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.

War and Peace. Rebecca Metz, on Actors’ Equity Association and Its Plan for L.A.

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Steven Leigh Morris: Things have gone very quiet in the past couple of months. You’d almost think that nothing is happening.

Rebecca Metz: There’s a lot of anger, in the older generation particularly. Personally, I can’t function holding that much anger. My goal is to get the union to see that we’re reasonable, and for us to see that they’re reasonable. Two weeks ago, [I was in a meeting] with Gail Gabler, Mary McColl [and others]. I have been having a text conversation with Mary McColl, we’ve had a good, civil conversation. She said, “Kate and I are going to be in town, I want you to choose six people and [we can] have a conversation.” It was Kate’s idea. So I chose a sampling of experience — [representatives from] membership companies, non-membership companies… I bring it up because I think Kate is a humanizing and reasonable element, and not necessarily at [anybody’s] mercy, the way some people perceive.

SLM: What was resolved?

RM: In the meeting? Nothing. Their position is that they can’t see changing their plan before implementing it, because implementing it is the only way they’ll know if it works. They’re not interested at all in talking about the process that got us here, whether or not is was fair or smart or productive. They’re at the point of, “This is what council passed.” At this point Equity expects to be sued. At this point, we need to be clear what we’re fighting for.

SLM: What are we fighting for?

RM: We’re fighting for Equity actors to be able to participate in Los Angeles intimate theater in a way that honors the legacy of what Los Angeles intimate theater is and has developed into, and that honors what it means to be a union member.

SLM: This is a cause that exists nowhere else in the country.

RM: It’s been pre-empted everywhere else in the country.

SLM: The union says it wants L.A. in compliance with everywhere else in the country. Its National Council, which represents everywhere else in the country, overruled L.A.’s clarion opposition on this issue. So what’s there to talk about? Why would it not be better to stop talking and just sue them for, I don’t know, defying the clear wishes of the local membership? That’s why people here are so angry. They’re not freaks. They’re right. The union said they were listening when they weren’t. What’s to talk about? What’s to trust?

Rebecca Metz
Rebecca Metz

RM: Equity has to come up with ways to address the trust issue, because it’s a huge obstacle. I don’t know that [suing them] would be better. I personally am not interested in suing anybody. I can’t speak for others. I will say I think it will behoove us to find every way we possibly can to resolve this directly with the union.

SLM: How can you resolve this directly with a union that is refusing to acknowledge or discuss the breaches of trust that got us here?

RM: In the conversations I have had, with various councilors and staff, it’s become clear to me that there’s a big difference between an individual and an organization. There are definitely some individuals who recognize the trust issue and the legitimacy of its origins. But, you know, so I guess that’s the answer to the question. We have to find those individuals, and keep getting those individuals elected, who can have those conversations repeatedly — because for Equity to recognize that is going to take some time. I’m interested in the long game — to get councilors and members to really understand how 99-seat theater works. You know, the L.A. membership has some responsibility for not having done this all this time.

(pause)

SLM: Rebecca, do you honestly believe — given their predilection for 1.) trying to force L.A. theater into compliance with their model in other cities, and 2.) their failure to acknowledge what the result of that referendum meant, the scale of passion that was so united against their plan that they now insist they have to give a trial run? To see if it will work? At what cost? I understand how people would feel that negotiating at this point is a Sisyphean task, and why they’re so angry. It wasn’t just a breach of trust, it was an entirely imperious dismissal of a clear, democratically and thunderously expressed view from Los Angeles, that was based on local experience and the evolution of a cultural scene here for over a quarter century. I can see why people would feel that going back now and having friendly chats is so pointless. And you answer, hey, there are some nice individuals who do understand?

RM: But I also answer, there are several communities: Equity members, actors and stage managers who are non-Equity, people involved in theater in all sorts of ways, who would never be covered by Equity, and it’s easy to say “Burn the house down” when it’s not your union. I’m an Equity member and I have no intention of quitting. I need to find a way to resolve this internally. Because, in spite of this issue, I totally support the principle of Equity and the work it has done over the course of its history.

I think some of the tension over tactics has to do with that. I’ve heard lots of people say, “Screw that union, walk away.” That’s not so easy for people who are in the union. There are a lot of people who have said, “Burn the house down, but I’m not in Equity so I can’t do anything.” And it’s a hard line to walk — to not allow that to divide the community, but at the same time to recognize that there are valid differences of perspective. I can’t sustain being that angry for so long, it’s just too draining.

I kind of look at this as an actor — it’s not useful to me to frame someone as a villain and say they’re doing it because they’re evil or they want to destroy 99-seat theater — that doesn’t make sense. My job is to put myself into the shoes of people I disagree with, and to try to understand them better. They genuinely believe that what they’re doing is best for L.A., just as we genuinely believe that what we want is best for L.A. They’re being very forthcoming about their priorities. I think it’s possible to do this in a way that addresses their priorities and addresses ours.

