John Rubinstein to Actors Equity – “We are fighting for our lives”

John Rubinstein letter to Actors Equity 02/17

Letter to Actors Equity from esteemed actor John Rubinstein

(Reprinted with permission from a Facebook post by Mr. Rubinstein which began, “We are fighting for our lives at Interact. For the third time in three years, I have written to the entire Equity council and officers tonight….”)

Dear Equity leaders and councilors:

I am a member of AEA in good standing, and have been since 1965. I am, urgently, and with all my heart, requesting that you consider the proposal to allow theater companies to appeal Equity rulings in a legal and official hearing, in the same way that producers are currently given that same right and opportunity. Please, in the interest of fairness and openness, and of adhering to the union’s mission to support its paying members in the work they do, vote in favor of this appeals proposal. I am a member of Interact Theatre Company in Los Angeles, and our company has, we believe erroneously and unjustly, been denied “membership status.” We are asking for a chance to appeal that unilateral edict, so that we can continue to do the work we love and need to do.

The paragraph above is the primary reason for this email. If you care to read further, I include some history, and some expressions of bewilderment and sadness. And yes, some anger, no doubt about it. I would nonetheless be appreciative if you would read it all, and I welcome and encourage any and all responses you may wish to send me.

Life for theater actors in Los Angeles has entered a confusing, dark, and threatening era. It’s truly terrible; and it’s terribly hard to come to terms with the fact that it is our own union — you very elected officers and councilors, whose only true purpose in your generously chosen volunteer AEA jobs is to see to the welfare, protection, and nurturing of us, your colleagues, your fellow dues-paying Equity actors — that have chosen to so aggressively and cruelly implement the draconian, punitive, destructive, and utterly unnecessary new 99-seat Rules which are already beginning the erosion, the inevitable winnowing, and the intended evisceration, of the large, productive, flourishing, and soul-saving small theater movement in LA.

The choices now left for the dozens and dozens of 99-seat theater companies are meager, and contain within them arbitrary and restrictive deadlines, requirements, caps, limits and exclusions which are clearly and solely meant to cause theater after theater to either severely reduce their ability to produce, or, more logically, to close their doors permanently. The union — you, our representatives — have forced this through, despite a massive majority vote by LA members saying NO to these new Rules. You have used widely disseminated lies to bolster your false rationale:
* “producers” of small theaters in LA are reaping and pocketing profits on the backs of their abused and underpaid actors (total fiction);
* AEA is simply fighting for actors to be paid for their work (which LA actors knowingly and willingly do for love and art and creative necessity, but, in LA small theaters, NEVER for a living wage, since they know it is neither available nor possible);
* money will suddenly appear where it has never been before, and these happy actors will finally, thanks to their beneficent union, be paid at least minimum wage for every hour of rehearsal and performance (again, pure fiction. That money does NOT exist, thus the actors will NOT be paid for anything at all; they will simply be denied the right to put on the kind and caliber of plays that they have been voluntarily and passionately staging for decades).

For those companies who still manage to somehow fit within the confines of the new Rules, you deign to allow them to continue to use their Equity members, yet you have withdrawn the few union protections and safeguards which, however reluctantly, AEA had provided for the last thirty years. Or, they can go ahead and use only non-Equity actors (so much for the union actors, your constituents, who pay their annual dues, as well as their work dues when they are lucky enough to book a job in a union house!), but if any AEA members get caught acting on a stage in such a company, you will take those actors down! Or, better and simpler still, they can all just go to hell. Who cares? Well, the actors do; so do the audiences, the local businesses, the communities, the underprivileged children who take classes at those theaters. They all care that their local small theaters are being shoved out of existence. But certainly not the venerable Actors’ Equity Association. It’s weird, it’s wrong, and it’s disorienting, and it’s hurtful.

