Spokes & Mirrors by Steven Leigh Morris

Actors’ Equity Association vs. Los Angeles Theater

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Now, for a moment of international perspective: The Brexit advisory referendum put to voters across Great Britain on whether to leave the European Union passed by 52% to 48% — a comparative squeaker. Even so, the British government honored the vote, however reluctantly. Even the British government, with stakes exponentially higher than Actors’ Equity Association, didn’t dare to introduce all the people who didn’t vote as a rationale for changing a result they didn’t like.

The same cannot be said of Actors’ Equity Association. With its inverted conclusion of who won its referendum, the union then made a few tweaks to its new plan, put it before its National Council, which voted it in. The union then created a “Transitional Plan” for L.A. theaters to use in the interim until its new plan kicks in. And it pronounced the 99-Seat Plan dead upon the arrival of its new plan.

Because of this, and the union’s increasingly hostile pronouncements against the opponents of its designs, local membership exploded in a rage that comes from betrayal. If you want to infuriate actors (L.A.’s current 7,000+ Equity actors constitutes the largest contingent outside of New York), give them a vote on the future of their artistic life then overrule their mandate.

So, late last year, 18 particularly enraged Equity actors (including Ed Asner, Amy Madigan, Veralyn Jones, Lawrence Pressman, French Stewart and Vanessa Stewart) filed a lawsuit against their own union, echoing the lawsuit of 1988. The latter suit (Asner versus Actors’ Equity) was based largely on the way the safety net (The Review Committee) — created to prevent exactly this kind of outcome — had been summarily ignored and then dismissed by AEA, but it also references the mishandling of the referendum.

The plaintiffs filed the lawsuit but waited on serving it, with the hope of bringing both camps together for “facilitated discussions” in Los Angeles and New York. Last week, the union announced that the talks had broken down, and that even its “Transitional Plan” will expire on December 14, 2016 — after which the union’s new plan will take effect.

Since Equity’s announcement, what had been a cone of public silence has been lifted. The union has put out three statements assailing its opponents, in an attempt to marginalize them on the national stage, and the plaintiffs’ side has responded with equal vigor.

One letter to Equity Members, signed by “Actors’ Equity Association,” describes its opponents as “a concentrated group of members and producers” and includes the following allegation: “This group has openly threatened Equity staff and Councilors and blacklisted members of their own community for speaking on behalf of fair pay.”

“There have been awful things said by people on both sides,” says Equity actor Leo Marks, who also asserts that the issue is not fair pay, or minimum wage, or a living wage. The issue is the right of professional actors to carve out their own opportunities, as entrepreneurs, in a field with rampant unemployment.

“What’s really dismaying at this stage is that [the union’s National Council] is choosing to vilify the entire L.A. community just to win their lawsuit,” says Marks. “On the one hand they’re pretending that the Pro-99 movement boils down to a concentrated group of radicals, which is demonstrably untrue. Then they’re claiming that there’s blacklisting going on by the community, which is also, simply not true.”

(To support Marks’ assertion, union actress Ann Colby Stocking has been among the most outspoken advocates of the union’s new plan, speaking in multiple forums on Equity’s behalf. She has nonetheless worked at least twice, since the referendum, under the same 99-Seat Plan that she and her union condemn. The union is very familiar with what “blacklist” means: denial of employment by a group for one’s stated views — a charge against the L.A. theater community that’s clearly refuted by the evidence.)

Adds Marks, “We stand for the same things that our fellow members across the country stand for. We don’t want to work for free. We want better pay, protections, and opportunities. The new plan strips us of opportunities, strips us of protections, and promises us better pay that those of us who have worked here know isn’t realistic: Two tangible losses for one illusory gain. That’s why we’re against it. “

It’s now highly probable that Asner versus Actors’ Equity will be served in the coming weeks. The suit — at least the way it was originally filed — demands some monetary damages, but mostly injunctions: restore the 99-Seat Plan, restore its Review Committee, restore the process to the way it was intended, and move forward in good faith.

