Thursday, November 12, 2015

What You Don't Know About Actors - But Should.

Now that Halloween is over, I can safely wade back into this topic without be called a curmudgeon -- or an asshole. But right now I'm going to lay a little truth smackdown on you.

Every year for the past...well, let's say since college, I have been asked what I'm "going as" for Halloween. "You're an actor, you must LOVE Halloween!" Obviously, everyone thinks that actors must just LOVE Halloween because of the dressing up. Not so, Grasshopper. Not all actors like to play dress up for this night of spooky shenanigans. Some do, yes. I know some of these people and they are nice humans and good actors and I like them. They usually do an amazing job of building costumes, too. They have fun doing it. Great. But for some of us, the idea of putting on a costume when NOT in show of some kind makes our skin crawl. I am one of those. I have nothing against All Hallows Eve or those who like to squeeze into a Naughty Viking Girl outfit or smear bloody zombie goo all over their Walking Dead ensemble. Fine. Just not for me. I can't tell you how many parties we have passed on because they were "costume required" affairs. Please understand, this is nothing personal. We do like parties and we love to have fun with our friends. But, no thank you under these conditions.

Do we decorate our house? Yes. Do we have the best candy in the neighborhood? Uhm, yeah. We also make sure to compliment (sometimes by acting terrified) of each and every little kiddo that comes trick or treating. I like Halloween. I'm just not dressing up.

Does this surprise you? Probably. Here are some other surprising things you may not know about us actors.

  • Not every actor was "the class clown." No knock on class clowns out there, past or present. Many class clowns are very bright and often downright gifted verbally and socially, but that doesn't necessarily make for a good actors nor does it indicate the class clown will become an actor. There is a difference between an extrovert and a class clown. Actors have a tendency to be extroverted, but even that is a bit of a stereotype. Lots of very fine actors are contemplative, thoughtful, and quiet -- until they step on the stage where they turn it on.
  • No, we cannot do impersonations. Some of us can, most of us can't. Nor do we care to. That is a very specialized skill reserved for ventriloquists, voice over artists, and celebrity impersonators. Oh, and my pal Chuck Sigars who is both a gifted actor and a very fine mimic. But this is rare. Don't push it with the rest of us.
  • Not all of us have been on TV. So, when you ask us, "What have I seen you in?" the answer may be, "Well, were you at the Shaw Festival last year? I played Major Petkoff in "Arms and the Man." Some of us choose (that's right, I said choose) to do theatre instead of TV or film. Not because we don't want fame and stardom, but rather because so few of us actually get hired for those jobs, the theater provides us more opportunities and creative freedom.
  • We do not want to be the master of ceremonies at the PTA mixer. We do not want to volunteer to lead the company retreat. We do not want to do the recordings for the company voice mail. And we do not want to do accents just for your enjoyment whenever you think it would be fun to hear us talk like Bert from Mary Poppins.
  • No, we have never met Brad Pitt or Leonardo DiCaprio. Maybe we had an "under five" on "Leverage" with Timothy Hutton or did a guest starring role on "Grey's Anatomy," but, no to Brad and Leo.
  • Not all high school and college actors are gay. Not all gay students are in "drama club." Not all female stage managers are lesbians and not all lesbians in the theatre are techies. This is the 21st century, please grow up about these things. 
  • And finally, no, we do not have closets full of costumes from all our years of making theatre. So, the the answer is, no, you cannot borrow my ears and tail from my national tour of "Cats." (Besides, I think my granddaughter is gonna want to be a ballerina kitty again next year and you never returned the drum major costume from when I was in "The Music Man.")
Stereotypes. I hate 'em.

Monday, June 29, 2015

"You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means." -- Inigo Montoya

I gotta get better at creating headlines. This one seems a little long. As an entrepreneur, I've gotta get out of my comfort zone and find a mentor or a marketing pundit to help me solidify my personal brand and really get more concise.

