Two important pieces of news coming out of the LA 99-seat scene that are relevant to the often heated and ugly debate over reforming the Equity contract there.
First off, let’s take a look at Antaeus Theater. You may remember Antaeus. They’re the company with over $500K a year in annual income that charges their actors $25/month to appear on their stage. They were profiled by Rob Kendt in his American Theatre piece about the 99-seat wars a while back:
The membership-company rule seems directly intended to address organizations like Antaeus Company, which actually requires that its core members have an Equity card, work under the plan’s skimpy compensation–and pay monthly dues of $25.
“The effect of the rule as written would be that as the company continues, it will be aged out—no new members could join after April 1,” said Bill Brochtrup, one of Antaeus’s three co-artistic directors, pointing out that Equity’s concession—new members can join after that point, but only if they’re put on a minimum-wage contract—would create an awkward, unequal two-tiered system. He analogized the dues-paying company to a gym: “It’s so much more than a place to put on a play—it’s an artistic home in a city that can be a cold, isolating place.” And he said that Equity misapplies an “old-time” labor/management frame to companies like Antaeus: “We don’t feel that the employer/employee relationship is the correct model; we are volunteers, professionals working pro bono for nonprofit corporations, if you will.”
Brochtrup knows how this sounds to some actors: “I understand how it looks odd to the rest of the country, but L.A.’s always been odd to the rest of the country.” Bottom line, he said, his company is comprised of loyal Equity members who choose freely to work with minimal compensation, and want to be free to keep at it. And it’s hard to see how their volunteer labor at Antaeus could be seen as a threat to the collective bargaining power of actors at the city’s large Equity contract houses (the Taper, the Geffen, Pasadena Playhouse). “We honestly didn’t feel like the system was broken,” said Brochtrup.
Well, we now have a better sense of why Brochtrup didn’t feel the system was broken. They’re fundraising… but not to pay actors. Instead, they’re opening a fancy new space:
The Antaeus Theatre Company has announced that it will break ground for a new cultural arts center in Glendale on June 11 at 10 a.m. The City of Glendale has approved plans submitted by the company to transform a 7,600 square-foot retail building at 110 East Broadway into an intimate, yet comprehensive performing arts facility. Renovation is expected to take place over the course of a year…. The Antaeus board of directors and the company’s ensemble members, who together share a passion for Antaeus’ artistic mission and community engagement, have already raised a substantial portion of the funds required, in collaboration with local individual and institutional donors. A capital campaign (“Play On!”) is being launched to raise the $1,000,000 still needed for the renovation.
The rumored price tag of the project is over two million dollars. Let us not forget that the main reason people argued for continuing to not pay union labor to act on LA’s under 99-seat stages was that there “wasn’t enough money” to do so. So congrats, #ILove99, you just fought to make sure that Antaeus can pay its actors nothing and charge them $25 a month in a gleaming multimillion dollar space.
The second bit of news comes from LA Bitter Lemons, the website run by Colin Mitchell that regularly featured some of the most vocal, active, and vituperative anti-compensation writing. They’ve launched a new initiative called The Bitter Lemons Imperative [sic] that’s essentially a payola scheme: If you pay them $150, they’ll send a reviewer to see your show. Their list of reviewers includes Jason Rohrer, who wrote this lovely post about yours truly because I asked for a correction to a factual error on one of their posts.
In a spectacular display of chutzpah, their explanation for the new program includes this:
Who has that kind of money?
Most producing companies already have it in their budgets, if they have any budget at all. We understand that some work on micro budgets and would consider working with those groups on a sliding scale, but for the rest that have some semblance of a budget, the money is already there under Marketing, Advertising or Publicity. And we also understand that though this will initially appeal to the more intimate companies, we are opening this up to all producing companies, intimate, mid-size, LORT, all of them. This is a one size fits all model.
Leaving aside that many involved in and promoted by Bitter Lemons opposed wage reform on the grounds that it was too “one size fits all” I have to say that I frankly find the chutzpah on both their and Antaeus’s part galling, but it’s not all that much of a surprise. In fights over worker rights, the people arguing against them tend to not be motivated by what is in the workers’ best interest, despite all of their lofty rhetoric.
I said on twitter during a more heated moment in the 99-seat battle that big players like Antaeus and Actors' Gang and Boston Court constantly said they were looking out for the little guy, but actually it was the little theaters that were being leveraged to protect the interests of theaters the size of small off broadway companies. Many people were mad at me for saying that I believed that a great number of sincere and genuine artists who just wanted a chance to ply their craft were being taken advantage of. I didn't expect to be proven right that fast.
UPDATE: In a follow up post, Colin Mitchell, the founder and editor of Bitter Lemons actually has the kumquats to write:
"But mostly, I personally am very excited to see what happens, what is forged by this collision of commerce and art and opinion. To see how these talented writers respond to the opportunity, finally freed from the fetters of theater criticism as a “hobby” or simply a “calling” and allowed the true liberty of approaching these shows as the professionals they already are, free to ply their craft and add their valuable service to the process of making and performing theater. It is a truly thrilling time."
Just think about that one for a moment.
UPDATE 2: I just wanted to note that there is some chance that Bitter Lemons' proposed "Imperative" is actually an act of trollery. The above quote in the earlier update is just too perfectly aligned with the kind of pro-actor-pay that Colin Mitchell was so disdainful of, and I wouldn't put it beyond them to set this kind of thing up to show the supposed hypocrisy of people who disagree with them.
So just in case that's what is going on, let me say there is a humungous difference between theater companies and producers paying their employees and theater companies being asked to pay the reviewers who come see their work. The former is an employer-employee relationship, the latter is payola. Objecting to the latter (largely on the grounds of professional ethics) has no relationship to supporting the former, which should be blindingly obvious, but just in case it isn't... the analogy doesn't work. Reviewers are not employees of theater companies. It would be a very serious problem if they were.