In the arts, what is a professional? How do we assess professionalism? Over the years this has been a recurring series of questions. A few years ago, I had a conversation with a colleague who work in a theatre in a major American city. He said there was a back and forth between a local newspaper critic and another theatre about reviewing their shows. They weren’t a house that employed a majority of Equity actors in their shows, and so the critic didn’t consider the theatre a “professional” theatre. In this instance, union membership was made the basis for professionalism, whatever that might mean.
I’ve written in multiple forums about my respect for Equity. As someone who’s toured in modern times, my heart goes out to the circumstances of the old troupers. Actors who had to own their own costumes. Actors who had to buy their own train ticket back to New York from nowhere because the producers couldn’t find a next stop for the tour. Actors who were kept in rehearsal for months with no pay while the producers tried to line up “angels.”
But how do we create and work in systems that work for the human beings in the system? And how do we find ways to humanize the ways in which we work?
All of this is coming to a crisis in Los Angeles. If any town is a company town – it’s L.A. Entertainment writ large is the city’s engine. And a group of actors and the actors’ union are in conflict about what the system is, how it works, and what should be done.
To try and understand this better, I sat down with William Salyers. Salyers, like most performers these days, works in multiple media and platforms – giving voice to cartoon characters, reading audio novels, appearing on camera, and acting on stage. This interview occurred from March 15-17.
NT: When did you first start thinking of yourself as a professional?
WS: I got my first pay for acting when I was in college. I think it was a hundred bucks for a community production of Peter Barnes' The Ruling Class. I photocopied the check and saved it, but I didn't really think of myself as a “professional;” I mean, I was still a college student.
Then, I got hired to act regionally right out of college. I did that for a couple of years before deciding that I wanted to be based in Seattle. Was I a professional when I was touring for a few hundred bucks a week, but an amateur when I moved to Seattle and worked on local stages for exposure? Of course not.
I think the term “professional” is of limited use when referring to actors. In our country, we narrowly define the word as being paid a living wage for labor. Actors are usually contractors, as opposed to employees, so they work gig-to-gig. In the course of a typical actor's career, they will go from employed to unemployed and back again many, many times. I think that's why actors more commonly use commitment to - and quality of - one's work as the standard of “professionalism.”
NT: This is interesting to me because I think this has more to do with the anxiety of performers particularly. I don’t think “professional” and “professionalism” causes equal discussion amongst lawyers, for example. If a lawyer decides to work pro bono, no one questions whether or not they’re professional. . .
WS: Exactly. It's a distinction that's being much-hyped in the current debate. Those of us on the Pro-99 side have used lawyers working pro bono and doctors volunteering for Médecins Sans Frontières as examples. If other professions can do it, why can't we?
NT: When you got to Seattle, you’d been working as a paid actor for several years, but not union yet. Then you were invited to join the union as part of a production of “Othello,” right?
WS: That's right. Mark Jenkins, a very respected teacher and director, offered me an Equity card for the role of Michael Cassio in Othello at Seattle Shakespeare. Even then, I balked at the idea, because I knew what joining AEA would mean.
NT: What would it mean?
WS: Seattle had no equivalent (and still doesn't) to LA's 99-seat plan or NY's showcase code. There were only a handful of Equity houses in the city at the time, and they tended to work with the same established actors over and over. Basically, taking your card meant that you could no longer work in intimate theaters with your friends, and you were unlikely to get consistent work at the larger Equity theaters. It was a commitment to not working.
NT: That was the early 1990s. By now in the mid-teens of the 21st century you’ve done union gigs in NYC, Portland, Seattle, and done guest artist gigs on a couple of campuses. Can you speak to the differences between what being a union actor differs when you’re working in these different locales? I mean, is being a union actor mean something different in NYC than in Portland?
WS: Well, you have to keep in mind that I was working as a guest in many of those cities, so I can't speak to what it's like to try to live as a resident actor in Portland, for example.
And, of course, there are different union rules for acting as a guest artist at a college than for doing regional theater in the same town. Essentially, New York and Los Angles are the only cities that have union-sanctioned plans for doing any kind of theater without standard union pay. In other cities, including Seattle, Chicago, and Portland, you tend to have a highly stratified scene: a few large Equity houses working with a privileged handful of union actors, while the rest look out of town for work, or work under pseudonyms at non-union houses to keep their skills sharp and do what they love.
NT: NYC centrism is a bit unique to the actor’s union because of the history of show business. Naturally, I teach my students about the truly awful situations actors found themselves in back in the day. If you were an actor on the road in Omaha and the show closed, the producers were under no obligation to pay for your ticket back to NYC. Many actors were left high and dry.