Sometimes I get tired. Words, phrases, terms, vocabulary, jargon, slang. Sheesh. It's just too much. I used to get a little peeved. Okay, pissed. I had a high school teacher, Mr. Cooke, who was a stickler for this stuff. That's when it started. We had to stand in front of the class and conjugate verbs and do diction exercises.  I've never thought about it this way before, but he had a pencil thin mustache and wore bow ties. I also have similar facial hair and often sport a dicky bow. Hum, maybe more influence on me than I had originally thought. Anyway, he was the epitome of class. Always dressed to the nines, deep baritone voice and perfect diction. I do not recall him EVER dangling a single participle or misplacing a single eensy, weensy modifier. He also knew what words meant and how to use them.

Now, I'm nowhere near the master of wordplay that was my dear Cookie, but I do, on occasion, loose my shit. Usually, it's over stuff that just kinda gets my goat. Through no fault of the words themselves, we often take perfectly good ones and make them into things they are not. Worse, we make them meaningless. Here are a few examples of humans doing bad things to perfectly good words. Well, at least these are the ones that are pissing me off at the moment.


My Grandpa Atkin, if he were alive today, would probably call himself an entrepreneur. If you believe my mom, he'd also probably be in jail. He was a gold prospector, a cowboy,  an inventor, a peddler of snake oil and sewing machines. He was either stone broke or peeling off hundies to help a neighbor fix their Buick. It was a different world in the 40s and 50s of the Greatest Generation. People had to do a lot of different jobs in their life. That didn't make them entrepreneurial, it just made them work hard.

Apparently, everyone is a freaking entrepreneur these days. If you are between jobs, looking for a new job, in business for yourself, or just a perpetually under-employed actor in Hollywood, you probably call yourself an entrepreneur. You're not. You might be a businessperson. You're probably a hustler. That's cool. By calling yourself an "entrepreneur" you are implying that you possess qualities of leadership, true innovation, and risk-oriented initiative. If you have to call yourself that, you're probably not.  You also think too highly of yourself. Just get to work. Doing something.

Serial Entrepreneur.

No, really, that's a thing. Back in my grand-dad's day this guy would be called a "huckster." They'd be quacks, charlatans, swindlers, mountebanks. (Mountebank? Too much? Yeah, okay.) Unless your name is Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Edison, Benjamin Franklin, or Richard Branson you are probably not working hard enough to be even remotely referred to as a serial entrepreneur. You'd also have so much money you would need to worry about what people called you. When you finally can pry yourself away from your own genius, read Elmer Gantry by Sinclair Lewis. Or, if you are too busy re-inventing the banana slicer, just watch the movie version with Burt Lancaster. Now shut up and get over yourself.


You know the etymology of the word, right? No? Okay, it goes like this: In Greek mythology, Mentor is a friend of Odysseus and a tutor of Telemachus. On several occasions in Homer's Odyssey, Athena assumes Mentor's form to give advice to Telemachus or Odysseus. See that part? Athena assumes Mentor's identity. She disguises herself as Mentor. Telemachus and Odysseus don't know that the person giving them advice is really Athena and NOT their mentor Mentor. They don't know. It is hidden from them. Disguised. See where I'm going here?Athena didn't want them to know that she was the one helping them.

Please don't call yourself mentor. It's supposed to be kind of a secret. You are supposed to teach people because it will help them. Let other people decide if you are their mentor. Believe me, it'll be better for you, too. Hearing someone refer to you as their mentor is way more meaningful than just crowning yourself one.


A pundit used to be someone who was an expert in something. It hails from the Sankrit term "pandit," meaning "knowledge owner." An actual expert. With knowledge of and mastery in a particular subject. Nowadays anyone who speaks into a microphone is called a pundit. No one is required to have any real knowledge, they just have to have an opinion. There's a big difference. No, really, there is. Limbaugh, Beck, Hannity, O'Reilly. Really want to be up there with those guys? Didn't think so.


Everything is a product. A football game is a product. A credit card is a product. A restaurant is a product. Yeah, okay, maybe marketers smarter than me can make a case for the use of the word in these contexts but it just sounds ridiculous. Maybe I'm just jealous I wasn't the first guy to think of this. Face it, though, it's kinda pretentious. No one would say the Chicago Cubs are a terrible product. But they are a shitty team.