I have been a proud, loyal, happy, and grateful member of Actors’ Equity for 52 years. I am currently in rehearsals for a big Broadway musical, and was, as usual, knocked out with admiration at the wonderful 90-minute meeting delivered by the Equity rep on the first day, outlining the succor and support, the protections and perks, the benefits and boons available to us from our beloved union. I am only too glad and willing to contribute a solid chunk of my paycheck every week to help fund all those services, and to bolster the insurance and pensions for the combined membership. Also, in the past, to help pay the relatively tiny costs of providing the barest essential protections to Equity actors in small companies in LA and around the country that aren’t at the top of the theater food chain, and who struggle on a daily basis to merely keep the lights on. I’ve been more than delighted to contribute the tens of thousands of dollars that I have paid to AEA over the last half century. Worth every nickel. Thank goodness that we have this terrific union, looking after us. As long as we are raking in the cash. But nowadays, if you are only making theater because you love it and must do it, your union leaves you out in the cold. Worse — it PUSHES you out into the cold, and either ignores or threatens you if you knock on the door and ask to be let back in! It is tragic, and ridiculous.

I realize and appreciate my exceptional good fortune when I get to work on Broadway; or off- or off-off-. Or on tour. Or at one of the handful of theaters in Los Angeles where enough money comes in so that actors can, in fact, and usually for a very short period, make a decent salary. But in LA, the theater world really is the vast network of small, actor-produced membership theaters that do excellent work on a shoestring, and ONLY because the actors choose to do it as volunteers. It is either that, or simply stay home. That choice should be left to the actors, and supported by the union to which they pay their dues; not decided and decreed tyrannically and thoughtlessly by a mostly New York-based Equity council that seems to neither care about nor understand the LA small theater scene.

I have also been a proud and grateful member of Interact Theatre Company in Los Angeles for the last 25 years — a non-profit 99-seat membership company, with a large majority of Equity actors as members. We would sincerely like to try to survive, in spite of our own union’s harsh and dedicated effort to close our doors, along with those of all the other small theaters in our city. We absolutely qualify for “membership status” under the restrictive new Rules.

But Gail Gabler, your hired West Coast director, has decided not to grant that status to our company. She has been astonishingly unavailable. She has rejected overtures, cancelled scheduled meetings, repeatedly refused to answer phone calls. For months. She recently did manage to find enough time to write a response to one of the many, many requests for an explanation and a reversal that our company respectfully submitted to her. Her letter was brief and dismissive, and contained the following sentence: “While I appreciate your continued disagreement regarding this determination, please understand that this is an internal membership rule and our determination stands.”

That is not only a complete dodge of the very plain and simple question — where is the rule that denies Interact membership status? — but its phony politeness (she “appreciates” our disagreement? how quaint and kind and condescending of her!) and insultingly vague lingo (what the hell is an “internal membership rule”? Some sort of secret law that she needn’t inform us of if she chooses not to??) make it absolutely clear that she has no intention of simply explaining her mistaken, unethical, and probably even illegal denial of status to our award-winning, long-standing company of dues-paying Equity members. We, who pay her quite impressive salary out of our pockets, are stunned and furious that Ms. Gabler, an employee of our union, would choose to treat her employer/members with such repulsive rudeness, disregard, and unfairness.

I am personally not only outraged at these actions taken by my union with such unfeeling severity, and in such contrast with the royal and respectful way we temporarily lucky Broadway actors are treated, but I am still totally mystified and confused as to how and why so many of you sitting on the council have not only bought into all the dishonest and fictional “reasons” for this two-year campaign, the patronizing and disrespectful tone of the communications, the one-sided presentation of the spin and false figures and invented motivations, the blatant dismissal of the clear referendum tally and the urgent outcry from the thousands of dues-paying LA actors — but why and how you can justify the fact that so many of you continue to vociferously, and in some cases sneeringly, stand up for it. And vote for these repressive Rules. And vote against proposals like the recent ones which would have granted some more openness and transparency and communication between the membership and the union. Even after so very many of you ran for your council seats on a campaign of transparency and open communication! I don’t get it. If you think you are helping your LA colleagues, you are not. You are taking away our ability to practice our art. If you think all this secrecy and misrepresentation and dishonesty is justified in the cause of getting proper pay for your constituents, you are deceiving yourselves, or you are being deceived by those manipulating and misinforming you.

