The Road From Here: Lawrence Pressman Responds to the Pro99 Alternative Intimate Theater Plan

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[dropcap]I[/dropcap] am a proud Equity (AEA) member. I got my card in 1961, my first Union. I am not a producer. I am also a plaintiff in the current suit against Equity.

The Pro99, actor-generated proposal (as an alternative to AEA’s new 99-Seat Agreement) is available here, and its details are clearly stated there. I certainly support most of that proposal, as Equity’s current proposal going into effect in December seems like Solomon dividing the baby and clearly killing the child rather than thinking of the overall welfare of that child (and allowing it to live and grow into a flowering, creative, and life-affirming adult).

We, as LA actors — and dare I say, artists — are at a crossroads. On the one hand, we do want change, and on the other, we need to question if Equity’s sweeping plan is a change that would take a sword to the child in Solomon’s tale, when an embrace might be more needed and ultimately productive. Like many actors in the community, I have felt Equity has acted in a high-handed and dictatorial fashion. I don’t expect everyone reading this to agree with me on this. But I do ask that we not follow and mirror the national election cycle and rather try — hard — to listen to the other and, like in the creating of our Constitution, rely on the arts of diplomacy and compromise while these issues are discussed.

The Pro99 actors’ proposal is a step in that direction and, though imperfect (like our Constitution), it is a living, breathing set of proposals designed to get Equity back to a negotiating position — to listen to its local members, our Advisory Referendum numbers (67% rejected the predecessor of AEA’s plan), and not simply feel we have been dictated to by Equity’s National Board, treated as “those unruly local actors.” It was, after all, a group of unruly local actors that created Equity in May of 1913 in the first place.

I believe LA actors should be looking to take back our union in this town, in this region, and at this time. That means our recognition that this community of actors is a unique one — and that both our local Equity council and the National Board seemed not to be open to the sort of heartfelt consideration of that uniqueness when they imposed their very restrictive and, I believe, ultimately stultifying Plan. The Pro99 plan offers a series of practical changes. I don’t agree with all of them.

A. I think the budget caps are reasonable, but should be open to perhaps further study as to the economic impact on varying size companies and on the communities in which they’re based (restaurants, small businesses) — studies I believe should have been done by Equity more thoroughly before they presented their plan. But as there are still government agencies weighing in on all manner of issues such as actors as independent contractors, volunteerism, and the reciprocity among unions as to whether or not SAG-AFTRA/non-Equity actors would be allowed to work in non-Equity productions (what ever happened to Taft-Hartley?). Therefore, it becomes hard to make a meaningful set of changes to these budget caps and guidelines. This is another reason why, again, Equity should hear this Proposal in the good faith in which it is being offered.

B. I think the number of performances before going to minimum wage is too low. I would think 30 to 35 is a more realistic number. As I’ve stated, as I am not a producer and math not a good subject of mine, I am more than willing to listen to other, more informed, brains, such as those actors who can also produce. (It does appear that self-producing meets with Equity’s approval, as it does with mine, but possibly for different reasons. I think it’s a specialized skill, and doing it ourselves might give us actors some real-time knowledge as to what producers actually do, other than look worried and harried. I fear Equity may be using its Self Producing exception in a negative and divisive way, a “dog whistle” that actors will hear and awaken age-old fox and henhouse fears. I hope I’m wrong.)

C. I always want more rehearsal time, as much as possible. Under economic pressure, cuts in rehearsal time under higher level contracts often rob the actor the proper amount of gestation period. Under certain NY contracts, particularly with new works, you preview a lot, and rehearse every day — not one of Equity’s finer negotiations, in my opinion, but emphasizing the fact that in modern showbiz (a term I hate), Equity too often has been in the biz part, without a real grasp of the show part, an analogy I hope is not lost as it pertains to Pro99’s current situation.

D. We need a longer guarantee that whatever plan finally goes into effect be at least five years. It will help all of us to see what works and what doesn’t, and give us some modicum of continuity. And make no mistake, no company — including and maybe especially membership companies — is safe from the whims of Equity in this regard. It is an ever-present threat to all theatres seeking to continue producing under Equity’s so called 99-seat agreement. Personally, I haven’t yet agreed to anything and won’t until I feel Equity cares to sit down with the local actor-generated Pro99 proposal, and at the least hear us out.

E. Money! I’m afraid to call it stipend, remuneration, receipt counted compensation, etc., because so much legally has yet to be decided by various government agencies and legalities. But let’s be honest and say whatever we call it, the need for fair compensation for our work has fueled this situation from the beginning. But let’s make sure that fair also includes a realistic assessment of how that applies here.

On Broadway — where currently some shows are making billions of dollars, while Equity minimums remain fairly stagnant as far as a lot of my friends in NYC are concerned — I wonder in that kind of profit margin why Equity has not applied more stringent measures (a general walkout comes readily to mind). And yet nationally, the union’s hyper-strict, acidic, and damaging rules have been forced upon LA’s 99-seat theatres where profit margins in almost all theatres I have worked in are non-existent. Why are musicals touring all over this company with non-Equity actors, and Equity has failed to stop or sanction them?

Which brings me to my close.

99-seat theatre came into being because actors need to act. (You can substitute perform, create, or whatever for act, but really, actors need to act.) Eventually that need, coming out of the caves and acting out their stories in front of a fire, might be transformed and refined into a craft, and if we do it well enough and give it enough attention and imagination, maybe every so often it turns into art. Wherever acting is on our personal scales, I will not be satisfied with one-set shows with five characters or big cast inadequately rehearsed, and under-nourished classics — nor a reduction to “living room” or “backyard” theatre. None of these should ever be our steady diet, or our only choice, just because of money. We have something bigger in us.

I have feared, from the start of this conflict, the incalculable loss to young people coming out of schools with no place to put their talents to the test, and to young playwrights who can’t get their plays produced (or even hear some experienced actors read their work). Or, to other actors of all ages who — in pursuing their necessities — feel their artistic souls slightly wither and crave sun, air, and water for them.

I fear young actors are becoming more loathe to join unions for fear they will not work. A young actor friend of mine in Chicago, where some of the Equity houses he feels are closed shops, has so far chosen not to join Equity, so he can gain some real experience: his need to act.

In the long game, might a 99-Seat Plan, where he can really dig in and work out his talents, move him closer to Equity and not keep him at a distance?

I come from Kentucky, and there is a Shaker settlement there. The Shakers were a sect that didn’t allow procreation, so they died off. They left a nice little group of buildings, some beautiful craftsman furniture (which is highly prized), and became a tourist attraction. But they died off because they didn’t go forward by finding some sort of balance for their society.

I believe that Equity, using this Pro99 alternate proposal, should sit down again with LA actors — yeah, us, the ones who actually live and work here and don’t just fly in from NYC to oversee our progress — and, yes, seek to restore to LA 99-seat theatre the balance that is teetering so dangerously close to collapse.

We must not die off.

For another perspective on the Pro99 alternative intimate theater plan, read this piece by Tom Buderwitz.

Lawrence Pressman

Lawrence Pressman

Lawrence Pressman is an American actor.