Welcome to L.A. Theatre

Sunny storm lighthouse wave oceanI had actually considered leaving this column blank. For many, that is the outlook for theatre in Los Angeles this year.  As of December 15th, there are at least 26 theaters that will no longer be able to use members of Actors’ Equity Association (AEA).  I say at least, because I can probably name another 50+ that didn’t even bother to apply for company membership status.

But that wouldn’t be fair to the theatres that seem to have made the first cut. “First Cut?” Yep, the likelihood that AEA will impose its minimum wage contract on membership companies is not a question of “if”, it is a question of when.

You see, if as a member of AEA (of which there are about 7000 in Los Angeles), and you are a member of a company such as Antaeus, or Pacific Resident Theatre, Rogue Machine, or some others, for the moment the union will allow you to continue to perform within those companies, but as an actor you no longer have the protections that the union assures its members. While that may not seem an issue, and one that most actors can certainly live with, it does open the door to potential abuse of performers, one of the things the union is supposed to guard against.

This begs two questions – the first is why are actors willing to work for little or no wages? And the second is why the AEA is so adamant to dissolve a system that they put into place more than 30 years ago?

The first is that there are two social features that can be traced back to prehistoric man, one is community, and the other is art. These two components go hand in hand. A community is much defined by its art, the process of describing its community and values.  If there is a stemming of opportunity for arts to flourish, then communities shrink and become insular. The dark ages were as much a result of lack of arts constraint as any other factor including war. And the Enlightenment came as a result of the rebirth and flourishing of the arts.

Actors are a vital part of that expression. While the current fascination may be influenced by the “fame” game, those that have stayed in the arts do so for far more altruistic reasons. It can all be refined to committing themselves to be a vital link in the continuity of human experience, storytellers, instruments of discovery for the nature of man.

To be fair, everyone wants to make a living at what they love. The truth is that not everyone will.  Lord Laurence Olivier once said, “it takes thirty years to become an actor…” When you start out, everyone will work for free, it’s part of the game.  As you go on, you discover that the remuneration for your work is not in the fees, but in the experience. So if the options are to act and not be paid, or to not act at all, the conclusion for most is to act.

As for AEA, I’ll grant that the intent seems honorable.  After all, it is a union’s function to get the best wages and conditions it can negotiate for its members. But that begs another question, several in fact. Is the union effective? Is the union efficient? Does the union represent the actual interests of its members?

The average earnings of an AEA actor in 2014 was less then $8,000. Less than 11% make a living wage, and less then 3% earn enough to live in modest comfort. That speaks to effective. AEA claims a membership of 50,000 plus and has an annual budget in excess of $20 million dollars. An audit would be required to determent efficiency, but a cost of $400 per member and a result of less than $8,000 per member leaves me dubious. And finally, as for representing its membership, if it weren’t for all of the internal blocks that don’t allow for members to communicate with each other, (I am a member, so I’m familiar with the process) we would know much more about the disgruntled and underrepresented throughout the country, not just in Los Angeles.

Why is Los Angeles such a problem? In a 30,000 ft. view, one could say that AEA had decided that thirty years was enough time to establish a theatre culture in Los Angeles. They’ve pretty much said so in some of their discussions on the matter, and it was time for the theatres to be sufficiently well funded so as to pay the actors. In effect, a financial decision had been made on behalf of members who said they are not interested in the plan as presented. There were no studies made as to either social or economic impact on this proposal. When studies were suggested they were dismissed.

So in spite of the fact that the AEA members voted, by a 66 to 33% margin, and did not want what the union was offering, the new plan was pushed through. The actors now have less opportunity to ply their craft, and the greater community of Los Angeles has less theatre to represent the ever changing face of our city.

At one time, in the not too distant past, Los Angeles intimate theatre was producing more than fifteen hundred productions a year. We were over whelmed with theatre. That spurred writers, it encouraged new productions, it tested the metal of the artists. The result was that in the last 10 years Los Angeles had become one of the great theatre centers of the world. New works, new movements, greater focus and more resources in terms of talent and opportunity.

What did not follow, was the audience.  Yes, audiences have grown, but not in proportion to the greater population.  So much of the audience is often comprised of other theatre makers. That’s a good thing, we get to see what is going on, who’s doing what, what can I do to up my game? In that regard, we are still in the stages of growing the movement, let’s call it the LA movement, or we were till AEA stepped in. As with all movements, in time their value will be assessed and determined by the community.

Institutions that operate solely with fiscal consideration have a place in the community. Responsible spending and understanding budgets is certainly a part of building any culture, but the willingness of members of a community to donate their raw materials (talent) is a resource that should only be monetized by the giver. Each of us is capable of saying I want to give or I can no longer give, but it should be our right to make that choice for ourselves. When an organization like AEA steps in and by action censors the community, everyone loses.

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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