Sunday, November 6, 2016

Despite what Equity Says: Fair Ain't Fare #FairWageOnstage

This is possibly my last post. The theatre trolls have attacked the few others defending our theatre, sending them death threats and what not. If only they had that passion toward making the theatre better! Having undergone brain surgery in the past year, to which some of you wrote to say you hoped I died - I'm still here! I've suffered pain you hopefully will never have to know - and I'm still here.


This whole #FairWageOnStage is a cute idea but a lot of it seems to be a smoke screen for Equity’s many decades of neglect. Before, I get flamed to death, YES, I absolutely think it would be amazing, and in my dream world, people off and off-off Broadway ALL got paid a fortune.  (PLUS all actors need to learn the difference between spelling ‘fair’ and ‘fare.’ #embarrassing) I also believe most people, in most jobs, nationwide, deserve a major raise, not only those working on stage and in the wings, but it’s not quite that black and white.  Though we tend to isolate, living in New York isn’t only difficult for actors.  I admire any self-proclaimed “grass-root effort” as the group’s domain is registered to Kellie Overbey. (Can’t Equity start anything themselves?!!) but despite the attention it has garnered, this agenda seems sadly misguided. Artists SHOULD be revered and rewarded, but unless you are going to change the whole culture and rewrite history, this isn’t going to happen. The decades our union has been asleep at the wheel haven't helped. (And a dozen will still scream, “But what about That One Show?” – It’s an anomaly. Congrats to all that are involved, but when you are produced by a non-profit and charge $800+ a ticket – you’re hurting the larger theatre by depleting the amount of money people have in their overall ‘theatrical budget’.  While they’ve done amazingly, I wonder how many other shows they have shuttered because of their price.)  