Once again, I urge each and every one of you to really take the time and make the effort to look at what the situation actually is in Los Angeles — how completely different it is from that in New York, where The Theater is one of the mainstays of the entire city’s tourism and income, and millions upon millions of dollars flow into its coffers on a daily basis, 52 weeks a year. Don’t look down upon your brothers and sisters who live and work in LA, but who are still actors just like you, who want and need to act on the stage, even when there is nowhere near enough money to fund their productions, and who are striving to carve out an artistic and cultural existence for themselves from the ground up. There has been no need for you, and for the council and officers that preceded you, to put together and implement such a massive drive to dismantle and eliminate what LA Equity members have achieved, and what they still aspire to achieve in the future.

Please vote in favor of this appeals measure, so that at the very least, a group like Interact Theatre Company can present an argument that will have to be heard and taken into consideration, to appeal what we see as, at best, a mistake, and, at worst, a deliberate effort to destroy what we’ve worked so hard to build for close to thirty years.

I thank you all for volunteering and running for office at Actors’ Equity. Where the union has decided to invest its heart and its good will, it has accomplished wonders for its members. I beg you to tap into that great history, and into the generosity of spirit you all obviously have — to also open your hearts to your colleagues in LA and in small theaters everywhere, so that the true meanings of the three words, “actors,” “equity,” and “association” can once again rightfully earn their position as our shared titular emblem of inclusion, strength, and solidarity.

Yours respectfully,

John Rubinstein

 

Countering the AEA Propaganda about 99-Seat Theater – John Rubinstein

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How do we change minds?

By John Rubinstein. Reprinted with permission.

Here is an exchange between an actor friend of mine who does wonderful work on many New York stages, and me. He is reacting to my posting of the LA Weekly article about the AEA catastrophe; an article that lays out the facts quite well, I think. But his reaction is similar to so many I keep hearing. We’ve got to change their minds. But how?

NY Actor (whom I like and admire):

I’m bewildered. People have sacrificed so much to have unions. Unions have raised our standard of living after great sacrifice. Our union wants us to stop being taken advantage of. Actors who want to work for nothing, please do it in the privacy of clubs or your own home, and don’t charge anything for tickets!

Me:

We’re not talking about union-bashing. I am a committed unionist, appalled by what is going on in states like Ohio and Wisconsin and Tennessee and Indiana, where the Republicans are breaking down the unions in every way they can. This is one particular union, which happens to be our union, which is trying to eliminate the huge and flourishing small-theater scene in Los Angeles, because the union makes no money off of it.

For the actors it’s a choice between doing truly high-level, fabulous, although small-scale, theater in a town, unlike New York, where theaters don’t reap the support or funding or tourism that the New York scene does — or doing no theater at all, except for the extremely rare paying job at one of the handful of bigger theaters in Los Angeles. The city is full of actors trying to make their livings. None of them expect to make that living in the hundreds of small theaters in Los Angeles. For 27 years there has been an agreement with Equity which allows them to produce and participate in terrific, professional, exciting theater, but in spaces and with companies that for the most part barely scrape by, albeit with endless hours of work and effort. The work is fantastic. The actors, and audiences, are happy and grateful to be there. The local communities thrive and benefit from the presence of those theaters and their audiences. The income to the theater is minimal at best.

