It looks like Actors Equity Association is on a mission to “kill” small theater in Los Angeles, masked by the principle that actors must get paid more. They believe they are protecting their actors, when in fact, they will suffocate them. Call it “Equity Waiver Theater” or the “AEA 99 Seat Theater Plan.” In this essay I will call it “Small Theater in LA,” and will leave the union out of it for now.
The reason “professional creative artists” do small theater in Los Angeles is simple. Small theater venues are places to gain experience, network, meet, collaborate, showcase, build credits, add credibility, workshop, and establish a following. Small theater allows artists a forum to hone their craft, to explore, improve, entertain, and yes, “work.”
Work for an artist sometimes means getting paid large amounts of money, sometimes just a little money, and sometimes no money at all. It’s their choice whether or not to participate, and artists know this. Small theater is like a “laboratory,” a place to test, try out, and experiment. Small theater is a garden where performing artists can plant the creative seeds of their work, letting it grow, pruning and shaping it to become healthy, thriving, and right. Small theater is where we get to workout, hone our craft, and play. The work done in small theater is often a step on the actor’s journey to the next level. Sometimes actors are compensated – either a small amount of gas money, a small fee, maybe a few meals, a trade of some sort, or just a thank you– but the underlying agreement is the same: “We will work together and collaborate to create something. Out of that venture we will learn, network, showcase, advance our creative growth, and move forward toward our artistic dreams and vision.”
For the past 30 years, as an actor, coach, producer, director, and owner of two small theaters, I have been continuously involved with many aspects of small theater. I have seen hundreds of artists come together to collaborate, grow, and move on to do great things. I have had set and costume people work our plays bringing huge creativity and innovation and make magic. Often they contributed their own money to get the result they wanted. Several of them went on to work in wardrobe and art departments at Fox Studios, Warner Brothers, and Paramount and have had long and fruitful careers. I have had fledgling writers workshop plays for months, then watch their small stage productions performed for sold-out audiences. Some of these writers had their plays published, or took their productions on tour. Others continued writing for the stage, with a few landing television writing staff jobs (one nominated for an Oscar). I have seen producers put together small, thrifty, creative productions and go on to produce television and film on a large scale. I have collaborated with talented directors working small productions over and over again to be performance ready, who have moved on to direct major studio features. I have had set designers and lighting designers work on productions who learned and trained in small theater, continued their work and became hugely successful award winning professionals. I’ve seen people cast plays who found success as casting directors in the industry. I even worked with two box office people who now have successful careers on staff at the Ahmanson and Hollywood Bowl. All of them got their training, and built their resume, in small theater.
These passionate artists worked for very little money, or none at all. They did small theater work to build their resume, promote themselves and careers.
I have seen countless actors .. I can’t begin to tell you the number of actors I’ve seen who used small theater as a springboard to grander projects and careers. So many of these actors got “their break” from doing small theater for free or very little money.
I once booked a Television series after being seen in a play I did for free. I got my first agents and acting jobs directly as a result of working and being seen in small theater. It is how I grew as an actor, director, and producer. I received an Emmy, and my training came from the producing, directing, and writing experience that I got from working in small theater. I never considered that I was being taken advantage of, but rather I looked at small theater work as an investment in my craft, which has paid dividends in both creative satisfaction and career success.
Equity’s argument is basically financial… This is where the conversation becomes out of touch. Actors Equity wants its members to be paid wages that will basically make it impossible for small theater to afford them. They know that forcing this issue will shut down small theater, and it appears that is their intention. Anyone can run the numbers and see that their proposal will kill small theater. Their argument is that if they can close down these small theaters, then larger paid equity theaters will surface and their actors will get compensated. They believe they are looking out for their members. What they fail to see is that this will suffocate their actors. During the 35 years I’ve been in LA, the number of Equity theaters have shrunk and small theaters have grown. The reason for that is beyond the scope of this essay, as it relates to press coverage, the media, funding sources, and the fact that Los Angeles is a film town. Investors in LA tend to put their money in film, not theater. While that introduces an entirely new conversation topic (to be had at another time), killing small theater is not the answer.
So let’s talk about pay, as that seems to be the issue. Basically it’s this – AEA wants its actors to be paid an amount that is an amount that the theaters can’t continue to do business, and if theaters can’t pay actors their fee, then they shouldn’t be in business. Curious… let’s indulge.
By AEA’s standpoint, I guess we should shut down all the music clubs in Los Angeles, the Whisky a Go Go, and other great clubs where new musicians are developed and discovered. If those venues can’t pay wages to their musicians, should they be shut down? In some clubs musicians actually have to “pay to play.” They don’t like it, but they do it for the same reason actors do: to gain a following, get experience, network, and showcase their work and talent. How about the comedy clubs? “The Improv? Comedy Store? They don’t pay their comedians much, if anything at all. Do we need to shut them down as well? I guess we should shut down all the bars and cafes that host “Open Mics” too, as the storytellers, poets, comics, and performers there don’t get paid either. What about union actors that want to do stand up? Or play some music? Or poetry, or storytelling, and so on… Any union artist/musician working Venice beach or Hollywood Boulevard – stop immediately. Sounds like a foolish idea, no?
Hell, let’s talk about doctors. When a med student graduates, they do a residency. The hours are intense, and the pay not close to their “scale”. But they do it. Why? Because they get the experience they need to practice medicine, and make career connections. Perhaps we should end all internships across the board, since internship pay isn’t at the scale of the actual position.
I hear Jay Leno still performs standup comedy once a week at a club in Redondo Beach. I’m sure he doesn’t get his “Vegas fee” for these performances. Not enough seats to pay him. Why does he do it? Because he loves to work, try out new material, and yes, entertain people. Whether it’s 30 people, 300, or 30 million, he loves his work, and will perform for whatever rate he agrees to. Don’t take that choice way from LA actors.
Along with millions of you, I too watched the Oscars this year. Did you notice the winner of Best Short Film, publicly in front of millions of people thanked all those who worked on the project for free? Should the academy take the Oscar away from them? These artists worked on a project that won an Oscar. I’m sure they are proud, talented, and will now have better opportunities to go on and do much bigger and fruitful things.
Thank God for SAG/AFTRA. That actor’s union didn’t try to shut down low-budget films and webseries. They made it possible for their union actors to work on projects with varied budget levels.
If Actors Equity wants to make changes to how its Los Angeles members can work in small theater, great. There are issues of abuse, safety, and yes, compensation that should be addressed. But AEA should have a sane, appropriate conversation with those involved in Los Angeles small theater, rather than railroading their actors, because it seems that is what AEA is doing.
While I don’t think it’s right to kill small theater in Los Angeles, I also don’t think it’s possible. The passion, talent, and determination of the performing artist is unstoppable. Performing artists have always found ways to pursue their craft, and will continue to do so, despite overwhelming hardship.
Actors, if you are a member of Equity, you must speak up, vote, and get your house in order.
Good luck and keep on pursuing your passion.