In computer science, there are two ways to refer to the objects that we manipulate with the code. The first is “call-by-name”: a pointer to a particular memory location, such as

number.times.lottery.won

The second is “call-by-value” which is the value in the memory location itself:

0

As you might imagine, call-by-name is rather abstract while call-by-value is very concrete. Call-by-value copies the content of the memory location for the code to use. As a result, the content of the memory location is always safely protected. In contrast, call-by-name lets the code directly access the memory location’s content. So, while call-by-name is a more flexible option, it’s also possible to accidentally change the content of memory location (perhaps by another portion of the code). Such a bug will destroy the logic of your program and generate false results.

You learn very quickly to always proceed with great care when using call-by-name.

Recent statements by the Actors’ Equity Association (AEA) reminded me of this distinction. For example, suppose we had a name:

number.actors.99SeatTheater

According to AEA’s own survey, 63% of LA-based actors have participated under the current 99 Seat Plan in the past five years. You might think, therefore, that a call-by-value would be 6500 (the number of LA-based actors) multiplied by 0.63 or

4095

And yet, when the AEA makes reference to the number of actors that will be affected by their new plan, they claim the value is

1500

I’m not sure why there’s this discrepancy. AEA somehow changed the way they calculated the number of actors participating without our knowing it. Perhaps the AEA decided to only count actors participating in the 99 Seat Plan for the previous year and not the past five. The calculation switch makes it seem like the AEA’s newly proposed plan will affect fewer actors. Such is the danger of using call-by-name without extreme caution.

This is but one example of a call-by-name versus call-by-value discrepancy with AEA statements. There are a few others. Actually, and unfortunately, there are more than a few. To prevent this column from becoming too unwieldy in this TL;DR age, I’ve offered up the discrepancies in bite-sized chunks for your masticating pleasure. So pour yourself a snifter of cognac or tumbler of vintage Coca-Cola, sit back, relax, and pluck out a few when you feel inclined. No need to stuff yourself all at once. They’ll still be here as long as Bitter Lemons keeps the lights on:

Union Call-by-Name: Representational Democracy
Actual Call-by-Value: Oligarchy

This is part of what AEA Central Principal Councilor David Girolmo wrote to AEA member Mark Doerr

But make no mistake, decisions are made by councilors every day that may not reflect the wishes of the majority. It’s called leadership, and occasionally the leadership of any association has to protect the membership from itself. You are not privy to all the information needed to make a decision on this matter. Your councilors are. That’s why they were elected.

One might think that the elected leadership going against the wishes of the majority of the members would not be an everyday possibility. After all, there’s no point in having elected leaders if they are not actually representing their fellow actors.

But what really surprised me is that neither AEA Executive Director Mary McColl nor AEA President Nick Wyman have issued an apology or retraction or condemnation of this well-publicized statement. Apparently, this statement is official proof of the contempt the Union must have for its own members.

Union Call-by-Name: Net Revenue
Actual Call-by-Value: Gross Revenue

The AEA has repeatedly espoused the idea that there is money to be made from theater and that others are being paid at least a modest wage “on the back” of the actors. A proof of this statement usually invokes the revenues of specific intimate theaters. Isaac Butler wrote a typical piece along these lines that the AEA posted on its Facebook page.

As a simple fact-check on the Butler piece, I also went to GuideStar.org and looked up “Celebration Theatre.” This is what I found:

celebration theater guidestar

It’s true that when Butler writes his list, he talks of gross revenue – and he gets that number correct: $280,466. But when he discusses this number he pretends it is net revenue. That is, he forgets there were expenses against that revenue. As we see from the GuideStar page, Celebration Theatre lost $62,344 in 2011. So the net revenue – a number that truly reflects the financial state of the theater – has a large minus sign in front of it and would be listed in ledgers as -$62,344. (Yes, in red ink.) In addition, people tend to forget that the gross revenue number includes government grants, many of which can’t be used on productions because they were received for outreach, and donations, most of which come in during December (for tax reasons) and under a theater pitch of “please help us fill the hole we have already dug during the preceding 11 months.”