Nobody makes a dime off the actors. No producers are reaping profits while not paying the actors. That’s all AEA’s false propaganda. And it’s so easy to say “actors should be paid.” OF COURSE they should. But if there is no money to pay them, and they are willing and able to put up shows — not in their living rooms or clubs, but with full sets and costumes in actual theaters — that are fulfilling and brilliant and daring and artistic — not merely for “showcase”, but for the art that you and I and all of us aspire to and have devoted our lives to — then why so dismissively tell them to go do plays in their homes? Let them eat cake, if they have no bread. Really? You are belittling your colleagues. Have you ever seen or been in a play in a small venue in LA? You might be impressed, and might even encourage, admire, and support that huge community of your fellow professional actors.

And STILL they say: “What’s so wrong with getting paid for your work? It makes no sense.”

In all these posts and newspaper articles and radio shows and blogs and various missives abounding, I keep getting responses from other actors, almost exclusively NOT in Los Angeles, who sort of look over all this material, and STILL say: “What’s so wrong with getting paid for your work? It makes no sense. What’s wrong with Equity’s Decision? It allows a “Showcase” code! We make it work in New York! Why don’t you want to be paid? Why are you going against your own union, who are just trying to protect us actors from being taken advantage of?”

So, here’s my YET ANOTHER endlessly long attempt to explain to some of these good friends and colleagues who can’t seem to understand what the situation is in LA, who have been bombarded by AEA’s propaganda (the Kool Aid, as I now perceive it) and have been convinced by it.

Ultimately, the reason for answering all these questions is to hopefully persuade some of the east coast (and elsewhere) Equity member-voters to GET IT, and to vote for a Pro99 candidate and platform, if that ever materializes.

The “Showcase” code allows only 16 performances, among other things. Actors in LA are, for the most part, not trying to “showcase” in order to get an agent or get TV parts, although those possibilities are always there, and sometimes yield results. They are exercising their craft, they are doing their art. 16 performances removes the possibility of making any money back to pay for the production. The other provisions of AEA’s destructive Decision all sound like they’re creating interesting opportunities for varying degrees of production; but they’re basically, if you read the fine print and the lists of caveats and caps and limits and restrictions and time deadlines, just sham. The purpose of the union Council and the paid staffers who more or less dictate to the actor-volunteers that we elect, is to ELIMINATE the small theater scene in LA. And that’s what this Decision does.

AEA makes no money from LA small theaters

The union makes no money from LA small theaters. They do not care about them. They want them gone. They lie, and they use propaganda to promote their agenda, which is based on lies. “We’re trying to solve problems in LA.” Bullshit. “We’re listening to the voices of our members.” Bullshit. “We want to help the smaller theaters in LA grow into full contract houses.” Bullshit.

None of that is true.

This latest referendum vote was handled in the most fascistic, horrific way by the union, my parent union, the union to which I have poured tens of thousands of my hard-earned dollars over the last half-century. Vote YES. They sent out massive emails urging us to vote YES. They never gave the NO people a soap box. Can you imagine your tax dollars funding the Federal Government, and when an election comes up they inundate you with messages saying: “There are two candidates: Republican and Democrat. We, your government, urge you to vote Republican. Here are all the wonderful things the Republican will do for you. Here is a picture of your new and wonderful life under the Republican. Vote Republican if you are in any way dissatisfied with any element of your life.” Really? Any word from the Democrat? No. A debate? No. A pro and con argument in any of the messages? No. Just VOTE REPUBLICAN! Then the vote takes place, and the Democrat wins in a landslide, in the biggest turnout ever for any election, 66% of the vote for the Democrat. And THEN — the Government says, “Thank you. We hear your voices. We’re working for you. We’re listening. We are laboring tirelessly to guarantee and strengthen the quality of your lives, to be responsive to your needs. Thanks for your vote. We are granting the victory to the Republican. God bless America.” Really?? Would you accept that? No. That is precisely what AEA did just now. Exactly. There is no livelihood to be forged for actors in LA’s small theaters. THE MONEY IS NOT THERE. Arguably, there is in New York.

