Dakin Matthews responds to Actors’ Equity President

Well-known actor and scholar, Dakin Matthews, responds to the remarks made by Equity President Kate Shindle in a recent podcast:

Dakin Matthews footlights
Dakin Matthews

First of all, I am responding to what was printed online on the Footlights webpage, and I don’t know who transcribed the interview (you can read it there), or if the transcription is accurate at all points. Second, it was an interview, so presumably Kate was speaking off the cuff, not reading a prepared statement or formal position paper, so her analysis should be treated as what it was, an honest, spontaneous, necessarily guarded, response to a question. I think she is an admirable, trustworthy, and hard-working president, and I don’t for an instant question her integrity or her motives. My concern is with ideas and actions, not with personalities; and I whole-heartedly discourage any rudeness or vitriol aimed at Kate or any other person. My problem is with what I consider to be the faulty information and analysis she seems to have absorbed from staff and which she re-iterates in this interview. And of course I mean no disrespect by calling her Kate throughout. Ms Shindle seemed a little formal. As did Madam President.

Given that, here’s how I would respond to what she reportedly said.

1.  Of course one has to be careful with one says in the matter of an ongoing lawsuit, although technically AEA has not been served with a lawsuit. And for clarity’s sake, “LA actors” are not suing Equity (or “us,” as she puts it). A specific and small group of people, most of them LA actors, filed, but never served a lawsuit against AEA and Mary McColl; and after the filing and some conversation, that group agreed to withdraw all parts of their suit against Ms McColl in exchange for a facilitated discussion between the parties. The remaining parts of the lawsuit are still filed (but not served), but that suit is not against what the transcript identifies as “this [Equity change in the 99-seat plan].” For the record, there is no “change in” the plan; in Equity’s reading of the matter, the plan has already been completely eliminated by its own unilateral actions. That is what the suit is about. It is disingenuous to suggest it is about a “change in the plan,” though this is the consistent talking point that Equity uses—for specifically legal reasons, by the way, since the union justifies its unilateral action from certain wording in the Settlement Agreement that empowers it to make “substantial changes to the plan.” However, I want to note again, that Kate apparently only said “this”; the editor apparently added the clarifying “Equity change to the 99-seat plan.” What I am trying to do is not fault Kate for her language, because it is not hers; rather I wish to correct the editor’s or transcriber’s mischaracterization.

2.  I’m not sure why Kate felt it necessary to question the vitality of the intimate theatre scene by characterizing it as obviously “somewhat thriving,” and relegating the possibility that it might be “completely thriving” to just some people’s opinion. Why is one person’s opinion a fact, and another’s merely an opinion? But I guess we are meant to be grateful that she cannot deny the fact that it is “somewhat thriving.” But what theatre community could be described otherwise? Professional theatres from Broadway to mid-size have been caught in cycles of thriving and dying for as long as any of us can remember. From Broadway to the boonies, some theatres produce consistently good work, some are hit and miss, and some have only the rare success; and the following year the whole dynamic can be reversed. Some open, some close, some soldier on. This is the only way theatre “thrives”; it’s a mixed bag everywhere. The question is not how much are they thriving; rather it should be how can we make them more, rather than less, thriving. And who gets to define what “thriving” means?

3.  Actors don’t care if they get paid? I never met a professional actor who didn’t care if he or she got paid. That is a ridiculous statement, and it echoes the cry of the most strident voices in opposition to the plan’s supporters. It’s just not that simple. Professional actors everywhere care if they get paid. But what actors in LA understand, perhaps much better than some of their brothers and sisters in NY (where admittedly highly paying theatres do “thrive”), is that most modern actors’ creative and economic lives (even in NY, I’ll bet) are likely to be a mix of jobs in various performing media if they are very fortunate, and in a mix of performing media and outside day jobs if they are only somewhat fortunate. Which of those media dominate will differ by geography, among other factors. And as every actor knows (among them “Kate’s friends”), no one moves to LA to make a living in theatre acting alone. It cannot be done. And even if it could, few professional actors would choose to do it, given the likelihood that if they are talented, they can make far more in one week on a film or TV show (counting residuals) then they could for an entire 10-week contract in a mid-size or even large house. What stage actors in LA care about is continuing to pursue their art and their craft while they are often making their living partially in other media, both because they value their art in itself and wish to share it with their community, and because they know that a firm grounding in stage acting will always be of enormous help in acting in other media.

