Bully on the Block

bullies, bully

What do you call it when a 6th grade hall monitor goes up to the smallest 4th grader and “says get off the playground!”? We call it bullying, right? Mr. Boss approaches the mail boy and says, “Norbert, get out of my way, get me some coffee!”? It can be seen as abuse? When a union tells its members that you can’t volunteer, you can’t follow your passion, you are worth what we say you’re worth, what do we call that?

For nearly three decades, professional actors have been allowed to work without contracts in some intimate theatres with the protection of the union. But it’s for a pittance. We’re talking maybe enough money to cover the cost of gas if you don’t live on the other side of town.

The theatres we’re talking about are the intimate theatres in Los Angeles. The theatres where audiences pay less for theatre than anywhere in the world. The theatres that are creating and presenting world class entertainment and in many case real jobs when those shows move on to bigger houses, or move to other cities.

And why do they do it? Why do actors submit themselves to long hours, not the best environments and virtually no pay? Because they are artists, and because they have a passion which must be addressed. Because WE are artists and because WE must act. This is not to say we don’t want to get paid, because believe me, we do, and we do things called day jobs to support our passions.

What started out back in the 70’s was workshop and showcase productions. As actors realized that they could get the roles they wanted to play by starting a company, they did exactly that. They gathered folks around them of like mind that all wanted stage time. By the late 80’s the system had become widespread and there were some abuses, and at that point Actors Equity Association stepped in and said. The game is over, we’re ending what was called “Equity waiver”.

Actors were incensed, “how dare you take away our opportunity to act, why take away access to our art?” If this sounds familiar, wait a moment. The matter was finally settled, when a group of actors filed a law suit against their own union. A settlement was agreed upon, and for the next 27 years, Actors continued to work, and a cottage industry began to grow, where by 2015 there were about a dozen luminaries. Done, no more problems, or so we thought.

Now it’s important to note that because of the limitations of the agreement made in 1987, there was a cap on ticket prices, so no matter what productions cost, no matter how high rents went, no matter what expenses had to be met, a theatre could not charge more than $34.99 per ticket.

So the unforeseen circumstance that resulted from this little agreement was that costs continued to increase, inflation continued to affect us, and we were suddenly met with the joy of discount ticketing. Bam, the perfect storm.

Actors while passionate about their art are not stupid (unless you ask my mother) and they have seen an increase in payouts in certain areas, Some – a few – went to their union Actors Equity and said told them life is not fair.

Actors Equity Association has offered up a promulgated (self conceived) proposal in which they are seeking the blessing of the membership to radically change the way intimate theatres operate in Los Angeles. Here the deal in a nut shell:

No more cottage industry, Actors can create anything they want together as self -produced, but the caveat is they may not do it as a legal entity. That means no tax benefits, no checking accounts, no capacity to enter into things like rental agreements . . . You get the idea.

Or you can continue to work as a member of a company as long as you’re a member as of April 1 this year, but the sticking point there is that we no longer get any of the protection being a union member. Example: for more than 25 years nude auditions have been strictly off-limits. Wanna place any bets on tomorrow?

Or companies can suck it up and pay actors minimum wage. That would be an increase of thousands of dollars on budgets already splitting at the seams.

The dozen or so companies that have scratched their way to a position of almost balanced budgets would be put in severe jeopardy. Smaller companies would either have to go non-union, (potentially excluding SAG-AFTRA actors as well) or close their doors. We have already shuttered some great companies in the past two years.

So AEA actors are being asked to accept this as a realistic solution. But just in case the referendum doesn’t pass, the outcome of the vote is only advisory. The actual vote on the proposal will be decided by the AEA National Council, saying they will take our concerns into account with maybe some changes? To assure that the advisory vote goes their way, AEA has enlisted member volunteers to call the area membership in support of the proposal, and yet denied access by the opposition to the same information. When actor/producers began to offer support to those of us in opposition to this proposal, those were contacted with a suggestion of legal actions and possible suites in the name of Union internal affairs.

For nearly three decades, we have pulled and pushed and fought to build a theatre community unlike any other, anywhere. Cutting edge, vibrant, risky, energetic and at times flawed, but a community that wants to exist and grow.

Sadly, we now have Mr. Equity, telling us we can’t be in our playground, our bully is telling us that the playground they designed and we built is not to their liking, so let’s just tear it down, and start over, different rules, We say NO, if we hope to keep following our passion, creating some of the best theatre on earth, We’re not ready to do that. We ask your support by going to ilove99.org to find out how you can help save our theatre community!

I Love 99

About Peter Finlayson

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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