Personal Brand.

I hate this one. I understand, the world is changing and society is more dynamic and social media has changed the way we blahdy, blahdy, blah. I am not a brand. I'm a person. You are not a brand, either. No. You're not. You may have a reputation or you may have a certain style.  You may be known for a particular talent or expertise. You may even have a blog or some YouTube videos. You are a person and that is way more complicated than a brand.

Out of My Comfort Zone.

Here's the thing: Shouldn't we always try to do this? Shouldn't we always be pushing ourselves to experience, to grow, to explore, to discover? Those are big and challenging things. But for most people "being out of my comfort zone" has been reduced to trying a new vegetable or wearing sneakers with a tux. That's not right. That's not a big deal.


Okay, last one I promise. This one started out good and just went south fast. We all know what transparency means in a literal sense. Something transparent is something that is clear. We can see through it. What it has come to mean, thanks is large part to Wall Street, is "honesty." Whenever people start talking transparency in an office, for example, what they are really saying is "we want everyone to be honest and we are gonna make sure we are all up in your grill so we KNOW you are honest.

I'm done. Rant over.  Now, to write a better headline for my next post.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

One Click.

I cannot tell you how many emails I delete everyday. Scores of them. On some days, even hundreds. 80% of them I never even read. I just look at the subject line and the sender and make an immediate determination whether or not that person or company or criminal is worth my time. Or, worse yet, worth the risk of a virus that with one click will send me careening through the office with my hair on fire.

Three years ago, sometime around Thursday, May 17, 2012, 8:04PM (not that I really keep track of these things), I received an email whose subject line was merely, “Hi Wayne...” Okay. Fine. Could easily be generated from a database. Hey, this ain’t my first rodeo. The sender was not a name with which I was familiar. Well, that is not necessarily a red flag. Yellow, maybe. It did, at least, look like someone’s real name. In fact, it was a very nice name. Not remotely suspect. (I can tell a fake name and email address when I see ‘em.) No attachments or pictures or links, that’s good. Looked relatively short. Well, at least not massively long. Should be able to breeze through it quickly. Okay, one click and I’m going in.

“Hi there. Hope you are well. I don't mean for this to come as a shock, but…” Uh oh.

I got nervous. But only for a few seconds. Maybe, like, let’s say five. Just long enough to finish the first little paragraph. The message was at once a surprise and a revelation. Yet, it read as strangely familiar. Almost as if I had written it to myself. The turn of phrase, the tempo. Very familiar. It was equal parts humor, courtesy, sensitivity, intelligence, and thoughtfulness. It was also earthshaking. (Okay, so maybe “momentous” is a more appropriate.) For both the reader and, no doubt, the writer.

The next 322 words (not that I counted) would be my introduction to my daughter. A daughter I had never met. Okay, wait, nervous again. Zoinks! WTF? Did I read that right? Visions of Maury Povich and Jerry Springer racing through my head. Oh. My. God. Am I one of those guys now? “Hello? Mr. Watkins? I have Dr. Phil on the line for you. Please hold.”

Okay, one more time from the beginning.

“Hi there. Hope you are well. I don't mean for this to come as a shock, but…”

Wow. My heart was racing a little slower now. I did as the email instructed: "Pause. Breathe. Wig out a little." Second time through, however, the words were less shocking. After the third read I was fine. Heart rate normal. I turned to my wife (and best friend and companion for the last 30 years) and said, “Liz, you are not going to believe this.” I then proceeded to read her the email, word for word, with as calm and unaffected voice as I could muster. (Thanks, in no small part, to my drama school vocal training.)

The letter (because the word “email” somehow diminishes it) was surely a huge undertaking for this young woman. Both emotionally and technically. How do you write a letter to a man you know nothing about? How to tell a total stranger that you are his daughter? No really, how do you do that? How do you break the news in a way that won’t cause an immediate mental short-circuit? What if he has a family? How will this news impact that? Will any of this matter to him? The letter mentioned she was married, so her husband had to play into this, too. With one click she set herself, and her husband, on a completely unfathomable and risky adventure into the unknown. That’s a brave woman, right there.

