Friday, March 24, 2017

An Open Letter to Kate Shindle, Mary McColl, and Actors Equity

I recently received some emails from you, saw the statement on the AEA site and Twitter, and noted your urgency and outrage over Trump's proposal to cut the NEA.  Yes, I will fight to save the NEA with every fiber of my being because I believe that art's value to our society goes far beyond a dollar sign.

But I would humbly ask you to take this moment and these feelings you're having to see if you can now viscerally empathize with the 99-Seat movement in Los Angeles.

You had an interview on Ken Davenport's podcast, Kate, in which you stated that the outrage over cutting the 99-seat plan in Los Angeles was at such a fevered pitch, you shut it all down and said that you weren't going to talk about it anymore.

Were we any more angry than you would ask us to be to protect the NEA?

For us in Los Angeles, the destruction of the 99-seat plan was the destruction of our version of the NEA.  The 99-seat theater plan was about allowing art to exist for the sake of art.  And it was about making sure that our artistic souls were kept fed when the paying jobs were being cast 3,000 miles away (BTW - How's your run of Fun Home going?)

Cold hard fact: To date you, literally, have done more damage to the theater scene in Los Angeles than the Republican controlled Congress has.  You have shut down more theaters and shut down the voices of more actors than any funding cut or bill out of Washington, DC has thus far.  I will amend this statement when this truth changes.

Think about that.

This fear you have of elimination of the NEA nationwide and the ripples it will have culturally?  That's our world in Los Angeles.  That's what you have put us through.

That's why we were and are so angry.  That's why we were and are at such a fevered pitch.

There were many theaters forced to go onto the new contract in December.  I have done an informal poll to find out what has happened since then and how many continued on the new contract.  I'm hearing about theaters now having to shut their doors because there are no rentals.  Theaters that gave opportunities to large casts are now only doing one- and two-person shows.  Theaters that are now solely non-Equity.  Theaters that are just... dark.

The 99-seat theater scene was a risk-free incubator that taught producers safety rules and respect for actors in a way that was not onerous.  It was a lesson that they carried with them as they moved into larger spaces with larger budgets and larger casts.  Safety and working with the union became the normal way of doing business.

The 99-seat theater scene taught producers the value of risky works.  You can take risks when your budget is only $10k.  When your budget is $100k for the same production, you tend to go for safe bets.  I believe that the way we keep theater expansive and alive is to keep the risks low so producers are willing to try inclusive casting practices and challenging plays and to see that there ARE economic advantages in those sorts of works.

On a personal note, there was a recent study by the Lilly Awards that only 20% of all produced plays are written by female playwrights.  I'm a woman.  In addition to being a funny-looking actress that most directors don't look at twice until they see my work, I am a playwright.  The cards are stacked against me.

But because of the 99-seat program in Los Angeles, my first full-length play received a full production with an AEA cast.  I got to star in it and play a role no commercial producer would ever cast me in.  The budget was under $8k.  The development of this play at this 99-seat theater led to rewrites, which led to this play winning the prestigious Panowski Playwriting Award.  It had a world premiere in Marquette, MI, a Canadian world premiere in Grande Prairie, readings in Seattle and New York, a reading in Bath (UK) and is currently being championed by that producer for a London run, and another producer for an Off-Broadway run.  The confidence I gained from that play led me to write another one, which was a semi-finalist in the O'Neill National Playwrights Conference and will be getting a reading at the Last Frontier Conference.  My short plays are getting full productions in festivals internationally.

But, according to you, this play should have died on my hard drive unless that theater had a $50k budget.

What made us Pro-99ers so mad was having you say our art was unimportant, that our art was only of value if it was a commodity, to have you ignore the greater cultural impact of the 99-Seat theater scene and reduce it to dollar signs... and to hear you aim at us all of the same arguments that the politicians are now using in Washington, DC against the NEA.

Welcome to our shoes.

Please proceed accordingly.

P.S.  I believe no one should complain unless they have a solution.  So, what would I do to deescalate the tension between New York and Los Angeles members?  I would make the NY Showcase code a national code available in all cities to all actors.  It has not damaged the commercial viability of the $12B theater scene in New York.  In fact, I'd say it has enhanced it.  Why can't we have equality?

I understand that AEA has to remain financially solvent.  One of my big issues with the destruction of the 99-seat scene is that actors are now without safety protections and producers are not being trained early in their careers on how to behave with safety in mind.  I take a look at the sexual abuses in Chicago and find it shameful they've had to form a Guild with a code of conduct because AEA didn't swoop in to protect those actors and actresses because they were non-professional.  I'm not okay with that.

So, I would make a tier of Equity that is open to all and aimed at non-professional theaters and universities.  Charge a reduced membership fee to all actors.  Establish a national code of conduct for community theaters that costs them nothing to adopt, but gives them access to this open-tier group.  Make safety the norm.  Make working with the union appealing and the norm.  Train people early.  Let this open-to-all tier be a requirement for AEA membership and EMC candidates.  Remember the union was founded because actors were dying, and I would argue the AEA mission should go back to its roots and focus on service and safety.