Tag Archives: AEA

AEA Should Be Making Realistic Choices, and I Wonder If This LA Lawsuit Will Wake Them Up

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.

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AEA Waivers: Not Your Enemy

While everyone’s in a great mood about the SCOTUS ruling, I figured now is a good time to post something controversial, right? It’s always a good idea to bring up the fact that you changed your major from biology to theatre while your parents are still partially buzzed from the craft brew your brother brought on 4th of July. So pull up a bottle of Red Dead Redemption (that really should be a craft beer– one of you get cracking on that), keep your rainbow flag in view, and hear me out.

Everything related to AEA is a hot topic. Publicly discussing its policies and procedures is like navigating a minefield. So I’m going work to be as dispassionate as possible in laying out my point of view.

AEA stringently restricts waivers, and it’s easy to understand why. They’re a union, after all, and one of the main functions of a union is to get the most money possible for its members within a given industry– unions seek to insure that a fair percentage of a company’s operating costs are allocated to its workers. They exist to protect workers from exploitation.

Theatre is an odd industry. It’s actually many disparate industries, which makes any AEA issue a bit more complex. Commercial theatres run by global megacorporations like Disney exist alongside nonprofit companies ranging from 50K a year indie storefronts to multimillion dollar LORTs, which exist alongside community theatres, touring companies, multimedia events, TYA, solo performances, you name it.

Because AEA is working within such a complex environment, it has multiple contracts and agreements of varying sizes differing by geographical area, which makes perfect sense. A Disney Broadway production has very different working conditions, requirements, and expectations than, say, a staged reading at a small nonprofit, and the AEA members in one geographical area may agree that their needs are different than members in a different geographical area.

And then there’s the waiver. A waiver enables a union actor to perform with a company small enough to meet certain requirements for less than the lowest union wage for that area. Waivers are not currently available in all areas of the country, and they vary widely in requirements and restrictions. All agreements and codes are publicly available on the AEA website, if you’re interested in checking out their differences.

Here in the Bay Area, the waiver is called the BAPP– Bay Area Project Policy. BAPPs require companies to be under a certain annual budget, they require the production to be under a certain budget, they require the space to be 99 and under, they limit the number of rehearsals and performances the actor is allowed to do, they limit the number of rehearsal hours the actor is allowed to do, and they require the actor be paid the same as the highest paid person working on the production, not counting the playwright. A theatre company is only allowed to use a BAPP for three years. Once a BAPP is used, a company has three years to use the agreement a limited number of times, and then the agreement times out. Theoretically, exceptions to those rules can be made, but they are exceedingly rare. Once a company times out of the BAPP, it must either work within one of the existing Bay Area contracts or join the ranks of the indie scene. The Bay Area has one of the most active, vibrant indie scenes in the nation in addition to the many excellent companies working under union contracts. Of the 350 companies producing in the Bay Area, 50 are AEA theatres.

I believe that the terms laid out in the BAPP are perfectly reasonable– apart from restricting usage. (MINEFIELD!)

I don’t believe waivers should be so deeply restricted in our industry. AEA actors should be given the power to choose when (and how often) they will work under a waiver. Companies and productions small enough to meet AEA’s requirements for the BAPP should be allowed to finally say yes to the AEA actors who want to work with them. Apart from the very reasonable restrictions on size, budget, stipend, and production schedule, waivers should be unrestricted, and nationwide. There are many benefits, and no downside.

I’m very pro-union– if I weren’t pro-union, and unwilling to violate AEA rules, I wouldn’t have any need to question its policies, but because I respect the union, I think it’s important to honestly discuss the impact its policies have on our community. Whenever I’ve publicly discussed this issue, I’ve received a deluge of responses. The arguments I regularly hear against waivers are discussed below. But– and this will likely be the most controversial thing I say in this post, but it’s the truth– every time I have publicly discussed this issue, I get private responses from AEA actors who support expanding the waiver but believe they cannot say so publicly or in meetings. Every single time. So I think it’s important to make a space for honest, respectful discussions about them.

