Spokes & Mirrors by Steven Leigh Morris

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

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If you wish to understand the condescension and contempt of Equity’s East Coast delegates to West Coast appeals that union stage actors should have the right to form companies and create art on their own terms, rather than being constrained by minimum wage requirements, one need only look to “Mrs. Fiske” (her stage-name) – the bane and whipping girl of AEA during its tempestuous birth. This is because the West Coast arguments sound deceptively similar to Mrs. Fiske’s – don’t measure us by or constrict us with wage demands.

Yet the knee-jerk association of appeals for autonomy with union-bashing is part of a calcified impulse that fails to recognize core differences between the early 20th century and the early 21st, as well as between New York and Los Angeles: First, in 1913, the theater was the fourth largest industry in the nation. Exorbitant livelihoods and reputations were derived from the theater industry by producers and managers. The idea of labor exploitation was palpable and enraging.

This has no bearing on the current state of theater in Los Angeles. Nowhere in L.A. theater are actors indentured. Nowhere are its producers profiteers. Actors come and go as they wish. That’s codified in the Plan, thanks to the union. Actors are less factory employees as independent agents in an entrepreneurial age of AirBnB, Uber and Lyft. These are the economic realities of the 21st century that the union misinterprets through its smudged 20th century lens. If theater companies remain together here, the glue that binds them consists of desire and shared values. Nor is that amateurism or hobbying, as has been often stated by Equity’s supporters in tones of withering condescension. Rather, much of the theatrical activity in 99-Seat theaters here is consistent with former Village Voice Theater Critic Michael Feingold’s definition of professional: “to profess a belief system.”

“…in those fleeting interludes when the theater flares, its flames are momentous.”

L.A.’s theater companies, and many of the union members that created them, have forged the beginnings of what might be called a theater culture in this city – a rare accomplishment in a desert of cul de sacs and grid-clogged arteries reaching across limitless expanses — a theater culture finally recognized by chambers of commerce and by circles of critics, by producers leagues and by members of the city council. AEA’s disregard of that culture has entirely to do with a divide that’s as ideological as it is geographical.

Today, as a national industry, the theater is a ghost of its former self. In Los Angeles, as an industry, the theater is a ghost of a ghost. Its very reason for being is far more closely aligned, temperamentally, to those 19th century actor-manager companies, rising and falling on their talent. Its motives are as varied as those described in I Gelosi: from vanity to personal ambition to curiosity, to a love of the poetical, to child-like or morbid glee, to campiness, to some irrepressible urges to sing and dance, to recapturing a delicate sliver of the past, to imagining societies of the future. But almost nowhere in this city, certainly among the 99-seat-theaters, does the idea of “theater industry” akin to that found in New York, come into play as a reason for why plays are put on here. Nowhere here are there theater producers akin to the Shubert brothers or the likes of Scott Rudin. And therein lies the gulf of incomprehension between the East Coast and the West. From the presumption by AEA that after a 30-years evolution of L.A.’s idiosyncratic theater scene that the union finds so quaint and irrelevant and annoying comes the realization that the union can’t even find documents filed over decades by some of our most distinguished theaters. This is most peculiar, given the magnitude of the union-actor presence here.

Rounding Another Turn: What Lies Ahead?

I’ve heard it said, and have probably said it myself when sufficiently inspired or deluded, that the theater cannot die. Yes, it can. It dies all the time. The theater is not an evergreen that weathers tempests and ice floes. As Oskar Eustis once said, the theater is a delicate plant nurtured in a hothouse. It depends on just the right confluence of circumstances, combining the artists’ passion to create with an audience’s need for the stories told on the stages. The great period of the Greek theater was in one city for maybe 80 years and then died out. The Elizabethan playhouses thrived for maybe 50 years. And those were two of the greatest periods in world theater.

But in those fleeting interludes when the theater flares, its flames are momentous.

Theater thrives not because it’s “professional” first, but because it generates a passion that can infect and affect an audience. Ancient Athens had a slave economy, while Elizabethan England was hardly a bastion of democratic egalitarianism. Yet somehow, in those hothouses, audiences of completely different stations in life, of wildly varied backgrounds, sat next to each other and regarded those particular stories, told in those particular times, to be their stories.

That’s all that matters. Everything else is nonsense.

There’s far too much strategizing right now for any sensible prescriptions to see us through the crisis with Actors’ Equity Association. West Coast influence appears to have unseated the union’s incumbent president – itself, a rare turn-of-events. Furthermore, Los Angeles now has at least a few advocates inside the union administration. Meanwhile, attorneys are preparing possible lawsuits against the union. This is all largely a replay of the crisis of almost 30 years ago.

The only prescriptions I can offer with certainty come from director Peter Brook: “Never let the bureaucrats dictate your artistic goals,” and, “Creativity does not follow funding.”

L.A. town hall meeting in February about AEA’s then-proposed changes to the 99-Seat Plan. Photo by Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times.

In fact, it’s the reverse: Funding follows creativity. “Money can only ever follow your aspiration, and therefore you need to use all the creative juices that you have in you to do the impossible,” director Stephen Daldry once said.

With that counsel in mind, it’s imperative that our union actors be permitted to continue working in our smaller theaters, our incubators, in situations that are financially workable for the theaters, or we will go the way of San Francisco and Chicago, where AEA policies and contracts have created a bifurcation between the few larger union houses and a rabble of non-Equity smaller theaters. Contracts such as the Bay Area Policy Project (BAPP) and the Bay Area Theatres (BAT) force non-profit intimate theaters into for-profit models. Small theaters there are compelled to grow, not on the basis of their revenue or income, or artistic goals, but simply on the basis of a ticking clock. In this regard, the union is disconnected from the financial realities of rent increases, of gentrification and funding contingencies, and the rising costs of putting on plays, let alone the reason why theaters choose to put on plays at all.

Equity’s Darwinian policies have cost these fine theater cities their creative edge. Chicago’s Equity actors have been fleeing to Los Angeles for the past decade, in order to work, because squeezing its members out of smaller theaters does not necessarily provide contract employment in the larger theaters on any significant scale. It merely suffocates the theater culture.

If Actors Equity is too weary to administrate a 99-Seat Theater Plan here, and in those other cities, with actor stipends related to a theater’s size and a production’s budget, as so many of its members have suggested and overwhelmingly voted for, perhaps it’s too weary to be in the union business, and should simply rest on its laurels of 1919.

Because, for the past several decades, the policies and contracts offered by AEA that disassociate and dislocate the union from smaller theaters – starting with off-off Broadway and now reaching west to Los Angeles — have been systematically transforming the American theater into a desolate landscape of artistically fatigued and financially strained factories called regional theaters, and washing its hands of the rest.

I have two fantasies: One is to see as many union actors as possible on our intimate stages. It’s a selfish fantasy. The work these actors do is thrilling, particularly in such close confines. But my second fantasy is the opposite of the first, that our intimate theater scene will deflate, not because it’s administrated out of existence by the union, but because there’s so much contract work in mid-size and larger theaters, the smaller theaters operating under some kind of 99-Seat Plan can no longer find the union talent available. That would be a miracle entailing a cultural revolution. I see no such Utopian future on the horizon, just as there was never a halcyon past.

Crisis will always be with us, and our community’s recent turn of events has shown that embracing crisis can have a galvanizing influence. Through crisis, we can re-invent ourselves, affirm our purpose, and build a theater culture in what was once a barren desert. That’s the work we’ve started, and it’s far from over.

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.