Before she could grapple with all that insanity, of course, she had to find the right guy. No doubt with some help from her mother, but with a name like mine there must have been some degree of detective work to locate the correct contact info. I am pretty ubiquitous on social media, but finding the right email address can be tricky. Let’s face it, there’s a ton of people called Wayne Watkins out there. Most of them are standing in front of a police line up wall and holding a number under their chin, but still…can you imagine? She must have been freaking out to think that her father might be the guy with the mullet and the Fu Manchu. Or worse yet, the shaved-head guy with the prison tats on his neck!

Obviously, she was persistent enough to find the right me. The one whose outward appearance seemed pretty normal. The one without the prison record. The one who looked enough like her to risk the thought of making first contact. Apparently, the dimples gave me away. She has them, too.

Now the next phase had to kick in. I imagine her brain just rolling through a randomly surreal checklist of questions followed by her own hopeful answers. Then again, maybe not so random. Maybe she had been compiling this list for a while now. Maybe years.
  • Is he crazy? What if he’s in an asylum or something?
  • Is he funny? Not corny or stupid but really witty. That would be great!
  • I hope he’s nice. He looks nice. Hey, he has dimples, too.
  • Is he married? Wonder what his wife is like?
  • Does he have a family? Kids? That could be awkward.
  • Where does he live? Wouldn’t that be weird if he lived close by?
  • What does he do? Mom said he was an actor. Dimple-guy kinda looks like an actor.
  • What does he sound like? Will he have a nice voice or some crazy accent? 
  • Suits or board shorts? 
  • What does his laugh sound like?
  • Short? Tall?
  • I hope he’s smart. Wonder if he went to college?
  • Does he like cats? Maybe he’s a dog guy. What if he hates animals?
  • What if he doesn’t reply to my email?
Certainly, she must have been filled with trepidation. Had to be. Regardless of her apprehensions, her letter was crafted masterfully. She laid the groundwork for a very simple reply from me. Made it easy, in fact, for me to respond without any sort of commitment. Except for one thing. The words she chose to use, the very way she wrote, the careful manner in which she guarded both of us from discomfort or pain. I knew this girl. Even in this a short note I saw myself. I found myself wanting to know her more.

It needed, no it deserved, an immediate reply. A little over twelve hours later, I turned on my computer and began my response. I put fingers to keyboard and tapped out 375 words (if memory serves) and with one click I pressed “send” on Thursday, May 18, 2012, 8:53AM (not that I paid any attention).

And so it began. An amazing and wonderful fairy tale set in motion by one simple mouse click.

In the past 36 months, we have shared meals and told stories. Both of us trying to pack all these years of living into each other's memory. Making up for lost time. We first met, face-to-face, over grilled cheese sandwiches in West Hollywood and they met Liz over eggs in Portland. I’ve been converted to liking Brussels sprouts (no mean feat) at a gastro pub in Long Beach and we have celebrated her 30th birthday at a restaurant overlooking the city lights. My daughter has become a mother, her husband a father. I am now a grandfather and my wife a step-mother. Since they moved back to California, meetups for coffee and conversation are ever more common. Emails continue, as do text messages, and Facebook posts. Each one bringing two people a little closer together after being so far apart. More stories. More history. More laughter. More family.

One daughter. One father. One click.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Actors and Me. Musings on Fraternity.

I work with actors. Often I produce plays that have actors in them. I direct actors quite a bit. I also coach professional actors and teach young actors. Sometimes I act with actors. I have done all of these things with actors for well over 30 years. I have rarely been disappointed when doing this work.  Yes, I have a day job to pay the rent, get the suits cleaned, buy some plants for the garden and food for the fridge, and occasionally take my beautiful and talented actress wife on a swanky date. This work I do with actors does not fill my wallet. Not even close. However, these collaborations do fill my soul. They make me laugh. They make me cry. They make me think. They challenge me and make me better. Actors and the work actors undertake are one of my deep passions. I care about them. Their work, their psyche, their bodies, their voices, their health, their joy, their exuberance, their commitment, their intelligence, their opinions. Them. I care about them. Even the ones I don't much like, I still care about.