Stage actors can make a living in NY

You actually can make a living working as an actor in the theater in New York. It’s not easy; acting is never an easy way to earn your living. Nonetheless, it is possible in New York. But not in LA. So to keep arguing that “actors should be paid” is, finally, just a silly thing to say. OF COURSE they should be paid. But if there is no money to pay them, simply repeating that sentence is childish, and shows a complete lack of understanding of what is actually going on. In Los Angeles, California. In 99-seat and smaller theaters.

Actors need and want to act. They MUST act. If they are making their livings doing TV and film and any of the hundreds of other ways actors stay alive in LA, but still need and want to act on stage, they must be allowed to do so. Even if there is no way that they can pay themselves, or find “producers” who can pay them, a living wage. They will show up and do the work anyway. After air and water and the health and happiness of their children, acting on stage shows up pretty high on the priority list. Hire me to do a national tour, like I’m doing right now? Yippee. The Weisslers and their co-producers are making good money on “Pippin.” Thus I, too, am making a decent salary. I’m making my living in this play on tour, because the producers are turning a PROFIT; enough of a profit that they can pay the writers’ royalties, reimburse the backers’ investments, pay for the theater, the travel, the cast, crew, and all other expenses, and still take home a big fat pile of cash up to Westchester County every week. I feel privileged and lucky and happy to be working, and to be paid enough to live on and feed my kids. But notice, I am on a different stage around the country every week. Venues of 2,500-3,500 seats. I am not in a 50-seat theater in Los Angeles.

4 times in 50 years – a living wage via LA stages

When I get back to LA, I hope to continue, as I have for 50 years now, to make my living as an actor. I have been lucky there, too. Four times — four times over 50 years — I have made a temporary “living” as a stage actor in LA. At the Mark Taper Forum, which pays a few hundred dollars a week, I was in Paul Sills’s “Metamorphoses” in 1971, and in Mark Medoff’s “Children of a Lesser God” in 1979. Both roughly 3-month engagements. In 1997 I was in “Ragtime” at the Shubert Theater (one of the only big Broadway-type theaters in Los Angeles, long since torn down with no new big theater to replace it) for almost a year, making Broadway-type pay; and in 2007-2008 I did an 18-month stint in “Wicked” at the Pantages. These were great moments of good fortune for me, and I will always be grateful. But during the other 47 years? Tons of small theater in LA, no income from it, and I made my living, as ALL actors do in LA, in any other way that I could. And still am — in TV and movies, and teaching at USC, and writing music for films, and recording audiobooks, and doing cartoon voices. I’ll play the piano in a bar or a hotel lobby till 3 in the morning, HAPPILY, if I need to and someone will give me the gig. But if there is ALSO a small theater that wants to put on a production of a Shakespeare play, or a big musical, or a 1930’s drama with 40 people in the cast, or a Shaw or Chekhov or Ibsen or Mamet or Miller or Gorky or Williams or Ayckbourn or Durang play, or a brand new play by a playwright who is taking risks and trying something out — and they want me to be in it, even though there is no possibility on earth that they’ll even be able to think of making any profit from it; but they do, by hook and crook and tireless work, manage to scrape up the money for the rights, for the theater space, for the set and costumes, for the insurance so that they can legally invite an audience in to see it — then I will be honored, and jump for joy to be able, along with everything else I’ll be doing to pay my bills and feed my children, to step out onto a stage and be in that play. If there is money to pay me, I’ll take it. I deserve it. All actors do. But if there isn’t, I still must act. And I will.

We are not forced to work in little theaters. We ASPIRE to work there.

The union I was so proud to join 50 years ago, upon whom I have depended to uphold my rights and my proper wages, and to help me with health and pension benefits, all, of course, based on the thousands upon thousands of dollars I have paid in over the years, the union I love — has no right to tell me and my colleagues that we cannot choose to come together and put on plays, even when there is not a venue that can afford to pay us minimum wage. We are not forced to work in those wonderful, scrappy little theaters. We ASPIRE to work there. If a paying job comes up, we more often than not have to go and do that job, whatever it is, and forgo the joy and fulfillment of that play in that little theater. We do want to eat, and live somewhere, and put sneakers on our kids’ feet. But NOT doing that play — THAT is the sacrifice we often are forced to make. Working for nothing in that 50-seat theater is not a sacrifice. It is a dream. It is an honor. It’s what we do. Our own union is now trying to take that away from us. They shouldn’t be doing it, but they are. It is misguided at best, malevolent and oppressive at worst. The methods and tactics being used are dishonest and underhanded, patronizing, and oblivious to the needs of its members.