If you go through the GuideStar numbers honestly, you get a very different picture from the one that Butler presents. Butler has no context for his single point numbers that are misleadingly presented; deliberately so as can be seen from the screen capture above. Mary McColl and Nick Wyman surely know better but the Union promulgated (don’t you love that word?) Butler’s article and conclusions on Facebook anyway.

Union Call-by-Name: LA Theaters not Expanding
Actual Call-by-Value: LA Theater reach has Expanded

The Union claims there hasn’t been enough growth of Equity theaters as a result of the 99 Seat Plan. There are only a few theaters (such as East West Players, The Colony Theater, and A Noise Within) that have moved from intimate to mid-size houses.

That’s a pretty narrow reading of “growth,” however. The cost of taking one physical structure – an intimate theater – and replacing it with another – a mid-sized theater – is monumental by any measure. The few that have made the leap are exceptional and not an expected norm.

What has changed as a result of the 99 Seat Plan is the Ecosystem of LA Theater. To view the intimate theaters as stand-alone entities misses the point. They are, in reality, what MBA’s would call “incubators” where new ideas germinate and get refined. The successful ideas are then fed into larger local theater companies or theaters outside of Los Angeles. Where they generate Equity jobs. There are many recent examples of this feeder-model: Stoneface which originated at Sacred Fools and moved onto the Pasadena Playhouse; Everything You Touch was co-developed by The Theatre @Boston Court and currently playing in New York City; Small Engine Repair originated at Rogue Machine and was then produced in New York City; Bakersfield Mist was born at the Fountain Theatre and ended up in London’s West End; and 24th Street Theatre’s Walking the Tightrope has toured nationally and is about to return to Los Angeles for an engagement at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. Intimate theaters are part of the performing arts tapestry in Los Angeles where new productions are tried and tested. The elimination of such theaters would starve the larger theaters of new work, edgy material, and growing audiences.

If AEA were concerned about creating new Union jobs, they would actively support the 99 Seat Plan for its artistic incubator alone. It would make more sense for Mary McColl and Nick Wyman to be more concerned about their members sharing the success of break-out shows rather than judging expansion and community influence from metrics based on unrealistic theater construction plans.

Union Call-by-Name: Minimum Wage
Actual Call-by-Value: None (Political Sound-Bite)

The AEA baked the name “minimum wage” into their arguments from the get-go. Mary McColl and her Council could have called for an increase in the present 99 Seat Plan stipend (perhaps tying it to inflation) and/or assigning a small stipend for rehearsals (time which is currently gratis from the performer). In fact, some of the more well-to-do intimate theaters already pay more than the required stipend and/or provide a rehearsal stipend as well. So it would have made the most sense if the Union had tried to formalize this informal arrangement across the board.

Punch-Time-ClockBut, by invoking “minimum wage,” McColl brings a whole additional set of costs to the theater (such as workman’s compensation, SDI, FICA, and added administration costs to track hours and pay) that will not even be going to the actor. Further, the AEA pretends that if actors are paid minimum wage, they will still be able to come and go to rehearsals and performances as they please. However, if placed on a punch clock – and make no mistake, being on minimum wage is akin to punching a clock – you best believe the actors will be expected to follow a rigorous work schedule like real employees and be tied to that theatrical production like a real job in a city where the real money is made in film, television, and commercials.

To claim actors need to make minimum wage just as any other employee would earn in any other business in any other industry requires us to accept that live theater is a business. It’s not, of course. Businesses function by making profit. Theaters make no profit. Even the mighty Center Theatre Group asks for National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) grants (and in the past two years has received $100,000) to mount productions. (Go ahead: look for yourself.)

All those thousands of seats at the Ahmanson and Taper and Douglas going for prices of $50 and a lot more – and the Center Theatre Group still requires NEA funds. And even that is not enough. It still must beg for donations.

So what’s a real entertainment business? The movies. Warner Bros. doesn’t ask the NEA to support its business structure. Video games. Nintendo doesn’t ask for donations to keep it afloat.

Theater, however, does not have a sustainable business model. Even hit Broadway shows don’t make their investors rich.

So why did the Union bring up “minimum wage”?

