Understanding the moment-by-moment emotional drive of a character is fundamental to good acting. That’s why the most clichéd of all actor statements is “What’s my motivation?” (To which Alfred Hitchcock would reply “Your salary.”)

When an actor judges a character – imposing their own world view on what the writer wrought – the ability to understand motivation is lost. Or as my acting instructor often said: “Vampires aren’t trying to hurt you, they just need your blood to survive.” Die Hard is a classic film in part because of Alan Rickman’s portrayal of a villainous psychopath. Are we surprised to learn that Rickman felt his character was neither a villain nor a psychopath? A good actor will never judge a character. Actors – good actors, anyway – prepare for their roles with great imagination to ensure that each of their actions comes from a justified place.

After all, no normal human being acts against their own self-interest.


And yet that is exactly the reaction of many actors, especially those in New York City, who wonder why Los Angeles actors are fighting so hard to protect 99-seat theater. These actors assume that Los Angeles actors don’t want to get paid.

Does any rational person not want to be paid for their work if money is available?

These outside-LA actors are judging. They are not bothering to dig. They are not bothering to investigate motives that make sense. I bet they’d easily figure out rational justifications for the murders in Sweeney Todd or Jekyll & Hyde if they performed in those shows.

So why not treat the LA actors’ behavior with the same open-minded intellectual curiosity? It’s not as if LA actors haven’t explained in detail the reasons for their wanting to keep intimate theater intact. In fact, some have gone so far as to provide data. Like numbers and everything.

And yet some actors outside of LA have cavalierly dismissed hard data – numbers and everything! – with words like “anecdotal.”

Are these the same actors that will spend weeks in preparation looking at nuances of semi-colons versus dashes in scripts to understand better their character’s motivation?

The motivation dilemma cuts both ways. Just as I expect actors, who are trained to investigate and discern character motivations, to try to understand what is going on in Los Angeles, I’ve been thinking about why Actors’ Equity is pushing so very hard to eliminate the 99-Seat Plan.

After all, I trained as an actor, too.

I admit, Equity’s motivation hasn’t been easy to understand. Union President Kate Shindle is on record that the 99-Seat Plan prevents her from sitting across from producers and “[arguing] with a straight face that our members need a pay raise…”

I can’t square this assertion with the fact she just closed a negotiation where actors will get a cut of the action if they are involved in developing shows. There are a lot of shows developed in 99-seat theaters. You’d think that Equity would want to encourage the opportunities for actors to make some real money later by maintaining the robust art ecosystem provided by the present, affordable, 99-seat theater.

Then there’s the idea that Equity wants to eliminate the 99-Seat Plan because it was contrary to some labor codes and therefore illegal. Well, that’s nonsense because, first, Equity developed the Plan and, second, Equity allowed the Plan to continue in a transition period during an ultimate phase out. So clearly, Equity didn’t think it was illegal.

Maybe Equity’s motivation is to purge the ranks of actors who only provide receipts to the union from dues and not from weeks worked. Money can be a powerful motivator. When Equity joined the AFL-CIO in 2013, it incurred more financial obligation per capita than it had while under the 4As umbrella. Don’t take my word for it. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka mentioned it in his remarks during the charter ceremony: A 3-year transition schedule of increasing payments starting in 2013. Which means full burden by 2016. That’s this year.


The increased per capita financial commitment Equity has to the AFL-CIO wasn’t mentioned in either the Equity or AFL-CIO press release of the event.

And then there are numbers. I’ve written before about how Equity’s own membership numbers show an average contraction of 16% of members in their 10 largest membership cities in the past year:

AEA change of membership 2014-2015

These are Equity’s numbers as reported to their membership. They are not mine. Are these numbers anecdotal?

And what of the numbers that Equity provides to the US Government? Every year, unions are required to submit an LM-2 Labor Organization Annual Report. These numbers, too, tell an interesting story.

