As if their press release earlier in the week wasn’t enough, Actor’s Equity has distributed another press release today in a reaction to the Plaintiffs’ Statement published yesterday. Some context and analysis follow after the Union’s official statement:

Actors’ Equity Association Executive Director Mary McColl issued the following statement:

Actors’ Equity Association (Equity) remains disappointed that the facilitated discussions with the plaintiffs in the Asner vs. Actors’ Equity lawsuit were unsuccessful.

If the end of the facilitated talks brings the service of the lawsuit, Equity will stand up for its members and will immediately file for a dismissal of all claims brought in the suit. Equity, a labor union representing more than 50,000 stage actors and stage managers across America, was founded upon the belief that actors should be paid for their work and treated fairly. Actors on Broadway. Actors in Kansas City. Actors in Los Angeles. All actors.

The lawsuit, which is procedural in nature, claims that Equity did not follow the steps outlined in a 1989 settlement agreement to alter the terms and conditions by which 99-seat theatre is produced in Los Angeles. Some producers and actors in Los Angeles, however, claim that the goal of the lawsuit is to retain a system that allows producers to cast actors in productions without paying for their services. And the plaintiffs have been talking about it.

Absent the facts, confusion is created. The plaintiffs have been generating misinformation while at the same time releasing insupportable “data” as their rationale for why actors should not be paid.

Let’s look at the facts.

More than 7,000 Equity members live and work in Los Angeles County. Despite being the “entertainment capital of the world,” with actors flocking from around the globe to Southern California, Equity’s data reveals that LA County actually provides less paid work for stage actors than markets such as Baltimore/DC, Boston, Chicago and Minneapolis/St. Paul.

Incredibly, in the most recent period where data is available (2014-2015), LA County (with 7,000 members) had 6,500 paid work weeks for Equity members; whereas, Baltimore/DC (with 854 members) had more than 8,700; Boston (with 845 members) had over 7,900; Chicago (with 1,589 members) had more than 15,800 paid work weeks; and Minneapolis/St. Paul (with 437 members) had more than 6,700.

The fact that these far smaller markets eclipsed LA in paid work weeks confirms the fact that a theatrical community can thrive and still pay the performers.

As you drill further into the data, more interesting facts about the plan become apparent. During the same period (2014/2015), there was a total of 11,013 unpaid work weeks for actors in Los Angeles County. If those unpaid work weeks were actually paid work weeks, then 99-seat theatre would represent the second largest source of paid employment in the Western Region – second only to LORT.

In markets from Seattle to Chicago, unpaid work weeks are below 1%. This begs a simple question: How is it that the rest of the nation can afford to pay its actors who perform in small theatres, yet Los Angeles cannot? Equity takes great pride in the diligence with which its producing partners nationwide work toward adding contracts. It’s time LA producers — some of whom are incorporated as not-for-profits, but all of whom sell tickets to their productions — play by the same rules as everyone else.

Another argument often cited is that the system results in creating productions that go to Broadway. While it’s true that some shows have made the move, the path is not a direct one. Generally, years of work in multiple productions on paying contracts occur before a production that began in a 99-seat theatre makes it to a Broadway production. Along the way, there may be productions in LORT or other theatres, changes are often made and enhancement money may be made available for development. The data shows that when a 99-seat production is staged again, the actors in the original cast — who were not paid a wage to develop the work — seldom move on with the production. One production, SMALL ENGINE REPAIR, has been cited as an example of a 99-seat production that moved to New York, but, of the actors in the original cast, only one (who was also the playwright) made the move, which was two years later.

The old 99-Seat Theatre Plan represents an unnecessary and avoidable roadblock for actors in Los Angeles attempting to make a living in live theatre. An ecosystem has been allowed to develop where even midsize theatre suffers because it is competing with a small theatre system that pays actors little, if anything at all. This has created a downward spiral, or race to the bottom, where the real losers are the actors, the stage managers, the audience and the theatre industry overall.

It is one of the founding principles of Actors’ Equity Association that those who work in live theatre deserve to be paid for the work that they do. Every actor and stage manager who has joined this union has agreed to work under conditions that, to the best of Equity’s knowledge, are most beneficial to the whole. This is one of the fundamental definitions of a union. When an actor works through a rehearsal break, he or she contributes to an expectation that everyone else will give up that break as well. When an actor develops work without ever expecting any return on that development, he or she makes it more difficult for colleagues to ask for developmental compensation. Finally, when a member — any member — works for a few dollars a show, with no pay for rehearsals, he or she damages the earning power of every other member, both monetarily and philosophically. This has not been an easy process, but Equity is committed to doing the right thing.

It is for these and many other reasons that Equity stands behind its decision to bring Los Angeles County in line with the rest of the nation, and defend its members’ right for fair compensation.

Several observations immediately come to mind:

1) One condition for the talks to occur between L.A. and AEA was that Mary McColl be removed from the lawsuit. Now that the talks have been terminated, Mary McColl is back as spokesperson.

