Spokes & Mirrors by Steven Leigh Morris

Potholes on the Bike Path.
Our Theater’s Latest Challenge: The Labor Union

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[dropcap]Sometimes[/dropcap], on a bicycle, in order to better understand where you’re going, you have to look backwards. In this article, we’ll be doing just that while cycling through the current battle between the actors/stage manager’s union (Actors Equity Association) and its West Coast membership over the rights of union members to form companies and create the kind of art that they find meaningful.

In general, defying a landslide 2/3 vote of its Los Angeles membership, the union has said its members shouldn’t be permitted to create art if somebody isn’t paying them the legal minimum wage for rehearsals and performance. If implemented, as it’s scheduled to be in May, 2016, this standard will either force 90% of the scores of up-to-99-seat theaters in L.A. County to use only non-union actors, while shuttering a handful of our most prestigious intimate theaters that don’t fall within the meager confines of the union’s proposed “exceptions.” And even in the few instances where it allows exceptions, the union has withdrawn all health, safety and labor protections hitherto granted by its now officially eviscerated 99-Seat Theater Plan. These “we, the union, want nothing to do with this” exceptions are precisely why the union’s indignant minimum wage argument rings so hollow. Even so, the distinction between what’s declared official by the union and what will unfold as reality has yet to be determined.

With its records in obvious shambles, it appears that the union has simply grown weary of monitoring the 99-Seat Plan that was negotiated with and settled by the union itself in the 1989 out-of-court settlement of a lawsuit brought by its own members. The union recently asked one of L.A.’s decades-old 99-Seat Plan companies, Evidence Room, to provide proof of its existence as a membership company, even though that theater’s reviews are all over Google, and it submitted written applications to the union for its last 40 productions. Did somebody lose the key to the Equity’s file drawer? Did nobody make a copy?

For close to 30 years, the union has allowed its members to perform on stage for stipends rather than wages in theaters of no more than 99-seats. That low audience capacity was designed to snuff out the possibility of shows turning profits for producers (that part worked well), who might otherwise financially exploit union actors.

To help justify terminating the 99-Seat Plan, Equity’s officers keep claiming, erroneously, that its actors are the only participants who don’t get paid under the Plan, when in fact union actors are always paid stipends, or are supposed to be, while for the time invested, sound, lighting, set and costume designers sometimes work for little or less remuneration than the actors, while the producers almost always suffer a financial loss. But that’s just so much squabbling. Let’s grab a broader perspective by looking backwards for a moment.

“There are no death sentences for artists in the U.S., however – just de-funding, poverty, exile and oblivion. At least the potholes we must avoid aren’t lethal, they’re just dispiriting: cultural apathy, the dearth of serious funding, and now Actors’ Equity Association.”

David Bridel
’s fastidiously researched play, I Gelosi, first appeared here in 2008 in a presentation by L.A. Theatre Ensemble, and a recent vivacious interpretation by Helsinki West Theatre Ensemble (at Burbank’s Six01 Studio) closed at the end of May. In the play, various actors of the eponymous, fabled Italian commedia del arte troupe speak from the 16th century to audiences of the 21st. They try to explain their purpose. The result is a squabble among them: “Entertainment” proffers one, countered by another voice: “fame”; and others: “love,” “profit,” “beauty,” “revenge.”

And there you have it: The theater in America, and the theater in Los Angeles, call it a multi-purpose room.

I Gelosi is an absorbing portrait of the attempt of a small theater company to entertain and to create meaningful art, and to finance it in order that the participants don’t starve (which they frequently do) amidst the backdrop of a war between Pope Gregory and the French Huguenots.

The original commedia troupes were itinerant ensemble-communes with various authority-sharing arrangements. As in current L.A., the actors were not enslaved to these troupes. They had other options, yet they chose to join these companies, sometimes replacing their biological families with their artistic ones.

“We have to meet expenses before we can pay the players,” a company founder explains in Bridel’s play. (At least under L.A.’s 99-Seat Plan, the actors’ stipends are required.) Still, had Actors’ Equity of Italy stepped in, in say 1588, weary of monitoring all those small companies in Mantua and Padua and Florence, and insisted that in order to protect the actors, players may not perform for less than minimum wage for performances and rehearsals, world theater would have had no I Gelosi and probably no commedia del arte, because the troupes could never have gotten sufficient traction to catch the eye of the dukes and princes who eventually became their benefactors and employers. This is akin to the system in L.A.: If playwright John Pollono didn’t have the opportunity to use union actors under the 99-Seat Plan to try out his new plays at Rogue Machine, his plays (and the actors in them) could never have caught the eyes of the New York producers who brought them to off-Broadway. There’s a rich history of such shows transferring from L.A.’s tiny theaters, hundreds of them dating back to at least 1988, to financially greener pastures.

The cast of I, Gelosi, Helsinki West Theatre Ensemble. Photo by Sean McConaghy.
The cast of I Gelosi, Helsinki West Theatre Ensemble. Photo by Sean McConaghy.

In Bridel’s play, when the players are not starving, it’s because of wealthy patrons who may be benevolent but are not benign: they ingratiate their ambitious lovers into the company and they regulate content, just as many funders do today. (Arts funding almost always comes attached to a very old and heavy set of chains.) When, in a command performance for King Charles IX of France and his court, the troupe founder (a war veteran) swaps out their programmed light-entertainment for a play that harshly critiques the war in general and the Pope in particular, members of the company are sentenced to hang for it. This is the cost of taking artistic liberties in post-Renaissance Italy.

There are no death sentences for artists in the U.S., however – just de-funding, poverty, exile and oblivion. At least the potholes we must avoid aren’t lethal, they’re just dispiriting: cultural apathy, the dearth of serious funding, and now Actors’ Equity Association.

Post-Renaissance Los Angeles: Rachel Rosenthal (1926-2015)

Let’s turn a corner on our path to May 10, 2015, when the grand dame of performance art, Rachel Rosenthal, died in Los Angeles. Rosenthal’s imprimaturs were her shaved head, her pet rats, and her ecological activism — long before human-created climate change was a universally accepted phenomenon.

She was a post-post Renaissance gal, born in 1926 in Paris, the daughter of cultured Russian emigrés, Leonard and Mara Rosenthal. During her birthdays in the 1930s, she was expected to perform a ballet recital for dozens of her parents’ high society friends and acquaintances, who were also entertained by Jascha Heifetz and Vladimir Horowitz.

After studying in New York’s High School of Music and Art, and hanging out in New York and Paris with Jasper Johns, Merce Cunningham (with whom she studied) and John Cage, Rosenthal came to Los Angeles to teach at the Pasadena Playhouse Conservatory.

Los Angeles in 1955 was a “pretty, warm and dull desert,” Rosenthal told me in 2009. “The San Fernando Valley was all cornfields. Orange County was an endless horizon of orange groves.”

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Steven Leigh Morris

Steven Leigh Morris

Steven is the Executive Director of LA STAGE Alliance, and is the founding editor of the community-funded digital arts venture Stage Raw (www.stageraw.com). Morris chaired the Jury for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2012, and served on that Jury in 2011. He received the Critic of the Year prize for his print reviews by the National Entertainment Journalism Awards in 2011.