LA Theatre, Still Under Siege!

As the intimate theatre scene in Los Angeles is looking to stabilize itself, when in December Actors Equity Association, the national union for stage actors and stage managers, implemented a change in the use of its members by intimate theatres in Los Angeles.  Despite the fact that the change had been put to a vote among members and was overwhelmingly defeated by a 2 to 1 margin, the changes were instituted and the fallout from this action is yet to be fully realized. Now, additional factors are putting pressure on the situation that may well bring the entire intimate theatre scene to a resounding halt. The three most threatening points are, continued maneuvers by AEA to obstruct small productions, individual actions being taken by a few select artists, and finally, the ever present threat of more stringent imposition of AEA control over intimate theatre.

The Hollywood Fringe Festival just finished its seventh year.  This year the annual three-week celebration of performing arts mounted 375 different productions, with somewhere between 4 and 8 performances of each in over 35 different venues. Since the inception of the Festival, there have been 2,125 different shows.

In a few cases, established groups use the Fringe as launching pad for upcoming or to be considered projects. In most cases, individual artists, either find a group of friends and/or cohorts to put up a show, or announce auditions with provisos that there is no pay. These productions seldom exceed 60 minutes in length, and are on budgets that are so tight, pennies count (a lot)! The admission charges for these shows is minimal, generally $15 or less and is meant to encourage new audiences to see unknown works and usually unknown artists. It’s a low cost effort at self-production and those that participate are foretold that in all probability they will not recoup their production expenses. It’s a way to get a show on a stage and gauge an audiences’ response.

One of the productions this year, was 1001 Minutes of New Musicals, with excerpts from 12 different untested productions over 4 nights, with each production getting 5 performances. It’s Fringe crazy, but that’s another topic. Essentially it is brief vignettes from yet-to -be produced shows, highlighting the talent of writers and actors.  There is a non-profit organization behind this effort, New Musical Inc. (NMI), as it turns out, happens to be on Actors Equity Associations’ “Do Not Work” list. More on that shortly. The reasoning for being on this list is shrouded in a convoluted process only known to AEA and its staff.

In the casting of these performances at the Fringe, actors were culled as described above, and several happened to be members of AEA. In the weeks just prior to the opening of these shows, these members of AEA received letters from their union informing them that they were in violation of union rules and could face sanctions and removal from AEA. Now what makes this even a little more interesting is that I have seen several shows at the Fringe this year, some that engaged AEA members, and in some cases there was no mention in their programs as to special arrangements or permission from AEA for the productions. The question this raises, is, why did NMI become a target for this action, when it would seem no one else faced the same.

The actors had to abandon the show, and the result was that the only satisfaction to be gotten was the flexing of muscle by AEA in an arena where they should have no interest on any level, and an opportunity for the understudies to show their work.

In 2015, Dolores Quintana took part in a Fringe production, LA Llorona. According to Matt DeNotto, the producer, it was stated that this was a no pay production, as is the case with most Fringe productions. Ms. Quintana, along with the rest of the cast of 10 actors, agreed to those terms. During and at the conclusion of the production, Mr. DeNotto and partner Kathryn Mayer provided some stipend to the cast totaling $140 per cast member, to help cover expenses. This was in line with a standard that has been practiced in many small productions in Los Angeles over the past 30 years.

In October of 2016, more than a year after the production was complete, Ms. Quintana filed a claim for unpaid wages with the California Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (DLSE). According to Mr. DeNotto, neither he nor Ms. Mayer, who is now out of state, were ever contacted, nor were any demands for pay made of them prior to a claim being filed with the DSLE, in which she claimed unpaid wages and penalties. While a hearing has been held, the final determination is yet to be announced.

