There’s been an interesting development in the small theatre/AEA controversy in LA. Actors have banded together to sue their own union.
Part of the complaint is that the union ignored the will of its members when members voted down, by a 2-to-1 margin, AEA’s proposed changes to the 99-and-under code. To be fair, AEA signaled from the start they were going to do exactly that if the LA membership voted against them by telling them before the vote that it was “non-binding.” It doesn’t get clearer than that that a union has no interest in members’ opinions.
A major component of this fight is that LA actors are worried that AEA’s changes will force the LA small theatre scene to go largely nonunion.
Of course the plaintiffs are right. Indie theatre dominates the small theatre scene nationwide since so many places have no showcase, 99 seat, or waiver in place, or very limited ones. LA will just be joining the rest of us who produce indie theatre. I would imagine that LA AEA actors are upset about this because small theatres do the lion’s share of new plays and experimental new work. I’ve seen firsthand that many AEA actors are frustrated that they can’t get in on that. The indie scene is the literal ground floor of the theatre industry, discovering and developing the nation’s new talent. AEA contracts are limited in any market– most of the AEA membership is unemployed in any given week– and they’re usually offered by larger companies doing more traditional, safer, road-tested work, or new work by well-known playwrights. It’s no secret that large companies are risk-averse because they’re reliant on risk-averse subscribers and corporate funders.
It all comes down to funding. A large theatre with a massive overhead, including wages, building costs, and enormous production budgets, must scramble all day, every day to come up with that amount of money. They’re going to be risk-averse in programming so they can attract more subscribers and donors, most of whom come from an older, wealthy, white demographic, as well as corporate funding that doesn’t want to attach its name to controversial content, and very much does want to attach its name to glamour– star writers, star actors. Large theatres have developed relationships with foundations for years, decades even, and those foundations respond by awarding them the vast majority of the available funding. Meanwhile, most small companies are shut out of most funding streams. Companies under 100K a year– many thousands nationwide– are shut out of most grants out of hand, and the hundreds of companies between 100K and 1M are competing for an ever-shrinking slice of the pie.
The numbers are even worse when those theatres are theatres of color (which are underfunded at every level), proving that these funding decisions are not based on merit.
When you allocate the vast majority of funding to the same handful of large theatres year after year, who still must also cater to the tastes of their wealthy white subscriber base and conservative corporate patrons to make budget, it’s going to create a certain landscape. When you insist on defining “small theatre” as companies with a $1M annual budget or less, and then give all the “small theatre” money to those $1M theatres, it’s going to create a certain landscape.
You cannot make enough money in ticket sales for experimental new work to pay AEA wages. Sure, every so often you have a hit, but when you’re producing full seasons, year after year, show after show, you’re just not going to make enough money in ticket sales alone to pay all your bills, let alone union wages. This fact was so obvious to everyone, we created the 501c3 model around it, enabling these theatres to get grants and donations to make up the gap usually filled in other countries by government support. For quite some time, it was possible for small theatres to grow into larger AEA theatres. It was a little golden window of time. And then enough changed (detailing everything that changed about the American economy, funders, and the nonprofit theatre community would be a lengthy post all on its own) to make that growth well-nigh impossible for most small theatres. Some do grow– a few get through the glass ceiling. But for most small companies, growth is simply no longer something you can choose to do. Either you win the funding lottery, or you do not.
We deny most companies– most companies are small companies– the means to pay AEA actors and then refuse those companies waivers, saying they somehow magically “should” be able to pay AEA wages.
OF COURSE most theatres in the country are indie. OF COURSE nonunion actors are the ones getting most world premiere gigs by hot new writers. That’s the financial landscape we’ve created.
Actors in LA decided they would like to continue to have the option to work at small theatres that can’t pay union wages. It’s astonishing that they aren’t allowed that choice, and it’s astonishing that a common response is the demonstrably untrue “denying waivers protects union wages.” Since AEA wages are set by contract, they can’t be impacted by small theatres using waivers or showcase codes. A large theatre can’t suddenly decide to start paying less while they’re under contract. The existence of a waiver agreement at one theatre has as much impact on the existing contract at another theatre as a same sex marriage contract has on an existing heterosexual marriage contract. And when that AEA contract is up for renewal, the theatre can point to the existence of waivers all they want, but AEA isn’t going to agree to lower wages in the renewed contract, nor should they. So it’s just silly to pretend that shutting down waivers “protects” wages. Waiver work impacts no one but the actor doing the work. Either that actor gets to do the show, or they sit at home while a nonunion actor takes the role. AEA has decided that their actors should sit at home, and that this “encourages” theatres to grow.
But they’re wrong. Small theatres can’t be “encouraged” to grow any more than you can “encourage” a drowning person to breathe. We’re throwing out one lifeline per 1000 shipwrecked sailors in the theatre ocean.
Until the financial landscape changes, nothing else will change. Large theatres will be largely risk-averse, and most of the risk, the new writing, the experimentation, will continue to take place in indie theatres who are lucky to be able to scrape together small stipends for their nonunion personnel. Not every artistic risk or exciting experimental work is going to be a big seller, but that kind of work is enormously artistically fulfilling.
AEA has a choice: they can continue to move the country towards a more and more indie scene as they continue to gut waivers and showcase codes, or they can increase showcase codes and waivers for companies that meet strict financial requirements and empower their members to take the gigs now going to nonunion talent.
Either is fine, of course, from a producer’s standpoint. The indie scene doesn’t actually need AEA actors. We’d love to work with our friends, and it would be great to access a larger pool of actors, but it’s not necessary. We build your actors in our factories. We develop the nonunion actors you eventually sign and collect dues from. Your actors come from our theatres; they don’t spring full-formed from the head of Lynne Meadow.
AEA has pretended for years that they’re “encouraging” growth by shutting down waivers, but we all know that’s impossible, especially now, when the funding has been so dramatically tipped away from those small companies. The choices for most of us aren’t go indie or get more money to pay AEA wages. The choices are produce as an indie or stop producing. Most small companies are indie not because we’re horrible people who don’t want to pay actors, but because that’s the one option available to us.
So the real choice AEA faces is: Do you allow your actors access to the indie scene? Or do you work to keep it 100% indie? In LA, actors voted for the former, and AEA essentially told them to shut up and sit down. This lawsuit is the result, and we’ll see how that goes.
Until we change the funding landscape, the indie scene is only going to grow larger. There’s only so much funding for theatre out there, and it creates a finite number of AEA contracts each season at larger theatres. There is no magical untapped funding stream. Any company who gets money is getting a piece of a predetermined pie. Denying waivers will not create more funding. It just creates more indie theatres.