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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.

One Fourth of a Day in the Life

Ordinarily, I write these blog posts the Sunday night before I post them; I spend a few hours drafting, get some sleep, then do a final edit before the final copy and paste.  This past weekend, however, was an extremely busy one for me, as I spent all my time arranging a table read for the first draft of a new play.  By the time it was done, and I’d made my way home, it was already late Sunday night – and I was looking at only a few hours of sleep before I’d have to make my way into Manhattan again for an important audition.

For those who don’t already know, AEA arranges something called Agent Access Auditions; agents who are franchised with the union are required to hold open calls to see unsigned members at periodic intervals.  Today, such a call is taking place between 1:30 and 4:30 in the afternoon.  In order to be seen at this, AND have time to make it to my afternoon/evening shift at work, I need to be among the first few people seen.  And that means a very, very early day.

So, in case you’re wondering what a very very early day is like for New York’s stage actors, I offer up this timetable in the name of the public interest.

3:00 AM.  My cat has decided that this is when she’s supposed to have breakfast.  I tend to be upset by this development, but since the Equity building opens at 6 AM and I’ll have to be there by then to guarantee the audition slot I’ll need, I’m letting it slide today.

4:00 AM.  I’m taking a shower instead of trudging back to bed for another few hours of sleep, which is what normally happens when my cat wakes me up at three in the morning.  She has taken note of this deviation from the routine, and is none too happy about it.

4:30 AM.  Arriving at my local subway station, way up in the northernmost part of the Bronx.  Considering how early it is, there’s a surprising amount of activity on the street; there’s a mosque on the corner near the station, and it turns out that morning prayers are letting out for the day.  Having “morning prayers” take place a good hour or so before the sun’s even up seems a bit problematic to me, but then again I’m not a religious scholar.

The subway tracks are elevated where I live; ascending to the platform, I can see the first glowing lines of blue in the (soon to no longer be) night sky.  It’s the sign you’ve either had a long night or are about to have a long day – it’s the latter for me.

4:45 AM.  My train finally arrives.  (Such a wait is all too common on my particular line – thanks a bunch, MTA.)  It gets surprisingly crowded rather quickly.  I’d experienced this living on Long Island as well; anybody who needs to start work in the city by 6AM needs to take these early trains, usually folks in construction or service industries.  We all sit, zoning out as best we can, the city’s exhausted employees.

5:35 AM.  Times Square.  The sun has risen by now, and there’s a good amount of activity already – food carts setting up, the Good Morning America crew preparing for broadcast, a pair of errant joggers.  The only thing missing are the costumed performers, who clearly haven’t woken up yet, and I have a brief vision of how lovely the area could be if we were somehow delivered from their scourge.

5:45 AM.  Arriving at the Equity building.  It seems there’s nobody there, and I’m actually going to be first – and then at the last moment, as I drag my exhausted bones to the door, an impossibly well-groomed gentleman steps out of a cab and stands by the door in front of me. 

5:47 AM.  The well-groomed gentleman gets himself buzzed into the building – turns out he works on one of the other floors.  Another gentleman buzzes himself in as well, looking almost identical – dress shirt, shaved head, skin glowing with product.  Maybe there’s a factory somewhere in the building where they’re mass produced?

6:00 AM.  The building opens to AEA members.  (I am indeed the first of us on line – huzzah.)  We’re shepherded to the holding area on the fourth floor, where we sign a preliminary list.  The actual audition appointments will be assigned later, and take place on a separate floor of the building – what I’ve signed is a list to sign up on the actual sign up list.

6:05 AM.  There’s six of us here to start the day – proof that, since I can only audition at that one particular time, I did indeed need to wake up at such an ungodly hour.  I plant myself on one of the chairs and attempt to get some sort of rest.

7:00 AM.  Try as I might, stiff-backed plastic chairs aren’t conducive to napping.  I turn to the work I’ve brought with me – the drafts of my recent plays, which now need revising.  The full length play, Bay Ridge Lotus, is freshest in my mind, since the table read was yesterday.  But the task ahead with this play is daunting; I had worried, given the diverse range of characters in the piece, that I might have failed to do justice to or accurately depict one of them, failed to fully flesh out their background.  It turns out, though, that the play’s major problem right now is the opposite – there’s too much depiction, too much dialogue interrupting the flow of the story.  To fix this, I’m going to have to go through the dialogue line by line and prune it as necessary.  It’s a daunting and time consuming task – and I also have a much shorter one-act with an election theme, and revising that piece instead is the only chance of having it be heard by anybody before November, when it might still be timely.  What to do?

