Wednesday, April 15, 2015

AEA Says I've Sinned

Two days ago, I got this email:

I also got one of these – then a hard copy letter – in 2007, when I produced and acted in the east coast premiere of Jane Martin’s FLAGS Off-Broadway. (Weirdly, I haven’t received any in between, despite producing multiple shows I also acted in, which is the supposed trigger.)

In 2007, I was amused and horrified. Now, in the midst of the Waiver Wars, I’m just horrified.

Here’s my union saying, in effect, “Because you are an entrepreneurial sort, creating paying jobs for yourself and your colleagues, we no longer trust you to be an honest voice in our meetings.” Read the email again. It’s crazy: they claim that, because they value free speech, they should purposefully silence precisely those union members best positioned to talk about what it’s like to produce work, to employ each other, to transition from powerless interpretive artists to powerful generative ones. They believe that a union member – the moment he or she enacts the “sin” of producing work – becomes so much an enemy, instantly shares so little in common with other actors, that free and open dialogue is no longer possible in their presence.

My membership card will have asterisks on it, for crying out loud! I’m publicly shamed for taking my career into my own hands! (And, I repeat again: I’m not just taking my own career into my hands, I’ve generated paying jobs, with pension and health, for my fellow union members, including paying – in 99 seat LA theatre – above the required minimum in all of Firefly’s full LA productions.)

No wonder AEA can’t seem to wrap its mind around the entrepreneurial spirit that pervades LA theater.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

My Two Cents in the Waiver Wars

Now that I got my ballot in the mail, I think it’s time to enter the fray of the Waiver Wars.

In the debates and discussions I’ve seen, I haven’t found many that lay out the math of the proposed changes. (Thanks to the inimitable Rob Nagle for making me aware of Jeff Marlow’s excellent example.)

So, here’s my attempt to lay out the financial impact of Actor's Equity Association's (AEA's) proposed changes on the per-cast-member cost of producing a play at a 99-seat-or-fewer venue with a ticket price of $25 or higher. I like evaluating on a per-cast-member basis because this allows AEA members to think personally about how this amount of money compares to how much they value having 99-seat theater, as it is now, as a creative outlet. In some ways, this is the specific question at hand for each voting member.

For the math below, we’ll assume you’ll rehearse each actor in your show for 36 hours per week over 4 weeks, inclusive of tech and dress rehearsals; that you’ll perform your show Thursday – Sunday nights for a 5-week run; and that each performance night will need 3 hours of each actors’ time, inclusive of arriving at the theatre 30 minutes before curtain.

This works out as follows.

Existing Code
Rehearsal fees paid each actor                           $0
Performance fees paid each actor                 $236
Total paid each actor in the show                 $236

Math: actors will earn ($11 per show x 4 shows per week x 4 weeks) + ($15 per show x 4 shows x 1 week), reflecting that actors’ fees go from $11 per show to $15 per show after 4 weeks.

Proposed New Code
Under today’s California minimum of wage $9 per hour, costs would be:

Rehearsal fees paid each actor                    $1,296
Performance fees paid each actor                 $540
Total paid each actor in the show              $1,836

As of January 1, 2016, California minimum wage will increase to $10 per hour, meaning:

Rehearsal fees paid each actor                    $1,440
Performance fees paid each actor                 $600
Total paid each actor in the show              $2,040

Math: Actors will earn ($9 per hour x 36 hours per week x 4 weeks of rehearsal) + ($9 per hour x  3 hours per night of performance x 4 shows per week x 5 week of the run). As of 1/1/16, the $9 will increase to $10 in the formula.

Thus, we arrive at a minimum increase in production costs of $1,600 per actor in a play produced prior to 1/1/16 and of $1,804 per actor after 1/1/16. (Many have rightly pointed out that the details emerging so far do not help us clarify if additional costs – like pension and health contributions, payroll taxes, and the like – will also be required, increasing this cost burden. Jeff Marlow does a good job of factoring them in to his fictional production, but I like looking at the most conservative cost increase, so we know our what our least likely impact is, giving AEA the benefit of the doubt.)

However you decide where you stand on this issue, use real dollar amounts as you think it through.


Personally, I’m opposed to the proposed changes. That said, I have found some rhetoric on the Vote No side extreme, especially when very wealthy people claim that theaters they support would not exist under the proposed new rules. We can see, above, that the costs are not so high that they literally close the doors of our most well-supported theaters. Certainly, some passionate supporters can float costs of this level.

Just as certainly, however, costs of this level would, indeed, force many beloved theaters to close and would force all LA theaters to do what too-many theaters in other cities must: avoid shows with large casts, avoid being able to include companies of actors in their aesthetic, and cut rehearsal time (limiting the adventurousness of what can be attempted). All of this would mean a significant loss of cultural value for Los Angeles, while only ensuring that a small number of people would earn wages that would still fail to provide a truly “professional” standard of living (to use the buzzword AEA repeatedly cites).

And, most importantly for my opposition to the proposed changes:

Evidence has shown me that it is actors ourselves who are producing this work, and I do not see how our own union can justify wanting to stop us from doing what we want to do. Quite the opposite, as any reader will know, I consider being an entrepreneurial artist a high calling, so I’d like to see our union find ways to support our ability to self-produce. (If AEA wants to stop all the 99-seat producers they claim are making money off our labor in LA, they are welcome to. I can point to perhaps one such person, but no more than that.)