In the midst of this is a Producer/Entrepreneur/Activist, David Mack. He has a substantial list of credits ranging from the current Strategic Director for The Heidi Duckler Dance Company, to at one time being the Managing Director for Watts Village Theatre. There are many other credits attributed to Mr. Mack, but in this case it is as an advocate to the afore-mentioned Ms. Quintana. While Mr. Mack is not a lawyer, his resume would indicate that he knows his way around cause advocacy.

What is not clear is what brought him to the services of Ms. Quintana. Neither Ms. Quintana or Mr. Mack have responded to an inquiry on that question. Mr. Mack did say he believes in helping the underdogs. In a related conversation Mr. Mack did discuss that even as the theatre community feels under siege, so to, do some of the people, such as Ms. Quintana. Interestingly Mr. Mack serves in the same role –  advocate for a similar action filed by Ms. Ann Colby Stocking, another actress who took part in a production at The Odyssey Theatre.  Again, a stipend had been agreed upon, and paid. Well after the fact, by a matter of a couple of years, a claim was filed, without prior notice or ask of the producers. Neither case has of this writing been brought to final determination.

However, the implications could be devastating should DLSE find in favor of either or both of these plaintiffs. It would allow anyone that had ever participated as a volunteer in a theatrical production to claim wages in spite of the fact that either no pay, or minimal stipends were agreed upon prior to participation. This could essentially put all 2,125 shows that have been produced at the Hollywood Fringe in a position to be forced to pay un-contracted, un-budgeted and un-collected fees to artists changing their minds about agreements after the fact. And let’s not even get into the thousands of intimate theatre shows that have been produced over the last 30 years.

And then there is the matter of Actors Equity Association and their handling of membership companies. As an effort to address the concerns of the vast majority of LA members, AEA stated that membership companies could exist, once approved, and that the union would then have no interest in membership productions.

A reasonable and welcomed offer, however there is nothing in writing to assure that that condition will be honored. There is no stipulation as to the length of that allowance. The general anticipation is that this arrangement can be terminated at any time, and many of the most acclaimed and productive companies will be forced to offer contracts that they cannot afford. Interact Theatre Company, one of the companies denied membership status says, “there would be a 40% increase in the budget if we would have had to put our AEA members on the new minimum wage agreement for our last production, Other People’s Money.”

Which then brings us to the matter of determining who is eligible for Membership Company Status. About a year before the status quo was turned topsy-turvey, a guideline for determination was published and deadlines for submission were established (no new applications were to be considered afterwards).  Some companies submitted their applications post haste, and some held off and submitted just prior to the deadline. What was never clearly defined was how the review process would be managed, nor who would be the final arbiter.

Shortly after the deadline, a list of approved membership companies was published. NMI,  along with a number of other companies, were notified that their applications had been rejected. Interact, a company who boasts one of the longest standing memberships in LA, was one of the others. Both these companies filed appeals, provided evidence of status, history, programs, reviews… and both were told that the determination was final, AEA was not interested in reviewing any appeals. All inquiries into process for appeal were met with a stonewall response, indicating that as far as AEA was concerned, the matter was closed.

This has prompted NMI to file a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, in which the charges are brought that AEA is exercising restraint of trade, and that the membership selection process was arbitrary and unfair. AEA has been notified that the charges had been filed and that process is now unfolding. As for Interact, they continue to apply pressure on AEA from within. More members’ résolutions, petitions, phone calls. Here are just two companies, cases,  where artists wanting to create theatre are spending time, energy and scant resources to beg permission to be allowed to produce theatre, rather than actually creating theatre.

I’ve reached out to all of the parties concerned.  In the case of AEA, I made at least 2 calls to the Western Regional Executive Director, Gail Gabler, sent messages to the Western Regional VP Doug Carfrae, and left word with AEAs director of Communication, Brandon Lorenz, in New York. There has been no acknowledgement of the calls or response of any kind.

Mr. Mack suggested I contact his clients Ms. Quintana and Ms. Stalkings, both of whom said they were ordered not to discuss the matter. Ms. Quintana did spend a great deal of time and energy complaining about the abysmal treatment she has received from the theatre community since her filing, but provided no linkage explaining how the after-the-fact derisions had any cause for her claim.

