The Self Production Series with Anna Nicholas: # 8 AEA and the Future of Self-Production in LA

# 8.  AEA and the Future of Self-Production in LA

by Guest Blogger Anna Nicholas

This week’s post was supposed to be about casting directors but if a proposal made by Actors Equity Association (AEA) goes through at the end of this month, LA’s Theatre landscape will likely be irrevocably altered. The 99-seat plan, which has been around for about 30 years, will cease to exist. As an ever-emerging playwright with a law degree (don’t ask) and a predisposition toward full disclosure, you should know at the onset, I’m opposed to the proposal. And while there’s still time to influence voters, I’m postponing the casting installment in favor of outlining how proposed changes might affect you, the self-producing playwright, and what you can do about it. Get your latte, medical MJ, kombucha or what-have-you and read on.

Under the existing 99-seat plan, if you want to self-produce your play you can rent a theatre, hire a director, designers, cast willing, AEA actors (for very little money–$11/performance to start) and put on a show for about $30,000 (see Post #5 in this series http://lafpi.com/2015/02/the-self-production-series-with-anna-nicholas-5-budgeting/).

If the proposal passes, AEA actors will need to be paid minimum–but still not a living–wage (See below for exceptions) from the first day of rehearsals through closing night. Doesn’t sound bad, and in fact most people–actors and producers alike–working in 99-seat theatre would like actors to be paid more. But AEA is pushing these changes through despite the following facts: (1) Over 7000 paid up AEA members in LA are fighting the proposed changes, with little to no acknowledgment from the union, and (2) Passage will make production budgets swell to the point where there could be a chilling effect on the creation of new work by reducing the number of plays produced in LA. It’s therefore likely some theatres will close, resulting in fewer opportunities for actors, directors and playwrights, as well as adversely affecting the economic vitality of some businesses and neighborhoods.

AEA seems to believe that passing the proposals will create more lucrative union “contracts” (99-seat is not a contract, only a plan allowing members to appear without one) but there’s no evidentiary support for this notion. It’s just a hope. And given that very few producers of 99-seat theatre make their money back producing under the current plan, it’s extremely unlikely they’ll be inclined to increase their budgets (and thereby their losses) if the proposal were to pass. The money just isn’t there.

In addition to being a playwright with a law degree, I have a masters degree in Mediation (again, don’t ask) so I’ve learned first hand that there are always at least three sides to any story. This one’s no different. There has been a lot of speculation on both sides about what might happen if the proposals pass but no one knows for sure what will. One might think, however, that because member pushback against the proposals has been so strong, that the union leadership would go slower and listen. I suggested to AEA’s council, which theoretically works for us, the membership, that before we go to vote, we mediate the dispute, with representatives from both sides, to develop language in a new proposal, which both sides can live with. To their credit, a couple of AEA councilors did get back to me, saying it was a good idea, but sadly, nothing came of it.

It’s seems as though they have decided this thing is going to pass no matter what and are using some rather suspect tactics to make it happen. I offer two bits of evidence in support of this claim: AEA leadership is having, “volunteers” cold-call AEA members, presenting only the “Yes” side of the issue. They’re also prohibiting the “No” side from submitting an information sheet, which might have satisfied the need for “equal time,” to go out in voting materials. In other words, Equity is stacking the deck and using member dues to present a one-sided argument, which most of the LA membership, familiar with what’s going on, is opposed to.

The “No” folks are calling for a special meeting with AEA, demonstrating their willingness to come to the table to talk. But so far, AEA hasn’t budged. That speaks volumes and volumes. Volumes of what, I don’t want to know but make no mistake, whether the proposals pass or fail, LA Theatre—particularly small-venue, intimate theatre, which many playwrights are writing for—will change. That’s because even the “No” people realize that alterations to the 30-year plan are needed. We just don’t want the changes as currently proposed. AEA, on the other hand, is saying, “Vote ‘Yes’ to the proposal and we’ll agree to modifications later.” This is a little like your child’s kidnappers saying, “Give us the money but you’re going to have to trust us your kid’s okay.” Really? Trust you because you’ve been so upfront about everything so far? (Metaphor chosen for dramatic effect).

