Spokes & Mirrors by Steven Leigh Morris

After the Fall, 2016: The U.S. on November 9, and the L.A. Theater on December 15: An Attempt at an Inspiring Message

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[dropcap]It’s[/dropcap] so easy to draw comparisons between our 21st century incarnation of the L.A. theater Equity Waiver Wars and this dumpster fire of a national election that I’ll try to avoid platitudes, and will resort instead to some mild vulgarity.

“Like crapping a pineapple” is a description I recently heard about the election, which is much the same agony of trying to find common ground between the dueling incentives of the Pro99 and AEA camps, between those of theater art and theater commerce.

Let’s try something a bit more upbeat for a moment: This week, in its 2017 edition just released, the travel guidebook, Lonely Planet, named Los Angeles as the most desirable of U.S. cities to visit. (The guidebook also names L.A. as the third most desirable city to visit worldwide.) Among the reasons, according to Lonely Planet Editorial Director Tom Hall: “With more museums and theaters than any other U.S. city, L.A. has been gaining steam as a cultural destination.”

To give credit where due, the reason that L.A. has more theaters than any U.S. city is largely the determination and discipline of the thousands of actors here who created and sustain those theaters, largely under the 99-Seat Plan and its antecedents.

I hear the call from the wild that’s been echoing for the past 20 years, from multiple sources: “Too many theaters! How will audiences know what to see? All those theaters keep the quality down!”

This is like complaining that a city has too many restaurants. “How will diners know where to eat?” And does anybody actually believe that shuttering half of the bistros in L.A. would improve the quality of the food among the rest?

Then there’s the “too much supply for not enough demand” trope, which is closer to accurate — let’s say halfway there. Too much supply was never a problem. The lack of demand, or the lack of audiences, is apt, having to do with a theater scene that remains largely invisible to the public. There are eight million residents in L.A. County. If local theater could get just 1/2% of those residents into our theaters, there wouldn’t be an empty seat region-wide throughout the year. That’s half of the heavy-lifting we have for the next ten years. But theaters of 50 to 100 seats are not going to pay their bills, or provide actors a living wage, just from the box office. Not if they’re doing new plays or the lesser-known classics that give so many of our theaters their street-cred.

So how do all these actors and playwrights and designers and directors and even producers sustain themselves, amidst all the apathy and poverty?

Some peeved Tweeter from @99Blacklist wrote earlier this week:


Oh, thanks. If only I’d realized before how simple the choice is. I’m either for them eating, or against them? What was I thinking?

I was actually thinking of how many playwrights across America, even great playwrights, make a living from the stage. You can count them on one hand, even if you’re missing a couple of fingers. For actors, it’s not much better. Anywhere on Earth. Even in a city proclaimed by Lonely Planet to be the third most desirable to visit. In the world.

Am I alone in finding the arguments between the pro-union policy advocates, like @99Blacklist, and their Pro99 detractors (who remain pro-union in general), to be increasingly circular and wearisome? Will the court’s verdict on Ed Asner’s lawsuit against the union (for the way it dismantled the 99-Seat Plan despite a 2/3 vote of the local membership to keep it) never come? Will the voters’ verdict on November 8 never come? What do these two campaigns have in common?

The issue is fairness, isn’t it? In both the national election and in the AEA dispute.

I recently saw a strongly produced musical at a 1,800-seat theater, under AEA’s guest artist contract. There were three union actors, and the other three were not. Under the terms of the contract, the three union actors rehearsed for two weeks and performed for three — receiving just shy of $600/week, minus income taxes. So in one month of this fleeting employment, they received an estimated net pay just shy of $2k, which would about cover one month’s rent in the neighborhood of that theater, not counting groceries, gas, car insurance and health insurance, and on, and on — not to mention food and shoes for children. Living wage? The 10% of union stage actors who work on local stages in any given week find employment for, on average nationally, 16 weeks/year, according to Equity’s own figures. If actors aren’t working jobs beyond the stage, they’re already homeless. Is this fair?

Platitude alert: California funding for the arts is fifth from the bottom in the nation. Could that have something to do with why this musical theater company, leasing this 1,800-seat theater, even with these pauper-scale payments to artists, just underwent restructuring, contorting itself to find a viable, commercial business model, in order to afford putting on another season of musicals?

Performing beside the three AEA actors, literally side-by-side, were three non-union actors, who rehearsed for five weeks (two weeks more than their AEA counterparts), for a stipend of $750 each for the entire run. Given the news that they rehearsed evenings only, I estimated their hourly rate to be somewhere between $3 and $4/hour.