1. Waivers reduce the value of the work and bring down wages. This is not possible under our current system. Denying waivers cannot protect union wages, or impact them in any way, because the two have no functional overlap. AEA controls who qualifies for waivers, restricting their use to the smallest of theatres. Larger theatres working under AEA contracts are following a wage schedule set by AEA. They may wish to use a waiver or pay actors less, but they cannot. Companies may claim that waivers have devalued the work when their contracts are up for re-negotiation, but AEA will not– nor should they– agree to reduce wages accordingly. Since contracts are already in place that control the wages paid to union actors, there simply is no function for waivers at small companies to impact wages at large ones unless AEA agrees during contract negotiations.

When there have been controversial AEA decisions around new agreements, like with SETA, where some union members felt they were unheard or even screwed over, the membership should hold them accountable. But when, as with SETA, the union is attempting to take nonunion jobs and turn them into union jobs, waivers in use by much smaller companies elsewhere have zero impact on that wage-setting. What the nonunion actors were being paid for those jobs at those companies may have some impact. What similarly-sized companies are already paying union actors has some impact. But what a tiny waiver theatre, by definition far too small to be covered by the contract being negotiated, pays its actors is completely irrelevant– again, unless AEA agrees.

If anything brings down “the value of work” (meaning: compensation), it’s funding. In an industry where labor supply far outstrips demand, actors are making a very respectable percentage of overall operating costs. The nonprofit theatre allocates 53.1% of their operating costs to payroll, according to TCG, which, when evenly divided between administration, artistic, and production, would be 17% each, but in reality breaks out to 18.1% artistic, 20.6% administrative, and 14.4% production. The issue is that the industry has very, very little money, and 18.1% of the nonprofit theatre industry’s operating costs doesn’t amount to much. TCG reports that in 2011, their 1876 reporting member theatres made 2.04 billion dollars combined, from all sources of income, earned and contributed. That’s 1.09 million a year per company. TOTAL. Google spends that much in a quarter on break room Snapple. There just isn’t much to go around in our industry. (The idea that administrative costs should be reallocated to artistic costs is a conversation for another day, but remember that that would require a complete overhaul of our system, top to bottom. Right now, theatre companies must work every single day at tasks like payroll and bookkeeping, keeping insurance up to date, filing forms with the IRS and the state, paying bills, doing maintenance and janitorial work, generating production earned income statements and reconciling performance rights owed, in addition to the never ending, daily development work required to pay for it all. For every fighter pilot, there’s an entire support staff doing the hard work required to keep that pilot in the air. We can’t allocate more money to artistic unless artistic takes on those daily admin tasks in addition to their own artistic tasks, or unless we devise a system that does not require that level of admin support but still somehow generates that level of income. Again: a conversation for another time.)

With so little money to go around, it’s impressive that AEA has achieved such a strong foothold in a market that could theoretically go completely nonunion. I don’t advocate for that– I think the union provides extremely valuable protections. All I’m saying is that waivers, no matter how many you allocate to the tiny companies that qualify, cannot impact AEA wages at larger theatres without AEA consent, and that we already know what impacts wages the most in our industry, whether we care to admit it or not.

2. The existence of small theatres in general depresses wages because they take business away from larger theatres. I don’t believe this. I believe a rising tide lifts all boats, and that someone who enjoys a show at one theatre is more likely to attend another theatre, not less. How do I know this? I’ve been teaching for almost 25 years. I’ve taught thousands of nonmajor university students, all of whom I required to see plays at local theatres. Over those years, countless students have told me that their experience in my class turned them into theatregoers. One sweet older man I’ll never forget told me he believed he hated theatre when he started my class, but it was the only class he could take that fulfilled a requirement before graduation, and now he and his wife were planning vacations around plays they could see across the country. I have dozens of stories like this, and I’m hardly alone. Take your students to the theatre– especially to small theatres doing unexpected, exciting new work– and see what happens.