Because of the political importance attached to the call-by-name term “minimum wage.” The Union knows that the phrase “minimum wage” makes a great sound bite because it reduces their entire argument to “we want actors to get minimum wage.” The public will understand that and likely buy into it. More importantly, the Union knows that most City Leaders, especially the Mayor of Los Angeles who is asking for a minimum wage increase, will stay away from any Union fight couched in such terms. The AEA has even claimed that anyone against their plan is “against minimum wage.”

If the Union really wanted actors to get more money, Mary McColl and her Council could have proposed any number of things (e.g. increased stipends or tiered systems). Instead, the AEA’s invocation of “minimum wage” is not about more money for the actor, it is about neutering local elected officials – who are rightly concerned about the negative economic effects the Union’s new plan will have on the City as theaters close or scale-back productions. The AEA is attempting to politically prevent City leaders from championing the local actors and what they bring, both culturally and economically, to the City of Los Angeles.

Union Call-by-Name: Actors don’t even make Minimum Wage
Actual Call-by-Value: Nobody even makes Minimum Wage

As I wrote previously, most intimate theater productions are already straining to pay their actors. The 99 Seat Plan was set up by design to prevent profits from rolling into the theaters: The 99 seat cap limits the number of tickets you can sell per performance and hence limits the revenue per performance. This cap ensures that if the actors weren’t getting paid (because they had a Union waiver) no one else would be getting paid either because there was no money to pay anyone.

And it worked. To the best of my knowledge no one gets paid a whole lot for intimate theater. Not the directors. Not the costume designers. Not the set designers. And certainly not the stage managers. (Did you forget that the new AEA plan affects them as well?)

Now Mary McColl states that the actors need to get paid just like everyone else.

Well, the actors are getting paid just like everyone else! I have yet to find anyone getting paid more than minimum wage. Okay, maybe a board op or two is “raking it in” at minimum wage. Maybe. But if I’m an actor, I’d gladly donate the pennies I’m receiving in my stipend to ensure that I have lights shining on me when I step onstage.

Go ahead. Talk to costume designers. Or set designers. Half the time they are donating their tiny stipend towards the costumes and the sets!

Maybe Mary McColl should have asked for the actors to get paid just like the costumes.

Divide all these tiny stipends (if they exist at all) by the number of hours worked on a production and you’d be better off financially if your job included your saying “Do you want to make that a combo?” Tech week alone will likely put you under the minimum wage benchmark.

Now, there are a lot of theaters in Los Angeles. It’s possible I missed one. Or two. Or a hundred. So feel free to contact me with real examples – where names are named – of situations where intimate theater production folks were stuffing a minimum wage in their pockets. Because, so far, the claims of these wealthy individuals who have infiltrated our theaters are as elusive as those communists on Senator Joe McCarthy’s famous list.

And this seems as good a place as any to address those comments from McColl and others that additional money will “just have to be raised” to be able to pay the actors (and cover the new overhead costs in doing so). It’s been my experience in academia, government, and business that those who cavalierly say such things have never had to consistently raise money and certainly not for their own salary. But if someone out there does have a Midas touch, please do tell the rest of us how it’s done without bake sales or car washes or naked actor calendars or just plain naked actors asking for donations. There’s a lot of people willing to be educated. Besides, doesn’t it make sense that guaranteed fund-raising strategies should be in place before the new plan is implemented? In the meantime, I present this sobering view of what to expect from public funds – which have flatlined for the last 20 years. Read it and weep.

NEA Historical Appropriations 957 px high

Union Call-by-Name: Producers
Actual Call-by-Value: Actors

Nowhere is the disparity between Union Name and Actual Value clearer than the description of the group that plan and execute the productions. The 99 Seat Plan allowed actors to control their own destinies by permitting the formation of non-profit membership companies. The actors could choose plays of interest and audition for roles that stretched them. The actors became their own producers.

It’s just one of the reasons why 3/4 of the audience at a recent Town Hall meeting – called by the Theatrical Producers League of Los Angeles – were actors [emphasis mine].

