Padraic Duffy of Sacred Fools Theater on the proposed AEA plan

Padraic Duffy │Sacred Fools Theater Company

This is a Guest Post by Padraic Duffy

 

I want to tell you a little bit about Sacred Fools, the theater company I love, and explain how this new plan proposed by Actor’s Equity will specifically affect it.

Where we’ve been.

Sacred Fools was founded as a non-profit in the spring of 1997 by a group of theater artists who wanted to help each other make art. You create a safe place for people to take risks, and they will do the same for you.

And like any endeavor you begin in your living room, we started small. For the first season, the production budget was $11,000 TOTAL. Basically, each show got some seed money and the promise of a couple fundraising keg parties.

Sometimes things looked bleak. There were moments when we thought of giving up. But we Fools are a stubborn lot.

Does it make sense to make small theater? No. We do it anyway.

We fought to keep our doors open. We kept the DWP at bay. And slowly, we began to grow. Our membership and staff expanded, we began to provide full budgets to our productions, and many of our homegrown shows—Stoneface, Absolutely Filthy, Louis & Keely Live at the Sahara, Watson—were able to move to bigger venues and help our artists begin careers, earn a living, and become proud union members.

Our values.

  • We are an open company. Anyone can audition or volunteer. You become a member by acting like one—and then we invite you in.
  • We have never charged dues.
  • We elect our Artistic Directors. They receive no compensation.
  • We give back to the community. My wife—an Equity member and Sacred Fools Company member—helps run the kids theater camp in the summer. We give a part of every mainstage production’s box office to a local charity through our Donate What You Can program. We have begun a partnership with the Sonia Sotomayor Learning Academy, a local high school specializing in dramatic arts, to help mentor students. And our community outreach grows every year.
  • We try to be equitable. After being a member for 15 years and part of the theater leadership for 10, I began receiving a $500 monthly stipend as Manager Director last season for what is often more than full-time work. I am the only staff member who is compensated. And while occasionally we will do a co-production where outside funds are already allocated before the project comes to us, for every other production our designers, actors, run crew, and directors all receive a small stipend that often works out to be roughly the same: Directors and designers get $250, run crew and performers get between $5-$16 per performance.
  • The only member of the production team who does not get compensated in any way? The person we designate as “Producer.”
  • We want to pay people more. And every year for the past four we have increased or added a stipend. With or without the passage of this plan, we will continue to do so.

How the new plan will affect us.

This plan would increase an Equity actor’s compensation at our theater by roughly 1300%. What was approximately a $150 stipend will now cost us upwards of $2,000. This increase was not negotiated- it is a unilateral move that will take effect immediately.

And while current Sacred Fools company members in Equity for the time being do not have to be paid this increase (in fact, they will receive no protections from their union at all), this membership company exemption is not a tenable position in the long run because:

We will have to exclude new union actors from membership. The exemption only applies to Equity members currently in our company. The idea that future company members would be paid thousands of dollars while others get a small stipend is not fair.

We will have to exclude union actors from auditions. You can’t just bring on one or two guest equity contracts for a large production- a majority of your actors must be under contract. So there is no option for us to slowly work up to a full equity roster. And even if we could afford to pay our principal actors the equity rate- they can still leave the production at any time for better paying work. So we will have to bring on a full slate of understudies at the Equity rate as well. Therefore, we will have no choice but to exclude outside union actors from casting sessions until we are able to afford the $15,000-$30,000 increase per show that the Equity contract will require. Just to give you a sense of what that means to us—we spent $5,000 on our last show.

But Sacred Fools brings in roughly $200,000 a year from all revenue sources, you say! Well, of that, more than 50% goes to rent and utilities alone. Add in general business expenses, storage, equipment rental and maintenance, office equipment, insurance, merchant fees, fundraising and marketing expenses, concessions, and a thousand other small things, and we end up with around $40,000 for all of our production budgets combined. In a good year, we are lucky to have six weeks rent in the bank at the end of the season.

Furthermore, no new membership companies can form in the future and get this exemption. A company created by Equity actors a month from now would have to pay the new rate to all of their Equity members, a pretty daunting task for a company trying to get off the ground. So it seems Equity does not believe in the ethos of the membership company- it simply believes in temporarily placating the current ones.

We’ve been growing slowly and steadily. And we agree that the goal should be to pay actors—and everyone, for that matter—more. But this plan will force us to take a step backward.

You don’t make a small theater become a professional theater by forcing it to be a community theater.

The way forward.

A wonderfully messy, vibrant theater scene has blossomed in Los Angeles over the last 25 years. Amateurs and professionals, union and non-union—all have joined and left and rejoined and formed and sworn at and sworn allegiance to an endless array of companies and collectives, some of them gone in a blink and others that have remained as civic treasures and de-facto families for artists far from home. Some of the theater is terrible. Some of it is great. Almost all of it is brave. You can think it was a terrible mistake or the noblest of endeavors to create this environment, but it’s a reality. So what do we do with it?

We can see it as a problem- not enough money to go around, theater professionals of every discipline not compensated as much as they should be, audiences spread thin. Or we can embrace it as a wonderful opportunity. For at a time when audiences are graying, when theater organizations struggle for funds (and to keep their artistic integrity when they get them), Los Angeles has created a large, diverse, passionate group of artists and institutions that if carefully looked after, can serve as a model for the country.

This may be a dying art form, but not in L.A.

Everyone wants change. Actors should be paid more, and Equity should play a major role in making that happen. (On a side note: my wife, brother, and both parents are in Equity, and it was Equity that gave my parents a loan to pay the hospital for my birth!)

