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.