The Actors’ Equity Association (AEA) has proudly announced its new plan where, with few exceptions, union members must be paid no less than minimum wage.
This has understandably sent some shock waves through our intimate theaters because – let’s face it – they were already “non-profit.” It’s not like they have profits to cover these new costs. So where will the money come from? The same places it has always come from, of course. Traditionally, these theaters raise money from (a) ticket sales, (b) government grants, (c) outside donations, and (d) personal money stashed under mattresses.
To help theaters pay their actors more, the new plan has finally done away with the ridiculous cap on ticket price. At long last, intimate theaters are free to charge more than a piddly $34.99 per ticket. Except few seats sell at that maximum. Is it safe to assume that theaters never want to leave money on the table and are already charging the true top market price they can get for a ticket? I think so.
So scratch extra money from ticket sales.
Next, let’s look at grants. The chart above shows the yearly total amount the federal government appropriated for the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) since its inception. I’ve adjusted the figures for inflation. (Don’t worry about the two entries for 1976. That was when Congress decided the fiscal year should start in October rather than July.) The good news is that despite President Reagan wanting to close the NEA when he took office in 1981, the agency is still with us. The bad news is… well, you can look at the graph. The last 20 years have been funded roughly at the same level as the fractional year in 1976! I think this picture represents the relative art funding at both the state and municipal levels as well. And since we presently don’t even have enough funds for the little things in life (such as repairing roads and aging infrastructure and making sure our water and air are clean), it’s reasonable to assume this trend won’t change anytime soon. And that trend is one of flatlining.
So scratch extra money from government grants.
But what about private grants or personal outside donations? Again, I’m guessing the theaters are already pulling in as much of this money as possible. After all, it’s far easier to beg for an extra $1000 over the amount the foundation was originally committed to give rather than sell another 50 $20 tickets. Moreover, the pressure on the finite number of private grants will increase as every theater will be looking for more money to pay the additional actor compensation.
So scratch extra money from outside donations.
We are left with a real conundrum. How will theaters cover these AEA mandated costs?
Let’s go to the mattresses. Specifically, the personal coinage that people involved with the production have stashed there. We simply need to increase the money levels traditionally donated by company members. This can be easily accomplished: if the theaters were to pay the actors more – say 2x the minimum wage – the cast will have plenty of money to give and the additional AEA mandated expenses will be covered.
Now I’m not naïve. I know theaters won’t offer the actors a single penny more than they have to. (That’s why the union was contacted in the first place!) So the mission is clear: convince the AEA to increase the actors’ minimum salary more. By at least 2x the minimum wage. Better yet, let’s make it 3x.
Then everything will work out nicely.
Tell the AEA that they didn’t raise the actors’ wages enough. But act quickly. For the AEA already believes their new plan has solved the present theater crisis in Los Angeles and they want to lock it in immediately.
Other thoughts about Actors’ Equity actions:
9 + 1 Questions that AEA has Yet to Answer
Even 9 + 1 More Musings after AEA Votes to End the 99-Seat Plan
Flawed Union Math
9 + 1 More Musings during the Los Angeles Vote on the New AEA Plan
When Unions Strike
Union Names and Actual Values
9+1 Musings Since the Release of the New AEA Waiver Plan
Originally published February 10, 2015 in Bitter Lemons.