Mar 1, 2015

Sweating Equity

The last thing I wrote about the controversy over L.A.’s Equity 99-Seat Plan, for American Theatre magazine, was more personal than the typical news report; I felt I couldn’t help but inject my own experience into a debate I’ve watched for most of my professional life. But now, after several more Facebook back-and-forths, private chats, and a thoughtful podcast with my friend Isaac Butler (which, based on the retweets and shares it’s gotten, is being perceived as more pro-Equity’s position than not), I feel the need to get even more personal about the possible end of the plan as we’ve known it--as essentially a way for union actors to lend their talent for peanuts to small theater productions in L.A.

In the podcast, Isaac spoke sympathetically about how painful it must be for Equity actors who’ve built decades of work, and forged much of their artistic identities, via this largely non-remunerative-workaround scene to have their own union now come along and say, “Oh, that work you’ve been doing all these years? Sorry--not real work, illegitimate amateur vanity bullshit, shouldn’t have happened, won’t happen again.” If I'm honest, though I myself only ever appeared in three 99-seat productions in my two decades in L.A. (as a musician and/or music director), I can't help taking this diss personally, as well. I have a lot more skin in the game than may seem clear at first glance (even to me).

Yes, I’ve written about how formative the small theaters of L.A. were to my theatergoing taste and sensibility, but I don’t think I’ve put it strongly enough. Los Angeles theater basically created me as an arts/theater journalist, and the vast majority of that theater was produced under the 99-seat plan. And so much of the best of it would either not have happened at all or would have looked a lot, lot different minus the union actors allowed to work in it by the 99-seat plan. In my AT piece I compared the feeling of watching Equity actors and small theaters ready to split over this issue to a divorce, but it’s starting to feel like something closer to deep-seated existential dread--like, did I dream all that great theater? Was it all a mistake? Was I the unwitting stooge of a theatrical sweatshop regime I should have fought to end? Has my professional theatergoing life been based on a fraud?

To give you some idea what I’m talking about: I saw my first Beckett in small L.A. theater (and my second). My first Pinter (and second). Most of Sondheim. Chuck Mee. Caryl Churchill, Sheila Callaghan, Maria Irene Fornes. Dael Orlandersmith, Erik Ehn, Thornton Wilder, Michael John LaChiusa, David Edgar, Tennessee Williams, Eugene O'Neill, Chekhov. Miller, Balzac, Coward, SchillerPirandello, Ionesco. Mary Zimmerman. G.B. Shaw, Strindberg. OyamO. Paula Vogel. Mike Leigh. Athol Fugard, who did the world premiere of Exits and Entrances at the Fountain. Lorca. Charles Ludlam. Conor McPherson. A bunch of Shakespeare, Brecht, some of the Greeks. Freaking City of Angels and Candide! Cabaret. And Shopping and Fucking and Orson’s Shadow. I could go on...

I wasn’t checking the asterisks in the program, but trust me--the best of these productions weren’t acted by non-union kids straight out of school; just making a list off the top of my head of actors you may have heard of who worked in 99-seat theater in my time, some of them before they made their name in film and TV, others after, I came up with Alfred Molina, Ian McShane, Anna Gunn, Philip Baker Hall, Orson Bean, Phil LaMarr, Jack Black, David Dukes, Robert Foxworth, Harry Groener, Zachary Quinto, Jessica Hecht, Brian Cox, Nick Offerman, Patricia Heaton, John C. Reilly, Holly Hunter, Greg Itzin, Gregory Jbara, Megan Mullally, Byron Jennings, Carol Kane, Richard Kind, Amy Landecker, Sharon Lawrence, Tim Robbins, Kyra Sedgwick, Jeffrey Tambor. Justin Tanner’s extraordinary repertory of kitchen-sink comedies, which remains among the high points of my theatergoing lifetime, could conceivably have happened in a non-Equity context, but they probably wouldn’t have been able to cast Mark Ruffalo, Laurie Metcalf, French Stewart or Pamela Segall.

These and countless other great, great actors, union and non-, essentially gave their work away for a pittance, and I count myself among the prime beneficiaries. What I gained was a theater education, without which I wouldn’t know what I'm talking about, or care enough to. In a sense, I owe them my career.

So what’s eating at me now is: How do I best pay that gift back? By throwing my support behind those who want that scene to continue, more or less unchanged? Or by saying to the artists who’ve made L.A.’s small theater scene one of most vibrant in the world, and certainly in my experience: Thank you, but you shouldn’t have changed my life for so little money? And all who come after you shouldn't have the chance to do the same under the same or similar terms?

"The terms" are, of course, the rub; they're the axis on which the whole debate turns. And it’s not as if this is the first time I’ve noted the dysfunction and bad incentives built into this shadow economy. Back Stage West was an actor’s trade, after all, so we didn’t just review theater and give it awards; we also regularly looked under the hood of how it was getting made. I had many conversations over the years with Michael Van Duzer, Equity's patient, tireless 99-seat liaison, who had the thankless job of policing a non-contract that his union only grudgingly recognized. (A lot more about the history here and here; Van Duzer was reportedly fired last year as part of Equity's new push to crack down on the plan.)

And I remember standing on the construction site of Theatre @ Boston Court in Pasadena with the architect, John Sergio Fisher, and thinking: They’re spending $5 million to build a beautiful new performing arts center with a 99-seat theater in it, and they can’t find more money for actors? (I wondered as much in print at the time.) That theater, of course, has grown into a new-play incubator of national significance, and its largish budget (north of $1 million) may make it better positioned than many in L.A. to weather Equity’s proposed changes, but it’s hard for me to see how it would have risen to that position as quickly without the 99-seat plan.