7:15 AM.  Since I’m still far too tired to think clearly, the obvious answer is to hold off on revising anything right now and play a little computer mah jongg instead.  

8:20 AM.  They start lining us up.  I am indeed first on the list, and stand and watch as a great throng of people – some seventy or eighty strong, more than can possibly be seen in three hours – begin to corkscrew around the room.  One of the names called is an actor I’d worked with many years before – I won’t name names, but he had the title role in a major Off-Broadway production.  And now he’s here with me, on the line for actors who lack representation.  It’s too depressing to contemplate this early in the morning.

9:00 AM.  Sign-up is concluded.  I want to relax and bask in the achievement, but the fact is I haven’t actually accomplished anything yet.  The audition isn’t for another four and a half hours – all of this has been one to secure the one audition slot that would allow me to get to work on time afterwards. 

We don’t always have to go through this, but for especially popular calls, or things like VITA tax preparation, every AEA member in this city puts themselves through a morning like this.  And we keep on doing it and doing it, until, for some reason, we stop.  And in the interim, we can only hope that our reason for stopping is a happy one.

4th of July

I spent all of Sunday wondering what to post today – whether or not to put up some sort of deep thinkpiece about The State of America On This Independence Day.  And indeed, there’s an awful lot to be said about our nation at this particular historical juncture.

None of which you want to read right now, because you’ve got cookouts to go to and fireworks to watch.  I mean, it’s a holiday – why are you reading an actors’ blog post?  It’s a lovely summer day!  Put down that tablet or iPhone or whatever and go live a little!

That goes for me too.  The next few weeks for me are rather busy, as I get ready to shoot a short film, try and revise an election-themed one-act in time for the fall, and put together a developmental table-reading of my newest full-length play.  Hopefully, all of The Important Things I Have To Say will make themselves heard there.

We declared our Independence in July of 1776.  But it took many years of strife and struggle before we reached December 15, 1791, when these sacred words were written:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

So everybody have fun peaceably assembling today.  I’ll probably be joining you for a while, before heading back to my keyboard to turn my various grievances into something worthwhile.  If I succeed, I’ll be sure to speak of it here.

Happy 4th of July everybody!

 

Of Course I'm Going To Find A Way To Make This All About Shakespeare

Some years ago, I was cast in a production of Macbeth which wound up doing a short tour of Germany.  A few days before performing in one of the venues, a replica of the Globe Theater located next to a racetrack in Neuss (Germany’s a bit…different), a few members of the company and I went to see the preceding show at the venue, to get a sense of what the space was like.  The show wound up being a production from Great Britain – a Shakespearean burlesque which offered up a low-budget staging of the classic 60s heist film The Italian Job with all of its dialogue replaced with lines of Shakespeare (and called, imaginatively enough, Bill Shakespeare’s The Italian Job).  I was mildly amused; my friends were outraged.  They couldn’t understand why anybody would go to the trouble of mounting a Shakespearean production of any sort only to inflict that sort of mockery upon the Bard, and by extension, England’s cultural heritage as a whole.  I wasn’t quite so surprised; I’d spent my semester abroad in London, and had been exposed to a number of similar burlesques of England’s cultural heritage.  It’s a subgenre unto itself; here in the States, we’re only ever aware of acknowledged masterworks like Holy Grail or Blackadder, so we don’t realize how large the subgenre is, how crappy it can get, or the audience it serves.  In speaking to Londoners, back in the 90s, I’d been struck by how many of them straight-up resented that cultural heritage with which I was so enamoured, feeling that they lived in a museum and that the approval and adoration of the world was a hollow prize, when they’d rather just chuck it all and do whatever the bloody hell they wanted.

In other news, Brexit passed this week.

The full consequences of Great Britain’s vote to leave the European Union won’t truly be known for some time.  We don’t yet know its full ramifications for the global economy, for the future of Europe as a whole, for the social issues underlying its vote.  However, it’s becoming clear what the consequences are going to be for the arts in Great Britain, which has been one of its defining glories for decades (if not centuries).  And as this summary demonstrates, it’s not good at all.  Basically, the arts now face a direct loss of funding through lost access to European programs, and indirect loss of funding due to economic fallout from the vote.  In addition, the ability of artists to travel to and from Britain with the same ease which they may do so through the rest of the EU is now in jeopardy.  This threatens not only the ability of artists to work, but to train and to learn – to become artists in the first place.