3. If you’re not making enough money to pay AEA wages by three seasons, you’ve failed and you should shut your doors. You don’t deserve to produce (and its cousin, Denying waivers encourages theatres to grow). This oft-cited opinion has a number of inaccuracies I’ve addressed many times elsewhere, so I’ll try to be brief. Basically, in 2015, growth isn’t a choice you can “encourage.” An enormous percentage of grants require an annual budget floor of at least 100K, some even going as high as a million dollars. The funding that used to get small companies from that 50K annual reachable goal to that first 100K tier has largely evaporated. Pointing to the few theatres who DO manage to grow is meaningless. Someone has to win the lottery, no? For everyone who gets that funding, there are hundreds who do not. But what about earned income? Surely you could increase sales? Increase ticket prices? The entire point of the 501c3 was to decouple theatre production from the need to turn a profit, so those nonprofit theatres would be free to experiment with the art form and produce new work, neither of which are usually big sellers, and make up the difference with donations and grants. For many companies, doing more commercially viable work directly compromises their mission– which was meant to be par for the course for 501c3 theatres. (And of course there’s the very real consideration that even work considered “commercially viable” loses money all the time, so there are no guarantees.) Most importantly, it flies in the face of everything for which we say we stand to equate worthiness with money. The three highest-grossing films of 2014 were Transformers: Age of Extinction ($1.104 billion), The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies ($955 million), and Guardians of the Galaxy ($774 million). Three films, all by themselves, made more than the entire TCG membership’s seasons combined. Does that make those three films more artistically successful, more desirable, more worthy than every TCG theatre in the nation? Did every TCG theatre in the nation fail? Then why are we assuming small theatres “should” be making a certain amount of money, “should” be willing to compromise their missions in order to do so, and are “failures” if they do not? Why do we assume small theatres all should be growing into large theatres? They’re two different animals. Some companies want to grow and some do not. Growth is a for-profit imperative, not a non-profit one.

And let’s be real– increasing sales is just not always possible. You only have so many seats in your theatre, and so many performances available to you, either contractually or practically. Just jacking up ticket prices is not always the answer either. There’s only so much you can charge for small theatre, and it’s not enough to pay the bills AND get you to that 100K threshold, let alone 1 million. This is why nonprofit theatres are always asking for donations and applying for grants. Ticket income alone isn’t enough.

It’s a sure sign that someone has no idea what it’s like to produce small theatre seasons in 2015 when their response is “just get more money.” I hear a lot of “well, I grew my theatre 30 years ago,” or “I produced 3 hit shows in New York.” OK. But I assure you that producing small theatre seasons, year after year, in the 21st century, is a completely different situation. If you’re one of the theatres getting those grants and growing your company: I sincerely applaud you. And I ask you to remember that, for every grant awarded, many are turned away. Your experience does not mean the world operates that way for everyone.

4. Actors deserve to be paid for their work. Well, of course they do. We all do. No one is arguing against that, and, for that matter, no one actually believes anyone is arguing against it, despite the popularity of this argument. Framing the conversation about waivers in this way is just disingenuous. It’s pretending that a waiver company simply believes that artists don’t “deserve” to be paid in order to make those companies sound mean-spirited instead of just poor. If we were seeing a large discrepancy between what admin at waiver companies are paid vs artists, this argument would hold water. The reality is that no one at these waiver companies is being paid much. Waiver companies are, more often than not, groups of people held together by a shared love of an artistic vision. When a union actor chooses to work with a waiver company, it’s because of the shared vision. Everyone working on that production “deserves” to be paid, but all of them have chosen to work for less than what they “deserve” because the project is personally meaningful to them in some way.