This actor-producer hyphenate issue leaves the Union with a serious messaging problem: If most of the intimate theater productions in Los Angeles are actor-run then who exactly is abusing the actors over pay? While it’s another neat sound-bite for the AEA to frame the discussion as Actors vs. Producers; it’s hardly factual. In reality, the most vocal, aggressive pushback to the new AEA plan is coming from the actors themselves including some familiar faces like Ed Harris.

Unions formed in a time when there were clear capitalists (aka “the bosses”) and laborers (aka “the masses”). Strength through solidarity was the only way for laborers to effectively negotiate with the bosses. But many workplaces today are more complex than the traditional management-laborer construct because they includes entrepreneurs, who are a blend of manager and laborer. In fact, the “actor-producer” hyphenate might also be considered the same call-by-value as “artistic-entrepreneur.” The AEA needs to acknowledge the realities of the changing artistic frontier. In fact, the Union itself helped create the conditions for the actors to become their own bosses. This is a major accomplishment for the labor movement which can have lasting effects. It remains a mystery why the AEA does not encourage more evolution in this actor-as-boss model and instead clings to a 100-year-old world view of actor versus producer.

To be sure, the new AEA plan allows for self-production. However, it strips away the ability to form a non-profit around the production and that means no tax-deductible donations or government grants. Mary McColl and her Council, who claim to want to raise the financial situation of their membership, are actually saying that it will end up costing their membership more money if they want to create productions as before.

Union Call-by-Name: Increased Pay
Actual Call-by-Value: Decreased Pay

Mary McColl says she and her Council heard the actors’ call of “more pay.” Her response to “more pay” was a plan for an across-the-board hike to $9/hour, including rehearsals. Sounds like the Union is helping to increase what the actors will be taking home, right?

Well, not exactly.

In sophisticated financial analysis, you can’t just take the face value of an item, you have to look at its expected value. The expected value is the face value multiplied by the probability that the item will actually be worth the face value. For example, suppose you buy a lottery ticket. The jackpot may be $10,000,000. However, the probability of winning the jackpot is 1 in 175 million. So the expected value of your lottery ticket is a little less than 6 cents. Sure, if you win, that’s a valuable piece of paper. But it’s far more likely you will lose and the piece of paper is worthless. So, total expected value? 6¢. Since you don’t know if your ticket is a winner or not, this is the number you must use in any economic calculation.

What does this have to do with the pay for the actors?

Simple: You can’t valuate the take-home pay of an actor without also including the probability of being cast so the actor can collect.

How do we find that casting probability? Well, we begin with the fact that the AEA plan increases the costs of productions. By a lot. (Remember it costs the theaters more than $9/hour to pay the actors that hourly wage.) But how can we increase ticket revenue to match? Remember that the shows are held in limited-size theaters built to a 99 Seat Plan which was designed to prevent the turning of a profit! And while the new AEA plan does remove the old ticket price cap of $34.99 (again imposed to prevent theaters from gaining profits), removing this cap hardly matters since few shows are even able to charge the full price cap now. Bottom line: ticket revenue won’t cover the new costs.

Therefore, we turn to external funds. But we’ve already seen that government grants have been flat for 20 years. And given our aging infrastructure that needs replacing and the soon-to-be skyrocketing costs of energy, no one expects new monies to be given to the arts any time soon. The only choice left is to beg for even more donations. Which now won’t even be tax-deductible.

See you all on Kickstarter?

What should be obvious from this discussion is that there is no hidden cache of cash hiding behind some pink unicorn who lives at the end of a rainbow to cover the additional costs mandated. (But if you do know where that unicorn lives, please stop keeping it a secret!) The Union plan is literally going to break the LA Theater bank.

And when theaters don’t have the funds for shows they’d like to produce, they will be forced to resize their seasons and shows to be consistent with the funds they do have. In other words:

  1. fewer productions
  2. fewer actors per production

Either way, casting opportunities will vanish.

This is why actors (not producers) have been the loudest voices against their own Union’s plan. I’m guessing those surveyed actors who expressed a desire for more pay assumed the Union leaders understood the difference between expected value and face value. Yet, in Mary McColl’s attempt to increase the face value of the actors’ wages, she and her Council have seriously decimated the possibility of those actors being cast to collect on those wages. In other words:

Under the new AEA plan, the expected value of the actors’ wages will go down.

