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.

Goodbye, 2016: Snowflakes in the Desert

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by STEVEN LEIGH MORRIS

It’s been a terrible year, by every standard that snowflakes hold dear.

You don’t have to live in the Atlantic northeast or in the mountains of California to be a snowflake. You can live anywhere, even where it doesn’t snow. Nor is it requisite that you be a flake of any kind. You just have to cherish some values written into our Declaration of Independence. And you have to be willing to argue for those values.

Here’s one: The consent of the governed.

How about another? All people are created equal, and have unalienable rights such as life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Is there any ambiguity here, that the very reason this nation was founded — the inscribed, theoretical setup (so often betrayed in practice) — was to allow people of all shapes and stripes to have the opportunity to pursue happiness in whatever form that takes — building a real estate empire, or running for city council, or feeding the poor, or snowboarding, or joining a Benedictine monastery in Valyermo, California. For others, it might be putting on a money-losing play. Losing money probably doesn’t contribute to much happiness, but sometimes that’s the cost of the higher virtue, the truer pursuit of happiness: putting on the play.

This opportunity — now under siege by a weird alignment of politics and the actions of one labor union to restrict opportunities for its stage actors in Los Angeles — is also the bedrock of the fragile, liberal democracies, such as ours, that are now in the midst of a global, tectonic shift. And the plight of Los Angeles theater in the cusp between 2016 and 2017 is very much a part of that shift. That a labor union, rather than a government, is actively trying to stifle artistic opportunity that’s flourished for 30 years embodies the kind of inside-out irony that has characterized this entire election cycle.

One union, Actors’ Equity Association, seeks to constrict from its own members the right to pursue their happiness — not individually but collectively, under the phony pretense of a promulgated new contract, and the supposition that actors volunteering in money-losing plays restrict the rights of other actors to make their living from Los Angeles theater. Actors making a living in Los Angeles theater has never happened, by the way, even before the 99-Seat Plan. The Plan allowing union actors to volunteer with expense reimbursements was created by actors and reluctantly sanctioned by AEA as a response to the lack of opportunity to pursue happiness. Has that opportunity suddenly returned when no one was looking? What was the real reason for killing this Plan? No other labor union, under such circumstances — from SAG-AFTRA to the Machinists Union — has placed such restrictions on its members and has so belligerently put an entire eco-system, built over decades, at risk — and done so against the clearly stated will of its own voting membership.

For 30 years in Los Angeles, this pursuit of happiness has benefitted not only the actors who fought for the right to put on and be in such plays, but also the playwrights whose new works were performed by our top-tier actors, thus providing their plays the traction to travel to larger theaters and to other cities. No more. The economics of putting on new plays with Equity actors under the new contract will, in most instances, no longer pencil out.

Perhaps the most important opportunities provided by the now bludgeoned 99-Seat Plan was the quality of the local culture for the audiences who attended the tens of thousands of performances staged here over the decades. The number and quality of those performances will now inevitably be diminished.

There was ample opportunity to find a more reasonable remedy to the problems cited by a handful of peevish actors unable to find contract work in larger theaters; and therefore, perversely, for their woes, they blamed the smaller theaters and their “greedy producers” — the very producers who actually gave them a stage to work on. The only people exploiting actors under this Plan were the landlords. And the abject failure of the perpetually aggrieved to differentiate between the motives of producers in money-losing theaters, and of the landlords who continue to laugh all the way to the bank, is just the latest example of how ignorance and invention prevail in our increasingly authoritarian culture. Meanwhile, this increasingly authoritarian union was not and is not interested in even discussing alternatives to its own ill-conceived designs.

In this Brave New World, when the U.S. President-elect is already attacking union leaders and unionism in general, Actors’ Equity Association, with its inimitable lack of foresight, flexibility and empathy, couldn’t have found a more impolitic time to enrage its own membership in its second largest market. I do fear this stubborn indifference to “the consent of the governed” will haunt this union, along with the more noble principles of unionism, once the real union-busters, now assuming the mantle of power in Washington D.C., start marching across the country next year.

I know it’s not prudent for the leader of an arts service organization to express such anger, but, for me, this is a personal, empathic response. I am not a member of Actors’ Equity Association, and therefore have no dog in this hunt. (I do belong to a different, more egalitarian union, California Faculty Association, which I will defend with vigor, if needed.)

This passion comes from the apartment building I once lived in, and served for a while on its Homeowners Association (HOA) Board. When I first moved there, things were fine. Then a real estate agent moved in, was swiftly elected president, and put in place a small cadre of minions who started to skirt the bylaws (which had been conceived to promote democratic participation) in pursuit of their agenda. For example, the bylaws required a community vote on changes to “common ground,” such as the landscaping in the front of the building. One day, the president impetuously cut down two large pine trees in that front garden. There had been no vote granting him permission to do this. There had been no discussion. The reason? He found the trees unsightly. I remember arriving home and seeing the eviscerated trees, when he was still in the garden, sweating, turning over the soil with a shovel. I asked him why he had done that.

“Oh, the insurance company demanded it!” he explained. “They’re infested with termites.”

So I called the insurance company. “Oh, no,” they said. “He called us and told us he’d already cut down the trees, said they were infested, so he asked if the building could get a discount on the insurance premium. We told him, no.”