There are thousands of small theatres across the nation that are doing high-quality work on a shoestring budget. Actors, both union and nonunion, might wish to participate in that work for a variety of reasons. Theatre is art, and the money one gets from practicing one’s art is sometimes a secondary consideration if other considerations are more personally important. It’s rare to land a role that’s both artistically fulfilling and financially fulfilling– well-paid roles are rare in general due to lack of funding and the oversupply of actors. Very few actors regularly land roles that are both artistically and financially satisfying, and everyone understands that this is the case going in. For every Sutton Foster, there are literally thousands of women who didn’t get cast. People don’t become actors because they believe they will be able to make a living at it. It’s no secret that most AEA actors don’t make their living as actors. AEA’s latest report showed that just 41.3% of the membership was employed in the 13-14 season, and that 41.3% averaged just 16.7 weeks employed during that time, an average that’s barely budged in years. That means even the actors who are landing gigs– just 41% of the membership– are still spending 2/3 of the year unemployed. Of course, that’s on average. We all know the reality– a handful of actors make their living solely as actors and bring up those weeks, while the rest are only working a few weeks a year.

With such dismal employment numbers– numbers that have been this dismal for our entire lives– why go into acting? What draws so many people to this profession? We all know the answer. It’s a calling, an art. People do it for the love of it. Of course, we all would prefer to make money, but it’s a reasonable, logical conclusion that many artists would sometimes be interested in doing a show for other reasons– because it stretches them artistically, because it’s an exciting new show by a playwright they believe in, because the show is written from a perspective or about a topic close to their hearts, because it’s a dream role they may never otherwise get to play, because it’s the actor’s own company, or many other reasons people feel compelled to practice their art apart from money. We all have artistic goals and dreams that are unrelated to money. If money were our primary motivation, we would not have gone into this industry. The reality is that there are some situations for all of us where there are more important concerns than money. Not every time, and not for every person– I don’t mean to imply that money should always be a lesser concern. But sometimes, for some people, it is.

When a small theatre that would otherwise qualify for a waiver but is denied one due to timing or geography, does a show that a union actor wants to be part of for reasons that are related to personal fulfillment, the union currently prevents that actor from making that choice. The denial of the waiver doesn’t create a union job, or have any effect whatsoever on union jobs elsewhere. The role goes to a nonunion actor and the production proceeds as planned. The only person impacted in any way is the AEA actor denied the role. The choice to play that role was denied that actor. I’m approached every season by union actors who want to play specific roles, or who want to be part of specific shows because they’re excited by the project or the playwright, and I must always turn them down because we timed out of the BAPP. A few seasons ago, a union actor called me wanting to play a certain role s/he would have crushed, and I called AEA to go to bat for this actor to see if I could plead for a BAPP even though we had timed out. Of course, I was turned down. The AEA rep I spoke to said, “Actors need to be protected from what they want.” A total of 28,763 AEA actors did not work at all last season (58.7% of their 49,000 members). They need to be “protected” from doing waiver shows? “Protected” from practicing their craft? How is forcing them to sit home idle “protecting” them? It’s not like they’d be choosing a waiver show over an available union one, since there are many more union members than there are union gigs, many more waiver theatres than there are union theatres, and almost no available funding to change that in any meaningful way.

Who does it harm to allow AEA actors who would otherwise sit at home to act in indie shows if they so choose? Who does it help to deny actors that choice, given that there’s no possible way for that choice to impact union wages elsewhere unless AEA makes that happen? The show is still getting produced, and that role will still be played by an actor who will still be paid that stipend. What does it really accomplish to force that AEA actor to sit home idle? Waivers do not have the power to impact other contracts. They do not have the power to convince AEA theatres to go indie. They do not have the power to depress wages. They are not magic. Their terms are completely controlled by AEA. The only power they have to is to put an AEA actor who would otherwise be idle back where she belongs, when she chooses, on her own terms.

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The Problem with AEA

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What I wish I had been able to do this week

I haven’t posted in awhile because I’ve had a crazy busy week. Among a few other magical surprises, my company lost an actor, and it turned out that, because the show was a commission being built specifically around this actor and his particular talents, we couldn’t, hard as we tried, recast non-AEA, so we had to scramble to fill the slot with something else. We can’t use an AEA actor because we can’t afford the lowest-tier contract right now, and we’ve used up all our waivers.

