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The Divide

I don’t live in Los Angeles – was only there for a few days in my entire life, on a childhood vacation – but my Facebook feed has been filled with rancorous updates from that city nonetheless. On July 14, for those non-performers among you, a group of L.A.-based stage actors formally served Actor’s Equity Association with the lawsuit which they’d filed against them back in October. This drastic move occurred in response to AEA’s plan to radically reform its code for small theater in that city, and do away with its waiver system for 99-seat houses. (The issue has been going on for too long and is too complex for me to summarize it here, so I’ll let this handy link do the talking.)

Again, I don’t work in that city and can’t speak to every detail, but as someone who’s worked in New York on many a Showcase code – the rough equivalent to L.A.’s 99-seat Equity waiver – I think I understand both sides. Certainly, here in New York, there are plenty of dynamic and worthwhile theater companies which can only function because of the code – as well as plenty of unscrupulous producers who love to push its restrictions to the breaking point, to mount seasons of would-be commercial theater on the cheap. So if my fellow actors have had a similar breadth of experiences, and can see all the details and issues involved, they and their chosen leadership should be able to revise the waiver code (and ultimately the Showcase code) in a way that acknowledges both the need for a living wage and the realities of producing small theatre, and is as fair as possible to both sides.

If you believe that’s what’s happening, then you clearly don’t have any actor friends on Facebook (and haven’t been paying attention to this year’s overall lunacy). The viciousness of the rhetoric, the twisting of facts and deployment of straw man arguments, the escalation of conversations among friends and peers into hateful name calling rivals anything the presidential campaign has offered up thus far. And like any political shriekfest, there’s an underlying division fueling all of this rancor. It might seem that there shouldn’t be – after all, this is a dispute among actors, among union actors, who all have similar outlooks on labor, workplace issues, social issues, and the like. But there is a stark division nevertheless, and until we are honest about it and acknowledge it, such rancor is apt to keep tearing us apart.

The division, of course, is that dramatic plays and musicals have different needs, and require vastly different business models.

When you get down to it, most of the policies AEA has in place are specifically designed to protect musical performers. Prohibitions against raked stages (without certain conditions in place, like contributions to the health fund) are infuriating to anybody trying to revive La Bete, but if you tapdance on one of those things for eight shows a day your career will be over within a year. Actors deep into their rehearsal process might object to an interruption due to a mandatory break, but those breaks are crucial to folks drilling a dance routine all day. It’s understandable – primarily musical performers are the largest bloc within the union, and musicals on the Production and SETA touring codes are the largest sources of income. Unfortunately, it’s led to a state of affairs where the differing types of performers have split into opposing camps, each viewing the other with suspicion.

Look again at the list of actors in the L.A. lawsuit – they’re primarily dramatic actors. The movement on behalf of the 99-seat theaters has been spearheaded by such prominent companies as Tim Robbins' Actors Gang, which specialize in confrontational contemporary plays. On the other side of the divide, the union leadership lobbying for the change in the code is primarily made up of actors with experience focusing on musical theatre, and specifically for-profit musical theatre. One side is convinced the other is out of touch and out to wreck their artistic community; the other firmly believes that such intimate theatre is nothing but a scam, allowing producers who seek to exploit the code a means to produce commercial-aimed theatre without having to pay rehearsal or health costs.

As we’ve hopefully noticed by now, polarization this extreme makes it impossible to function. As a nation, as a community, as an industry. Performers need to be able to move from drama to comedy to musical, classical to contemporary, both for artistic and professional reasons – they can’t do their job properly if they don’t. We as a union need to acknowledge this, and we need to facilitate it for our members.  And a one-size-fits-all mentality, assuming that a Broadway mounting of a golden-age musical is the natural end point of any production, is a poor way to do so.  We may need - we certainly need - to reform the wide variety of contracts under which we operate, but we need to embrace the variety.  Without it, we can't develop new work or cultivate new voices.  Without it, we risk rendering theater an inert art form even as we claim to defend it.

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