Which kinda negates the whole point of introducing the new plan in the first place, doesn’t it?

Sure, under the new plan, the few actors in Los Angeles who get cast will receive a tiny bit more money. But for the rest, there will be a disproportional decrease in productions and stages available. Worse still, when a species goes extinct in an ecosystem, it can’t be recreated. The permanent obliteration of the venues and member-companies that make up most of the onstage opportunities for Los Angeles actors is a very real possibility. The cure that McColl and her Council offered the membership is, in fact, worse than the disease.

Union Call-by-Name: A Similar Plan works in
Actual Call-by-Value: So? (False Equivalence)

earth-mars-relative-size“False Equivalence” is a fancy East Coast prep school way of saying “don’t compare apples to oranges.” An example is helpful:

  1. Polar Bears are indigenous to Earth.
  2. Earth is a planet.
  3. Mars is a planet.
  4. Therefore, Polar Bears are indigenous to Mars.

Seems ridiculous, right? Here’s another one:

  1. This AEA plan works in Philadelphia.
  2. Philadelphia is a city in the United States.
  3. Los Angeles is a city in the United States.
  4. Therefore, this AEA plan works in Los Angeles.

And yet this exact argument is being promulgated (boy, do I love that word!) as some sort of “proof” of the soundness of the new Union plan. Both arguments are seriously flawed because – ta-da! – you can’t compare things based on call-by-name (“planet” or “city in the United States”); you have to compare them based on call-by-value. In other words, it is the qualities (the values) of Earth that allow polar bears to be indigenous: a singular ecosystem, a particular evolution. Specific fauna do not live on just anything named “a planet.”

Similarly, specific plans do not work in just anything named “a city.”

A singular artistic ecosystem (number of actors in LA, availability of theaters, etc.) and a particular evolution (the infrastructure that has grown around the current 99 Seat Plan over the past 30 years) make Los Angeles distinct from other cities in the United States (just as New York and Chicago are). Therefore plopping the Union’s new plan into the Los Angeles ecosystem and expecting it to work is as ridiculous as plopping a polar bear into the Martian ecosystem and expecting it to survive.

Union Call-by-Name: A “No” vote is against Change
Actual Call-by-Value: A “No” vote is against the New Union Plan

Obama and PalinPresident Obama has detractors on the left and detractors on the right. The detractors on the left are upset that the President has implemented a drone program and allowed the NSA to domestically spy. The detractors on the right are upset that the President is a Democrat. Both sets of detractors want change. The detractors on the right offer up a new candidate, Sarah Palin. They attempt to convince the detractors on the left that Palin is better than President Obama because, well, at least she’s not President Obama.

How many on the left do you think would vote for Sarah Palin based on that argument?

And how many on the left do you think would vote for Sarah Palin if they were told that if they wanted to see Hillary Clinton as the Chief Executive, they need to vote for Sarah Palin for President.

Because this is essentially the argument that Mary McColl is making.

If you don’t like the AEA proposal cast a vote (in the non-binding way the Union allows you) of “no.” A “no” vote does not mean you are against change. A “no” vote does not mean you insist on volunteering your services. A “no” vote does not mean you believe the NEA should be shut down. And a “no” vote does not mean you believe in the single bullet theory.

A “no” vote means you want Mary McColl, Nick Wyman, and their Council to scrap what they have put on the table and go back to the drawing board. And even with the mixed metaphor, it’s that simple.

Union Call-by-Name: The AEA is Working for its LA members
Actual Call-by-Value: The AEA Working against its LA members

Yes, I know. Mary McColl, like President Nixon, claims she’s heard from a “silent majority.” Well, I can trump that: I’ve heard from the more silent super-majority. And, just as with McColl, you can’t prove I haven’t! These folks are silent after all.

Look, some might see all this as “Union bashing.” But I don’t believe AEA is acting like a Union at all. It might still be a Union in name.

But, lately, I’m not sure of its values.

 

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
9+1 Musings Since the Release of the New AEA Waiver Plan
Show Me The Money

Originally published March 15, 2015 in Bitter Lemons.