The Show Must Go On

By William Salyers

“Don't let it be forgot
That once there was a spot
For one brief shining moment that was known
As Camelot.”
- Alan Jay Lerner & Frederick Loewe
Last Wednesday evening, at the Downtown Independent, I attended an advance screening of a remarkable documentary film, “Love 99,” about the struggle to preserve intimate theater in Los Angeles. For those who haven't been following the story, Actors Equity Association, the stage actors union, run by and for its New York base, has been striving to eliminate small production companies in Los Angeles by pricing union members out of their reach.
The documentary's title refers to the now-defunct 99-seat plan, which allowed AEA members to volunteer their craft to small theaters, as long as the capacity was 99 seats or fewer. The plan was arbitrarily discontinued by the union despite an overwhelming vote against the action by its Los Angeles members.
According to the film's Kickstarter page, “filming over 99 hours in September 2015, director Veronica Brady set out to follow 9 working actors, all deeply committed to the 99-seat theatre scene in LA, and document the unique challenges they currently face.”
The film is a beautiful piece of work. It's well shot, well paced, and its subjects are fascinating. Narration is provided by the great Dame Helen Mirren, who, as the old saw goes, could read the phone book and keep listeners enrapt. It's as sympathetic and honest a telling of the intentional destruction of LA's most creative and daring theatre as you are likely to see or hear.
Afterwards, the filmmakers and their stars took a few questions from the audience. Most, as is common in such situations, were of the “Let me tell you my story” variety, rather than actual questions. Unfortunately, I never got to ask mine, which would have been:
So, what now?
The event was attended by a veritable who's who of LA's intimate theater world. Some of the luminaries present were Stage Raw's Steven Leigh Morris, The Blank Theatre's Daniel Henning, LA theatre power couple French and Vanessa Stewart, and Better Lemon's own Enci Box. The camaraderie and bonhomie were palpable. It was a lovely evening that, in the final analysis, felt like nothing so much as a wake.
Platitudes were plentiful. We assured each other that the show would go on, that the drive to create would ultimately overcome the small souls that seek to stifle us; that, to quote Dame Helen's narration, “To actors, freedom of expression is more important than money.”
But that's not true of all those who call themselves actors, is it? Obviously, there are some in Los Angeles who don't agree. These are the people who are suing small producers for back wages and cheering the union on in its slash-and-burn march to the Pacific. These are the people who somehow think that their careers will magically ascend just as soon as AEA forces blood from stones. These are the people who, bless their hearts, went into theater for the money.
These same people think the fight is over. They believe that, with the dismissal of Ed Asner et al vs. Actors Equity Association (the law suit that sought to stay the union's heavy hand), the artists who are most affected will go gentle into that good night.
But ultimately, rulers need the cooperation of those they would rule. People cannot be broken to the will of others without their consent. A man may be forced to his knees, but he can never be forced to kneel.
Some of my friends have placed their faith in the promise of change from within, but Equity will not save us from itself. The staff and council come in two varieties: ineffectual, well-meaning people who want only to be liked, and others who believe we should be punished for ever having dared to stand up for ourselves in the first place. The higher ranks of leadership, along with the Executive Director, fall squarely in the latter camp. If we are to be saved, we must save ourselves.
The union has a favorite tactic: divide and conquer. They have allowed membership company “exemptions,” which they used to pacify some of the largest pockets of resistance, and which they can – and will – revoke as soon as it is politically feasible. Already, some of their collaborators are calling for its elimination. Those companies that live by it now will surely die by it later.
We must not fall to eulogizing what once was, but rather, let us fight harder to keep what is. We must look within ourselves and ask what the Los Angeles theater culture, unique in all the world, is worth to us. Many of us have parted with vast amounts of sweat, effort, time and treasure to protect it. If we let it go now, and give ourselves over to reminiscence and elegy, all of that will have been for nothing.
Any reasonable person can see that art falls under the purvue of free speech. One could further argue that the ritual of theater is sacred, now as in ancient times, and that our right to engage in it – without sacrificing our ability to earn a living – should be sacrosanct.
The time has come for individuals to stand against the bureaucracy of the union and claim their rights as artists. We must be brutally honest with ourselves, and weigh the possibility of one day performing an understudy at the Taper or the Geffen against the very real loss of feeding our souls in the here and now.
Our union does not care about art. They do not care about Los Angeles. They do not care about us. They care about amassing the numbers, the “contract weeks” that justify their existence. They have become as base and mercenary as the producers of old they formed to oppose. Aided and abetted by the self-deluded in our community, those who believe the answer to their problems is to curtail the rights of others, the union will not stop until we are as bereft of opportunity as any other city, save the one where they, themselves, are headquartered.
“Love 99” must be a rallying cry, not a history exhibit. It must make us fierce, not maudlin. Let those who watch it years from now say not that it was a fitting tribute to what was lost, but rather, the cri de coeur that invigorated a new front in the battle to save our our art, our community, and ourselves.
Do you hear the people sing?
Singing a song of angry men?
It is the music of a people
Who will not be slaves again!
- Jean Marc Natel, Alain Albert Boublil, Herbert Kretzmer, Claude Michel Schonberg

