Acclaimed character actress and current star of the National tour of Wicked, Wendy Worthington writes this powerful essay in a followup to her previous letter to AEA Council about the 99 Seat case.
By Wendy Worthington:
More on the AEA issue (sorry, but there is so much to say!):
When Actors Equity began the process of dismantling the Los Angeles 99-Seat Plan in earnest in 2014, leadership consisted of a NYC-centric council, a president who spent most of his time patting us on the head like we were naïve children, and a paid staff (paid very well, in part with our own dues) whose hostility, condescension, and arrogance toward the membership in LA was at times painful to experience. They designed a skewed survey to get the answers they wanted (and interpreted the results to fit their preconceived plans), shoved through a nonbinding referendum that sparked a historic response and was soundly defeated by a two-thirds majority, ignored those results, and then professed themselves surprised when their “promulgated” plan ignited the LA theatre community and resulted in the second lawsuit on this very issue brought by members against their own union. (The first, for those unaware, had forced AEA to create the 99-Seat Plan in the 1980s.)
Their actions galvanized this community. We got out the vote in record numbers and helped oust the president, though perhaps with the lesser of two evils–his replacement has not yet proved herself as willing as we would have liked to hear us any more clearly. We started what will be an ongoing effort to elect some councilors actually open to listening to the needs of actors outside of NYC. We raised the money AEA demanded of us to support a new challenge to the promulgated plan. We marched and petitioned, we talked among ourselves, and we started to come together as a community.
We also inspired some of our local colleagues who do not share our passion to challenge us, and, as hard as it has been, we actually continue to try to hear what they have to say. Sometimes their language echoes the AEA party line, but sometimes it is as passionate as our own, and we keep on working at a true dialogue with our brothers and sisters here, as painful as that is at times. It is especially difficult when those opponents keep on working under the 99-Seat Plan they profess so loudly to detest. Far from “blacklisting” anyone, as AEA leaders claim we have done (never citing any examples), some of the most outspoken of these folks are even now appearing on LA’s small stages, accepting stipends and practicing their art.
Some of them are acting in productions by membership companies (most formed by actors themselves), the “carve-out” that AEA touts as its concession to our cause. But that concession actually takes AWAY the basic protections that the 99-Seat Plan used to offer members in these companies, leaving us to fend for ourselves. And the “carve-out” prohibits AEA members from forming any new membership groups under these terms.
AEA’s entrenched leadership, the ones who remain deaf to our interests, have called us liars, ignorant children, and rabble rousers. They have tried to couch this as a simple argument about being paid (being paid a minimum wage, only a few dollars more than the stipend the 99-Seat Plan already guarantees, but a minimum wage with all kinds of additional costs, almost none of which would accrue to the actors themselves). They have repeatedly tried to put words into our mouths, even giving us line readings for the dialogue they want us to repeat. “Why don’t they just understand that we want them to be paid?” They say they have no idea why we are opposing them. They say this because they have never really listened to us.
They do not listen when we try to explain that there are other reasons for doing theatre. They do not listen when we talk about how we have crafted our career, our art, our life. They try to convince us that a few dollars are all that matters, even if it means having far fewer places in which to pursue our art. They try to tell us that the possibility of developing new opportunities to earn far MORE than a minimum wage is a futile effort. They ignore the hundreds of examples we have gathered of plays that have started in 99-seat theatres and resulted in full-fledged Equity contracts. Without the 99-Seat Plan, the revival of SPRING AWAKENING would never have made it to the Tonys this year, LOUIS & KEELY, LIVE AT THE SAHARA would never have played across the country, and many, many actors who do not live and work in NYC would have had to content themselves with an occasional Equity contract and a lifetime of paid classes in order to keep appearing before live audiences.
AEA’s leadership has pretended to listen, but they have never heard a word we have actually said. So now their entrenched willfulness forces a valiant group of plaintiffs to make our argument in Judge Hatter’s court—paid for in part by some of our own dues…and yours, too. Money that could have been spent to support all AEA members—young and old, experienced and starting out, with access to Broadway and in all the regions throughout the country.
They tell you this is a Los Angeles versus AEA fight. But it is really a struggle to be heard above the blare of the Great White Way, to be able to build an acting career that includes doing professional theatre in places all across the country, weighing the reasons for taking on a project that go beyond a couple of immediate dollars. It is a complex and individual challenge, and one that this proud union was formed to help us meet. Our leaders need to hear us, ALL of us, in every place that professional theatre is made in America. That is what Actors Equity was established to do.
It is a true shame that so many of our leaders see their mandate in such narrow terms. It has never been easy being an actor. Who knew that our own union’s leaders would add to the challenges, rather than help us face them?