As for the last point, if I die this week, it’s because I was holding my breath.

+ + +

Part II:
The Cultural Divide: Reverberations and Repercussions

The central offices of Actors’ Equity Association are located in New York City — heart of the nation’s theater industry. New York has a Broadway district comprised of 40 commercial theaters of 500 seats or more, the kinds of theaters that exist hardly anywhere else in the nation.

Los Angeles, for example, has only one such commercial venue, the Pantages Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard, owned by the Nederlander Organization.

Yes, it’s true, a city with almost four million people in a county with a population of over ten million has just one commercial theater that presents tours of Broadway musicals. One painful irony is that those tours are often performed by non-union actors, which puts into stark relief the economics of commercial theater outside of New York City.

There have been multiple attempts to sustain Broadway-style commercial houses in Southern California. Most have closed or sat dormant for years. The Shubert Theatre in Century City was eventually torn down. Other quasi-commercial theaters unable to sustain themselves as Broadway-style houses include the Hollywood Playhouse on Las Palmas, the Coronet Theatre on La Cienega, and, arguably, the Ricardo Montalban Theatre on Vine Street (formerly the James A. Doolittle Theatre).

Yet there are hundreds of theaters across L.A. County, thanks largely to the 99-Seat Plan, and almost all are registered non-profit 501(c)-3 (“charitable”) entities. Even seemingly commercial theaters such as Center Theatre Group (with its Ahmanson Theatre, Mark Taper Forum, and Kirk Douglas Theatre), the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood, The Pasadena Playhouse, East West Players (Little Tokyo), the Broad Stage (Santa Monica), the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts (Beverly Hills), The Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Center, The La Mirada Theatre, and beyond the county: South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, La Jolla Playhouse and The Old Globe Theatre in San Diego — these are all non-profit entities, some of which are owned by municipalities. The Ahmanson Theatre and Mark Taper Forum, for example, are governed by the county-owned Performing Arts Center of Los Angeles County (which also administers The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and Disney Hall).

And these are our big players.

To understand the cultural divide between Actors’ Equity Association and the L.A. theater community requires some comprehension of what it must be like to arrive at work, or to the theater district, on a subway, in a city of eight million people where 40 commercial theaters chug along, decade after decade — where Broadways’ biggest current hit, Hamilton, lists its top-tier tickets for $850 a pop (and that’s before the scammers get to them). The very idea of such a phenomenon occurring in Los Angeles theater redefines the term pipe dream.

To further understand the cultural divide is to grasp that America’s labor union movement was born in New York City, in reaction to the commercial culture described above.

The history of Actors’ Equity Association is the history of organizing performers and stage mangers through collective bargaining, in order to quell predatory and abusive business practices by the likes of theater owner-manager-profiteers such as the Shubert brothers at the beginning of the 20th century.

The union earned its purpose through a clear divide between profiteers and their victims. The union stood up to the profiteers and stood up for the victims — people who struggled to earn their livings in their chosen field but were consigned to poverty by business owners who made their fortunes off their workers’ backs through systems of underpayment, non-payment, etc. This is not a problem that has by any means gone away in the United States; however, it is also not a problem that has anything to do with the 99-Seat Theater Plan in Los Angeles County, as it’s been framed by Actors’ Equity Association. As has been often stated, producers under the 99-Seat Theater Plan do not, and cannot, make a profit off the actors’ backs, or off of anybody’s backs. They cannot make a profit at all. At best, or worst — depending on the point-of-view — in a few rare instances, they can draw a modest salary in institutions that are decades old. The question is, to what degree does drawing a modest salary render them “exploiters?” More on that in a moment.

AEA’s ideological template remains both fixed and fixated. And that is the template Equity has brought to Los Angeles, repeatedly. It has no bearing on people, often Equity actors themselves, running theaters at a financial loss, by design, for motives as far removed from those of the Shubert Brothers as Jupiter is from the Sun.


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.