Now when I use the word "actor," I mean something very specific. I mean those men and women who are trained in the imaginative world of creating and inhabiting characters based on the written words of playwrights. I do NOT mean people who are merely celebrities. I do NOT mean people who call themselves actors but have never been on a stage or in front of a camera in a character. I do NOT mean people who, while perhaps are entertainers of some kind, have never lost themselves in the words of Shakespeare or Mamet or Miller. I do not mean talk show hosts or comics or models or media personalities or people with a website dedicated to gossip.

I AM referring to people who know how to use their voice. People who can speak properly and be heard in a theatre. Women who can project while wearing a corset and men who know how to walk on a raked stage. People who have been in a dark rehearsal room with other actors pouring over lines and movement and gestures. People who refer to a cigarette and a Diet Coke as "dinner." You know - Actors.

In my relationships with and between actors, even after all this time, I am still taken aback by the passion that actors have about what they do. Most recently, there have been two instances that have made me at once proud and so full of hope for the future of my tribe, my band of brothers and sisters, who have chosen these impossible careers.

The first is what I'll refer to as the "intimate theatre debate" occurring here in Los Angeles. For those unfamiliar with this ruckus, suffice it to say that a very large number of actors in LA are at odds with their own union about whether or not actors should be allowed to work for free (or close to it) if they so choose. The actors want to be able to make that determination for themselves. The union (Actors' Equity Association) says, no. Actors must be paid a minimum (regardless of budget or revenue) or else suffer not working under the protections of the Union. [For the sake of this post, I am dramatically oversimplifying this debate, obviously. For more info click here.] What has happened over the course of this argument may be more significant than the end results of Equity's action. The actors (several thousand of them I might add) have rallied together in an amazing display of solidarity as ARTISTS. They have communicated intelligently and passionately and (for the most part) civilly about this work they do as a community. Theatre artists and intimate theatre companies have joined their voices, and in some cases their very memberships, to support the idea that actors are special and have unique needs and requirements and consideration. From the very famous with lengthy careers to those just starting off on this arduous path -- they have joined together to control their own artistic destiny. Basically, making the case that the manner in which they pursue their art is just as important, if not more so, than money. I have never been as proud to be a member of this community as I have in the last several months. While the outcome will certainly affect me as a producer, the unity, collaboration and homogeneity of the theatre community in Los Angeles has been staggering. And beautiful.

The second occurred 1000 miles away in Portland, Oregon. Several times a year, I am asked by a few theatre companies and a couple universities around the country to come and hang out with their actors. Sometimes a couple days, sometimes a few hours. We call them "master classes" or "workshops," but I like to think of them as collaborative skull sessions where a company just gets a different perspective (mine) on their work or process of work.

Usually, when someone like me comes in to work with a group like this there is some initial resistance. I mean, let's face it, I'm not a household name in the theatre world (nor do I want to be), I don't have a book to sell, and I do not posture or pretend to be some kind of guru. I'm not. I'm just a theatre guy that has some experience and knowledge that some actors might find helpful. Hopefully, I can communicate it in a meaningful way to the actors around the table.

This particular group of actors seemed different, though. Experienced though they all were, they appeared open and available. (Each one of them also happened to be very talented, but that's a whole other subject.) I'm sure they had their questions about me. I had worked extensively with one of the actors (he's is the reason I was there in the first place), but the rest didn't know me from Adam's off ox. Yet, here they were for two days listening, questioning, applying, investigating new techniques. Challenging themselves and each other to get better, to learn, to experiment. Remarkable. And beautiful.

Two groups of actors separated by size and distance. Each proclaiming to the world and themselves that what they do has merit, is important, and should be constantly nurtured and improved upon even in the face of impossible odds.

Who does that? Actors do. And I love them for it.