As to those exceptions: In the proposed plan, Equity has carved out two scenarios, which might spare playwright-producers from having to pay minimum wage from the onset of rehearsals. The first applies to existing membership companies, which could produce your play with their company members of record as of April 1, 2015. The other is a self-production exception where you can put together a group of people to put on your play, just as we have now. BUT you cannot be involved (partnered with, take money from) any 501.C 3 organization; nor can you accept tax- deductible donations. So yeah, you can still self-produce but you’ll need to come up with more money from your trust fund (ha!) or from friends who don’t need the tax deductions. Of course, you always have the option of hiring non-Equity actors. There are some very good ones but in general, the majority of the polished, professional and trained actors out there are members of AEA. Not being able to have them—provided you want them and they want to do your play—does neither side any good.

If you see the value in keeping the major elements of the current plan in place (with negotiated changes still to be worked out), seek out your LA based, paid-up Equity friends and encourage them to vote “No.” People you may know who have come out opposed to the proposed changes include: Actors Tim Robbins, Ed Harris, John Rubinstein, Frances Fisher, Jason Alexander; playwrights Neil LaBute, Jane Anderson, Justin Tanner, Murray Mednick and others who’ve seen their plays produced under the current plan, are also opposed. City council member Mitch O’Farrell is against it. Curiously, Charlayne Woodard, a lovely performer, is a “Yes” voter, as is Samuel L. Jackson who could afford to pay actors far more than minimum wage were he to decide to produce a play.

The fact remains, no producer of 99-seat theatre is getting rich producing theatre under the current plan. They’re barely breaking even. But you don’t need to believe me. Theatre companies have released their budgets to prove it and I urge you to do your own due diligence on the issue. See the AEA website: http://actorsequity.org or call a Western Regional council member for their side. The pro-99 (anti-AEA proposal) site is at: http://ilove99.org Read up.

As Steve Apostalina, an AEA member as well as playwright and producer, noted in his post on the issue (https://www.facebook.com/groups/1507815836104686/permalink/1613642405522028/), when Athol Fugard’s The Blood Knot first opened, it was to an audience of one. What Equity house would have risked that? And yet, Mr. Fugard became one of the most important and influential writers in the world – EVER! “Imagine”, says Apostalina, “if we have an Athol Fugard in LA just waiting to be heard. Killing small theatre will likely eliminate the possibility.”

Next time: About that Casting Director…

 

3 Comments

  • By Ravenchild, March 16, 2015 @ 10:20 am

    This is a great over view of the AEA situation – I know there are other AEA members who have a different point of view, but I really appreciate this over view. Well done.

  • By Richard Martin Hirsch, March 17, 2015 @ 2:47 pm

    Good job, Anna! An intelligent, comprehensive overview! Certainly, at the 99 seat level, actors deserve to be paid more. As a playwright who has sometimes also produced my own work, I have benefitted greatly and been helped to “look good” on numerous occasions through the creative talents of many really wonderful actors ( and directors and designers). For which I’ve been very grateful…and have always tried to convey that by doing as much for my casts and crews as was feasible… like providing some meals, not asking for a return of stipends when performances were canceled because an actor booked a “paying” job, etc., etc. But I also put forth a lot of personal money for productions without any chance or expectation of recouping back more than a tiny percentage. And rarely did I ever take my fee as a playwright. Something MY Union, the Dramatists Guild, frowns upon mightily (though permits). What the AEA seems to be missing is that at the 99 seat level, productions pretty much NEVER make money. In fact, they lose a ton! Especially for those of us who do not own our own venue! Still, the AEA is important. Vital. The conditions under which actors rehearse and perform are important. But the economics… For example, if you are an Union autoworker, it absolutely makes sense to demand certain pay levels from GM or Ford, because THEY ARE MAKING MONEY and their survival is not at risk. But to do that at the 99 seat theatre level may be noble and right in a major sense, but it is also not very realistic or economically feasible. It just isn’t. And limiting AEA members from taking advantage of donation money? What is that??? Make no mistake about it, Tax deductible donations drive theatre production at all levels! So it is not smart to discourage that source of funds! Ever! It will hurt actors, not help them! Bottom line, actors should have the right to accept below-minimum wage pay in small-theatre productions if they want to…for whatever reason: the exposure, the experience, the connection with the material, whatever. And clearly, that’s what they want. No one goes into it expecting it to provide a livelihood. Though it could very well lead to one. If small theatre survives. So I feel that actors should have a choice. They should be given a waiver. Huh. “Waiver”. Where have I heard that word before?

  • By Isabel Storey, March 22, 2015 @ 10:57 am

    Brava, Anna! Great analysis.

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