But please don’t erase all of the progress theaters like Sacred Fools have made to do just that. Help us make more.

1) Vote NO on the plan.

2) Wait for the LASA/TPLLA theater survey to come out so we can be fully informed on the financial and structural state of theaters in LA.

3) Urge Equity to meet with TPLLA, the other artist unions, and various other stakeholders to craft a fair, ambitious plan based on the information learned in the survey to compensate actors, help companies grow, and take LA theater to the next level.

Sincerely,

Padraic Duffy, Managing Director, Sacred Fools Theater

•••

As a playwright, Padraic Duffy has worked at theaters throughout L.A., including The Met Theater, The Echo Theater Co., Sacred Fools Theater Co., Theater of Note, Cypress College, The Road Theatre, and Ensemble Studio Theatre LA. His full-length plays include The Illustrious Birth of Padraic T. Duffy, Feet, The Mechanical Rabbit, Tell the Bees, Something is Hidden Inside the Couch, Past Time, Beaverquest! The Musical!, Puzzler, and Copy. He is a proud member of the Playwright’s Union and The Sacred Fools Theater Company, serving as the Managing Director of the latter.

 

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6 comments on “Padraic Duffy of Sacred Fools Theater on the proposed AEA plan

  1. Padriac, thank you for sharing Sacred Fools’ story. As an AEA member, I am not a fan of the current 99 Waiver scene since I do see it as taking advantage of actors. I am discerning about where I put my time as an actor and my money as an audience member and I have worked at Fools and paid to see good shows there because I believe that what you are doing is a good-faith effort at working as a collective.

    Though change is needed, AEA is making a big mistake by lumping companies like yours in with others like the Odyssey, Fountain, Boston Court, etc. It is solely because of companies like Fools that I will most likely vote no on AEA’s proposal.

    However, I am incredibly disturbed by the on-line vitriol coming from some of your members against the AEA proposal and anyone looking for middle ground (hence my reluctance to post my name). It is AEA’s mistake to lump your company with other producing models, but members of companies like Fools and others are doing the dirty work of producers who are actually making a living without paying actors. Those producers can sit back and watch while scrappy members of the 99 Seat community devour each other online. It’s a real shame.

    I would urge you and your other membership company cohorts to convene a congress separate from non-membership producing models and counter propose a tiered plan for cooperative membership companies. Look at best practices for profit sharing, favored nations for actors and staff, right of first refusal for actors in productions that move to larger contracts (as a return on their investment to work for smaller wages/stipends), ratios of actors to others in governing bodies, seasonal limits for bringing in outside artists, financial transparency, etc. Set the minimum standards at something you can work toward in a few years. Be proactive. Be creative. It is your strength. As a member of AEA I would fight hard to protect your right to continue to create and nourish the community knowing that the actors are empowered by their membership in your company and our union.

  2. An excellent explanation – clear, concise and well written. Another point I might add is that actors want to act and will do so, whether their union approves or not. I feel confident that if this plan succeeds, all it will truly succeed in doing is shut down some good, but small, theaters and force a lot of actors to start denying their equity status so that they can continue to do the work they love.

  3. “You don’t make a small theatre become a professional theatre by forcing it to be a community theatre.”

    I am an Ovation voter, as well as a working actor and member of both SAG-AFTRA and AEA (and have worked under a variety of Equity contracts, as well as the 99-Seat Plan). I get to see a LOT of theatre, and some of the very best–the most inspiring, moving, entertaining, thought-provoking, and, once in awhile, annoying, indulgent, and downright stinky–has been in tiny theatres. Some of the very best has been at Sacred Fools. And the thought that any of this (even the bad stuff!) could be made to simply go away as a result of the ill-considered actions of the union designated to PROTECT it, is horrifying.

    Please realize, if you are voting on this, that a NO vote does NOT mean there should be no change. It simply means that THIS change is a devastating idea. Thank you, Padraic, for an eloquent essay and for some splendid theatrical experiences. May there be the opportunity for many, many more!

  4. Thank you, Padraic, for a most eloquent and succinct commentary. I am an unabashed supporter of Sacred Fools and my daughter, Julia, has been a member for a long time. Sacred Fools is so much more than a theater company–you are a true family. The productions, many grown out of Serial Killers, are amazing. A true theater lab and a gem of the community. While the intentions of the union may be honest, the outcome would seem to have the harmful affect. Long live 99 seat theater, unencumbered by union rule. Hopefully, all will all get to be union–but there must be a place to practice, learn and grow that can be sustained with limited financial costs. All best wishes, Heather Griswold

  5. thank you for this, Padraic.

    And to “Anonymous,” I am sorry you’ve been put off by the language of some supporters of small theatre. I have, too, actually, but I understand why people feel attacked by their own union. What you suggest we propose is exactly what most of us have been saying since before the promulgated plan came out–after the town hall meeting, a tiered system was what most actors I know expected the proposed changes to be. There is a million dollar gap between the biggest and smallest 99-seat theaters. There are very few producers making money off of this (I would love to know how many are making a living producing small theatre). I’m grateful for Padraic’s numbers to help clarify the cost of this. Even if a theatre has means, a 1300% jump without the ability to budget for it in advance is destructive (it’s been reported that theaters have been informed that the minimum wage would begin May 1). I love the union. I support change. I haven’t done a 99-seat show for a few years, but I appreciate that the ability to choose that when the work dries up is one of the blessings of being in this city.

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