SLM: What are their priorities?

RM: They want more contract weeks for union actors, and a policy they can defend nationally. Kate, she’s not phased, I don’t think she’s going to be easily intimidated in any direction. She and Mary have both said [the union’s plan] is what has been passed, and this is what’s going to be implemented.

SLM: Are you okay with that?

RM: Nope.

SLM: So in this new plan, you’re in a membership company, and you are talking about a union that is endorsing membership companies where all labor, health and safety protections have been removed by the union as a kind of punishment of their actors willing to work for less than minimum wage. That seems like a terrible position for a union to place its own members in.

RM: That issue is perhaps the most polarizing of this entire discussion. It doesn’t exist anywhere else…

SLM: Speaking of being in conformity with other cities…

RM: Yes, those protections are really important to me. And [taking them away] seems clearly like a step in the wrong direction.

SLM: Do you think it’s possible to walk this backwards?

RM: For Equity to walk it back? Depends how far back? I think it’s harder without concrete objectives.

“Relentlessly speaking truth
to power works — eventually.”

SLM: How do you argue for more contract weeks, and argue at the same time for the right of actors to work for stipends between jobs?

RM: That’s what [newly elected councilor] Jeff Marlowe put into play. What we need is a bridge up to a minimum wage contract. That’s what we’re missing. The answer to how to get to more contract work is building bridges from small stipends to minimum wage and up.

SLM: Yes, that’s what Marlowe has proposed, and [Open Fist Theatre Company Artistic Director] Martha Demson a year before that. They’ve been shouting about bridge contracts and tiered contracts for 18 months now. And it’s all been resolutely ignored by AEA. I see why people are losing patience. Am I wrong? In the time this has gone quiet, has there been any shift on the union’s part towards bridge contracts?

RM: Nope.

SLM: They just want to try their policy.

RM: Yes.

(pause)

SLM: Why are you still talking to them?

RM: Not talking with them will lead nowhere. To explain to you, I want to avoid any sense of negotiating with them.

SLM: You’re not a negotiator.

RM: No, I’m just trying to facilitate communication. If someone has a question, I want there to be someone I can ask, and be able to ask without it being fraught. I’m not negotiating anything, and I have no interest in negotiating anything. I’m an actor.

SLM: So what’s to be done?

RM: It sounds simplistic and Pollyannaish, but I think we have to let it play out. The people who are enraged have to decide what they’re going to do with that rage. We have to let the people who believe in the long game and internal processes work on that. Let Kate and the newly elected council get established, and see what impact they may have. The idea that this is what they passed and it’s not going to change is silly. Everything changes eventually. It’s just a question of where and when.

Peace and War, by Pompeo Girolamo Batoni. Oil on canvas, 1776
Peace and War, by Pompeo Girolamo Batoni. Oil on canvas, 1776

SLM: Can we afford to let them give this a test drive?

RM: Probably depends on who you ask. Some people want to go back to the old 99-seat plan. Most people don’t. And that means we need to figure out what to do instead. And that has to lead the question about how to get there.

We need to know what we’re fighting for, not just what we’re fighting against. So when we’re thinking about tactics, we have to think about tactics that are going to get us to where we want to be, not just general ways to fight.

A lot of it has to do with acknowledging economic models that are different from what they are in New York — that’s another big bone of contention: We hear everywhere that Equity is a national union, when it still feels very much like a New York union with national jurisdiction. So part of this fight is about getting to policies that work for the places they’re impacting.

Their actor-producer conflict thing is a perfect example of that. Everyone in Los Angeles knows that you have to create your own content to get seen. To treat that like a problem is just a denial of the realities that we’re all working in. If you lock hyphenates [actor-directors, actor-producers] out of everything, you’re going to have nobody left.

SLM: In dealing with our community, do you feel it’s wiser to bring everyone together in the same room, or to work in smaller committees?

RM: It depends. We’ve had a couple of events that bring people together, but it’s also a hot mess. To actually get things done, smaller groups are more effective.

SLM: Are you finding yourself at odds with others in the community?

RM: A little… a little. There’s enough free-floating frustration that some of it’s going to get directed at me. Today of all days [This interview was conducted on the day the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that gay couples have the right to marry, across the nation], relentlessly speaking truth to power works — eventually. And it’s not because of a lawsuit.

(pause)

SLM: Actually it was because of a lawsuit. That’s why it was in front of the Supreme Court.

RM: Yes, that’s true, but it’s a lawsuit that wouldn’t have had a chance in hell without all the stuff that went before it. The thing that changed the tide in marriage equality is when straight people realized it was affecting them — family members, people they love being denied basic human rights.

I think a lot of what we can do is speak to people who are not in L.A., and saying that this is about being allowed to create between the times that you’re being paid to create, and just acknowledging that’s the meaning of being a professional artist, and that this is about changing a professional artists’ organization to recognize that reality.

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