I can reconcile myself intellectually to the union argument, to the laws of supply and demand, the marketplace, etc. It’s true that L.A.’s small theaters haven’t done a great job of developing a market for their work, and that has a lot to do with the self-defeating incentive structure of the 99-seat plan; you don’t need to create much of an audience to keep scraping by, nor do you need to shore up enough to build serious infrastructure; it's much to easy to just pour the money back into another show (which, to address a recent objection by Isaac, is where those seemingly midsized theaters with six-digit-and-more incomes are spending most of that money; you can argue that it’s a bug, not a feature, that the plan incentivizes the creation of so much work without paying actors wages, but those doing the creating--many of them actors themselves--see it differently.)

Bottom line, if you’re doing art for art’s sake, by definition you are outside the market, so it’s almost inevitable that your encounters with market forces--in this case, union workers, but in a larger sense any kind of real-world economic pressure--will create headaches somewhere down the line, particularly if you start doing that art-for-its-own-sake so regularly that you begin to quasi-institutionalize it, form boards, gather donations--professionalize it, pay-wise, in every department but the actors' compensation. (A professionalization that, by the way, has well-served L.A.'s theater patrons, who can mostly expect pleasant, air-conditioned theaters with decent seats and amenities--niceties that may not be as highly prioritized under Equity's proposal to allow "self-produced" non-contract projects as long as they aren't professionalized in any other way.)

So it's become hard for me to listen to folks who pretend that there's no conflict at all between having a union card and working for free in that union's jurisdiction, some of whom even go so far as to posit that artists shouldn't expect to be paid anyway if it's art, and certainly not in the theater, where there's "no money." There self-evidently is money there, just not enough to sustain all the artists who want to work in it. And the huge, pent-up desire of actors to do more fulfilling stage work than is on offer--a desire that still burns in them after they've gotten their union card, often even moreso--is what led to the 99-seat plan in the first place, and to the great, apparently fleeting 30-year interregnum of theater for which I was lucky enough to have a front-row seat (or good seats, at least).

That desire to get onstage will be much, much harder to slake in L.A. if Equity's proposals go through; maybe the new restrictions, though they will feel punitive to many, will be good for some union actors; maybe a few more will be able to sustain themselves doing exclusively or mostly theater work in L.A. It won't be good, though, for folks like me, or for the younger versions of myself who are coming up in the theater journalism racket, and will have to satisfy their curiosity about theater by reading scripts and reviews of far-off productions of the above playwrights.

This post is really more a eulogy than an argument; I concede much of the union's logic on principle, even if I find their tactics misguided and hamhanded. I just feel the need to express that I still feel like hell about this potential impending loss; it’s literally keeping me up at night. And if I, who built a career mostly at secondhand to L.A.’s vibrant small-theater scene and now live and work in New York City, am feeling this torn up about the possibility of the coming changes, what must it be like to be a theater artist faced with this unappetizing Hobson’s choice?


bsalyers said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
bsalyers said...

Man, Rob. This situation sucks. If Equity's proposals pass, I guess I'll have to become a TV star, so I can get on stage here in LA.

Rob Weinert-Kendt said...

Bill, I loved your work onstage in L.A. Please don't mistake that list of name actors--many of whom I saw onstage before they were in any way famous or flush--for in any way a complete one. As with the list of playwrights I cited, I was using name-recognition shorthand to make legible to the larger, uncomprehending world outside L.A. how amazing the work I saw onstage was. I hope and pray you and hundreds of other of my favorite actors who are less widely known can find a way to keep being amazing in any medium that will have you, but especially onstage, where you've made such a difference, and not only to me.

bsalyers said...

You're too kind. I didn't mean it like that. I'm not ashamed of my obscurity.
I meant that Equity wants to do for LA what it did for Seattle, where I lived and acted for a decade. The same 20 people got the tiny handful of large-contract roles in that town each year, while the rest of us had to skirt our own union just to practice our craft. And here in LA, that problem is exasperated by the fact that the large venues like to hire celebrities.
It's just hard to accept that, unless I do as I'm being told I should by some pro-change folks and get out of "their" union, I may have done some of my last theater. My one, sad consolation is the knowledge that a lot of those same people will be sitting at home right along with me, whether they realize it now or not.

Rob Weinert-Kendt said...

Ouch, that's fucking bleak! I hope it doesn't come to that. Honestly.

JM said...

Thanks, Rob. We are torn up, and refuse to give up the fight, but it is definitely fucked up on more levels that I can even grasp. I learned how to do theater by going and practicing in the 80's and of course beyond. I cannot comprehend our fair city not being a place to incubate, experiment and experience and I usually do tried and true musicals! I can only hope that in the end we can hammer out a compromise.

Jacob Sidney said...

To one of Bill's points: There are a handful of tireless pro-AEA posters about whom I think, every time I see another post: "You're never going to do another play." Some of us have a couple years (membership companies), but (if the proposed changes go through unaltered) most of us will either stop doing plays, go non-union, or leave Los Angeles.

Jacob Sidney said...

To one of Bill's points: There are a handful of tireless pro-AEA posters about whom I think, every time I see another post: "You're never going to do another play." Some of us have a couple years (membership companies), but (if the proposed changes go through unaltered) most of us will either stop doing plays, go non-union, or leave Los Angeles.