA leadership put as much analytical thought into their Promulgated Proposals as Dakin does into his analysis of their proposals perhaps there could be a real compassionate and substantive dialogue between AEA and L.A.’s intimate theatre community.

  6. This is so accurate in every way. Some of your best writing yet, Dakin. But this is history, not fiction. This subject should also address all the work weeks that will be lost from 99 seat plays that were transferred to full Equity productions. Most of these projects would never see the light of day without the 99 Seat Plan. So, in fact, it will REDUCE Paid work weeks in New York and throughout the country from contracts for productions that will now never be allowed to get to the stage.

    • Christopher Carothers

      Have to –again — disagree with anyone’s argument that work weeks are created when 99-seat shows transfer to contract. No new work weeks are created, unless you’re averring that the theaters to which these shows transferred would have otherwise remained dark. So, in fact, while 99-seat shows transferring to contract may — or may certainly not — give the actors in those shows more personal work weeks, the only people who reliably profit from those transfers are the authors.

      • monsterid

        Theater – and art in general – is not a zero-sum game as you imply. Work weeks *are* created when 99-seat goes to contract because there are now *additional* opportunities for actors to work. The flawed assumption in your statement is that something replaces, or displaces, something else. Art is a quantity that grows and the more new shows are created, the more opportunities there are for actors to work (more work weeks) and more opportunities for audiences to connect with the art. If what you said were true, Equity should stop taking on more members because there are only a finite roles to be played and there is no reason to grow the membership.

  7. QED, Dakin. Well done and said. I agree and support your conclusion. There is no way on God’s Green Earth that a 99-seat Equity waiver theater will magically produce enough revenue to support paying full Equity wages. Those small theaters barely eke out an existence as is. As a former NY Equity actor, I was happy to get work under Equity showcase contracts. It was that or no work at all. Actors need to work. Period. The reality is Equity actors all can’t find full-paying Equity work all the time throughout the year. Imposing an unrealistic requirement on 99-seat theaters will doom those theaters, and ipso facto, other work available to Equity actors.

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