It’s A Suggestion, Not A Review: Put Your Head on My Chest, and I’m Mr. Success

Dave Sikula on how to succeed- and feel like you’ve actually succeeded.

Frank has the definition – as you’d expect.

I have a feeling the seams are gonna show on this one, but go with me.

I arrived at rehearsal last Tuesday night just in time to hear part of a discussion about “success” in the theatre, and just what that word might mean. (I also heard my name being bruited about as a hashtag standing in for “not liking things,” but that couldn’t be more false. Why, just last week, I caught Sister Play at the Magic, and loved it. But I digress … )

I believe I’ve mentioned more than once that, at this point in my career, I have a pretty good sense of whether a show I’ve directed or am acting in is any good. (And let me qualify that; once we open and the finished product is in place, I have an idea. Many is the time I’ve come home from rehearsal and said that I have no idea of how it was going to go over – or been sure on the final Monday or Tuesday that we were as doomed as doomed can be, only to have the ship right itself yet again.) I can tell if I’m good or if the show is good, but is it a “success?” Boy, is that a can of worms.

There are just too many definitions for success. Is it financial? Is it a (sincere) standing ovation from the audience? Is it (appropriate) laughter or tears? Is it good reviews? Is it personal satisfaction? Is it knowing you got the most out of all the actors and characters? All of the above? Some of them?

I don’t know. I can be satisfied and delighted with something, but does that equal “success?”

This is the part where it’s going to get sticky. In my last couple of offerings, I’ve talked about the plan by Actor’s Equity to kill Los Angeles’s 99-seat plan. For those who came in late*, in brief, there was a waiver that allowed theatres with 99 seats or fewer to pay union actors less than scale (like, as little as $7 a performance) in order for them to do material that was more challenging or interesting or larger-scale or experimental than work for television or movies. (I also expressed a wish that we had something similar in the Bay Area – not because I think actors shouldn’t be paid, but because I think they should be able to work on whatever they want wherever they want.)

Equity members down there voted on whether they wanted to keep the waiver plan in place (with changes) or scrap it all together. By a 2-to-1 margin, they voted in favor of keeping the plan. It was strictly an advisory vote, so Equity’s New York offices announced Tuesday (as expected) that they’d be scrapping the plan and, basically, putting dozens of successful companies out of business and preventing the very actors they were claiming to protect from working. At least one company, the Long Beach Playhouse (worked there; did two good shows, two okay shows, and one that was one of the worst theatrical experiences of my life), announced immediately that they were going strictly non-Equity, and I heard of at least three cases where actors were literally physically prevented from auditioning for shows.

The Long Beach Playhouse = in business since 1929.

The Long Beach Playhouse = in business since 1929.

Okay, what does all this have to do with “success?” A lot, I think. Consider the sides. The theatres in question? Mostly “successful” both artistically and financially. The way the vote went? “Successfully” for the actors. Equity’s take on what they’ve done? A “success” for themselves and their members. And yet, all three of them can be seen in just the opposite way. Those theatres? Well, not everything they did worked. (I mean, no theatre hits it out of the park every time. If they did, they’d have a formula that every other theatre would copy.) The vote? Well, about half of the 6,000 (yes, six thousand) Equity members in Los Angeles didn’t even vote, and Equity “lost” the vote. Where’s the success there? And Equity’s plan to kill the theatres is seen as a strong loss by the dissenters (my Facebook feed has been afire with outrage all day). Three events. Three successes. Three failures.

Getting back to the inciting incident (remember my walking into rehearsal way back up at the top of the page?), I was reminded of another conversation I’d walked in on, discussing a recent production some of us had seen. Some (like me) had liked it, others didn’t, though each side could understand the logic of the other. Was the production a “success?” It certainly was for me in that it succeeded (that word!) in illuminating the story and text it was trying to convey in an entertaining way. For others, it was a failure because the very nature of its story and text were fatally flawed. One production. One success. One failure.

To bring all of this up to the present, the rehearsal I was at was for Grey Gardens. It’s a musical. A very good one. (One might even call it “successful,” if one were so inclined.) It ran on Broadway for “only” seven months, so one could term it either a success or not. (And, no; I’m not being paid each time I use the word “success” … ) I think this production will be a very good one. The cast is marvelous (I exempt myself from this assessment) and we’re having a great time even though we’ve barely started. There are two things to discuss here, though. The first – and more germane – is whether it’ll be a success. I believe it will work artistically and will sell very well (get your tickets now!), so from those standpoints, it was be a success. Though for all of that, I have no doubt that there will be people who see it and think it’s putrid and the worst thing they’ve ever seen. They’ll storm out at intermission, angry at having that hour of their life eradicated. No success there – unless there’s a perverse success in not succeeding …

But on a personal level, I’ll be dealing with not just my usual struggle with lines (though these are – knock wood – coming reasonably easily), but I’ll need to add music, lyrics, and choreography to the mix, and other assessments will come into play. Will I move (I won’t say dance) as directed? Will I get those damn harmonies? Will I get the lyrics right? For my purposes, doing those will constitute success. Will I be good while doing it? I’ll do as well as I can and then judge whether I think the results are good. As with the rest of the production, I know there will be people who will roll their eyes and shake their heads at how inept I am.

So, what’s the upshot? That there’s no such thing as artistic success. It’s too objective and personal. I can be satisfied or happy (or neither) about whether I think I’ve met my personal goals for the role and my place in the show. Whether that’s a success or a failure will be in the eye of the beholder.

(*Completely, and literally, parenthetically, in the late ‘90s, I directed a production of The Night Boat. It was an okay production of a not-very-good 1920 musical. About 20 minutes into the show, three women called the “Plot Demonstrators” came out and did a number titled “For Those Who Came in Late,” which recapped the plot to that moment. About 20 minutes before the end of the show, they came out again to tell how it all ended, so that people who had to catch trains would know how things turned out [spoiler alert: happily]. It was that kind of show … )

"The Night Boat's" original production. That kind of show.