4.  Now the next section of Kate’s response is a little hard to parse, again I can’t tell whether it’s because of the transcription or because of the nature of spontaneous interviews. She says, I think, that besides the (to my mind, mythical or extremely rare) actors who don’t care if they get paid, “there are also members who have moved to LA . . . who are somehow not involved in that conversation at all.” (Which conversation is that? Does she mean actors who would never say they don’t care if they get paid?) They apparently moved to “try some tv and film” and apparently “work here all the time”—I assume she means in TV and film—and they would nonetheless “love to continue to do some theater” but “had to give up the theater because there’s just basically no way to make a living.” The problem here is you don’t just “try” some tv and film—it’s a demanding pursuit, and what it most demands is instant availability and constant auditioning and enormous patience (among other things) and long spells of not working. And luck. The second problem is of course you shouldn’t have to give up theater—that’s the entire point of the dreaded 99-seat plan. Her argument seems to be that it should be possible to work as much as you want in living-wage-paying theatre in LA and still have a thriving or even decent film and TV career. But see, for the vast majority of Equity actors, it just doesn’t work that way. And I say this not as one who tried and failed, but as one who probably did manage to succeed at precisely that, and I know first hand how rarified the air is up here. And I say it as one who also knows how valuable it is (invaluable, really) to be able to continue doing stage work of any kind as you pursue film and TV, and as one who was lucky enough to do just that, and who, partially in gratitude and partially out of a sense of artistic fellowship, personally spent hundreds of thousands of dollars of his own money over twenty years in intimate theatre, trying to give other LA actors the necessary experience of continuing to act on stage in great plays–precisely because the paying theatres were simply not offering a fraction of them that kind of opportunity.

5.  If it is a balancing act, as Kate says, and it clearly is, I suspect the (now superseded?) plan offered a reasonable approach through a kind of natural dynamic equilibrium. I’m not a huge believer in the invisible hand of the marketplace, and clearly—as virtually everyone opposed to Equity’s elimination of the plan agreed–it could use a serious tune-up, some change was called for; but the sudden and total abandonment of something that was, for most practical purposes, working—probably because it developed organically over decades–does not seem to me to have been the best answer.

6.  As for Kate’s suggestion that there are a “couple of different arguments.” (1) There’s no money to pay people. (Is that not mostly, overwhelmingly true?). (2) There’s an oversupply of inexpensive theater–meaning perhaps that there may be enough money, but it’s too spread out? (3) Too many 99-seat theatres make it impossible for even one mid-size theatre, or even smallish theatre, willing to pay a living wage to succeed. She then says, correctly as far as I can tell, that number three was one of the things that “guided the Council.” Now I know of no study or research that supports that argument. Indeed, it might be equally argued that such an approach as Equity chose actually encourages the development of non-Equity theatres. For the 25 years I acted almost exclusively in regional theatre, our mantra was that theatre at any level helps promote theatre at all levels. Big theatres encourage small theatres, small theatres encourage theatre-going. We never felt it was necessary (or smart) to resent smaller theatres or try to suppress them in order to increase our own box office. So I suspect that it is not the existence of intimate theatres that precludes midsize or smallish theatres in LA, but the impossible economics of such theaters in a geographically spread and industry dominated city like Los Angeles, which has neither a strong theatre-going tradition, nor scores of super wealthy people interested in theatre, nor a reputation as a tourist destination for theatre-goers, nor the kind of weather that makes indoor arts activities desirable many months of the year, nor actors willing to preclude their screen work by acting in low-paying contract work. So to blame it primarily on intimate theatres is (to me) the equivalent of kicking the dog. And it is interesting that Council would rather be guided by an unprovable and unlikely assertion than by the wishes and expressed vote of an overwhelming majority of its LA members.

7.  What Kate does not say here, though she has elsewhere, is that since this is Equity’s position, the best thing would be to give it a try and see if it works. Sounds reasonable, until you realize what damage could be done to the intimate theatre community by this “trial.” You don’t put Humpty Dumpty back together again so easily. Pull the plug and then, if there’s a problem, maybe restart the heart? And even more scary, what if it doesn’t work, what will Equity do then? Does anyone really expect Equity to admit a miscalculation? When recently has the current Equity leadership ever said anything like, gosh, maybe you were right and we were wrong, it doesn’t work? (Though I think a good case can be made that the representatives on Council looked at the action and the advisory vote and did try to amend the ill-conceived proposal—bravo to them!) But the initial arrogance with which this proposal was pushed through over local opposition, the dismissive way local membership was treated, the way they were flat out misled and misinformed, the fact that only the threat of a lawsuit brought Equity into serious discussions–which they still refuse to call negotiations–none of these gives me any great hope that Equity Is all that open to a serious reconsideration of its opinion or of its action, let alone an apology for the process, which is clearly what local membership wants.

