A Canary in a Bigger Coal Mine

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Remember a year ago when I was telling you about the dispute between LA's union stage actors and their union, Actors' Equity?

With the California's minimum wage back in the news and some volleys back and forth between the union and the actors, now's a good time to catch up with what's happened over the last year.

You might remember this is a dispute that, in one way or another, stretches back all the way to the 1970's. The latest skirmish in this long war came up last year when the Union did away with, or substantially modified - depending on who you talk to, the 99-seat plan. That plan allowed union actors to work in theaters with less than 99 seats for basically gas money - $7 to $15 a performance and no pay for rehearsals.

The union proposed instead said that actors should be paid minimum wage because, after all, who isn't for minimum wage? Turns out, LA's union actors weren't. They voted 2 to 1 to reject that plan; they protested in the streets of NOHO; created a hashtag - big deal. Equity chose to ignore all that, mostly, and kept marching forward with their new plan. So . . . a group of actors filed a lawsuit against their own union. This was déjà vu all over again because the last plan was the result, in part, of a settlement to a lawsuit back in the 80's.

So where are we now?

The bad news? Basically in the same place: the actors have filed a lawsuit but not served it and Equity has agreed to "discussions" with those plaintiff/actors. While there hasn't been any reported progress, things seem to be heating up a bit given public statements from both sides over the past month. First Equity's new president, Kate Shindle, made some off-the-cuff remarks where she said basically no one is going to open a midsized theater in LA as long as they have to compete with actors working essentially for free under 99 seats. This elicited responses from the plaintiffs in a couple of open letters and a well-reasoned rebuttal from actor Dakin Matthews - who without question has put his money where his mouth is over the years. The actor's basic response -- there is no money but this free work leads to paying work, even in the theater.

The good news? The discourse is getting more sophisticated and the underlying problems are being more clearly articulated.

Why should you care about this whole mess, assuming you're not an actor or an avid theater goer?

This matters because it gives us a specific window to the cultural infrastructure challenges that Los Angeles faces and, by extension, what it means to connect art to community and support. While what's happening in LA is specific, it's far from unique. These are the same funding and audience challenges that every nonprofit theater in the country faces. Beyond theater, this is a crisis of articulation of value. Beyond simple measures like minimum wage or earned income, how, and why, do we value the arts?

So as this particular dispute heats up again, bear in mind this might be a canary in a much larger coal mine.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.