Friday, March 6, 2015

The Actor: Artist or Employee

There is, once again, a debate in the Los Angeles theatre community. A big one. A serious one. The arguments are heated and passionate. Most often the headlines read: "Deathknell for LA Small Theatres," "Intimate Theatres Threatened," or "New Plan Will Decimate LA Theatres." I think the real issue is less about LA theatre and more about LA actors.

At the very core of all the heated discussion currently surrounding the AEA 99-Seat Theatre Plan, is a very simple question (well, a short one, anyway): What is an actor?
Is an actor an artist? Like, let's say, a painter or a sculptor? Or, is an actor more like a musician who picks up occasional gigs? Is an actor a craftsman? Second cousin to plumbers or carpenters? Perhaps, actors are laborers. Just blue collar working stiffs similar to our teamster friends or restaurant workers.

Now before you get all up in my grill about these categories, I know, I know...I get what you're thinking. There is some crossover with all of them and certainly the lines of demarcation aren't crisp and clear. Point of fact, at any given time, and in any given production, an actor could be any and/or all of these things at once or in any combination. Bottom line is that actors, especially those based in Los Angeles, are once again caught in this terrible gray area of what their Union leadership wants for them and what they want, or maybe need, for themselves. The division lies in defining what actors are, what they define themselves as, and whether or not the Union leadership respects and accepts that.

If actors are artists, then they must be given the opportunity to practice and create and collaborate at their convenience and with those they value and have respect for. Actors must be allowed to create projects that they feel are important or have merit free from the arbitrary calculations of what other artists do in other places. If actors are artists, then the people representing them must take that into account when making decisions that impact the practice of that art.

If, however, actors are merely part-time laborers that take a job when it happens to come around, then the rule book needs to change even more. If that definition is true (or more true, I guess) then we have a whole slew of others things that are going to have to get sorted out. Like the number of British productions coming to Broadway and touring nationally lock, stock and stage manager. Like the growing numbers of British and Australian actors coming to the States without the equivalent number of American actors working in their wake back home. Like the extreme lack of resources directed towards actually trying to help developing theatres grow beyond just demanding that they pay people at the expense of their very existence and the actors' desires.

I have been "in the theatre" most of my adult life and the vast majority of my friends and colleagues consider themselves artists.  They view their life as a creative journey that requires imagination, enthusiasm, passion, and education. They know going into it that it is going to be a tough road. They accept that. So long as they can find fulfillment in other ways -- like teaching theatre at a college, like booking a commercial or an occasional under five, like taking a role that they would never get to do otherwise at an intimate Los Angeles theatre -- everything will be okay. They can proudly and rightfully call themselves actors if they are engaged with their craft and sharing the results of their work.

Do actors want to get paid for their work? Of course, they do. Even though they know the odds are stacked against them. Just as painters want people to buy their canvases, actors want people to pay to see them perform. But painters don't paint only when they have a buyer lined up. They also don't sit around their apartments waiting for a commission. They paint. They create. Constantly. They expend time and energy and money as an investment into this obsession that is more than a job - it is a way of life. Imagine if a painter were only allowed to buy paint when he was guaranteed someone was going to buy a painting. The exact same thing holds true for the actor. In Los Angeles, that often means performing in a theatre with less than 99 seats in it. It means joining with other like-minded creatively obsessed theatre colleagues to collaborate -- to paint. 

Being an actor is a unique profession. It is unlike any other profession represented by labor unions. It is rarely, if ever, a 9 to 5 career. The coffee is worse. The uniforms change from job to job. It requires imaginative and experiential trial and error. Additionally, I think you could argue that actors are the only workers, union or otherwise, who are required to take a large part of their work home without pay regardless of contract, union status, or quality of show. Learning lines takes time. Actors do that outside of the rehearsal hall. Away from the stage. On their own time. For free. Always. That's what actors do.

