Art vs. Commerce

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

So if you've been listening over the last couple of months, you know the big story in LA theater has been the dispute between the actors' union, Actor's Equity, and local union actors.

In a nutshell, the actors' union wanted to unilaterally replace the existing plan for LA's small theaters - one where actors were allowed to work for basically gas money - with a new set of plans that required these cash strapped theaters to pay minimum wage.

Sounds simple, right? Union protecting its workers, minimum wage: familiar story.

Not so fast. The workers, in this case - local union actors, wanted none of it.

The process decreed by the union had two steps: first, a strictly advisory referendum of the roughly 6,000 local union actors; second, a binding vote by the union's 80 national councilors.

So what happened?

Well, in the local vote, close to 50% of those eligible to vote turned out and voted down the union plan by a margin of two to one.

The union's response? Basically, they placed their hands over their ears and said, "We can't hear you!" I'm kidding . . . but the truth isn't that far off. The union responded with a confusing buffet of seven different plans, cynically designed to divide a remarkably unified opposition into smaller and smaller subsets.

An example that will give you a feel for the union's strategy is how they're tackling membership companies, which, predictably, have been among the most vocal and organized. In the union's original plan, membership companies could continue without paying minimum wage and without any of the union protections they currently enjoy - as long as they didn't add any new members. Add a new member and that actor had to be paid minimum wage.

In the union's revised plan? Membership companies can add new members but again without any union protections and only to companies that already exist and until -- and this is the big one -- the union changes their mind.

This is a story that pits local against national and art versus commerce.

For the union, this is a national issue. Despite their rhetoric about protecting local actors, they're protecting their national interests. They are, and should be, a labor union. No labor union needs to be sitting in a wage negotiation across the country and have the other side argue "but actors work for free in Los Angeles." Nationally, LA's a liability to Equity because remember for all this 99-seat theater - the union isn't collecting a penny. Sensibly, the union wants to get rid of a liability and standardize business practices.

Remember, they're a labor union not an art union.

And, whether they know it or not, that's what local union actors are fighting for: Art.

This union kerfuffle is simply a local manifestation of a nationwide crisis in the performing arts: one that is pitting Art against Commerce. You can see it in the more commercial choices made at our regional theaters; you can sense it in the ever-dwindling cast sizes; you can feel it in the poverty of artistic vision.

Let's hope for Los Angeles' sake, for theater's sake, these scrappy local actors have the good sense to stand in solidarity and fight for their art.

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