The Comedy and Tragedy of Actors’ Equity

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Update: Since I published this post earlier today, the actor in question has told me that Actor’s Equity is threatening to levy a fine for not reporting box office receipts from the New York International Fringe Festival. Trouble is, according to the leadership of the Fringe, those reports do not go out until the end of the month. If anyone can expedite this issue, I’ll forward the information. LJ

I’m pro-union and not because I’m some lefty Commie revolutionary. I’m pro-union because I believe that management, as a philosophical matter, with unlimited power to hire and fire, and near-unlimited authority over salaries, has limited incentive to allow grievances to be aired or imbalances to be redressed. Left to its own devices without a check — yes, a check can be a law, a regulation or whatever leavens the bread — management’s tendency will be to ride herd on workers. I’m no Marxist and no, I’m not advancing Marxist theory. I just feel that any dynamic in which the power structure tends to slide to the extreme is not merely inefficient but ultimately irrational.

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So it is with sadness that I have concluded that for the thousands of artists working in the Off-Off-Broadway community, Actors’ Equity is a prime example of why U.S. unions seem permanently on the wane. It’s one thing to fight for better wages and benefits. It’s another for a union to be so enamored of its power than it spends time, money and energy punishing its members. Let me give you a specific example.

This past summer I directed a play in the New York International Fringe Festival that was co-written and co-produced by two Equity actors. I have much to say about the Fringe as a participant, and not all of it complimentary. But no one can take away from the Fringe the fact that each year nearly 200 productions offer artists opportunities to develop, present and promote their own work. I hate to get all First Amendment on everyone, and I imagine that some of y’all are sick to death of reading my posts about it, but if an actor wants to develop work for themselves, it seems to me they should have the right to do so without obnoxious, punitive interference from their union. If anything, Actors’ Equity should be encouraging its members to expand their artistic muscles, to feel empowered at any available opportunity.

One of my actors received this letter from Actors’ Equity:

This letter is to formally notify you that as of 8/1/10, you have been placed on Conflict of Interest status as a result of becoming a producer as per the attached copy of Article VI of the Actors’ Equity Association Constitution and By-Laws.

The By-Law prohibits participation by an “employer-member” at any Council or committee meeting, membership meeting and/or cast meeting unless expressly invited by Council or a committee chairperson for a specific purpose.

This is not meant to be in any way a condemnation. It is the Council’s belief that free speech is essential to a democratic community. The intent of Article VI is to provide the fullest freedom of expression to members attending any union meeting, without the subtle pressure which may be exerted by the presence of a potential employer. All of your other benefits and privileges of membership remain in place. Please note that your membership card will be issue with a series of asterisks on it as identification for this status.

Should you wish to be removed from Conflict of Interest status, be aware that it is not an automatic process. You must notify the Membership Department in writing after the appropriate time period has elapsed (see Section 2(c) of the attached article). Please indicate, at that time, the last date you functioned as a producer and affirm that you no longer fall under this provision of the By-Laws. Upon verification, you will be removed from the Conflict of Interest list.

The letter was received during our rehearsal process, which didn’t help. I have posted the letter with the full knowledge of the actor, and I have omitted the actor’s name out of respect and because the specifics are really rather irrelevant.

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What I have are questions — defensive blather from Actors’ Equity won’t cut it. What’s going on here is indefensible because it puts actors in a terrible position.

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First, putting aside the By-Law in question (which is as applicable to theater as Hammurabi’s Code), by what law of human reasoning does Actors’ Equity believe that by producing their own work, an actor’s entire mind and soul, entire breadth and depth of experience, entire ethical sense, entire moral sense, entire value system is suddenly and irrevocably changed? What happens when actors apply for reinstatement — suddenly it means actor-producers aren’t the enemy anymore? Really? Actors are so stupid that their worldview can change so fast? Really?

Second, while the letter does state “This is not meant to be in any way a condemnation,” that does not mean the letter is not functioning or having the effect of condemnation. Talk about facile, fungible, facetious use of words. If the Council of Actors’ Equity really believes “free speech is essential to a democratic community,” it should not indulge in warning or otherwise diminishing, castigating or punishing union actors who create their own work, but work in demonstrative, exceedingly visible and consistent ways to facilitate such opportunities wherever and whenever possible.

But no–

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Third, the union decides instead to apply “asterisks” to members’ cards “as identification for this status”? What a fine idea — separating people by a physical marker! Hey, how about identifying all the Jews in Actors’ Equity by putting yellow stars on their cards next! It’s the most obvious, pathetic comparison, I know, but the practice signifies Actors’ Equity’s utter failure to acknowledge how work is created in the 21st century and, worse, it signifies Actors’ Equity’s hostility to any kind of meaningful change. What union takes pride in forcing members to carry cards segregating them like lepers? Is that democratic? Forget that question. Is it American?

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Fourth, the line about ensuring “the fullest freedom of expression to members…without the subtle pressure which may be exerted by the presence of a potential empl0yer” is solipsistic garbage. The actors who co-wrote and co-produced the play aren’t employing anyone except themselves. Are they their own enemy? And Actors’ Equity must know this — how many people, how many dozens and dozens and dozens of actors have created their own work for the Fringe over the past 15 years — or for any of New York’s zillions of other theater festivals? This Orwellian nightmare reminds me of a friend who, about 10 years ago, performed his solo show in the Fringe and then transferred to an Off-Broadway run. He was greeted by his union with seemingly endless tussles over how much he was compensating himself. He literally wrote checks out to himself to make Actors’ Equity happy. Can you say Room 101?

This is how Actors’ Equity defines an employer-member:

An “employer” within the meaning of this By-Law shall include any member who meets any of the following provisions relating to theatrical employment: employs actors; is a producer or is listed or billed as producer; signs contracts or acts as, or on behalf of, an employer; posts bond; is registered to do business as a theatrical producer; is a member of a producers’ or managers’ association, or is a theatre owner or theatre lease holder.

To be clear, I’m not holding the Fringe festival responsible for this nonsense. But when in the name of God are union actors in the Off-Off-Broadway community going to friggin’ wake up and do something about their own damn union?

No wonder so many nonunion actors in New York, until they must, resist joining Actors’ Equity.

No wonder so many union actors in New York dislike their union — and live in so much fear of Actors’ Equity that they won’t buck the system no matter how much it might be in their long-term interest to do so.

No wonder the Equity Showcase Code is as outmoded as Prohibition.

I can’t change anything — I’m not an actor. As for the actor who received this letter, the actor will decide what to do at the appropriate time.

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All I know is I’m embarrassed. Unions should be smarter than this.