2) In 2015, Mary McColl kept claiming, without providing proof, there was a silent majority in Los Angeles waiting to support the AEA agenda to disallow the 99-Seat Plan. The subsequent election was a clear landslide rejection of AEA’s new plan. This creates serious credibility problems on McColl’s statements.

3) Mary McColl, when announcing the 2-1 landslide rejection, included the statement:

Council will take into account the percentage of members who voted, the number of votes cast and the results, as well as the information that you have shared with Council over the last several months.

When was the last time the number of people who voted in an election was part of the equation? Nevertheless, a historic 45% of eligible voters turned out. This is more than 3x the voter turnout for the recent Council election. So, there is no doubt that the Los Angeles theater community thoroughly rejected the new plan as proposed by Equity.

There was never a public admission by the Union that their referendum campaign, despite the significant resources poured into it, lost in a landslide on a scale seldom seen in elections.

Moreover, the disproportionate rejection was completely consistent with all the other information L.A. shared with the Council during the process.

4) Despite Equity’s continued claims, there was nothing in that vote that stated Los Angeles wanted to maintain the status quo. Equity wrote the ballot with a simple statement to the effect: “Do you want to implement the specific plan Equity proposed?” The response was a resounding “no!” However, most of the Los Angeles theater community is also on record for saying “Change but not this Change.” In fact, this was a theme in the Equity-sponsored town hall meetings. Equity surely knew the sentiment in Los Angeles about ways of updating the system.

5) Many of the producers in Los Angeles are working actors themselves. The Union, built on an old idea of employer/employee bifurcation, does not recognize the complex role of the entrepreneur. However, in the 21st century, that is precisely what many actors are. Rather than waiting for opportunities, actors are creating them for themselves. Once an actor becomes an entrepreneur, however, the Union can disallow that voice in meetings – despite collecting full dues from that member.

6) Equity has had a poor relationship with numbers. Their interpreted results of a Los Angeles survey were not consistent with the mathematics of the survey. This is not an issue of the quality of the survey itself – it’s that Equity’s interpretation of the survey’s results are not supported by the data they collected.

Equity also has inconsistent membership numbers: what the Union claims to the public is not consistent with the numbers the Union submits on official government forms. The Union reports on its website it has over 50,000 members, while the last number reported to the government (2015) was 43,648 members and the 10-year average membership is 42,288. That’s 15% lower than what they report in public. Unlike SAG-AFTRA, Equity does not report inactive members despite having a space on the government forms specifically for that category. In any case, Equity obviously doesn’t represent their inactive members since it doesn’t allow them to vote.

Actor Union Sizes final cropped

In addition, the city membership numbers the Union reports to its membership show contraction:

AEA change of membership 2014-2015

Given the continued numerical inconsistencies, there is reason to scrutinize the claims made in Mary McColl’s letter and not take them at face value. When Vanessa Stewart looked at the intimate theater scene in a numerical way, she released her entire database to the public.

That’s how you know when someone is confident and sure of their claims. It’s also the best way to see if someone is cherry-picking results to suit an agenda.

There are many ways for Equity to release their database without violating confidentiality; clinical studies with confidential medical data do it all the time.

7) There is evidence that Equity does not understand how to implement the plan it keeps pushing. When confronted by The Theatre @BostonCourt’s sincere concerns regarding plan implementation, Senior Union official Gail Gabler could not respond in any substantial way. In fact, one solution offered by the Union wasn’t even legal.

The Union’s position clearly hasn’t been thought through by the Union officials. And that’s a bad way to approach art financing.

8) And the evidence Mary McColl presents undermines her own theory that unpaid (e.g. volunteer) work prevents paid work in L.A. When her cited work weeks are put into the proper context of local actor population, it’s clear that LA is an outlier:

300 dpi Equity Actor Work Weeks - AEA paid-unpaidThis graph of McColl’s own numbers makes obvious the 99-Seat Plan is a minor, not major, force in the employment dynamics for actors in Los Angeles.

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The underlying tenor of all Equity’s public comments is that the Union better understands what is going on in Los Angeles than those who are living and working in the City of Angeles. The Union shows no respect to its local actors or their own personal experiences.

And with these latest remarks, Mary McColl shows no respect to the idea of Union itself. Her comments are very much about pitting other cities against Los Angeles. It’s similar to the tactics of political parties that attempt to exercise power by creating class warfare. The elite corporate interests are what are truly at stake; here represented by the Union’s version of the 1% – the actors playing on Broadway.

When facts are on one’s side, there is no need to appeal to emotions. Equity could not appeal to the emotions of the local L.A. actors who are thoroughly aware of the facts in their own neighborhood. So, the Union is now trying to appeal to the emotions of the national membership. And it appears the Union is willing to sacrifice its version of the middle class to do so.

As laid out above, there are many facts that Equity has deliberately avoided addressing or explaining. Addressing and explaining these facts would be a good starting point if the Union’s case has real merit and is for the benefit of all its members.

Update July 8, 2016: Analysis point #8 was added to the list.


Originally published June 30, 2016 in Footlights.