The arts aren’t simply a pillar of the British economy.  They’re also an essential component of the British identity, the through-line of cultural heritage stemming from Chaucer through Shakespeare all the way down to Sarah Kane and Monty Python (betcha never thought you’d hear them in the same sentence).  And whatever their motives, the majority of the English people looked at the sociopolitical structures which maintain that cultural heritage today, the institutions that allow those artistic ideals, and the broader humanistic ideals underlying them, the ideals which our own society is ultimately based on – they looked at all of that and said, “No.  Not worth the effort.”

Better, perhaps, to chuck it all.

And it’s this which I fear about the news out of Great Britain these days, more than the specifics of how withdrawal will play out over the next few years, or how it might impact elections over here.  I fear that impulse I encountered in jaded Londoners years ago; fear it, and understand it, because I’ve been surrounded by it my whole life (or at least whenever I used to ride the Long Island Rail Road.)  The sense that arts, culture, the true essence of our “heritage,” is a luxury, to be abandoned when times are tough or scary, to be viewed with suspicion.  It’s not – and I’m not just saying that because it provides my meager income.  It’s what’s best in us.  It’s our dreams and values given form, given life with which to make their way through the world.  And it’s dependent on people turning outside to embrace and engage with the world, not withdrawing from it in fear and disgust, not attempting to vote it out of our lives.

Withdrawal is a terrible, terrible idea.

We’ve emulated Great Britain in a great many ways over the years.  When it comes to building the arts community, and public engagement with the arts, which Great Britain used to have, I hope we do so again.  But in this instance, that would be about as sound an idea as a Shakespearean pastiche of The Fast and The Furious.  (On second thought, I probably shouldn't give anybody ideas…)

Meanwhile, In Chicago…

It’s been overshadowed by all the other news going on in the world of late, but if you’re a theater artist, you’re probably aware of the controversies surrounding, and recent closing of, Profiles Theater in Chicago.  If you haven’t yet heard about the controversies swirling around this “edgy” storefront theater, they were precipitated by an expose in the Chicago Reader, the text of which can be found here

To briefly summarize (because the article isn’t brief), the piece describes a long history of dangerous working conditions, manipulative behavior, and sexual abuse at Profiles by its leading actor-slash-artistic director.  I need to be careful here; I don’t live in Chicago, and from a legal point of view these are all just allegations, but the overall portrait is consistent and damning.  And as the story has made the rounds throughout the theater community, it has prompted a number of calls for changes and reforms – for reporting and addressing sexual abuse in the theater, for establishing a code of professional conduct for non-Equity theaters.  There is a tremendous amount of hand-wringing and soul-searching, prompted by the feelings of shock at this outrageous story.

I must confess, however, that I didn’t respond with shock to any of this.  It all felt distressingly familiar.

After all, if you’re a struggling actor, how many would-be Svengalis have you encountered, holding court in their own little companies, teaching sketchy workshops and classes that seemed to be a weekly exercise for their own egos?  How often has the line between the professional and the personal blurred, usually in a hundred small ways?  And how many companies have put together seasons of “edgy” plays that, regardless of literary value, provided an excuse to indulge in precisely the sort of behavior detailed in the Chicago Reader article which has prompted all this disgust?

Because it’s worth noting how often the stories about Profiles have pointed out how it was the go-to place for a certain kind of “edgy” theater.  It’s a type of theater that has dominated this level of low-income, independent, frequently non-union theater for decades now – grubby tales of brutal, near-feral fringe-dwellers and their mating habits, John Osborne’s class revolution in Look Back In Anger filtered through Sam Shepard’s aesthetic.  Like any theatrical aesthetic, there’s still the capacity for literary merit and powerful work if the inspiration is there – if the artist has a larger point to make and has chosen the best means to make that point.  But if the inspiration is not there, it can become an empty exercise in bad behavior, indulged in by people looking for an excuse to behave badly.  And there’s an audience for watching bad behavior for its own sake – indeed, a recurring motif in the Profiles coverage is that many critics and theatergoers seemed to suspect what was going on but looked the other way, assuming it was the cost of doing business. 

