How I’d Do It.Posted March 10th, 2015 by Sean Williams
There is a well-known proposal in place that would call for producers to pay all their artists a minimum wage in Los Angeles, for the 99-seat and under union contract. I’ve thought a lot about this.
Am I in favor of this proposal? I mean… I’ve never been the guy who considers these things very much. On this blog, I’m not speaking as a mouthpiece for Gideon, let me make that clear, but we basically look at the world and say, “here’s what *is*, here’s what we want, let’s make it work.” In our group, it never occurs to any of us that we can change that first thing, we just focus on the last.
Also? I hate Los Angeles. And I’ve earned it, I put in the years, man and boy. I know where all the Del Tacos are, I know how to get from Monrovia to The Beach on side streets… I’m allowed to hate it. So who the hell cares what I think?
But this proposal could very well affect how we do business in New York. It *won’t*, of course, because the union knows that would be a terrible idea. They understand the value of what the indie theater world is already doing and we’ve got a relatively useful agreement right now that both sides like. But I’ve been wondering how I would handle it if it *did*.
The first thing I’d do is cut rehearsal time *way* down and hold rehearsals during the day. We can get space for much less during the day and we would get scripts to the actors well before rehearsals start and let them know they have to show up off book.
Would we be under-rehearsed? I don’t know, honestly. I’ve been in shows where actors weren’t off-book after four weeks of rehearsal and we still survived opening night. Actors won’t let themselves look like assholes. Maybe we would be under-rehearsed, but actors sometimes don’t take care of stuff no matter how much time they’re given.
So, we cut rehearsal time down to 30 hours total. That’s $270 per actor.
I would also focus on doing only scripts with, say, less than six actors. I chose six because our show Viral has five and I totally, totally love Viral. So… yeah, totally arbitrary.
We wouldn’t have produced Universal Robots, Advance Man, Blast Radius or Sovereign. Now, those are probably four of our most beloved plays… but losing them doesn’t mean the world is ruined or whatever. I love all of those plays, but I DON’T love them more than Frankenstein Upstairs (four actors) Ligature Marks (two) or the afore-mentioned Viral. We would simply have had to prioritize differently.
I would cut the runs down to two weeks, probably, and fit as many shows in those two weeks as possible. So, we would cut the space rental budget by two thirds in rehearsal and a third in performance. We generally sell X number of tickets per show, regardless of the length of the run, so even if we sell .8X tickets, we’re paying .66Y for rental and it would still work out. And we might even work exclusively outside of Manhattan to save money.
We would produce shows that were 90 minutes or less. This gives the actors a half hour call, and the show would still be only two hours. That’s $18 a show. That’s another $250 per actor. Obviously, an actor is *allowed* to show up before half hour – and if they *want* to hang out afterwards and talk to people they can, but they’d be off the clock as employees.
So… what we’re looking at is $270 for rehearsal and $250 for the performances, which comes out to only $20 more for the production than we’re paying now.
Yes. The actors would have to do a great deal of the work on their own, outside of rehearsal. And if they wanted to do extra rehearsals and run lines with each other, they can find space to do that on their own. And yes, when the show closes fourteen days after it opens, it doesn’t really give you any time to actually grow into the performance.
And most importantly, YES, it sets up the sense that we’re not all in this together. That the producers/writers/directors are the owners of the show and the actors/designers are *literally* employees, not investors. It would be *extremely* difficult for groups of artists who are loosely defined to feel good about moving effortlessly from one artistic assignment to another and there might be a sense of resentment, should actors be asked to drum up audience or share stuff on social media.
But… maybe that’s why they won’t do it in New York.
I mean, the truth is that every producer I know would be much happier running our productions for five weeks rather than three. Every actor I know would be as well. The *reason* we run it for three weeks is because of the economic reality of New York and the agreement with the union. If we were, say, used to a $1000 credit from the city, a $30 ticket price and a five week run, we would COMPLETELY FREAK OUT, if we were given the showcase code. And a lot of us might bail. But then… a lot of us wouldn’t.
We’re creative people. We see what is and find a way around it.
Now, I know, this seems like I’m saying the union deal is bad for actors and it very well may be. I know that should they propose that here, it would be *hard* for the *artistic side* of being an actor, but I simply have no idea what “bad” even means, and I completely disagree that it would be “untenable”.
But my only thing is this… We’ve gotten creative with space here in New York. We’ve basically got an entire underground movement in NY with doing Site-Specific Theater. Our single biggest expense is real estate because New York real estate prices are insane, so we work around it.
Isn’t Los Angeles basically underwater when it comes to real estate? And I know – I KNOW, I lived there – there are some neighborhoods that are better than others. BUT… Here in New York? Why is there an amazing, incredible, award-winning theater in *Bushwick*? Remember when that was a terrible neighborhood? I did a show in Jamaica that sold out its entire run. If you look down your nose at a sketchy neighborhood, but you also can’t pay your artists… I don’t know…
If I could find a 40 seat theater for $175 a day… I would basically rent it out for about six months and then just fill it with shows. Because that’s $1225 a week. And look! I found one of those in Los Angles just now on the ol’ internet! I did a search for “Theater Rentals Los Angeles” on Google.
Maybe that space is shit. But there are *no* warehouses? There are *no* giant living rooms? Everyone drives, so don’t tell me you need to be close to a train… I don’t know…
But I know this – if the union pushes a contract on the independent producers of theater that seems unmanageable, they’ll find a way to manage it. And out of the groups that manage it, one or two of them will produce really, really good theater. If the union pushed that deal on us here, a bunch of us would stop producing, a bunch of us would go non-union… but a bunch of us would figure it out.
The basic theme of my entire blog over the years is this – we might not get what we thought we were promised. These agreements? These categories? This is all invention anyway. These were all negotiated with dated data by people no longer in the game. Shit’s gonna change.
Maybe this is a terrible deal for Los Angeles theater, and maybe the actors there know it and will fight it. I want them to fight for the best possible circumstances for them to be supported in their work. I’m not exactly sure what that means, of course, but I also know better than to think one way is *right* and the other way is *impossible*.