As a precursor to the Trump era, he kept repeating that he had gotten a “great discount” from the insurance company, until the lie became not only a rationalization of his renegade behavior, but its own, unanswerable truth.

For years, I had a garden in long, narrow tubs on my balcony. Suddenly, I was told that the garden violated the bylaws and that it had to come down — that my garden was “inconsistent with the aesthetics of the building,” which had no balcony plants. And so began a fractious legal battle over the right to grow tulips and hyacinths and apricot trees in containers outside my own window.

Apricot blossoms
Apricot blossoms

Yes, I grew and continue to grow apricot trees, from seed. I chill the pits over the winter. In the spring, I crack the shells, plant them, and they sprout. It’s an eccentric habit, a decades-old ritual, growing a container-orchard of living sculptures that change with the seasons and evolve, year after year, eventually flowering and bearing fruit. This is one in a stream of my money-losing pursuits of happiness, serving almost no practical purpose.

This is why I have such empathy for people who want to create theater in Los Angeles, however impractical, just for the beauty of the endeavor, for the right to see what comes of it, if anything. Sometimes these things bear fruit.

So, one day, I was told that I could no longer have my garden. I was given two weeks to remove the tubs from my balcony. Nor could they be transferred to the back garden, which was “common ground,” and therefore belonged to everybody, and therefore to nobody in particular.

I am not a person who necessarily objects to being told what to do. We must all, at many points in our lives, be told to do things we don’t enjoy. But for a reason I have yet to fully comprehend, I develop a primal rage when people try to tell me what I can’t do, particularly when the banned activity is causing no harm. And this is another source of my empathy for union actors in Los Angeles who simply want to put on plays: The pursuit of happiness.

And so I refused to cooperate. Then they argued that my garden violated the fire codes, because it was situated along a commonly-used walkway outside my apartment. They called in the fire department, which told me that I could have my garden if my tubs were off the ground and attached to the balcony railings.

So that’s what I did.

My remedy, however, only escalated the neighbor war. My garden soon became a garden of spite. One day, in the cascades of flowering alyssum, I found a strategically placed dead rat. After gingerly removing the rat, I purchased and installed a security camera that was trained on my garden, which infuriated them more. And so on.

The pursuit of happiness.

The dispute was framed by the Board as the rights of “selfish individuals” versus the rights of, what I guess you could call “the union.” Which is pretty much what we’ve been dealing with this AEA dispute over the size and shape of L.A. theater. I like unions. They provide vital protections. Tyrannical unions make me boil. Tyranny in general makes me boil.

During one election, three Board members were “elected.” None of them included me, though I had run for election in a quixotic attempt to foil tyranny where I could. I had not actually attended the meeting where the results were announced. My livid next door neighbor told me that actually, there had been a tie vote between me and another candidate, but the president had selected the other candidate over me. My next door neighbor and I wrote a letter of protest to the president. He wrote back that he would not discuss this matter with a troublemaker like me, and that I could take it up with the attorney that the HOA had just hired for this purpose.

And so the attorney and I had an extended email conversation, after which he suggested that the Board, for its own legal standing, either admit me to the Board along with my tie-voted peer, or hold another election. They held another election, and I was voted onto the Board in a vote monitored like none before. One month later, as I learned of new rules they were planning to implement, in order to address yet more “problems” that didn’t actually exist, yet more arbitrary restrictions, I put my apartment up for sale. Living under such a regime just seemed pointless, even in victory, a long series of battles unworthy of any battlefield.

And this is why I now live in the mountains, where it snows.

I am a snowflake.

There is no HOA. On my deck, in planters of various sizes, sit a dozen apricot trees, of various sizes. They serve no practical purpose, except to remind me of the seasons. In the winter, their branches are barren. In the spring, their boughs are decked with delicate white-pink flowers. In summer, they bear crappy apricots. And in the fall, their leaves turn crimson. I love my orchard. It grows larger every season.

Once, a squirrel dug through the roots of one tree, destroying it. On another occasion, my Great Dane puppy picked up a large tree in his teeth and flung it around the yard. This tree, I was able to rescue and place on higher, safer ground.

A month ago, a particularly vicious Santa Ana windstorm blew six trees off their perches. I lost three of them.

Every season I lose trees, like family, like friends, with the passing of time. One learns to live with loss, and grief. The life cycle. One learns to bear loss, and to plan for the planting season, the pursuit of happiness.

Every spring, I plant more trees. Every season, I tend, water, feed. This is primal. I must grow something. It’s second nature. It’s a nature I share with my colleagues who put on plays in Los Angeles, who can’t stomach being told what they’re no longer allowed to do, and being told so for no rational, empirical reason. They’ve been growing their orchard for decades. Guys like French Stewart and Jon Lawrence Rivera and Leo Marks and Gary Grossman and Michael Shepperd; women like Frances Fisher and Vanessa Stewart and Rose Portillo. Some zealots told them to cut down their orchard for reasons that make no rational sense. Fuck that.

My friends, whether you’re in a union or not, tend your orchard. The winds have been vicious this year, and the forecast is ominous. Many trees will be felled in the season to come. Keep fighting for your orchard. It does no harm, and it provides great beauty and satisfaction. And it’s more important than you may realize. It is an anchor, a fortress of twigs against the coming winds of insanity. There is no reason in the world that you should not have your orchard. It is as harmless as a poem.

Your orchard is 30-years strong. Keep planting. The losses will be restored. Spring will come.

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