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Fear of a Constitutional Convention (No, the Other One)

Two weeks ago, along with all the other members of my performers’ union, I received an email from Actors’ Equity president Kate Shindle. It was the announcement that, after two years of internal discussion, there were proposed changes and amendments to our union’s constitution for us to vote to ratify later this spring. The substance of these changes is far too insider-y for me to go into in a blog post; I’m not a labor attorney, and two weeks isn’t long enough for me to try and pass myself as one even if I didn’t have a thousand other things to do in that expanse of time. (Heck, I postponed this blog post a week just to try and get a handle on the issues, to absolutely no avail whatsoever.) But on first glance, the changes seem like fairly common-sense proposals to help the union function in the twenty first century for performers throughout the nation. Things like increasing the number of counselors (our union’s chief officers) for actors living in regional markets – right now only New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles are represented on council, with New York having the majority of votes. Things like scheduling constitutional conventions every two years, to update our policies in light of rapid technological advances and the right. Things that sound sensible, right? Things that the membership could discuss in a rational and respectful manner?

On the contrary, the proposed changes – down to the slightest nuances of wording, practically down to the punctuation – have prompted online rants and harangues as vicious as all the other online political discussions. (Gods, Facebook can be a terrible place.) Throughout the membership, there seems to be a widespread belief that these changes are designed to be some kind of nefarious power grab – even from people, like actors in smaller markets, who would benefit from those proposed changes.

I can understand some of the distrust. In Los Angeles, for instance, there’s still a tremendous amount of rancor from actors who worked under the now-discontinued 99-seat theater code; it makes sense that they’d be wary of any further policy changes. But the anger flares up over things that have nothing to do with policy. The flare up over the fact that the union is proposing changes at all. And they metastasize into the kind of conspiracy mongering that’s affected all other political discussion in this country. There’s fevered accusations that the proposed constitutional convention is a scam, or a scheme for some side or other to seize power for some nefarious ends. There are multi-volume rants maintaining that our union constitution is an illegal document in the first place (which, huh?).

Geographic differences alone aren’t enough to explain this. Neither are any partisan beliefs – these are vicious arguments among people who otherwise have the same Noam Chomsky books in their PBS totebags. No, I find that when fault lines appear among our membership, they always appear along the same divide – between primarily musical performers, and primarily dramatic performers. Always. Each seems convinced that the union ought to exist primarily to serve them, and views the other’s needs as actively hostile to their very identity. And these tensions can and will flare up over the most trivial of things.

To give you an example of what I mean: the proposed revision to our constitution’s preamble, which gives an overview of why Actors’ Equity exists, removes the word ‘artist’ from the language. I can’t for the life of me tell you why this change was made, though I suspect it’s a consequence of focusing on our professional needs instead. I don’t mind, personally; I know I’m an artist whatever you choose to call me. But there’s an enormous amount of bitter invective being hurled about because of this one particular thing, feeling that it’s a betrayal of the union’s entire history and an insult to all performers. And it only makes sense if you realize that we’re not really talking about a word here, but about dramatic actors’ beliefs that their own union has marginalized them. And conversely, the emphasis away from our “artistic” status makes perfect sense if you’re a professional chorus dancer, and your primary concerns are maintaining the physical standards of your workspace so your career isn’t ended by repetitive stress injury after only a few years. Look deeply at all the divisions, and you’ll see how one particular group of performers might benefit – and how the other group comes to see those benefits as an attack on them.

If you wonder why all our politics are so horrific, look no further than this. If we don’t understand that we’re all in this together, but instead think of ourselves as locked in a zero-sum game where anybody else’s benefit is to our detriment, then of course we’re going to behave in as hostile and outlandish a manner as possible.

And if I wind up being the only voice of reason on the internet, then you know we’re in trouble.

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