That’s why we’re fighting it. I hope you will join us.


 

LISTEN to John Rubinstein debate Gail Gabler (Western Regional Director of AEA) on KCRW:

Guests:
Anthony Byrnes, host of ‘Opening the Curtain’ (@theaterthoughts)
Gail Gabler, Actors’ Equity (@ActorsEquity)
John Rubinstein, film, Broadway and television actor (@jrubystone)

kcrw-interview-4-23-15 - 99 seat theater

John Rubinstein says Actors’ Equity is disingenuous, misleading, and manipulative

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From John Rubinstein. Reprinted with permission:

As many of you know, AEA sent out an email to its members titled “Message re Proposed Changes to 99-Seat Theatre.” I would reprint it here, but they put a warning at the bottom which states that no part of the email may be reproduced in any format without written permission from AEA. Why that’s there, or whether it’s legal to make a decree like that, I don’t really know. If you are a member and received this email, I urge you to read it. Its basic message is that if we want “change,” which they pointedly do not specify or explain, we should vote YES on the proposal. I wrote a long response (see below. Take aspirin first) and sent it to them as a reply.

I also communicated yesterday with my friend Nick Wyman, president of Actors’ Equity. He is a man with a big heart and a good mind, who cares deeply about his work for the union; and he wrote me the following response (I asked him if he minded if I posted it, and he said “Post away.”)

From Nick Wyman, President, Actors’ Equity Association

NICK-WYMAN“Thank you very much for reaching out to me to weigh in on 99 Seat Theater in Los Angeles. I have received dozens and dozens of e-mails, and I have read every one at least twice. This is an issue of critical importance to the union and to me personally and I have spent much of my waking (and non-waking) hours occupied with how best to resolve this.

I’m an actor just like the concerned folks in LA. I readily acknowledge the value of Theater as a source of Creativity and Community and Career Opportunities, and in my own life, those have frequently trumped Cash as a reason to do a particular job. I value Theater. I also value Actors. Part of my/our conundrum is how to value Actors without damaging Theater. Personally, I think an Institution set up to create Theater for paying audiences, an Institution which pays for space and sets and costumes and props and frequently designers and directors, should also pay for actors.

This proposal — and that’s what it is, a proposal — has engendered much discussion. (I listened carefully to all of the discussion at the Town Hall and Special Membership Meetings at the Sportsmen’s Lodge, and I took extensive notes.) Later this month there will be a referendum of all paid-up AEA members in LA County on this particular proposal. Finally your elected representatives on the Equity Council, your fellow actors and stage managers, will debate and vote on this issue in late April, taking into account not only the results of the referendum but all the concerns raised at the LA meetings, in e-mails, on social media and in one-on-one discussions.

If you have any thoughts, suggestions or concerns you want to share with me, please fire away. I promise you they will be factored into the decision process in April.”

Here is the long treatise I sent as a reply to the AEA email urging us to vote YES for change. I also sent a separate copy to Nick, as I’m not sure who actually receives and/or reads a reply to a mass emailing from the union:

John Rubinstein’s Reply:

This campaign letter from you, Actors Equity, is disingenuous, misleading, entirely one-sided, and manipulative.

You repeat, like a slogan, “If you are for change, you should vote YES . . .”

But you carefully make sure NOT to indicate that if we do vote YES, we are voting only for THIS specific and particular change, not for “change” in general, as you are pretending to imply. Those are vastly different concepts, and outcomes, as you well know.