Burn, Baby, Burn, or… Bye, Bye, MY American Pie

As I contemplate my current Actors Equity Association dues statement, I have decided, after sixty-something years of acting and diligently paying my toll come hell or highwater over the years both lean and abundant, I will be requesting a leave from the once-respected union, one of which I used to declare in program bios I was proud to be a member. Today, I'm about as proud of being a member of AEA as Rihanna is to say she used to be Chris Brown's girlfriend.
Of course, part of the reason for this is that I'm teaching acting and directing for lotsa hours at New York Film Academy, as well as privately coaching prominent actors on two different TV series on different networks this season. Above anything else, however, caring for Victor, my partner for 48 years, desperately trying with everything in me to keep him comfortable and living at home as long as possible as he descends into the fog of Alzheimer's, has kept me from traveling to work in theatre and eventually led to giving up my beloved apartment in New York last year. Staying in my fifth-floor walk-up with a view of a brick wall or traveling in shows has always done my nomadic Kerouac-inspired soul unimaginable good, as exploring new cities and enjoying the freedom of hotel living are things I have called home since my glory days as a working kiddie. Still, all that would not be good enough reason to stop handing AEA my meager little dues were it not for what the union has done to my world.
If you live in El Lay and have any interest in the performing arts, you would have to have been in a coma the last two years not to know how Equity has royally fucked the amazingly prolific and courageously innovative intimate theatre community in our city. By demanding small struggling theatres pay any union member who agrees to hone his art for free or with infinitesimal remuneration to have a creative outlet to offset the lack of caring from the mostly artless but omnipresent Hollywood film industry, AEA has decimated the ranks outrageously—but not without a fight. Still, when over two-thirds of LA members voted in a referendum demanding the union not put their new soul-sucking rules into effect, they ignored us all and implemented the ridiculously unworkable plan anyway.
It was difficult enough last year to send off my hard-earned cash to a union that's done nothing for me in years but give me grief—and has totally disregarded the wishes of two-thirds of its LA membership. This time out, I just plain can't seem to do it. As I said, I have been a loyal dues-paying member of AEA since sometime before Johnny B shot Honest Abe, but I can't in all good faith support their unconscionable cause any longer.
In all honesty, there's not much to lose for me. There aren't many roles for geriatric juveniles with an ass the size of Texas around these days unless it's a priest or a mentally-deficient adult—and playing stereotypical fading old duffers who invariably croak at the end isn't much of a challenge either. Granted, this is also true in the film and television industry, but it's especially prevalent onstage, where the only real challenges as an artist for a guy at my stage of life come from bravely off-centered 99-seat theatre companies working to create astounding new art and make a real difference. I have no interest playing Doc in West Side Story or some other role I could call in from home for some dastardly LORT-Z pay rate at a civic light opera in Duarte or somewhere in San Bernardino County. As a 70-yr-old actor living in LA these days, teaching and private coaching are a far better way to pay the bills and pass on what one has learned from the masters before passing on—unless you're an established name actor and even then, I suspect most of them are sitting at home waiting for the phone to ring.
So, after 63 years fiercely believing in AEA and everything for which the original concept unionizing stood in the first place, sadly, I'm outta here. I may not be able to control where my tax dollars go as handled—mishandled—by our insane and dangerous President Dummald J. Troutmouth and his equally character-challenged minions, but I can stop paying Equity as it screws me personally and systematically destroys the community I love so dearly. It's a sad state of affairs but, truly, it's also oddly freeing.