8.  Kate says that if there are going to be jobs in LA, there has to be some way that some actors can get paid aside from the big institutions. Well, there it is really—LA is LA, there are thousands of Equity actors here, and suggesting that a model of institutional theatres and midsize theatres and regional theatres will serve them all is wishful thinking. So only “some” need to be paid. One premise behind this seems to be that when they do work, they should be paid a living wage. Another premise behind that is that it is better if a few actors are being paid such a wage in smallish and midsize theatres, even if it means hundreds and hundreds of others will be deprived of the opportunity to pursue their craft voluntarily. (Though see #10, below.) Another premise seems to be that there are lots of Equity actors who wish to make their living in LA theatres large and small. I would characterize all three premises as questionable at best.

9.  In addition, I wonder if anyone really knows just how many LA actors currently make their living working in the big institutional theatres. I worked in them more than almost anyone I know, and I can honestly say I never did. How many weeks per year does any LA actor work in an institutional theatre? How many weeks per year does any LA actor work on an Equity contract? Before talking about the necessity for living wage theatres, perhaps Equity could research the facts of LA theatre to see if the idea of a living wage theatre career is a reality–or even a goal. I suspect the only Equity actors who make a real living working on stage in this town are in long running touring musicals, and they are in fact almost exclusively NY actors. And while we’re on this subject, can we all acknowledge the elephant in the room–the idea that the “dedicated stage actor” (you know, the one who does not lower himself to do TV and film, or does so only reluctantly) is the typical Equity actor (which he’s not), and also that he’s also the kind of actor that all stage producers want to pay a living wage to. Directors and producers will take the actor with TV and film credits over the dedicated stage actor eight times out of ten. Ten out of ten, if he’s a TV or film star. Read the bios, people, even in the smallest houses. Can we acknowledge that the vast majority of Equity actors multi-task artistically in other media, making the “living wage for the stage” argument outside of NY (and even inside NY for a lot of us) moot? The reality is vastly more complex, and the Procrustean bed is not the best solution to such complexity.

10.  So what Council did, she says, is to find a way to get some actors paid some of the time and carve out enough opportunities for people who wanted to work with membership companies, for example, and volunteer their time. Yes, I think this was Council’s thinking, and it certainly was an improvement over the original gutting of the the plan. Again, bravo to them for trying. But it really does not survive much scrutiny. 1. How are these actors going to get paid? Only if they sign onto the new agreement, which frankly very few producers can afford, especially as actors can still step away from their productions so easily in spite of the contract. 2. How many are these some? Very few, I would guess. 3.Can they actually live on what they’re being paid? In LA? Be serious. 4. And then there are those wonderful words “carve out.” “membership company,” and “volunteer.” So apparently, in spite of all the scare-politicking, it turns out that volunteering to act on stage is not the great illegal, indefensible crime or self-abuse that Equity told us it was during the campaign. And who gets to define what a “membership company” is? Why, Equity itself. And how permanent is that designation? Not very at the moment. Worst case scenario: there is currently no guarantee it will last more than the few months Equity needs to either subjugate or decimate all the non-membership companies in LA. (I assume I am not the only member who has heard current Councilors admit they are eager to get rid of the membership company carve out as soon as possible.) And why is it a “carve out” rather than a permanent part of the new agreement? Perhaps so it can be dropped at the earliest possible moment? And why does Equity extend none of the protections and oversights to these “membership companies” that it used to extend to all qualifying theatres under the old plan? Spite? Punishment? Disapproval? Economics?

11.  “Let’s stop talking about it” is the answer? Or even the first step to an answer? Surely calmer voices, on both sides, would be good; but lock-step silence is just non-responsive, especially when some of the challenges and charges that many members have leveled at Equity were well founded. So it was more like a convenient, self-serving “let’s stonewall” or “let’s take the fifth,” rather than “let’s lower our voices.” And there wasn’t, until Kate insisted on it, much “let’s really listen” either. And bless her for that. On top of which, I’m getting really tired of all the “I can’t talk about it” and “the votes are secret” responses; at what point does the overuse of “Executive Session” and the gagging of representatives become pernicious? In what other universe are voters not allowed to know how their representatives vote on crucial matters? Even institutions as corrupt and self-serving as the U.S. Congress don’t do that to the extent that Equity does. The whole point of elections is for the electors to know where their representatives stand on important issues, and surely that means knowing how they actually vote.