You are using manipulation, fake spin, and ambiguous, purposefully misleading language in order to influence the members to vote your way. Why? It must be because you know how sincere, truthful, fact-based, and heartfelt the opposition is, and you hope to persuade the many other voting members, who may not have followed the discussion closely, to vote YES blindly, assuming that their union — who, after all, “are actors and stage managers too” — must certainly have their interests at heart.

I know, I hear, and I believe, that the council, and the president, and all those of you who have crafted this letter and sent it out, think you are taking steps with this proposal that will ultimately achieve a better financial situation for us, your actor-members. You have come up with this set of regulations as a prescription for what you somehow see as a large-scale case of actors being deprived of what is their rightful, and realistically achievable, due. But you are basing your suggested new rules on what appears to be either no factual information at all, or some sporadic true facts that you are incorrectly assuming to be far more widespread than they are. Or something. I find it extremely difficult to comprehend why on earth you would want to enact this proposal, given the very easy-to-perceive true harm it would inevitably cause the people you work for, in exchange for absolutely no amelioration of any kind for anything or anyone at all.

Sure, we all want “change” for the better. Who doesn’t? But THIS change will destroy small theater in Los Angeles. Period. It will not garner a single penny more for actors doing 99-seat theater in this city so full of actors happily doing small theater BY CHOICE. It will, however, make it impossible for most of those theaters to keep providing the spaces and the opportunities for thousands of LA actors to do what they choose, and love, to do.

So, actually, a clear and resounding NO vote is what is called for here. NO. “Change?” fine. But emphatically not THIS change!

The utter falsehood you are so aggressively (and inexplicably) promoting is that if we vote for this “change” — which dictates that actors in 99-seat theater must hereafter be paid by the hour, and be paid at least minimum wage — suddenly, magically and spontaneously, all this gorgeous, hidden money will unearth itself and be bestowed upon the actors; the small theaters will continue to put forth all those terrific productions, but, at long last, the actors will be taking home a decent living wage, instead of doing all that wonderful work for next to nothing. Those greedy, unscrupulous producers will finally be forced to stop hiding all those extra profits under their mattresses.

“Actors should be paid for their work.” Hell, YES! Vote YES, and your wonderful work will continue as before, but you will finally be paid four or five times more for it! Sound good? It sure does to me. Thank you and bless you, AEA!!

But it’s a lie. And you know it is. Because all that extra money that your ENTIRE PROPOSAL rests on — the money we foolish, gullible actors are being swindled out of, and which those of us urging a NO vote are trying, so irrationally, to deny ourselves and our fellow union actors, that big pot of extra money out of which all these fabulous, long-overdue higher wages will be scooped — DOES NOT EXIST.

The reality, the FACT, that you continue, over and over again, to ignore, is that all your vacuous, well-meaning pronouncements that “actors should be paid for their work”, an idea that is certainly the opinion of 100% of the membership, and so obvious that it makes my teeth ache to read and hear you repeat it ad nauseam — are based on the completely fictional assumption that most of these theaters are making substantial profits. Profits which they are refusing to share with the actors. And that this “change” will finally compel them to divvy up the copious spoils!

Problem is, that money is not there! The little theater companies are mostly operating in the red. The few that are managing to pay for themselves are doing so at a zero balance. They are NOT making net profits with which they could remunerate their actors at an adequate living wage level. And when THERE IS NO MONEY with which to pay actors adequately, then demanding adequate amounts of money is not only quixotic and naive, pointless and silly, but borders on being dangerously misguided, obtuse, and, finally, destructive to the very people you were elected, and are being paid, to speak for. Please try to forgive the anger apparent in my tone. I respect your efforts and motivation to help actors. This is just not anywhere near the way to do it.

