Four score and seven years ago, physicist Paul Dirac combined the “wave mechanics” that Erwin Schrödinger developed while on a weekend romp with his mistress in the Swiss Alps with the “time-is-money principle” developed by Albert Einstein when a Fig Newton dropped on his head. The result? Dirac discovered that substance came in two forms: “Matter” and “Doesn’t Matter.” It turns out when “Matter” is exposed to “Doesn’t Matter,” the two will annihilate each other and release a tremendous amount of energy, usually in the form of political heat.
Actors’ Equity, the stage actors’ union, has been skilled in employing this exotic physics to eliminate Los Angeles actors’ issues over the recent months:
A “Matter”: Equity interpreted their commissioned survey incorrectly. It then used these mathematically erroneous interpretations as the foundational justification for its entire campaign to do away with the 99 seat plan.
Equity’s response: “Doesn’t Matter.” Equity still hasn’t dealt with this error in any statement. It won’t even admit the factual error.
A “Matter”: Los Angeles actors asserted artists are not laborers and therefore the universal minimum wage pay proposed was wrong-headed and hurtful to the LA theater community. In fact, even Los Angeles labor leaders are trying to get an exemption from the minimum wage law if union workers are involved.
Equity’s response: “Doesn’t Matter.” According to Equity’s Big Brother organization, AFL-CIO, uber-progressive Tim Robbins is against the working man because he is against the new plan.
A “Matter”: Los Angeles actors clearly let Equity know what it thought of the new plan, providing a stunning defeat of it in a referendum by a 2-to-1 margin.
Equity’s response: “Doesn’t Matter.” Equity decided instead to bring up the number of participants in the vote as an important metric.
A “Matter”: The preeminent LA stage company, Antaeus, just broke ground on a new cultural arts center – and theater home. It is obvious that such a major undertaking takes years of deliberate planning. Planning of which Equity was aware.
Equity’s response: “Doesn’t Matter.” Despite already knowing that Antaeus was about to move into a new facility, Equity justified scrapping the old 99 seat plan, in part, by complaining that LA theaters were not growing into new venues.
A “Matter”: Equity classifies actor-producers as employers and therefore maintains these individuals cannot participate in leading the discussion under an edict of conflict-of-interest or interference of labor union business.
On the other hand, Equity says “Doesn’t Matter” when First Vice President, Paige Price, is also the Artistic Director of Theatre Aspen and has even produced theater at the Lincoln Center.
And yet another “Matter”: Los Angeles actors had considerable influence on the recent national Equity election. Although Equity doesn’t track votes by division, based on candidate positions we might assume most of the 1,754 votes for LA candidate for Western Regional VP, Donal Thoms-Cappello, came from the same people voting against the new union plan while most of the 769 votes for LA candidate for Western Principal, Kyle Nudo, came from those previously voting for the new union plan. The 2523 total votes represent 80% of the 3121 votes cast in the referendum election, a plausible 20% drop in turnout. In addition, the ratio of Thoms-Cappello to Nudo votes is 69.5% to 30.5% – quite close to the original ratio of 66% to 34% in the referendum vote. Since the voting estimates fall into several plausible patterns, it is reasonable to conclude that the total Los Angeles vote is about 2500.
So, 2500 votes cast in LA out of 6182 cast nationally. In other words, Los Angeles – by itself – provided a stunning 40% of the total vote. And perhaps more impressive: More than 1 in 4 votes in the national election came from people who were against the new union plan.
That’s enough to have a significant impact on the election results.
For example, there is no doubt that Sid Solomon, who barely became an Eastern Principal with a slim margin of 42 votes, owes his entire victory to his engaging Los Angeles members on their Pro99 Facebook page.
Newly-elected union president Kate Shindle similarly engaged the LA community on Facebook as well as appearing at a Pro99 gathering in Los Angeles. She beat incumbent president, Nick Wyman by 305 votes. Was this a result of the LA voter block? Possibly but Larry Cahn was a third-party spoiler and received more than twice that difference in votes. Shindle’s victory was some mixture of the two elements.
Naturally, Equity has reacted with a strong “Doesn’t Matter” to the general outcome of the election. It realizes that the votes cast represent only 14% of the 43,000 total membership. (Equity needs to stop inflating their total membership to 50,000 in press releases when they report only 43,000 to the government.) In other words, the Great State of Apathy is really the strongest voting block within Equity. In fact, 6 of the 8 officer positions were uncontested (the President and Western Regional VP elections represent the exceptions).
Furthermore, incumbent Nick Wyman essentially ran a non-campaign without issuing any statements at all. And yet Wyman still came within 305 votes of winning the election.
That substantial LA voting block? Doesn’t Matter. When 7 out of 8 officer positions (Western Region VP Doug Carfrae was re-elected) are identical as pre-election and the eighth, newly elected President Kate Shindle, says that the new plan – though thoroughly rejected by Los Angeles – should be pushed through as “a test drive,” the election didn’t matter. Most of the 80-ish Equity council seats weren’t even up for election. And most of the open seats were retained by the incumbents.
Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.
In fact, the bar is so lowered on expectations of Equity “leadership” that key candidate platform issues amounted to election transparency and listening to members. And why not? Equity can report results and send email responses without changing course. Matters brought up will be met, and neutralized, by “Doesn’t Matter.”
And now Equity has an additional physics option to negate LA Matter: Time. When the Equity council approved of the final plan on April 21, they set a clock in motion. All new rules won’t begin until June 1, 2016. While this schedule rightly gives producers time to plan for the change, it also gives a false sense of reprieve for Los Angeles. The future date therefore diffuses the urgency that LA feels in fighting the union plan.
Little wonder, then, that on May 26, Equity decided to postpone a planned series of face-to-face meetings with the LA membership about the new plan implementation. With the general conversation firmly under Equity control since the national election, these meetings now serve no purpose for Equity and only remind LA what the union is about to do to local theater culture while simultaneously giving the LA actors a rallying event at which to speak.
The postponement is the clearest sign that Equity is attempting to run out the clock. The new plan takes place in a year’s time but Equity knows that long before that year is up, grant cycles will need to be met and donors will need to be engaged. Every day that ticks by makes it surer that the LA theater community will be acting “as if” the new Equity plan is in place – at least if it wants to avoid a potential dramaticus interruptus. It’s another reason why Equity classifies the LA voting block as “Doesn’t Matter.” Since the internal union politics can’t be changed within the year, by the time non-New-York cities assert themselves within the council, the union plan will be an operational fact.
So what does matter to Equity?
Public opinion. Institutions can only function under a glow of respectability. That is why they guard their reputation so jealously. And why public critiques always will get institutional attention. It’s why Equity leadership trivialized its own celebrity members who came out against the new union plan. It’s why Equity leadership tried to shame members for a single image in an advertisement of a massive public gathering in front of Equity’s LA building.
Equity wants to keep this fight away from the public eye particularly at a time when unions are trying to reestablish themselves nationally. Having a continued public rebellion within the ranks would not make Equity leadership very happy. The Los Angeles theater community knows this.
Will it matter?
Originally published June 16, 2015 in Stage Raw.