Yesterday, I finally punched out some very quick thoughts on the controversial move by Actors’ Equity Association to make radical changes to LA’s 99-seat showcase code, and I felt like I should come back to it to more fully address what strike me as the most important issues raised by what’s going on there.
To briefly recap, Equity has proposed changes which essentially make it impossible for members to take part in small indie productions by requiring those producers to pay at least minimum wage for Equity members’ labor. This radically increases production costs and presents an existential threat to the health of a vibrant small theater community. On the other hand, it appears that LA’s more flexible existing showcase code has permitted some small theaters (particularly those most critically recognized) to grow much larger and robustly funded than, say, their New York counterparts.
While it seems clear that Equity’s move is overkill–throwing the baby out with the bathwater–the controversy nevertheless reveals the pernicious degree to which the devaluation of performers’ labor has become endemic in American theater. This is hardly limited to LA.
The problem, it seems to me, stems from the fact that the American theater is an essentially broken enterprise. As a notion, “theater” is dead, in the sense that the term now refers to a business model that’s failed at almost every level. For scrappy independent theaters, it’s unlikely that they will ever be able to produce a self-sustaining enterprise, trapped between decreasing public money for the arts, extreme competition for foundation money (itself limited at this end of the spectrum, wherein most companies are not actual 501(c)(3)s, but rather fiscally sponsored non-profits), declining returns on new models like crowdfunding, and the unwillingness of audiences to pay a ticket price that supports production costs (coupled with Equity’s intent, through showcase codes, to ensure that by limiting ticket price and the number of performances that the shows are not sustainable through selling tickets). The mid-size and regional theaters are more or less caught in the same funding trap, with admittedly more access to individual donors and more robust development staffs. Off-Broadway houses, once seen as a more artistic realm as opposed to the nakedly commercial Broadway, are themselves more or less indistinguishable from Broadway these days, serving as the launching platform for the next round of Broadway talent (underwritten by their non-profit status). And then there’s Broadway, which, insofar as it’s the center of commercial theater is the US, is more or less a tourist trap or a place for self-aggrandizing rich people to underwrite money-losing shows.
Taken as a whole, it’s a rough story. Plenty of people love the theater, and not just those who work in it. But overall the American theater seems increasingly homogenized. Even local differences, such as between New York and Chicago, are being flattened out. Manhattan Theater Club’s two most recent shows, The World of Extreme Happiness and Airline Highway, are co-productions with Chicago theaters (the Goodman and Steppenwolf, respectively). The American theater is, as an ecosystem, like a pyramid, with local talent at best feeding ever upwards into big productions in the cultural metropole(s), which then feed that work back to the major regional theaters, which year after year stage last season’s big Off-Broadway and Broadway hits in cities all over the US. In the current controversy in LA, it’s depressing to me that one of the most often mentioned factoids by the pro-99 camp is the number of shows that have made it from LA’s theater scene to places like New York and London’s West End. That is success of a sort, but as a justification for LA’s vibrancy (which, again, doesn’t permit for paying actors living wages), it’s like celebrating yourself for being a farm league. Which surely does an actual discredit to the talent, passion, and ambition of LA theater artists.
There is a problem with refusing to acknowledge how LA’s theater scene fits into the broader landscape of American theater. The entire system is sick–we all can admit that, I think–which is the only way we can call a scene “healthy” and “vibrant” that’s developed a raft of critically acclaimed small theaters with substantial budgets that don’t permit them to pay money to support the artists whose work is at the core of their mission. The only health involved, apparently, is to be measured in relation to a sickly, interrelated ecosystem.
If this seems abstract, I don’t remotely believe it is. Consider the actual core issue here: Equity contracts. No one has ever suggested that one has to be an Equity member to take part in a small theatrical production. But as LA Weekly has reported, 63 percent of LA’s Equity members have performed under the showcase code over the past five years alone. If so many actors are willing to do the work for essentially no pay (or certainly less pay than a living wage; keep in mind, Equity is merely demanding the actors be paid minimum wage, currently $9 an hour in LA) then why, one might ask, are so many of them in a union in the first place?
The answer here is actually rather complicated. Actors are, more or less, artists. I equivocate because some of them really do just want to be famous film actors, and many are basically just skilled artisans trained in a craft, whereas others bring a complex set of tools to a project that surely deserves to be distinguished from the rest. In any event, call it “artistic passion” or mere narcissism, there are lots of people who love being onstage and performing. Far more than the market can bear, which pushes down their cost. And in the end, this is important: theater as an art should not be judged solely in economic terms, nor should the labor of artists be reduced to mere wages. If either position were fundamentally true, the theater would have died a long time ago. We shouldn’t think of art merely as labor.
But it is labor in part, and that’s where it gets tricky. As a commercial activity, theater was killed by the media a long time ago. It’s continued existence is owed to various sorts of interventions in the market–the perceived social and cultural value that gets organizations funding from public and private entities and persons, the passion of the artists who get something more than cash from making it–that taken as a whole represents a social intervention to sustain the theater at levels and in a form that the market alone would not bear.
This is the crux of the problem. We’re constantly deciding the shape and the form of contemporary theater at almost all levels, and the ongoing failure to prioritize to pay actors is not the same as making peace with reality, it’s a collective decision about how we prioritize the allocation of what resources we have. Equity is itself an imperfect entity to support actors, but it’s also the only organization seeking to collectively represent their interests. Otherwise, insofar as they are workers, they operate in a completely unregulated labor marketplace, a de facto laissez-faire environment.
Equity’s interruption of this marketplace is complicated, which is why it has so many members willing to work for less than their own union requires them to paid. (What other union has to have a special code to permit this eventuality?) In recognition of the fact that certainly some institutions do have budgets big enough that actors deserve to be paid a legal wage, the union exists; yet because most performers make decisions as artists rather than mere workers selling their labor, they do low- or no-pay shows that interest them at least as much as they “do it for the opportunity to get a paid gig later” (which is the logic behind the showcase code in the first place).
Operating this way–from the perspective or art rather than work–many actors are eventually forced to join the union in order to take advantage of artistic opportunities unavailable to them at smaller scale theaters. Since these larger institutions at some point reached an indeterminate border which meant they were deemed well-funded enough to be required to be paid decent wages, they are unionized and represented by Equity. In order to impose some sort of order, the union therefore bizarrely exists to delineate what constitutes professional (union house) versus non-professional (small non-union house) work, at the same time it more or less accepts that “non-professional” is no less artistically valid and important as the supposedly “professional” work.
What this leaves LA facing is a strange argument: the union has stepped in to try to reset the baseline after which it demands better compensation for its members (while not actually requiring these institutions to pay full scale). While I agree it’s an overreach and ultimately damaging to artists and the art, it leaves the pro-99 side–who have vocally objected to those pointing out that this community of theaters is a complicated, asymmetric grouping of organizations–essentially refusing to budge and acknowledge that perhaps some of those institutions should have had to make changes structurally to better compensate actors.
I understand why. It’s become a yes or no issue–to support or oppose Equity’s changes. But the fact it’s happening represents a collective failure to prioritize supporting artists. In the end, it’s clear that the artists lose either way: If Equity succeeds, actors in LA theater will defined purely as workers with no exception to pay rules in any circumstances that permit to practice art other than as minimally compensated labor; if it fails and the status quo prevails, it appears likely that, having circled the wagons, the LA theater scene will continue developing and trying to grow a set of core institutions outside a frame work that formalizes the value of artistic labor.