WS: That's right, and the union changed those horrid conditions for the better. No one is arguing that we didn't need that. We are all grateful.
NT: When you came to L.A., you were looking for film/tv work, but you also got involved in the theatre scene pretty quickly, yes?
WS: Yes. As it turned out, I knew a lot of Seattle ex-pats down here, and many of them were doing exciting theater. I was lucky enough to get involved rather quickly. In fact, my first on-camera gig in LA came from being seen in a 99-seat show by a casting director.
NT: Can you give the nutshell version of how the 99-seat plan got started?
WS: It started almost 30 years ago, in what is now referred to locally as “The Waiver Wars” (for “Equity Waiver Theater”). Actors sued AEA for the right to do plays without being paid Equity minimums so they could get on stage, keep their skills sharp, be seen by casting people, and make connections. The union settled out of court, and the 99-seat plan was born. It allows productions to pay modest stipends, rather than union wages, in venues with 99 seats or fewer.
In the decades since, it's become an incubator for daring works, new works that couldn't find backing for productions elsewhere, and theatrical experiments. The plan has produced many shows that have gone on to legitimate runs at Equity houses, here and in other cities.
NT: One example I can think of is a project you did with a script by Jeff Goode. I knew Jeff as an undergraduate. He works for (an unnamed production company). I doubt his current employers would be much interested in the script he wrote that you were in. So, the 99-seat theatre plan achieved what it was supposed to achieve. A group of artists were able make something that was both artistically interesting and entertaining.
WS: That's right. That play, and many others, would never have been produced here without the plan.
NT: Right. As I understand it, many of these projects are funded by the actors themselves, yes?
WS: Yes. Some of our NY brethren seem to have a hard time with this concept. They have a very “us versus them” view of theatrical producers. Here, in LA, membership companies mostly consist of actors helping each other produce shows.
My last production, The Behavior of Broadus, was a 99-seat plan show that garnered seven Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Nominations. It was a co-production of Center Theater Group at the Sacred Fools Theater. Although I received a stipend for my work, I also pitched in money to make the show happen. It was a musical about the father of Behaviorism. Sounds like an easy sell, right?
NT: You never know. I wonder what Sondheim’s pitch was for Assassins . . . Anyway, in this instance, the producers are actually cooperatives of actors. In fact, in a sense you’re a “producer” and own a piece of the property, since you provided some of the working capital to accomplish the project. This interests me.
One of the best times for actors economically was Shakespeare’s era. In that economic model, Shakespeare and his colleagues were share-holders of their own company. They owned the means of production. And Scott Walters, out in North Carolina, has been speaking out about finding a sustainable model today for financing performers in particular. One of the things he’s commented on is the need for artists to “make their own” business, rather than simply look to be employees.
WS: I think that makes sense. I don't know many actors who make a living solely from the classic theatrical paradigm: doing stage plays for a regular salary. In fact, most actors are trying to work in as many venues, and in as much media, as possible. My regular gig is voicing a popular cartoon, but I also voice video games, narrate audio books, do stage plays and independent film... I like to work as much as possible, wherever I can.
NT: That makes sense. We have to admit that a majority of Equity union members in NYC don’t (can’t?) earn a living wage only from working in the theatre. Whatever advantages our current economic model has, we haven’t found a way to get most professionals in the theatre a living wage as it is.
But, before we get to the union’s current plan, let’s admit up front that we’re all Americans here with a healthy respect for that which can make us money. My guess is that Bill Gates and Warren Buffet wouldn’t mind earning an extra buck or two if they could. So we’re not against artists getting paid.
WS: Absolutely not. We all believe actors should be paid for their work, but the union's proposed plan won't do that. It will kill theaters, and closed theaters don't pay actors.
NT: You know, thinking about the various kinds of work you do in various media -- I wonder how that pans out economically for actors. What I mean is this -- when I took economics back in college, my teacher at the time commented that one of the “pure-er” markets was agriculture into the 1960’s. You had *many* competitors, and it drove prices down. The teacher used this as an example of markets working. As opposed to the market for cars in the USA in the 1970s in which you only had about three or four manufacturers in the market. So the teacher made the point that all of the competition in the agricultural market chased out the small-time guy and led to the industrial agriculture we see today. Applying this to actors: I remember back when cable started to explode, we heard that with all of those channels, they’d need all sorts of actors and shows to fill the time.
NT: We didn’t know that those channels would be filled with movie and tv repeats, more sports, and unscripted “reality” shows. So with the explosion of available outlets for entertainment on the internet, we’re in that kind of “pure” market. There are a lot of options for entertainment, but as the ag market of the 1960s didn’t make huge money for the family farmer, the millions of hours to be filled on cable and internet channels isn’t making much money for your jobbing actor.
