What’s behind Equity’s magical thinking?

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“If you want to lose weight just buy these magic pants. The fat will disappear!”

If someone came to you with this pitch, even on a late night TV infomercial, you’d likely reject it as a scam or really bad advice.

You likely understand, even on the most basic level, that caloric intake and calories burned is complicated stuff and there are a bunch of different approaches and theories that include exercise and watching what you eat as well as genetics and, well, it’s not as simple as magic pants!

Unfortunately, LA’s intimate theater crisis (which falls under the tattered banner of the 99-seat Theater Plan and, now, accompanying lawsuits) is still in the “magic pants” phase.

What do I mean?

Since talks between Actors’ Equity (the union for stage actors) and a group of local union actors who are suing that union have broken down, there are two public arenas where the dispute is playing out. There is a series of public statements from the union and the plaintiffs (several of which I wrote about last week), which essentially attribute ill-will to the other party and include some version of the following two arguments:

  • From Equity: Actors get paid elsewhere, they should in Los Angeles. We want more Equity Contracts. Getting rid of 99-seat theater will lead to that.
  • From the Plaintiffs and those sympathetic: 99-seat theater leads to paying work down the road.

Then, there’s twitter. To take a quick dip in the current debate look no farther than the hashtag #PRO99. On the union side:

On the #PRO99 side:

On or off Twitter, this rhetoric is not very sophisticated and it is not benefitting from even the rudimentary experience and understanding that you would apply to a “magic pants” scenario.

As Steven Leigh Morris points out in a column this week (required reading if you care about this debate along with Rob Kendt’s pieces from 2009, and, if I may take a biased point of view, my past writing), this debate has been going on at least since the late 1980s. He does a wonderful job of capturing the rhetoric of that time and superimposing it over today’s talking points. As he says, “This show has been on the air since 1986, and these guys really need to come up with some fresh storylines.

Since the 1980s the positions have not changed and, surprise, surprise, a healthy ecosystem of mid-sized theater has not magically sprouted up either.  The rhetoric doesn’t seem to be benefitting from the intervening 30 years of experience. We are still stuck with the same argument. That’s a problem.

It’s a problem that indicates, on a community-wide level, a lack of understanding.

One of the most striking arguments Equity has made is captured in the following section from their release on June 30th,

Incredibly, in the most recent period where data is available (2014-2015), LA County (with 7,000 members) had 6,500 paid work weeks for Equity members; whereas, Baltimore/DC (with 854 members) had more than 8,700; Boston (with 845 members) had over 7,900; Chicago (with 1,589 members) had more than 15,800 paid work weeks; and Minneapolis/St. Paul (with 437 members) had more than 6,700.

There’s a lot packed into this quote, but the underlying argument seems to be that the number of Equity members in a community should be directly proportional to the number of work weeks.

Let’s ignore for a moment whether those work weeks in each community were employment weeks for the Equity members in those communities (i.e. if a touring show out of New York accounts for a large portion of work weeks in Baltimore/DC and the 854 area members are not the people cast in those touring shows – does this proportionality really matter to the Baltimore/DC actors?).

Equity seems to be suggesting that the reason Los Angeles does not have more paid work weeks for stage actors is the 99 seat plan. Do away with the plan and the work weeks will magically appear. What the past decades have taught us, if we care to listen, is that Los Angeles is not the same as these cities. Los Angeles is a fundamentally different ecosystem for theater than cities like New York, DC and Chicago. The philanthropic community is different. The civic engagement is different.

Why is Los Angeles a different city than Baltimore or Minneapolis or Chicago? And what does that mean not only for theater but for culture more broadly?

On those questions, Los Angeles’ theater communities’ rhetoric is weak, our understanding incomplete, our engagement both artistically and civically wanting.

Equity’s arguments and rhetoric do not fare much better, but sadly their responsibility and rationale need not meet these higher standards. As they have said, they have a responsibility to their national membership and to make their members more money. That’s a historically noble endeavor, but not fundamentally an artistic one.

If Los Angeles wants to protect its intimate theater community, the argument for that community must embrace both an artistic imperative and a financial, though nonprofit, one. That argument must benefit from both the communities decades long experience and from a broader understanding of the sector nationally and the city locally.

We are not there yet. Steven Leigh Morris’ article is a promising step that understanding and experience are developing but we have a long way to go.

Until we, as a community, make that leap, we’re all going to be stuck with a pair of “magic pants” that are never, never going to fit.