I have nothing to gain here besides more hateful emails from ignorant strangers – so I am doing this out of love for the theatre as a whole – not for my own agenda, not for my career, not for money, etc. The Theatre is so much bigger than me, or you, but it needs caretakers. (I’m the self-proclaimed toilet scrubber.) Back in the day, The Group Theatre- repeatedly took pay cuts to keep their shows running – we are talking about legends like Stella Adler, Sanford Meisner, Elia Kazan, Lee Strasberg, Lee J. Cobb, John Garfield, Bobby Lewis and so many others. They’d skip meals, they lived together, they’d do whatever it took to make the theatre work.  (And yes, things are much more expensive now, but they managed to keep the American theatre afloat during the Great Depression.) I’m woefully from that idealistic school of work and thought.  Decades later, Uta Hagen would gracefully sweep the stage nightly, even when she was a star as that’s just what you did.  Yes, that was all before I was born. Most of the greats were before my time. I guess I was born too late. I lamely ask what I can do for the theatre instead of vice-versa.  I think back to the 1990’s infomercials for courses in ‘VCR repair training’ and my opinions are not far off from the state of the theatre. During their heyday, NO ONE thought VCRs would soon be obsolete. Like the theatre industry, which is becoming more useless per generation, no one will get paid to act once their is no business. Please, please try to produce, and you will appreciate the hats others wear in the theatre. (If I ran a theatre education program, producing would be essential. It’s a million times harder than you think.  No wonder Broadway shows have 76 producers above the title, and no wonder the phrase too many cooks in the kitchen constantly comes to mind.) The half-dozen people I know whom have accepted that challenge have ALL said, “We had no idea how hard it was...”  I’m no trust-fund baby and I have no savings account to sleep on, yet I hold no grudge against those that do. I worked my way through NYU and will be paying for it a long time yet. (Stupid mistake on my part, I will admit!) Until I became ill last year, I worked from 1-5 jobs since I was 17.  I took on extra work to help subsidize the little stipend that ReGroup could pay its actors. No crying for me; I did it all willingly.
The Fair Wage's lame “letter to the management” itself seems to be from a powerless position by stating the theatre is controlled by the producers (“your institution”). It smells of a teenager telling their parents, “You just don’t understand.”  Again, I urge you, in fact, I beg all the actors to produce your own work, even if just for one night. The amount of paperwork alone is stupefying, the COST, the limitations set by contracts with the writer or estate and the union, the COST, hiring others, the COST, the royalties, the COST etc, etc make it almost impossible.  Just as it is becoming harder and harder to live in NY, as an artist or as any other profession, (We do not live in a bubble, as much as we often like to think we do.) it is becoming even harder to produce with care.  There seems to be some faux picture of this Boss Fat producer who is making billions off of the sweat of actors’ back, and if that is true, (It’s not!) then call them out. I’ve asked Equity repeatedly for this info regarding who is making a profit off-off Broadway, and I’ve been told it’s not known. (Producers have to give them extensive documentation for every show, so it should take 20 seconds to run a report – if it were in their favor.) Though my degree from NYU is in acting, having produced off and off-off as a non-profit, I find that producing companies, especially the non-profits, would LOVE to pay their actors better.  Though the “Fair Wage” website recommends it, by earmarking funds “For payment to actors and SMs” doesn’t mean they will be paid more. That merely helps fill the non-profits previously set budget for creative talent. It’s entirely useless as a tactic.  As far as the sight claiming the actors are “not part-time workers,” while I understand the plight – technically, less than 40 hrs work on-site a week is ‘part-time’ to 99.9% of the country. AND as far as polling a whopping “190 members” for their opinions, even when the union somehow inflates their membership by 10,000 per the Dept of Labor, 190 out of 40,000 is a negligible amount. I’d expect all 190 would want more pay, but it’s embarrassing that you use such negligible numbers.
YES! Again, you do deserve a raise. All artists do. They always did, but they always did. The term ‘starving artist’ isn’t a new one, and though it isn’t ‘fair’, we ALL knew this going in to it.  The rules didn’t change after we got our degrees. We weren’t forced to go to school to get paid slightly above poverty wages; we chose this noble path. We weren’t forced to take meaningless, minimum wage job burger-flipping jobs. Yes, I still remembering being an 18 college student and thinking it wasn’t fair that every 3 hrs of classroom work only counted as 1 hr. (I knew then our work was not the norm and this business was far from “fair.”) We have to consider what it means to ‘paid’. Nope – recognition from a role off-Broadway won’t pay your rent – but it makes you an important part of society. Do not lose sight of that. (No, that won’t fill your stomach, but read on.) Many of the artists or actors who did taped interviews for the fair wage project mentioned how the off or off-off  work was the most rewarding work of their career and they wouldn’t trade it for anything, etc, etc.  That doesn’t pay for a MetroCard but that has true value – which for me, will mean more on my deathbed than the money I made.  But, I understand, that doesn’t help in the here and now.  We need our union to help turn the clock back.  Look back 20-30 years, and most of the big actors you know, stage and screen, got their start off-Broadway. The “exposure” that is so mocked in the Fair Wage memes is how the majority of those actors got started.  Casting directors, agents, etc actually went to the theatre almost every night. (This is my area of expertise – even legendary actors like Maureen Stapleton, Eli Wallach and Jessica Tandy would come back to do “showcases” with new talent – and earn dirt wages as part of the Equity Library Theatre. It was their way of passing the torch and getting others discovered.  NOW, our unions have allowed ‘workshops’ to take over. They ‘teach’ 3 minute workshops at Actors Connection, The Network, etc, etc, etc by allowing you to audition for them.  Not only are those NOT paying gigs, they charge $40 per a 3 minute ‘class.’ I’ve been in contact with AEA and SAG/AFTRA about this issue – and they’ve all claimed to be helpless.  Now I’ve been after the Attorney General of NY to stop these scams.  With prodding by myself, in addition to their own efforts, LA has been very successful in getting major attention (several articles in Variety, etc), and it seems very likely these faux classes will soon be forbidden in CA as the ‘pay to play’ efforts that they are. If we can get that unity in NY, the equity of being in a low paying show can once again be a major benefit as a stepping stone to higher paid work. 