The world that the actor lives in is a complicated one. It is also a unique one because, more often that we would like to admit, anyone who has an Equity card (or a SAG-AFTRA card for that matter) may call themselves a "professional" even if they have no training and little to no experience. Justin Bieber has done some TV. Mariah Carey and Britney Spears have been in movies. Jennifer Nettles is on Broadway. Does that make them actors? Does that make them artists? There's a difference between actors and celebrities.

To drill down further, each play and each each role requires specific criteria. Players are not cast for a role simply because they have a union card and are next in line. Each production or film or TV show or commercial has a litany of defining restrictions such as cast size, race, gender, age, etc. Each production, each role reduces the number of available actors by the specifics determined in the playwright's imagination. I mean, it's not like applying for jobs at a bank where a teller could be any gender, any age, and race. King Lear is old. Joan of Arc is a woman. Felix and Oscar are men. Acting is a hard, unfair and complicated business to be in. But as artists, few real actors working in Los Angeles would trade what they do for anything in the world despite all of these things.

In the 1970s, a theatre professor at Loyola Marymount University, the much loved and respected Emmett Jacobs, wrote the following in an LMU workshop program: "So often in the theatre, we are so trapped by the edifice complex and all the trappings that go with it, that we loose our capacity to do artistic research."

Artistic research.

Like painters and other artists, actors do not continue to grow because they have finished drama school or college. They do not rest on their laurels because they have finally gotten their Equity card. They do not, they cannot, create in a vacuum. Actors must get on their feet, get off book, collaborate with others, try things out, fail, adjust, try again. While money is important, it is not nor has it ever been the sole factor in why someone becomes an actor. Actors are artists.  They choose to be artists. Any changes in a small theatre plan should...must...accept that.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Theatre in Los Angeles - Actors Need to Act

Painters may create in silence. Sculptors may give life to their work alone. Even musicians may forge new work and practice their instruments in solitude. Only the actor requires the noise, the chaos, the collaboration of not just other actors but of audience. Actors are not the same as assembly line workers in Detroit nor is the theatre the same as the auto industry. Actors are not the same as truck drivers nor is the theatre comparable to the shipping trade. Actors are collaborative artists who depend upon, no, require, people and places to ply their craft. The protections a union provides actors should be as unique for them as they are for the other unions. Police, maritime, culinary, whatever.

If we lived in a cultural fantasy-land where all actors could be employed 40 hours a week, for 52 weeks a year, these difficult conversations about the 99-seat plan would be unnecessary. If we lived in a country that fully supported the arts, at all levels, and equally in all markets, these derisive issues would be less contentious. But we don't. In our reality, only 5600 AEA members nationwide (of the 45,000 members) work in any given week. And the average length of a contract is about 17 weeks.

The point: Even in a boffo year for the theatre box office there's not enough work to go around and merely mandating that theatres adhere to arbitrary pay requirements based on the desire for a different theatrical reality will not change that.

However, professional actors need to act, to stay sharp, to keep up-to-date, to work the muscles of their craft, to practice. Like all other artists they must grow, they must experience, they must continue to create. This is what separates them from the hobbyist, the mere celebrity, or the wannabe. The small theatres in Los Angeles provide that opportunity. Sacred Fools, Theatre of Note, Actors Gang, The Fountain, an others equally deserving of mention, provide theatre artists a place to do all this. Take a look at their 990s and you'll quickly see that most of these very creative and productive theatres are not rolling in dough. Far from it. They are surviving, yet they are vibrant and creative in spite of their bank accounts.

Are there abuses in the 99 seat plan? Of course. Those need to be addressed. But not all producers are evil geniuses bent on sucking the life force out of unwitting actors and draining ignorant audiences of their filthy lucre. Likewise, not all actors and theatre professionals are mindless sheep bleating for a kind shepherd to care for them. These are artists. Adults. They knowingly collaborate with friends and colleagues for their own reasons. That should be respected.

Is the current 99 seat plan perfect? No. Can something be done to improve it? Probably. But let's figure that out in a way that still serves those talented, caring and committed people most affected. Oh, and maybe, just maybe in the process AEA will reflect on the reasons that they were created in the first place: "Equity seeks to advance, promote and foster the art of live theatre as an essential component of our society."