And I hear all you people outside the Bay Area saying “What?!” Yes, in the Bay Area, a company only gets a few waivers to use in their first few years of existence, and then can never use another waiver ever again for any reason world without end.

Before I go any further, let me lay down a few piles of facts: I’m very pro-union. My grandfather was a forklift driver and my husband is a middle school teacher. I know what unions are for and why they’re important, and union busting is something I cannot abide. I would never cross a picket line. I think unions are vital.

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I remember my mother refusing to buy grapes and making sure we knew why.

Secondly, I wouldn’t have any reason to complain about AEA if I didn’t follow its rules. I left an entire job on the table in part because I couldn’t handle willful violations of AEA contracts. I didn’t want to be associated with that, and I didn’t want to have to fight like a cornered wampa over every single contract. I could easily eliminate my problems by just violating contracts and hoping to fly under the radar (“We’ve never been caught,” I was told), but I won’t do that. For one, I think I WOULD get caught, and, much more importantly, it’s not right.

So here’s my problem: In the Bay Area, at least, AEA operates under a fundamental misunderstanding of its own market.

AEA exists in a bizarre context. There are hundreds of actors working in commercial theatre like big Broadway musicals, touring companies, and the like. These commercial enterprises would happily work these actors to death, collect wagonloads of cash from $200 tickets and 45 kinds of merch, and then pay the actors starvation wages (if that) if they could get away with it. AEA is the one thing stopping commercial theatres from using actors like human ATMs.

However, AEA also covers actors working under the nonprofit model. The 501c3 model, as it applies to the arts, exists so that arts organizations can be released from the concerns of the for-profit model– continual growth, market share, and profitability that returns income to investors. It was determined, and rightfully so, that “high art,” new advances in art, and experimental art are not usually big sellers, and that if we are to have vibrant, cutting-edge art being produced in this country, or the preservation of heritage art, we need to protect them from the vagaries of the marketplace. The nonprofit model (ideally) gives companies the freedom to stop worrying about sales, market share, growth, and profitability, and instead use grants and donations to supplement income.

After a perfunctory glance at the AEA documents library, it seems to me that AEA contracts in the Bay Area aren’t much different than anywhere else, apart from being the only place in the country without a functional waiver. (I’d love to hear from some of you folks across the country if I’m wrong about that.) Our agreements are the MBAT, the BAT, and, of course, the LORT. Theatres also use the TYA agreement and the Guest Artist agreement, but primarily, the system is BAPP (our mini-waiver), MBAT, BAT, LORT.  We have 5 LORT theatres in the Bay Area. The other 300 or so of us are BAT and below, so that’s what I’ll address.

This system is, of course, tiered, but not necessarily in the way you’d think. Bay Area companies can only use a BAPP for a few years before that agreement is denied to them forever, regardless of their income. The MBAT is only available to companies that use a 99-and-under theatre, and in the Bay Area, where competition for theatre space rental for a full run of 5 or 6 weeks can be fierce (before we had our own space, we used to start booking our season a year in advance), sometimes the only space available to you shuts you out of the MBAT, again, regardless of income. The BAT is internally tiered– the salaries you must pay the actors increase each year, whether your company’s income increases or not. Once you start working under the BAT, salaries are tied to TIME, not to INCOME.

By limiting the waiver and by tying salaries under the BAT to time rather than income, AEA is forcing Bay Area nonprofit theatres into a for-profit growth model, and it just doesn’t work. A nonprofit theatre’s income is in no way guaranteed to increase year by year– nor should it have to. The point of a nonprofit theatre is the art, not popularity. If we wanted to make a bunch of money, we would all be doing Annie starring Kim Kardashian and Justin Bieber.

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Perfect for Miss Hannigan.

