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A Possible Way Forward? (or Improve, Don’t Eliminate!) by David Elzer – an open letter to the #LAThtr community

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Producer, Writer, Marketing & Public Relations guru David Elzer, of Demand PR, has shared on Facebook his brilliantly composed and impassioned letter of advice re 99 Seat theater / Equity vote. In it, he offers some much needed concrete solutions to what has become an ugly dilemma.

This is a must-read for anyone involved with the theater community in Los Angeles.

Please read. Please ACT.

 

A Possible Way Forward? (or Improve, Don’t Eliminate!) – by David Elzer.

I am about to make some assumptions.

1) That those who have received ballots are not actually waiting to vote; they received their ballot, knew already how they were voting and have put those ballots in the mail or have voted online and that there are very few fence sitters left.

2) That both sides are exhausted. That there has been too much time spent demonizing the other side. Too many emails written, emails returned and way too much vitriol pitting friend against friend and union member against union member and union against community.

3) That there might be a number of Equity councilors and people of leadership who genuinely thought that their proposal was a good and just one and that there would be wide-spread support and were truly taken aback when they realized too late the amount of pushback and anger this proposal would create.
So that being said, I would like to make a simple and modest proposal to perhaps constructively move us forward and prevent the inevitable lawsuits, continued ugliness and pain that may be staring us all in the face no matter what way the referendum turns out.

For those few of you that MIGHT not have voted and might be on the fence – some version of the following is what a lot of people are hoping the “No” vote might ultimately look like which is why I would encourage your consideration.

I am not going to propose anything radical, in fact, its all kind of been said before, but in overly complicated ways and so I am going to try to present what I have been hearing and understanding and distill in to its most easy to understand terms.

I have been speaking to some of my friends on the YES side of the issue and the two take-aways I have received are:

1) Unfortunately Equity has done a very good job in convincing their side of the argument that a “Yes” vote means you want “change” to the plan and they do not fully appreciate the only change that “Yes” vote allows is the $9.00 per hour across the board for all intimate theatres and that is ALL the “Yes” vote means.

2) They have sincerely asked me if the “No” side is for “change, just not this change” – what does that change REALLY look like.
So here, is my idealistic and probably unrealistic proposal which (is open to wide debate of course!) and I hope it can get to Equity leadership to consider. I also hope its something that the “No” camp can also mostly get behind. And if there are disagreements, it’s at least a starting place for hopeful, productive conversation to ensue. That is assuming that Equity is open to hopeful, productive conversation as I know many on the “Yes” side I am spoken to are hopeful for.
It’s really pretty simple and a lot of it has been in place and agreed to by many of us already – so let me make this this opening salvo and start the negotiating here based on language already in the “Plan”:

Theatres that range in size from 1 – 50 seats will pay actors $20.00 per performance due first playing day of each week for that week’s total number of scheduled performances. Plus a rehearsal allowance of $100 per actor, due on the first day of rehearsal. (This will pay for gas, baby sitters and other expenses that come from needing to spend time at rehearsals.)

Theatres that range in size from 51 – 99 seats will pay actors $25.00 per performance due first playing day of each week for that week’s total number of scheduled performances. Plus a rehearsal allowance (if we all don’t like the word “stipend”) of $150.00 due on the first day of rehearsal. (This will pay for actors gas, baby sitters and other expenses that come from needing to spend time at rehearsals.)

After 68 performances, shows need to move to contract.

Equity agrees to continue to lift ticket prices to $55.00 (or so). Thus, after all the discount and comping – theatres can try to actually clear $20 – $30 per ticket to pay production costs and hopefully be able to ultimately find funds to pay actors (and in fact everyone) more.

 

WHY THIS AMENDED PLAN IS GOOD FOR EQUITY:

You have just increased your actors pay 100% or more – plus getting them an additional allowance that will help them take care of expenses during those very busy rehearsal weeks. What Union has ever negotiated an immediate 100% increase plus, then some?

WHY THIS AMENDED PLAN IS GOOD FOR THE PRO99’S:

Well for one, we get to keep the “Plan” – as we need the plan if we all want to continue to work in smaller spaces with our fellow beloved Equity members. Yes this is going to mean a tight squeeze to our budgets, but it’s a squeeze that is at least in the world of possible, and more than that, it’s in the world of the right thing to do. As you know, many of our theatre companies had already agreed to the $25.00 per performance per actor; so for many that is not the issue; to find a bit extra to pay for rehearsal time is really the only “new” amendment to the plan and since everything is “negotiable” – I know we can all negotiate together and figure out the right numbers and smartest tiered way on the performance and rehearsal side to make that work.

That is it in its most basic form.

