I’ve been trying to figure out how to write about the imbroglio in the Los Angeles theater community over the past few weeks–since Actors’ Equity, the stage actors’ union, announced plans to change the city’s local 99-seat showcase code–and I keep coming back to a conversation I had with the artistic director of an arts center that presents independently produced theater productions (the sort of experimental contemporary performance I write about). He’d been involved in several projects and initiatives that sought to figure out how to better compensate these artists for their work, and among other recommendations, one such panel had simply suggested that artists make less art, on the dubious grounds it could increase demand for the remaining pieces.
To which I suggested that if the purpose was to pay artists some sort of minimum for their work, perhaps they should just form a union to require institutions such as the one he ran to ensure that artists made such a minimum while they were working there, and preventing his institution from presenting works that violated such wage minimums. To which he responded with some version of: “A union? Are you kidding me?”
The point isn’t to throw stones at some anonymous figure (who, for the record, has instituted several initiatives to ensure better compensation for artists). Rather, it’s to get at one of the core problems we in the arts face whenever we try to deal with these sorts of issues. Even the best meaning people, confronted with the practical reality that our behavior would have to change in order to achieve the ends we want, tend to retreat from the positions they hold so dear. It’s easy to say, “We value paying artists a living wage for their work,” but much harder to change our own institutional behavior to make that happen. And this is the problem which lies at the heart of the controversy playing out in Los Angeles in increasingly vitriolic terms.
For those uninitiated in the finer parts of the theater business, the “showcase code” is an exception written into the Equity contract which permits members to perform in certain sorts of shows that can’t pay them union scale. Theoretically (and this is the big issue here), these sorts of shows are supposed to be “showcases”: a chance for the participating artists to show off their skills in the hope of landing a bigger, scale-paying job. In order to qualify as a showcase, the production has to operate with certain limitations that prevent from being in any way a sustainable not-for-profit or commercial enterprise. The big one is that the house can have no more than 99 seats, hence the shorthand “99-seat rule” for the showcase code. Other limitations are on the maximum ticket price ($18 in NYC), the number of performances, and so on, and vary city to city. LA’s had been in place for nearly two decades, when Equity saw fit to propose dramatic changes, the biggest one being that any Equity member would have to be paid at least the minimum wage in LA for rehearsals and performances.
That of course dramatically increases the cost of any given production, and 99-seat and under producers and their artist allies cried foul, quickly forming a grass roots “pro-99” campaign, with the website Bitter Lemons, which covers LA theater, becoming a major outlet for diverse voices.
The problem is that since the initial reports came out, the tenor of the debate has become increasingly shrill and combative, in many ways in response to the perceived pro-Equity stance of a variety of writers, such as Isaac Butler and American Theater‘s Rob Weinert-Kendt, the former of who has become an ongoing target of the pro99 side’s ire.
The major complaint against Butler stems from a piece published on Feb. 28, in which he wrote: “Like many New Yorkers (and non-LA people) following this issue, I had assumed […] that this fight was between small, scrappy theater companies and Equity, that these companies were similar to the kinds of companies that produced under the showcase code in New York.” Which, he points out, is not necessarily the case.
The crux of the issue is that, as Butler points out, some of the most prominent companies operating under the showcase in LA seem to have budgets and total revenue in excess of what you’d expect from the sort of company that claims it can’t pay actors at least the minimum wage.
As Butler points out, in NYC the dividing line between an independent theater company that can operate on the showcase code and one that must honor the Off-Broadway scale pay rates is $200,000. Yet of a dozen of the most prominent theaters whose future was supposedly put in threat by Equity’s changes, for whom Butler was able to check their 990 forms (required reporting of non-profit budgets), only two of the twelve had “gross revenue from all sources” of under $200,000. One had gross revenue in excess of $1 million.
The reason for the discrepancy between New York and LA rests in the existing 99-seat code. Specifically, the existing plan (see here for PDF) allows for up to 40 performances for a production operating under it, and ticket prices up to $34.99. In NYC on the other hand, performances (for a basic 99-seat production) are limited to no more than 12 over a 4 week period, and ticket prices are capped at $18.
All of which led Butler to point out: “Yes, there many producers within the 99-seat plan who have very little money and look a lot like the indie theatre companies of New York, but there is a concerted effort to portray the entire scene like it’s the Brick. And it’s not. There are off-broadway sized theaters paying actors next to nothing for their work, and my guess is that’s why Equity is clamping down so harshly.”
In this he’s not wrong, but the response has been increasingly vitriolic. Today, for instance, one of the main writers at Bitter Lemons called Butler out for, as he put it in a sensationalistic headline, declaring “the Majority of People who Make Theater in Los Angeles ‘Quasi-Amateurs’.”
If you’re wondering why someone like Butler would say something like that, it’s because it is, more or less, true. Insofar as Equity defines a professional production, performances conducted under the 99-seat-code are actually the same as amateur productions (which consist of non-professionals, i.e., non-Equity members), to which Equity members volunteer their time and talent in the manner of a “subsidy.” Of course, when we talk about theater in general, no one makes that distinction. The 99-seat rule is so ingrained that it’s become more or less synonymous with the notion of Off-Off-Broadway, which, in the listing section of most papers, is divided from Off-Broadway based on the number of seats in the audience. Artistically speaking, no one buys Equity’s essential argument, which is that 99-seat productions aren’t professional, and indeed, such productions vary dramatically in quality, budget, compensation, etc. Which is why Butler qualified it as “quasi-amateur.”
The point is that the discussion has become utterly ridiculous at this point, and is the latest in a depressing string of stories about how incompetent the theater world overall is dealing with the notion of compensating actors. Much as the Flea has been justifiably criticized in New York for employing an all-volunteer company of non-Equity actors called “the Bats,” despite having raised $18.5 million for a new space, so too are a certain segment of small theaters in LA been called out for their labor practices in light of Equity’s action.
Now, mind you, that latter bit is actually the most important thing to note. No one really supports Equity’s solution overall (myself included); it throws the baby out with the bathwater. Yet no meaningful action has really been initiated within that community (anymore than in NYC) to ensure actors get better compensation. Equity stepped in with a dramatically damaging plan to solve the problem (by killing off their members’ participation in performances that don’t benefit them anyway), and in response to Equity’s inappropriate, one-size-fits-all approach, the local LA community circled the wagons and elected to throw nasty accusations at anyone who pointed out the issue was perhaps more complicated than a big union (Equity: it’s like Hoffa, with showtunes!) destroying a vibrant theater community.
Yet ironically, what I think reading about a story like this in LA, or experiencing similar controversies (and trying to help take part in solutions in NYC) is the sheer failure of imagination that infects a field that prizes itself on its artistic creativity. Consistently I’ve seen the willingness to view the compensation of performers as one of the last things an institution or producer values. It’s really a matter of passing the buck. Smaller companies seem to operate on the notion that the ability to pay something approaching a living wage for the work performed on a show (forget long-term employment, of course) is a matter of historical coincidence. The major regional theaters, the larger institutions, which mostly formed in a more hospitable economic climate decades ago, are apparently the only ones who should ever be expected to pay professional wages. Otherwise the idea seems to be that smaller institutions should be able to grow as much as possible, in terms of artistic ambition and technical sophistication, while relying on the desire of willing participants to contribute free or under-paid labor towards that effort, forever moving out the baseline for compensating them.