Here’s my first example: A theatre I know qualifies for the MBAT in every way except one: The theatres they rent are over 99 seats. They could afford to hire at least 5 or 6 AEA actors a season on the MBAT contract, but they’re not allowed to use it. So they can either make an all-out push to grow much larger in order to be able to afford the BAT contract and its continual increases, or they can stay non-AEA. Of course, in this economy, that kind of growth is not realistic, and why should they be forced to grow to a size that might not be sustainable for them? Solution: they only hire non-AEA actors. So that’s at least 5 or 6 AEA actors who could have been working, who instead sat home while non-AEA actors took those jobs.

I’ll use my own theatre as my next example. We’re no longer allowed to use the waiver, and we can’t afford an MBAT. The MBAT requires a weekly salary for the actor that makes the actor the highest-paid person in the room in almost every MBAT company, including the Artistic Director. We have a tiny, 59-seat theatre and we do a 4-5 show season, primarily new plays by emerging playwrights. In order to hire AEA actors regularly, we’d have to grow by about 50%. This would take years and is by no means guaranteed since we’re dedicated to accessible ticket prices, making our only avenue grants and donations. Solution: we only hire non-AEA actors. FUN FACT: I had a high-profile AEA actor call me and ask for the lead role in a show I was directing. He knew what my approach would be to the show and felt that this would be the only chance he would ever have to perform the role in that way, or perhaps even at all. I called AEA and went to bat for him, and was told no, he could not work on a waiver, and that “AEA actors need to be protected from what they want.”

But hey, now, don’t I want to pay actors? OF COURSE I DO. I would love nothing better than to pay every actor who comes through our theatre each year (about 30 per season) a weekly salary. Hell, I’d love to pay MYSELF a weekly salary. But we don’t have that kind of money.

And here’s the answer I’ve gotten repeatedly: IF YOU’VE BEEN PRODUCING FOR [X] YEARS, AND YOU DON’T MAKE ENOUGH MONEY TO AFFORD THESE CONTRACTS, YOU SHOULD JUST CLOSE YOUR DOORS. YOU DON’T DESERVE TO PRODUCE.

This is a fundamental misunderstanding of the nonprofit model.

Nonprofit theatres are not necessarily interested in a for-profit growth model. We are not necessarily interested in constantly increasing our income or our market share. Many of us are keenly aware that our work, because of its experimental nature, will never sell 500 tickets a night. Many of us do work that is specifically designed for small spaces, limiting our earned income. Many of us are devoted to accessible pricing, which limits our income. Most of us do not wish to produce work specifically designed to be popular and make money, as the commercial theatre does. Again, we do not wish to produce Annie starring Kim Kardashian and Justin Bieber.

So now you’re asking me, “OK, you’re not going to sell 500 tickets a night at $200 each. But what about those grants and donations for which the 501c3 makes you eligible?” Here’s what you need to know: grants and donations do NOT continually increase over time. In a difficult economy, they actually decrease. There are 4 kinds of contributed income: Corporate grants, foundation grants, government grants, and individual donations. Sometimes companies decide to halt all grants to the arts and shift focus to something else, or decide they want to focus on specific geographical areas, or are having a down year and decrease the amount of money they’re granting. Foundations can only grant the amount of money their endowment makes, which, as any investor knows, is not an ever-increasing amount. And don’t even look me in the face and say “government grants.” Government funding has all but evaporated.  Individual donations are directly tied to the economy. You can’t donate to a nonprofit if you’ve just lost your job.

It’s impossible for nonprofit theatre companies to rely on an ever-increasing income. There is NO SUCH THING. Nonprofit theatres are not able to function on a for-profit growth model, despite what AEA thinks, and it’s AEA actors who are suffering for it.