12.  The idea that the actors and the producers wanted different things, but were united in their opposition to Equity, has a certain truth. But the two were much closer to one another than the union was to either. (And obviously, the majority of the producers were also Equity members.) And for the producers and the actors to unite was indeed, as Kate says, good and exciting–though I would have preferred to hear a slightly less condescending tone about how “nice” it was to see their passion. But at a certain point you have to say: “Okay what do our members really want?” Well, now that makes me laugh out loud. First of all, you’d think Equity—with its much touted “unprecedented listening campaign”–would have asked that very question before proposing their disastrous proposal. Apparently they didn’t, and they certainly found out what the membership didn’t want by their overwhelming no vote in the advisory referendum, despite Equity’s best efforts to cloud the whole issue.

13.  “How can we talk to them about how to make that work?” Apparently, the quickly scheduled and then cancelled meetings with selected members after the Council vote were meant to be simply top-down instructional lectures, from staff to producers and actors: here is how you can make the new agreement work. It precluded any discussion of how that agreement came to be or about how flawed it was. I’m not convinced this new set of discussions with the plaintiffs in the suit are significantly more promising. It sounds like the same old, same old. I hope I’m wrong.

14.  And now for that old hoary canard, that anything like the 99-seat “volunteer” plan endangers negotiations on the production (or any other) contract. Oh, seriously. If there’s a “bleed over into other markets”—and why do I hear some other voice there rather than Kate’s?—that would be true of every other contract and agreement that Equity negotiates that has lower than production minimums. Why pay actors production minimums when they’ll work for minimum wage? Why pay them production minimums when they’ll work on experimental contracts or developmental contracts? Why pay them production minimums when they’ll work for LORT minimums? Why pay them production minimums or even first-class tour minimums when they’ll work under the new second-class touring contract? That’s a fake threat and everybody knows it. It’s a non-starter. It sounds like some tactical bullshit some producer’s representative might throw into the mix to muddy the negotiating waters. All negotiations are based on the potential income of the producer, not on the willingness of the actor to take less. All negotiations take into primary consideration what the producer can earn and what the producer can pay, not what the actor would accept. Can we bury that bullshit argument once and for all? If the threat of that fake argument actually frightens our negotiators, perhaps we need new negotiators.

15.  And how dare actors go “public” with their needs and wants and complaints? Normally they don’t, except when Equity refuses to pay attention to their needs and wants and complaints. So don’t blame the messenger. And don’t accuse LA actors of being anti-union for their public protest, when it’s the union which has failed to honor its responsibility to listen to the members and look after their artistic as well as their economic lives. We’re not anti-union. We are pro-union. We are union.

16.  And finally, one further observation. I understand completely that our elected representatives and officers on the Council feel the need to present a united front; and that working with one another and with staff is important. I know how responsibility is shared; I understand the dynamics of politics and relationships and networking. But I also think that all that is a secondary responsibility and of secondary importance. Primarily and essentially, the officers and Council members are our elected representatives, and their primary obligation and essential job is to represent the members who elected them and not the staff which works for them. Councilors, you don’t just represent the union to its members, you must first represent the members to their union. Voice members’ concerns to staff first; then you have earned the right to voice staff’s concerns to members.

About Tracey Paleo

Tracey Paleo is Associate Editor at FootLights Magazine. She's also the Founder and Chief Editor of the arts and culture site, Gia On The Move, where she often reviews live performance events.

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  1. As a member both of Actors’ Equity and of British Equity (London is where I work most often), I have to say that I whole-heartedly support Mr. Matthews’ analysis. In the one instance when I produced a play myself (in a 70 seat theater), I paid my actors the union minimum, and consequently lost a lot of money. No regrets there, however, because as a member of the union, I felt it the morally correct thing to do. But I have also very often accepted unpaid work in similar circumstances, because it is, for the moment, the only viable way to maintain production levels, while working together to encourage producers to pay at least the national minimum wage. The good news is that progress is being made in this direction: British Equity has succeeded in recruiting many a small scale producer to accept reasonable contracts, both as to wages and working conditions. It is an ongoing and uphill process, but, perhaps surprisingly, it is beginning to work.

    In any case, as the old saying goes, it is the workers inspiration that runs through the union, and not the other way around, i.e., the bureaucrats are supposed to do what the membership wants. Has that been the case here?

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