I tried to imagine how they can call the union actors employees and the non-union actors contractors, when they revealed similar talents and performed similar tasks on the same stage. One of these performers, I learned, had been in Equity, but allowed the union membership to lapse, tried to get back in, and was denied. The sentence following the verdict of neglect: Sing for your supper. Did somebody say we were fighting for fairness?

So who, exactly, wants L.A. artists to make a living wage, and who doesn’t? I thought this was simple.

At least under the late, lamented and problematic 99-Seat Plan, all of the actors were volunteers. They were all imagined to have been created equal, and treated equally, because their incentive for volunteering was uniformly understood — the need for actors to act, in a city with excess of 100,000 actors, if you stir in the SAG-AFTRA and non-union crews. That sheer number of actors — contrasted against the lack of arts funding — simply doesn’t come close, in the ecosystem it generates, to any other U.S. city. Please, please stop comparing theater in L.A. to that in Minneapolis. It just isn’t fair.

The complaints of unfairness under the 99-Seat Plan had to do with volunteer actors juxtaposed against paid staff and designers, directors, sometimes producers, and other money-grubbers in the Versailles-like, gold-plated halls of 99-seat theater — producers who (according to a quip by producer Gregory Crafts) “rest their heads at night on satin pillows stuffed by the tears of actors’ broken dreams.”

At the risk of resorting to some platitudes I’d pledged to avoid, the resentment of many Trump supporters — swaths of aggrieved white males living in largely struggling rural areas — has to do with their feeling marginalized, their being undereducated and underemployed or, if older, having seen their professions dissolve or be outsourced, their value diminished, their pain either ignored or disparaged on Facebook and Twitter, on New York talk shows and Hollywood sitcoms — while the rent of even a studio apartment in New York or Hollywood seems, justifiably, like lunacy to them. And so they seethe, largely forgotten in America’s rural counties, with little hope for improving their station. Being disregarded like that could bring anyone to a post-depression boiling point. You start attacking anybody who, even incrementally, has a leg up, or seems to. Facts become almost irrelevant, while Facebook, which only shows you what you already like, becomes a yellow wall of bile.

Trump didn’t create the consequent diminishment of rationality and discourse across our nation. He exposed it by exploiting half-truths, and lies. He wooed lost tribes out from under the tents of civility.

Life has always been unfair. This is a timeless, universal truth that Trump brought into stark counterpoint against the Great American Promise that anyone can win the lottery. As though life’s unfairness were only a contemporary American truth, brought about by Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. As though Black people, or Muslims, or undocumented immigrants, or women, were actually the cause of their woes.

I began to observe the diminishment in the quality of discourse in local theater discussions about ten years ago, though it probably pre-dated that. I’m referring to the emergence and elevation of personal attacks against people, rather than against the policies they espouse — particularly on social media, and amplified during the AEA/Pro99 dispute.

And yes, the entire, toxic, exhausting conversation about Equity and its discontents couldn’t be further removed from the quixotic principle of L.A.’s artists earning a living wage on local stages. The entire conversation is framed as a discussion about fairness when it’s actually almost entirely about poverty: the declining, perceived value of the performing arts outside of New York City, and of the media accurately reflecting a culture that now fails to give much thought, let alone funding, to the arts. Our profession, as a profession — all of our professions in the performing arts — are going the way of the video store, and of the newspaper, and of the symphony orchestra, and of the opera, and perhaps of television — given the newly released data on declining ratings even for professional sports. This is simply part of the ebbs and floes of changing technologies in contemporary culture.

And this demonstrates not that we’re monstrous, but that we, too, are a part of the American culture that values people and activities for what they own, and what they earn, increasingly to the exclusion of all other values. And this was always the embodiment of all that Donald Trump represents — the debasement of history, of reflection, of introspection — all of the money-losing qualities that great theater and great art ensnare. Trumpism, like most of America, no longer has the time of day for us.

Yet we in the theater, at least partly, have also been crawling around in the cellar, like termites, slowly eating the structures of civility that protect us from the elements, from barbarism. We, too, are subject to the torments laid bare when wealth trickles up, and perceived opportunity wanes.

“In 2016, we’re beginning to resemble an actual entity,
a cauldron of passion and intelligence, where theaters
talk to each other, and attend and support each other’s performances…”

The question confronting us is what, precisely, we should do about that — about being kicked to the lower rung of the American value system? At least in the 1960s, there was the pretense (and the funding to back it up), that the National Endowment for the Arts and the Ford Foundation’s support of regional theaters was a noble investment. As Gordon Davidson said in 2011, “Those days are gone.”