So, now that we’ve begun talking about organizing theaters and establishing codes of conduct, I wonder if there’s something my fellow playwrights and I could do to help in all of this as well.

Namely, could we declare a moratorium on writing this stuff?

Could we stop pretending that unpleasant sex scenes and scuzzy displays of fake machismo, in and of themselves, represent some deep sort of artistic truth?  Could we stop providing companies like this with the excuse to indulge their worst impulses?  I don't ask this in the name of censorship (self- or otherwise), but in the name of pushing ourselves as creative artists.  Could we stop and take a moment to realize that, if all we have to say as artists is “I’m alpha and I’m horny,” we might not actually have anything to say?

And there’s a hell of a lot to say right now!  And there’s a lot of extraordinary playwrights who are alert to what’s going on in the world today – socially, politically, philosophically – and are working towards a new, equally vibrant theatrical language to engage with our strange and beautiful new world.  A language that, just maybe, has no further need of the kind of grunting and groaning that’s been celebrated for too long, at far too great a cost.

Time to listen.

A Million Things I Haven't Done

I’ll be honest – I really didn’t want to post anything this week.  The horrific news from Orlando yesterday, and the appalling state of our national discourse in general, warrants something more substantial, more meaningful than a mere blog post on some actor’s website.  I can’t think of anything to say right now that wouldn’t come across as frivolous, and to really grapple with what’s going on in the world right now, I’d need more space, and a hell of a lot more time, to do any sort of justice to the theme.

But I’m committed to this whole post-a-week thing, and I’m primarily writing about a life in the arts, and the arts are supposed to be the means by which we cope with the world around us.  Besides, here in the world of New York theater, last night was sort of a big deal.  And so, looking for entertainment and inspiration, I sat myself down and Tony Awards.  For once, it was a genuinely entertaining telecast.  Sure, it would have been nice to have seen real excerpts from the non-musical plays (somebody like me says this every year), but the musicals seemed genuinely inspired, the people were all delighted to be there, and unlike some awards shows we could mention, the diversity and vitality of our community was obvious and visible for all to see.  And it all culminated in the awards triumph of Hamilton, a labor of love which has reclaimed the American narrative for all of its citizens, breaching demographic walls and breaking records in the process.  Surely, an inspirational night all around.

So naturally, I was depressed as hell.

The thing that had me depressed was Hamilton – and specifically, the production chronology of the show.  As we all learned last night (because really, they talked a lot about that show), Lin-Manuel Miranda made the momentous decision to read the Chernow biography about Alexander Hamilton right after his Tony win for In The Heights, in 2008.  Given that he’d been writing and workshopping the piece continuously after that, this means Hamilton took eight years to create.

Eight years ago.  That’s a two-term presidential administration.  (Specifically the rather eventful administration of the president who introduced the Hamilton clip last night.)  That’s enough time to get a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree (and maybe a PhD too, depending on your program).  That’s a little more than one tenth of the average American’s life span.  That’s a rabbit’s entire life span.  That’s a large chunk of time, is what I’m saying.

Obviously, it takes a long time to develop and hone one’s craft, whatever it may be.  And nothing with the depth and complexity of what appeared on that telecast last night can be thrown together in a day.  So it shouldn’t be surprising that the origins of Hamilton, the show of the moment, took place in that long-ago world where most people hadn’t yet heard of Sarah Palin, but knew who Heidi and Spencer were.  These things take time.

The question is, do we have that time?

Because at the rate 2016 is going, an awful lot of us won’t.  And there’s an inevitable conflict between the urgent need to say something now about the madhouse around us, and the length of time needed to develop an artistic response to that madhouse.  It’s depressing to think about, especially since there’s no guarantee that when we go through our own individual process and create our response, that anybody will elect to listen to it.  Or that there’ll even BE anybody around to listen.  If it takes me eight years to see a production of the election-themed piece I'm working on now, or a response to religious extremism or our environmental woes, will it matter to anybody?  Or will it already be too late?

We have to somehow press forward anyway, hoping against hope that the apocalypse won’t arrive until sometime after we’ve finished that novel or staged that play.  We have to maintain that hope at all costs, believe that the long odds of our creation helping to stave off that apocalypse are worth seeing our visions through, worth not giving up our shots.

Time’s a-wasting.