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