Actors’ Equity Association continues to operate under the early 20th century presumption that it is fighting, like the AFL-CIO of which it is a part, for something akin to the rights of steel workers against the piracy of factory owners. The contrasts between industrial workers and artists aside, that very assumption is at least five eras removed from the realities of Los Angeles theater, and of theater anywhere outside of New York City, in the 21st century. AEA’s gaze is upon a fixed star, and its behaviors resemble a series of grudge matches against those who may have an alternative view.

So what will happen on December 15, when AEA’s new contract is scheduled to be implemented? Over sixty L.A. theaters have pledged that they will stick to the old plan until the court orders them to do otherwise. That’s fine for them, unless the court rules against them. The people most hurt by the new union contract will be AEA members themselves, whose opportunities to act — the very reason they advocated for the 99-Seat Plan in 1988 — and to enjoy the health and safety protections that accompany those opportunities, will be curtailed. Union actors in membership companies will simply wait for the second shoe to drop, when after a few years, the union announces its “promulgated plan” to eliminate the membership company permission, just as it eliminated the 99-Seat Plan.

Local AEA actors will have to make tortuous and deeply personal decisions about their continuing relationship with their union. They will have to gamble on their ability to find what’s obviously scant work in union-sanctioned mid-size or larger theaters, doing no stage work while they search, or they will cast their lot with the smaller theaters and bid farewell to their coveted union memberships. Obviously, these smaller theaters that once used on average 50% union actors will be populating their shows with non-AEA talent — that outcome is already in process. Meanwhile, a habit from days of yore will inevitably return: union actors will work under the terms of the new agreement, then kick back their wages to the theaters as part of an a priori agreement. The union may not be concerned by this, since they can take credit for more “work weeks” under such an arrangement, even though the statistic will be meaningless.

College graduates from places like UCLA and CalArts, two institutions responsible for the creation of numerous local theater companies with AEA members — from Actors’ Gang to Theatre of NOTE — will no longer have any financial incentive to create new companies with AEA members.

All of which is a kind of diminishment of our cultural destination that Lonely Planet holds in such high regard. And just when we were “gaining steam.” As the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle re-stated last week, the new AEA agreement’s cost to local businesses will be incalculable.

That said, we owe AEA a debt of gratitude. In over 30 years of observing the L.A. theater scene, I’ve never seen this community as bonded as it is now, by sheer indignation against the way AEA’s administration and National Board have behaved and thrust their wildly unpopular contract upon their obviously unwilling local membership. Our community may be at loose ends, and exhausted, but the union “kerfuffle” in L.A. (to quote AEA’s Executive Director Mary McColl) has revealed the underlying passion, introspection, and rigor of artists researching, articulating and then advocating for what they do, and why they do it. This is the first step towards building what’s now been dubbed a cultural destination. Yes, picking up steam. It’s not just policies but people who will be the salvation of our theater, people who have defied the cliché of actors — who are supposed to be vainglorious, oblivious, and solipsistic. Our community of stage actors has revealed precisely the opposite of those traits.

We were in 1989 a somewhat motley assemblage of tribes. In 2016, we’re beginning to resemble an actual entity, a cauldron of passion and intelligence, where theaters talk to each other, and attend and support each other’s performances. This did not always occur. Center Theatre Group is now funding and/or producing local theater companies. All of this is the groundwork for the kind of integrated marketing, branding, and publicity essential to reaching some of those eight million L.A. County residents, beyond the usual cadre of theater-makers. This is the groundwork not just for a city with many theaters, but for a theater scene.

And this is why I am not disheartened at the prospect of our future. Some companies, I think of Independent Shakespeare Company, have already found ways to attract city residents to the park through their free, outdoor performances. A Noise Within and 24th Street Theatre continue to engage schoolchildren with the works they stage and/or tour. Ghost Road Company is the latest entry at the Greek-classics-oriented Getty Villa amphitheater. These are encouraging signs.

Underlying all of this is a kind of defiance — first against the policies of one union, but ultimately against the value system of the larger culture that keeps insisting that our theater, most theater, has no authentic reason to be, because it’s less than a commodity.

Theater is like a poem, or a sliver of choreography, or a song created in the shower. Presenting it in public will almost always cost more than it will return. It always has. In so doing, it holds the capacity to speak to and about whatever torment or silliness makes us human, in whatever evolving forms that takes. And sometimes that revelation, living and breathing on some stage, captures a child’s heart and changes lives.

And if it takes two years to create, we have the companies who will find a way to invest that time. And if it takes two weeks, we can do that, too.

We’re far from perfect, but from what I’ve observed over the years, and of late, we’re on the way to becoming a large, extended family. And if we remain vigilant, cognizant of our larger purposes, and if we don’t eat each other alive, we have the talent and the temperament to become a kind of dynasty. I hope so.

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.