SO – SIMPLE. RIGHT? (or probably not as the comments I am sure to follow will attest to) but, as we have said all along – THE PLAN SHOULD BE THE EASY FIX – Equity can bring their counter proposal to the Review Committee and they can negotiate it – and should negotiate it – but I think there would be a lot of support for those amendments from the Pro99 side to the existing plan and with some other really modest changes – it can give Equity a big win by again increasing their members pocket cash by well over 200% including rehearsal allowance and we can dig a little deeper to find a way to increase our budgets to take this difficult but possible step forward for actors who do deserve some cash in hand for their rehearsal time as well. (And, the $25 per performance would work out to minimum wage for most of the shows that are being produced now anyway 😉

HOWEVER, HERE IS WHERE I THINK THE REAL PROBLEM TO GROW LA THEATRE LIES:

All of this back and forth should really be energy that is put into the “Bridge” contract between the “Plan” and the HAT contract. I have produced on both. The true reason that LA has so many 99 seat and under theatres and has not been looking to build more mid-size houses of 150 – 200 or more seats, is the HAT contract (like Equity’s current $9.00 per hour proposal) is just too wide a financial chasm to jump. That is our real ultimate challenge.

There needs to be a step or “Bridge” contract between the two (as has been often discussed) that makes sense so that those that want to can take appropriate “steps” off the “Plan” and put actors on contract. The HAT makes no financial sense for any theatre under 150 seats, period. That’s one of the main reasons we don’t have any. It’s not the weekly pay for actors, but the health, pension and welfare payments under that contract that keeps us from being able to grow.

The roughly $40 – $50 per performance pay that is in the contract now, is not the real issue. Actors really want some monies to go into their Health Pension and Welfare. This is where we need the real work to begin. Perhaps a weekly amount based on number of Equity contracts can be pooled to a reasonable number that would go towards each Actors HP&W that is not the $160 per week per actor the contract has now – a negotiated pool payment might make sense that is equally split amongst all the actors and goes towards their health weeks. But that is for smarter minds than mine. But this could be a useful starting point for discussion.

If such a contract existed, I believe that the many theatre companies that are currently looking for new homes would gladly try to create multi-use and larger theatre spaces since they would know there is ACTUALLY a contract that is affordable – and then the next 30 years would see our smaller spaces and companies able to take actual STEPS forward. Not Baby Steps, but not the impossible leaps that we are asked to deal with now that have no basis in financial reality and which is why Equity put the “Plan” into existence in the first place.

So to my Equity friends that are on the YES side of the vote. I love and adore you, you know who you are and appreciate your constructive dialogue with me these past weeks. I understand your wanting to stand by your union. I understand why you think the $9.00 per hour proposal should be a no brainer, but you can hear from the other side, in a million different ways why it is not that simple, from the artists right to choose when and how to practice their craft – as well as the simple economic realities of this “not quite thought through well enough” proposal.

I would encourage you to see if there is consensus on your side that the above suggestions might work for you. An immediate 100% increase in the plans allowance to actors plus rehearsal monies to pay for the everyday things that actors need to deal with during rehearsal times. Nothing wrong with that. Encourage your leadership to reach out to the Review Committee to see if there is a compromise somewhere within these very simple outlines for at least discussion. Wouldn’t it be dreamy if no legal dollars had to be spent over all this?

Then ask your leadership to sit down with leaders of the LA Theatre community, TPLLA, etc., to help design this much needed “Step/Bridge” contract that would be the smartest way to wean Los Angeles off of “The Plan” and get us looking forward to larger venues and “contracts” that are possible to pay and that make actual and realistic financial sense. In fact, this latest proposal Equity has offered – the minimum wage, less the Health, Pension and Welfare is a great starting point for this “Bridge” contract – it just makes no sense for the “Plan.”

Maybe I am totally Idealistic on this (no, I know I am totally idealistic on this) – but if we can take these steps forward, then we could all get down to the real business at hand, not have to deal with the forthcoming lawsuits (read Steven Leigh Morris’ brilliant Chicken story on Stage Raw) – get us all on a path towards contracted work in LA and then Equity could start to focus on some of its other pressing issues like Non-Union tours, etc.

We could potentially immediately end this unruliness by finding a win/win solution for all and get back to build our lives, and chop our wood and make our gardens grow. And we can all find other constructive things to do with our time besides writing impassioned posts like this…

 

Written by David Elzer, reprinted with his kind permission.

 

I heart 99

 

Pauline Adamek
Pauline Adamek
Pauline Adamek is a Los Angeles-based arts enthusiast with twenty-five years' experience covering International Film Festivals and reviewing new Theatre, Film and Restaurants.

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