Actors Equity was the first union I became a member of, almost fifty years ago. I have often proudly and gratefully worked as a union theater actor, and reaped the benefits of our various councils’ and representatives’ hard work for us over the years. I have also proudly and gratefully chosen to participate in the 99-seat theater community in Los Angeles, putting in long hours, rehearsing, acting, directing, designing sound, writing music, cleaning toilets, building sets, raising money, donating my own money, staging benefits, begging for money and equipment from friends and strangers to keep the theater going; never making a dime from any of it, and cherishing every minute of it.

I am a firm unionist. The new anti-union movement in this country, and the laws currently being passed in several states under its banner, are severely hurting the economic balance in this country, benefiting the owners more and more, while paying the workers less and less. When garment workers, automobile workers, hotel and airline and steel and restaurant workers, truckers and oil-riggers — the list is endless — when workers who are underpaid vote YES in their union for a proper living wage, they are asking the profitable companies and corporations they work for to share some of the thousands, the hundreds of thousands, the millions, the billions, that those entities make in NET PROFITS, with the laborers who are the lifeblood of the organization. It makes total sense to do so, because the profits are there, the money exists. Those companies COULD pay much more to their workers.

And, very importantly, one would be hard-pressed to find the long-distance trucker, the hotel chambermaid, the coal miner, the busboy, who would choose, would want, would YEARN, to do their job for next to nothing in pay, and cherish even a single minute of it!

The theater is different

But the theater is different. We want to work for money, and we want to make a living, of course!! But only a small percentage of actors actually manage to do that. Not because of stingy producers, but because there are far more actors than there are opportunities for properly remunerative theater work. No actor who does 99-seat theater in LA expects it to pay his bills, or even his gasoline to get to work. Even if he or she got paid an hourly minimum wage for their work, it would barely scratch the surface of what it costs to live. Especially in Los Angeles. But we work in 99 anyway! We create our own theater companies, we volunteer, we freely and willingly participate in what is often truly high-level theatrical work, but for very low pay. Because we understand the simple truth: there is no money available. It’s not about the money — it’s about the work itself. Why would our own union want to take all that away from us? You say it’s so we’d get paid properly. But we won’t. We’ll just not get to work at what we love. So what are you really doing?

Demanding higher pay in LA small theater is like demanding regular rain in Los Angeles. Do LA folks deserve some predictable, consistent rain to fill their rapidly drying reservoirs? You bet. So, vote YES on the proposal for a compulsory six hours minimum of weekly rain. If it doesn’t rain predictably and consistently, then you leave Los Angeles. If you are for rain, you should vote YES. Really? And when that YES vote passes, will it suddenly, miraculously, start to rain for six hours every week? I don’t think so. In that made-up fantasy scenario, Los Angeles would simply become a city without people. Do actors deserve to be paid more? You bet. This proposal demands more pay for actors. So, if you are for change, you should vote YES! Really? From exactly where will all that hourly minimum wage start miraculously raining down on the happy actors? You guessed it. Los Angeles would simply become a city without small theater. And that’s neither fiction nor fantasy.

If your proposal gets the YES vote you are trying to maneuver your own dues-paying members to enact, its only effect will be to take away from those members the opportunity to do the work they love, the work they NEED to do. It won’t get them any more money for doing that work. Your repetition of the delusional idea that it would, will not make it so.

Please, stop pushing this badly conceived plan. Stop repeating your completely inaccurate slogans in order to get us to vote against our interests.

Change? Yes. I am for change: YOU change this proposal. Do the research. Figure out how to make the tiny number of theaters that might actually be earning a profit pay their actors accordingly. Leave all the rest alone. Don’t merely look at the gross annual income. Look at the net, AFTER expenses. If there are profits left over, the actors’ pay should go up in proportion. But only in proportion, and on an individual, theater-by-theater basis. If a theater makes no profits, and the actors want to work there anyway, LET THEM WORK.

If you throw this bad proposal into the garbage and start over, and come up with change that would actually benefit your actors instead of grievously hurting them, then, and only then, will you have actually served and helped the union members you represent. That would be change worth a YES vote. Come on, Equity. You can do it.