Who the hell am I? Allie Damn Mulholland, founder and Artistic Director of the 501c3 ReGroup Theatre.  What will the future bring? Who knows? Maybe actors will settle with being better paid laborers. Still, like with politicians, union leaders are known to lie.  (At my AEA orientation, when asked the ‘cons’ of being in Equity, I mentioned wanting to do work of my own, only to have the leaders literally provoke the entire room into laughing at me and wrote on the chalkboard (WITH quotes) “Artistic Ventures.” I’ve met with Equity, they’ve given me their word as Fair Wage team claims they have to them. Their word has been proven to be worthless to me.  I’m the shyest guy around, but one thing I can do is stand on the last 2 President’s desk in their multi-million dollar office overlooking Times Square and beat them in knowledge of our American theatre history. I’m not talking trivia; I’m talking the process of passing the baton. Maybe I’ll finally quit Equity for their constant ‘miscommunicating’ (which some would call lying), maybe I’ll run for President or start a rival theatre artists union.  For more than a year, I’ve been advocating for the LA 99 SEAT Plan to help them keep the best plan for themselves, as determined by the people who do the work. Even though their local AEA members voted down a change to the plan by a 2/3 margin, AEA overturned their member’s vote due to the amount of actors who didn’t vote. By that philosophy, if 190 actors are against the current code, the other 40,000 are for it?   (Note to Mrs. Clinton – under this warped logic, anyone registered who didn’t vote meant to vote for you! Yes, this was originally aimed as The Donald as it sounds like crap he'd use, but AEA used it against its members.)  First off, it’s sad and sick that our union would ignore their members but again, they also claim to have 10,000 more members than the Dept of Labor is aware of. (Are the counting dead members?) They are not “50,000 strong” just as they argued with me their slogan wasn’t “Ask if it’s Broadway.” After I complained, they swore it was ‘Ask if was Equity’ and I was making things up until I sent them the link to their own website headed, “ASK IF IT’S BROADWAY!” (As if Broadway means quality in the first place. hahahaha)  A week later, it was changed, though I have copies of the original page.
Hoping they would help defend our theatre as their predecessors did, I’ve reached out to many of our established young-ish playwrights and directors, who all luckily have been fortunate to have been trust fund babies. That’s truly great for them, but it seemingly has taught them not to wager into anything controversial.  I have countless emails saying this – and even though some of our older playwrights were also from extremely entitled backgrounds, Edward Albee to name the most obvious, were radicals when needed. Now is the time they are needed.  It’s a shame that most everyone cares about their own careers and their IMDB position more than the theatre. The Group Theatre wanted to take over Equity, so this is not a new problem.