AEA splash pageEquity officials often state that the union has 50,000 members. In fact, a banner across Equity’s login page boldly proclaims this number. And yet that number doesn’t square with what Equity reports to the government. According to Equity’s LM-2 forms, the 10-year average number of members is 42,288. That’s 15% lower than the number officials tell union members. Even if one is rounding to the nearest 10,000, you wouldn’t come up with the larger number.

I’ve heard that the 50,000 number represents anyone associated with the union, including those who haven’t paid their dues. But seriously: do you think you could get Equity to back you against a producer if you weren’t dues-paying? And if you haven’t paid your dues, you can’t vote in Equity elections. This is entirely reasonable but it also means that Equity doesn’t really consider these people active members.

A union can declare on its LM-2 form which members have voting privileges (active) and which don’t. For the past 10 years, Equity has never reported anything but active members. It therefore remains a mystery how they continue to quote the 50,000 number. The why is more obvious: an inflated number can be used to give a certain impression when negotiating with producers.

Other actor unions do differentiate between voting (active) members and those that can’t. Here’s how the number of Equity’s active members compare with the number of active members in other actor unions (SAG numbers represent both before and after its merger with AFTRA in 2012):

Actor Union Sizes final cropped

If you stare intensely, you can see that Equity has had some very small growth over the past decade but this pales in comparison to the baseline of both SAG and AFTRA.

One way to measure the health of a union is to find the income each member brings (on average) to it. If we use the total receipts reported each year by each union and divide by the number of active members, we find:

Actor Union Per Capita Income cropped

From this graph, it’s quite clear that the fortunes of Equity have been in a steady, decade-long decline, particularly since the number of active members has been fairly constant.

There are really only two ways to increase Equity’s per capita income: increase the income of each member or decrease the number of members who aren’t high earners. This latter strategy also has the benefit of lowering any per capita payments Equity makes to the AFL-CIO.

Perhaps this is the reason Equity chose the past year to attempt to eliminate the 99-Seat Plan. The Plan (by Equity’s design) brings no money to the union and never will. Eliminating the 99-Seat Plan will drastically reduce the potency of LA’s theater scene. This would likely cause many LA actors to see little advantage to their union cards (many Los Angeles LORT shows are primarily cast out of New York). If the LA membership declined, Equity would, without a doubt, be a New York City (e.g. Broadway) union – the place where all the highest paying theater jobs are. What was once a union of diverse voices representing many diverse concerns across the country would become more of a Broadway-oligarchy, where the top stage earners control the destiny of live theater acting for the entire United States.

Can I prove unequivocally this is Equity’s motivation? No. But that leaves a very large number of facts that Equity has yet to explain – including a flawed survey interpretation and a total disregard of an unprecedented landslide rejection by Los Angeles of Equity’s actions.

By this point, of course, some folks might be wondering about my motivation in writing this article. An easy answer is to suppose I’m “anti-union.” But I’ve never been called a racist for questioning the wisdom of Justice Clarence Thomas nor a misogynist for dismissing the views of Senator Joni Ernst.

Stage actors are quick to point out there are significant emotional benefits to live theater. They’ll quote research like a recent study that claims students who were exposed to stage productions developed “greater tolerance” and an “improved ability to read the emotions of others.” If that wondrous state of being happens to students merely visiting a theater, imagine the growth benefits to stage actors who practically live in theaters!

So when we talk of stage actors, we must be referring to a bunch of high empathetic, insightful, and tolerant individuals by both training and environmental exposure, right? Stage actors who should be able to recognize that the Los Angeles actors passionately advocating for 99-seat theater are just as motivated by both art and remuneration as they are. Stage actors who couldn’t possibly dismiss numerical data casually. Stage actors with the skill and empathy to understand actual driving motives, not fanciful ones. Stage actors who wouldn’t judge the goings-on in Los Angeles and would instead investigate the facts to determine motivations.

So, I guess it’s fortunate that Equity is a stage actor union. If only the rest of us could figure out Equity’s motivation.

Originally published April 19, 2016 in Footlights.