Because nonprofit theatres aren’t growing on a for-profit model, and because our Bay Area AEA contract structure assumes that nonprofits theatres ARE growing on a for-profit model, a huge amount of Bay Area theatres are severely limited in the number of contracts they can afford or are shut out of AEA contracts entirely. Therefore, most AEA actors in the Bay Area work far less than they did when they were non-AEA, and, I would wager, make less at it as well. Sure, the one job they land pays more, but the non-AEA actor is working 7 jobs for every one job the AEA actor works. If you’re an AEA actor who’s a white man who can sing, chances are you’re working a few times a year, but if you’re a woman, forget it. Young white women show up to auditions by the wagonload, so unless you have a particular, hard-to-find skill, you are frequently easily cast around, and the company can save the 1 or 2 AEA contracts they can afford for that show for a role that’s more difficult to cast. If you’re a person of color, just getting considered can be an uphill climb at some theatres or by some directors. Because the pool of jobs available to AEA actors is much, much smaller than the ones available to non-AEA actors, actors of color are especially hard hit when they become AEA.

At the risk of repeating myself: when you’re forcing nonprofit companies into ill-fitting for-profit growth models, most companies (if not all) must limit the number of contracts they can underwrite each season. LORT theatres are favoring shows with small casts, something with which playwrights nationwide have been struggling for years now. In the Bay Area, the lion’s share of BAT and MBAT theatres are only able to hire a few AEA actors per show, casting the rest of the show nonunion, while the AEA actors who could have been playing those roles sit at home perfecting their Covenant abatement strategies.

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Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

So what’s my solution?

Tie AEA agreements to INCOME, not to TIME or to SEATS or to anything else. That would make the relationship between AEA and nonprofit theatres realistic, and would result in more AEA actors being hired, which is good for both the theatre companies and the AEA actors. AEA contracts could be tied to a company’s income in the prior fiscal year. If it’s under X, you work under this contract, if it’s over X but under Y, you work under that contract, and so on. Income is REAL. Imagining that money undergoes mitosis and automatically grows over time is not. Imagining that a theatre space with more seats will automatically make a nonprofit theatre more money is not. Use the real income, not the imaginary income. Work out salaries that are fair when compared to the company’s income bracket. You wouldn’t need to reduce the salaries that already exist—just allow companies a more realistic set of criteria for qualifying for contracts.

Bring the Bay Area in line with the rest of the damn country and allow waivers for companies whose financials qualify, regardless of how long they’ve been producing.

Empower your membership to decide for themselves what jobs they will take. The companies who would be using a waiver are currently not using any AEA actors at all. The companies you’ve shut out of the MBAT who can’t grow to BAT are not using any AEA actors at all. Is that better for your membership, really?

And finally, stop imagining that small, nonprofit theatre companies are all sitting atop hoards of gold, arrogantly refusing to give your actors a dime while wiping their asses with hundred-dollar bills. Most of us are barely paying ourselves. Some of us don’t pay ourselves at all. And, apart from a few bad apples, almost all of us are aching to pay AEA actors– who are our friends, people we have worked with for years, people we LOVE– a living wage. Personally, I want to be able to pay ALL actors, AEA or not, a living wage.

What’s best for AEA actors? Because it can’t be struggling year after year to get any work at all while the non-AEA actors around them are working nonstop, right? And the reason that happens isn’t because producers are dicks. It’s because we’re desperately trying to keep the doors open, and we only have so much to allocate for personnel after donations have fallen off and one of our major granting orgs closed their grants for the arts completely, and we did two new plays last year that were critical successes but didn’t sell well, and because we want to keep ticket prices affordable so our audience can stay diverse. And because we’re not working under a profit-driven growth model. And we don’t want to do The Facts of Life: The Musical! with Taylor Swift as Blair, Beyonce as Tootie, and Seth McFarlane as Mrs. Garrett. OK, maybe a little BUT THAT’S NOT MY POINT.

My point is: There has to be a better way, for ALL of us.

UPDATE: There are indeed several other places across the country without a waiver. I feel your pain, Salt Lake City and Las Vegas (and anyone else out there). I feel your pain.

SECOND UPDATE: I’m thrilled with the conversations this has started. I’m even more thrilled that we seem to be thinking of ways to come together to work within the confines of the financial reality of the nonprofit theatre world.

Comments for this article are now closed. I’ll be posting a follow-up article soon!

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