When I helped start the NY Actors Standing in Solidarity with the LA Actors, I did it believing that NY was next to be targeted – not to bring actors more money, but to limit productions and make Equity more money. (Google how much the NY office of AEA is in debt, how they’ve made mind numbing decision to keep it there, and you will too be surprised.) A few actors may make more money if this ‘fair wage’ passes, but it will also cut the number of shows produced. Though this is supposedly a grassroots effort now taken on by AEA, I’ve said for years Equity was out to kill the Showcase code and likely off-Bway as we know it. After all, they’ve let it rot for over 30 years.  I interviewed all 3 AEA Presidential candidates in the last 2 year, and had long face to face meetings with 2 of the 3, and my main concern was modernizing the Showcase code – the code that preceded all our current major non-profits and keeps our newer nonprofits from paying a decent wage. As an upstart non-profit theatre, with ReGroup, try applying for a grant to pay actors – when you often need to make $50,000 or $500,000 a year to even qualify for the grant. It’s impossible under our union's current codes. With $18 per ticket limits, plus free tickets to union members, press and industry, theatres can't do that anymore, and I don't believe it's a coincidence.  Equity set the Showcase top ticket price at $15 in 1982– so reportedly not to interfere with commercial Broadway/Off-Broadway tickets. For the dozens who care about American theatre history, this was a huge turning point. Yes, in the 80’s, AIDS took an unmeasurable hit on the American theatre – but off-off/off-Broadway, has seemingly remained stuck in an amber state of stagnation because of Equity not wanting competition with Broadway. Again, while people can youtube #fairwageonstage, if decades too late. And if you listen to most of the posts, the people speak of how they would not trade their off-Broadway credits for anything. These people are now sitcom and Broadway stars and actual millionaires. Yes. 95% of the US population deserves more pay for what they do – including the theatre world. Sadly, that’s life. Few have a chance of riding their early career to fortune. The theatre is part of that world it imitates, as much as it often doesn’t want to admit it. Theatre is a slowly dying art form. It has been for centuries, but currently, as seen by the videos of the Fair Wage crew, you can go from meaningful, low paying stage work to wealth. That doesn't happen to most of the characters we play.
Again, according to Equity, their most used code is the Showcase, by a huge, HUGE margin. Yet, almost all of their income comes from Broadway. Therefore, it’s clear where their allegiance lies.  While off-Broadway actors continue to slobber over how little they make on union shows, those are minimum prices – not maximum. Again, while I believe they should be paid as much as possible, larger salaries are often NOT possible. When ReGroup first started and could pay nearly nothing, we’d get an average of 2,000 submissions per role.  The good producers are doing the best they can. (ReGroup alone has provided housing, groceries, loaned emergency money, held birthday parties, etc, etc for our staff whenever humanly possible. WE WANT TO DO AS MUCH AS WE CAN!) MANY PRODUCERS DO SO. They are not the enemy and they are not God, and the theatre is not “their institution.”
YES! You want to argue. I’ve said all I have to say. You want a fair wage – well, fuck Van Gogh for only selling 1 painting in his life. Fuck all the actors who inspired you to walk the boards. That’s old timey stuff for people in their 30’s like me.  After all, Dwayne, “the Rock”, Johnson is the United States’ highest paid actor. Be like him! That’s something to aim for! And, after you completely digest that sickening fact, which you hopefully cannot, I ask all actors to review their ‘worth’. I, personally, made good money on the soaps right before they closed shop a decade ago, but I’d trade it for the unpaid 80 hr weeks, casting, re-casting, directing, acting, understudying,set designing, stage managing, sewing costumes, typing the script for publication, giving interviews, mopping the stage floor, etc. 
I’ve stood with my union. Despite sickness and crippling pain, I’ve never withdrawn my will advocating for the theatre– even when I had nothing to benefit from it. I want to leave our theatre a better place. While AEA may be about protecting the actors, I am about protecting the theatre.  Yes, the theatre has  always been ‘dying,’ – in this age, where kids are growing up with gadgets like even the youngest amongst us can’t relate to, it’s only going to become more difficult to get asses in seats.  

So I’m sure many of you are pissed, and honestly, I’m fine with that. Focus it at the right target – not at me or the others for uncovering it.  Focus it on those who have kept things status quo for decades.  Having volunteered regularly since I was 8 years old at nursing homes–  having published 12 of the Group plays, for the first time in 80 years when no one else could get the rights, having had my ideas stolen repeatedly from rich theatres – and having never made a cent off of any of it – I’m not romanticizing being poor. It sucks.  I needed brain surgery last fall and have been mostly unable to work this year. Did this give me a new found sense of self or of the theatre? Not a freaking chance.  It only reaffirmed the work was always the most rewarding thing. When you can’t do it, you really see that.
Our theatre will survive – with or without you or little old me.  Let’s combine our knowledge and skills to make it the best it can be.

So, what’s it all about, Allie? While I believe the non-Broadway contracts should have been updated long ago and not neglected as they have been, changing them isn’t black or white.  They were left to rot for a reason. It’s not all an actor issue, and raising actor’s pay isn’t possible by the snap of the fingers.  The producers, unless they are one-dimensional douchebags, aren’t holding out on you. They are largely doing the best they can.  Without Equity allowing for producers of off and off-off Broadway to make major changes to compensate for nearly 40 years of stagnation, which I doubt they ever will, nothing will change noticeably. 

Sadly, I believe we need a new union. Others have been around to help me fight this battle, but have been driven off by the negativity. In the end, you are only hanging yourself.

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