WS: Yep. All those outlets still want actors who are 25 and beautiful. Or Kevin Spacey.
NT: Mr. Spacey, it’s said with love. So let’s get to the current situation, Equity’s current plan for changing the 99-seat plan is what?
WS: There are three “prongs,” as Equity calls them – “prongs,” as in “Stick a fork in us; we're done.”
1. Require all theaters, including those with 99 or fewer seats, to pay minimum wage, along with all the typically associated costs of employment, for all rehearsals and performance.
2. Member companies will be allowed to continue using current AEA company members at no cost, but any NEW members who belong to the union will have to be paid minimum wage.
3. AEA members are allowed to self-produce, but may not do so in association with any existing production company or non-profit 501-c3 organization.
NT: Well, it sounds as if when they’re done, the fork won’t have much left to poke. . . . (Well, that’s a poor joke.) With #1, theatre folks have always done interesting things. For example, in the late 19th century in countries with actual government censorship (England, France) some theatremakers got around the law by producing shows in “clubs” instead of “theatres.” Interested folk paid for a club “membership” instead of a “ticket.” And since what happened in clubs was private business, the censors didn’t look at what was being put on the stages. But #3 sort of prevents that kind of work-around doesn’t it?
WS: There are already some very creative ideas in the pipeline. It's been seriously bandied about that we start a Church of Dionysus that would let us come together to perform under the religious protections of the Constitution. Another idea, which I love for its sheer scope and audacity, is that all AEA members living in Los Angeles be immediately accepted as reciprocal members of ALL 99-seat member companies.
All of these ideas are a bit premature, however. First, we members get to vote on the non-binding referendum; then, the Councilors will cast their actual votes. Then, once it's been approved, the lawyers will get involved.
NT: With a non-binding vote by the membership, it seems like the whole matter is a bit pro forma. And with #2, how does the union explain creating a two-tier membership. I mean, I’ve not gone union because of my personal situation and where I am and what I do currently. But if I came west to seek my fortune and got my card in June, I’d have different rights than you, wouldn’t I? You and I get cast to play a couple of “mature swells” (I was going to say a couple of old farts, but you’re far more elegant actor than I am) in a project, I’d be working under different rules than you would, yes?
WS: HA! I'm using “mature swells” from now on! That may need to go on my resume under “special skills.”
Yes, you've hit it, exactly. Long-standing company members would continue to work for small stipends, while new company members who are also AEA would have to be paid minimum wage. It's a non-starter.
It's one of the reasons I personally believe it is the union's intention to close 99-seat theaters, rather than a possible by-product. If you apply the simplest explanation to a problem and apply it to their proposed changes, it's difficult to draw a different conclusion.
NT: So what would you like to see happen?
WS: I'd like to see contracts tied to production budgets. No one is getting rich off of 99-seat theater here, I can assure you But there are a very few theaters for which an argument could be made that the resources exist to move to a small contract. I wouldn't make that argument, but one could, without sounding unreasonable.
The current proposal will kill most 99-seat theaters here almost immediately, or force them to use only nonunion actors. That's what we don't want to see. You can read an actual tier proposal to get theaters on a track to paying actors a decent wage at Jeff Marlow's: http://www.99tohat.com/.
NT: What sources do you look to for more information that our readers might also look to?
WS: There are some good ones out there. If you want to hear the union's pitch, listen to President Nick Wyman's Youtube presentation at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=beGY0UFf8mo.
For what I hope is a cogent rebuttal, you can hear mine at
There are some fantastic articles to read, as well: Steven Leigh Morris' “Solidarity Forever” and Kevin Delin's “Union Names and Actual Values” both leap to mind. The Pro-99 folks, of whom I am unabashedly one (as are Tim Robbins, Alfred Molina, Ed Harris, Frances Fisher, John Rubinstein, and about a million other amazing actors) have a great web site up at
http://ilove99.org/ . If you want to view the train wreck in all its gory, real-time details, you can read just about anything on the “Bitter Lemons” site.
NT: If members agree with you, what should they do?
WS: If you're an LA area AEA member, help us stop this looming disaster. Please pay your dues before March 21st so that you are eligible to vote. Make sure AEA has your correct contact information (snail mail and email) so you get your ballot, and vote “NO” by April 16th at midnight. If you have ever produced under the 99 Seat Plan, make sure that AEA has removed you from their “Conflict of Interest” list. You must call to make sure you have been removed.
We have great support from some of our New York brethren who totally get it. They have a Facebook page up at https://www.facebook.com/NYersfor99. I just want to give them a shout-out and say a huge “THANK YOU!”
NT: Thanks so much for your time.
WS: Thank you for yours. I can't think of anything more important going on in Los Angeles