I think it’s a very bad political move for a union to make rules it is incapable of enforcing, because doing so publicly emphasizes that union’s limitations. I do not see how AEA can stop a group of willing volunteers from volunteering, and the fact that the proposed new rules will lead to whole groups of member actors simply side-stepping AEA authority will be devastating for its future ability to forcefully negotiate with producers who are making real money in commercial theatre.

Guess I’ll mail that ballot now.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Core Ideas from PRINT THE LEGEND

Two weeks ago, I had the pleasure of representing the PRINT THE LEGEND team to lead a closing sessionat SXSW V2V. In prepping the presentation about our 3D Printing documentary, the team articulated some core messages of the film. In part so I always know where to find these notes, I present them here.  ; )

What we witness in the film:

·      We witness people have to confront the limitations of their original vision to "change the world" and have to choose between holding to that vision or letting it go in favor of a business edge. We witness optimistic, loving partnerships disintegrate in the pressures of the business world. We saw the “story” of 3D printing get hijacked from the companies that wanted you to focus on its positive aspects. We witnessed people succeed by every metric of the business world, and with that success came profound threats to their psyche.

What we learned from the film and hope to present within it:

·      The American Dream story we tell each other and our children is whitewashed. In the full-contact sport of American capitalism, ruthlessness is a performance-enhancing drug.
·      This is in itself morally neutral – our great (and typically ruthless) industrial leaders, like Steve Jobs, add amazing value to our country and our world. They create jobs, improve lives, and move society forward.  
·      But we should be honest about the human cost of that ruthlessness – including on those leaders themselves – instead of pretending that success in the market is the same thing as or indicative of success as a human being.

And, yes, I’m coyly avoiding giving background on how the film evolved, as there are plenty of interviews with Clay, Luis, et al with that. I'm also avoiding details of the film’s story in the hopes you’ll just watch it on Netflix when it comes out this fall!

Friday, May 30, 2014

The Golden Age of Documentary

Just for the record, this one. I'm not the only one saying it – which is evidence of its emergence from the zeitgeist – but I want to set it down. I think that when we look back at this era of American documentary film, it will look like the 1970s did for fiction cinema. Right now, documentary filmmakers have at their fingertips affordable, high quality cameras that can roll unlimited "tape" and access to footage on subjects who are being filmed and photographed nearly constantly – by themselves, by friends, by co-workers, etc. – but who are not yet aware of what this ubiquitous footage might mean for them. In another 5-15 years, I predict that the average adult will have grown up so aware of their media personality, even if only the "micro-media" of their social network, that the publicly available footage won't contain the revelations nor have the verite feel it does today.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

An Article

Not saying I advise "ruthlessness," but I do like things that link entrepreneurialism to an artistic life.

Thursday, June 20, 2013


While the class may have been called “English,” Mrs. Metzger used its curriculum of great literature to teach us how to write, how to understand and engage in abstraction, and how to think for ourselves. In honor of the life of Margaret Metzger, one of my most influential teachers, I am posting a Closure ritual she taught students at the end of senior year at Brookline High. She focused the ritual on mining the depths of our transition out of high school, a major coming of age moment, but she also emphasized the need for healthy closure throughout our lives. From breakups to cast parties to New Years Eve, I’ve found these steps beautifully helpful, but for those of us who are always moving into and out of creative projects, it also feels like an important career skill, necessary for smoothing out the highs and lows of our transition between gigs. No, you can't always run the ritual literally in a professional environment – though in theater you often can! – but you can find ways to process it yourself.

Notes from Senior Year English, 5/12/94
The steps are:

  • Think About It
    • Plan ahead for the closure ritual. Invite the participants. Make sure proper time is set aside by all. Plan a location that allows for honesty. Put someone in charge of moderating.
  • Deal with Red Tape
    • Get logistics out of the way. Does anyone owe money? Anyone have something they need to return? Deal with all of that and get it done.
  • Ask about Unfinished Business
    • Is there anything this group wanted to achieve but did not? Can it be done? If so, do it, or make a concrete plan to do so. Or, as is often the case, should it be let go? Make the choice, don’t just let it fade away.
  • Ask the Unasked Questions
    • Give everyone the opportunity to ask the things they’ve wanted to ask of each other and of the group, including the tough stuff. Key: this is not a time for discussion, argument, or iteration. Each person gets the questions off their chest. Nobody is obligated to answer, and if an answer is given, the person asking has to accept that answer, not kick off a debate. (This is why you need a moderator.)
  • Share Your Experience
    • Everyone shares how they felt about the experience and what it brought them. Give a sense of the future: what can you hold on to from the experience?
  • Celebrate
    • !
  • Say Goodbye and Let Other People Say Goodbye to You
  • Let Go & Consciously Make Room in Your Life/Heart
  • Walk Out, Close the Door, & Be Sad
  • Give Thanks for Being Sad
    • This is the most often forgotten, I’ve found. It’s a gift to have had an experience worthy of missing it. Be thankful for that.