When AEA looks at the number of productions, one can only surmise that they see opportunity for their membership. Their assumption would seem to be that if there is so much going on there must be money to cover wages for the actors and stage managers. But the reality is not that. The reality is that there is a greater demand for audiences than there is a demand for the art form.

When actors buy into the AEA party line, and see themselves as workers being abused by a system, they retaliate as did the two aforementioned performers. A reality check must be had by all involved. At no time anywhere in this universe, has becoming an artist really been seen as a good financial plan.

Not too long ago, I was in a meeting where an artist said, “I have a Masters degree in theatre.  There is no reason that I should not be making $100,000 a year in theatre!” Bless her heart.  She’s most assuredly of an artistic bent, because her logic fails to factor in the underlying details. Art is a luxury to both the audience and the artist.  It may be a necessity for social continuity, but it’s a luxury to participate, it’s a choice that every artist faces, to create or make money. That’s not the way it should be, it’s the way it is. For AEA or actors to then impose some self-conceived entitlement and seek legal redress, is profoundly destructive and disingenuous.

Artists, must learn a couple things. First, manage your expectations.  Living in Malibu and owning a private jet are not the natural by-products of your chosen field. They are the excessive rewards of a miniscule percentage that have proven they can raise the dollars they are paid. That reward comes much later, long after they have paid their dues working in theatre. If you can’t participate at the level offered, don’t do it. Don’t take a role and then decide you want to get paid. It’s really that easy. To unilaterally decide that you deserve something that was never offered and then extort it under guise of law is at best a fantasy, and at worst morally repugnant.

There are countless reasons as to why theatre is important. It’s always been part of the of human cultural experience. Where it will be tomorrow, remains to be seen.  But it cannot exist if it continues to be attacked and distracted from the important work of Being Theatre. FL

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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3 comments

  1. AEA is doomed on the West Coast. Isn’t that clear yet? When will West Coast members rise up and do something about it? (When will the orangeman be impeached?) As long this union is controlled by members who haven’t a clue about the West Coast theatre scene, it WILL only get worse. You will have only yourselves to blame.

  2. As a first time producer, who has never been involved with live theatre, I am appalled at the AEA and what it is doing to live theatre in LA.
    They have now created a situation where it’s cost prohibitive to use Equity actors in small or short run productions. Thereby removing the opportunity for members to be seen, and get more work.
    As a result of our production this year at the Hollywood Fringe, several of our actors have been offered auditions and actual roles in movies, tv shows and Broadway productions.

    Had I known what a paperwork nightmare, that added unnecessary costs, using a couple of equity actors would be, I would have never cast equity actors. Try finding an insurance company that will sell you workmans comp for three months.
    Good Luck.
    And if I ever do a short run or festival production again, it will be non-union all the way. And I am a huge supporter of unions.
    I myself am a member of MPEG. Yet if I want to work a non union show, I have the freedom to do so.

    Equity is harming small theatre in LA, as well as its own members

    Oh, and SEE should take not. There area lot of non-equity actors in LA.
    This isn’t SF or New York

  3. THANK YOU THANK YOU for this article, and for helping to raise awareness. You are so right that “the fall-out” from the Actors’ Equity decisions is yet to be realized. I know that statistics will bear out only a fraction of the artistic disempowerment to individuals and struggling nonprofit companies alike. At this point, we actors can’t fight the fight alone; the LA intimate theatre community needs HELP from journalists and legal professionals — many of whom count themselves among our audiences ! Not only should a handful of bonafide membership companies receive the proper membership company designation from our “aggressive, inclusive, responsive” (??!!) UNION , but balance can be restored with a tiered system for others- based on budgets.

    Amanda Carlin, current and founding member of Interact Theater Co.

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