“The Night Boat’s” original production. That kind of show.

Claire Rice’s Enemy’s List: Your Website Sucks

Claire Rice is here to tell the harsh truth and nothing but the harsh truth.

Marissa’s last column touched on the interesting problem of paying actors. When she talked about paying actors a minimum wage I thought Vocal union member and wonderful actress Valerie Weak helpfully brought up several options the union provides for paying AEA members. Valerie has been vocal in many forums about how she has come to find she needs to be pro-active with producers so that they aren’t intimidated by the union hiring process and understand that there are opportunities for small companies to hire union actors.

This isn’t a column about whether or not the union, or any union for that matter, is a good thing. This is an article about what happened when I thought: “I’ll be helpful to Marissa and I’ll show her where on the website she can get information about the union.” I should point out that Marissa is a much smarter than I am and I’m sure doesn’t actually need my help, but I’m a nosy person who always thinks they can fix a problem even if there isn’t a “problem” per se.

And then I went to the website.

Is it just me, or does this look like two guys butting heads? It's a total kiss or kill moment.

Is it just me, or does this look like two guys butting heads? It’s a total kiss or kill moment.

I’m not going to get petty about the way the AEA website looks. I mean, sure, the website looks like it was built in 2002 by a big fan of Clip Art 1.0, but styles change and sometimes you can keep up and sometimes you can’t. I mean, right now the big thing in website design is the big picture that you have to scroll past to get to the meat of the product like this example: So, I totally get it. That doesn’t mean the information the website has is any less valid.

I’m just here to find what contract would be the best option for a first time, small producer in San Francisco.

Wait a minute…who is that dancing lady? Gypsy Robe? What?!?

Hold me closer tiny dancer?

Hold me closer tiny dancer?

Never mind that now. Serious business. Where do I find the contacts? Where…Document Library? That sounds too general, but we’ll start there.

The first link is “About Equity”. Great. I already looked in the other “About Equity” link and that information wasn’t useful. I don’t know anything about hiring an AEA actor. This will be perfect. The document that looks most enlightening also looks like it is just for Equity Members. I can’t figure out if it will be helpful. Maybe I should come back to it. Oooo! A Theatrical Season Report. My research senses are tingling!

“The United States and the international community have faced some difficult events in the past ten years. From challenges to security, to devastating natural disasters, to economic instability the like of which was not seen in decades, the past decade seems

to have permanently changed the world in which we live. Individuals and industries havehad to recalibrate expectations, processes, and even the elements of day-to-day life in the face of this “new normal” which may be taking hold.” Page four of the report shows that less than half of equity members worked in the 2012-2013 season.

So, not helpful and also sad. But hey! I’m an employer! I want to employ! That’s good news, right? So where do I start? Why do I keep having to ask that question? Why is this hard?

It’s not, Claire. Chill out. Go back to the first list of links.

The thing is the document library is really just that, a document library. There are just links with lists of documents. These contracts, codes, rulebooks and what-have-you are not organized by region or company type. Also, what’s the difference between a contract, a code and a rulebook? Is there a document that has a definition of commonly used words in this document library? None of the links have short summaries of who this type of contract would be applicable to. Sure, some are obvious like “Members Project Code”. It’s a project code for members. But the “Cabaret Agreement” isn’t so clear. What’s the difference between a cabaret and a dinner theatre? Should I just inherently know that? Should I Google it? What’s a midsized theatre? But those aren’t really the questions, what I want to know is why it isn’t easier to find those answers on the AEA website. As a prospective employer who wants to read up on what’s available to me, why can’t be given the definition of the terms under which I’ll be evaluated before I’m evaluated?

The next link is Agency, and that doesn’t look helpful. Oooo! Agreements. Bay Area Theatre is right at the top. There isn’t a great deal of organization here, but hooray for alphabetizing. And though there are several bays in this country, we’re probably the only “Bay Area” so it’s a good bet this is where I need to be.

Apparently this agreement expires this year. Is that important? Should I be worried about that? Anyway, it also says there is no San Francisco office so I’ll have to call Hollywood if I have questions. Further investigation also leads me to find out that the Hollywood office handles the whole Western Region which includes 14 states so…they might be busy.

So, the agreement itself. After the table of contents you will get to page 7 which lets you know that this contract is for Aurora, 42nd Street and Moon, Magic Theatre, San Jose Stage Company, SF Playhouse, The Jewish Theatre San Francisco and The Z Space Studio. So…not me. All 98 pages are interesting (truly) and so many of the rules are worth aspiring to. Regardless, not applicable to me. Back to the links!

Oh! Here’s the MBAT (Modified Bay Area Theatre) and it’s only 4 pages. It’s also set to expire this year. This is for companies with an average weekly box office of $3000. Well, if I sell out my 50 seat house all three nights at $20 a ticket (I only perform Thursday, Friday and Saturday), then I will…oh. And an annual budget of $100,000. Nope. Not me. There is another tier in the MBAT but that one is for companies with even larger budgets…so, also not for me.

So it’s on to Codes. Codes might be where it’s at. And indeed it is. There is the Bay Area Project Policy (BAPP)! This may just be it!

Some Equity Codes are too big, some are too small, some are just right!

Some Equity Codes are too big, some are too small, some are just right!

After reading it through, it looks like this code is for companies just like mine. Companies with low budgets ($20,000), low audience attendance expectations (99 seats or less), equal low pay across the board (the equity members must be paid the same amount as the highest paid artistic member of the production), and the company must have never have had a previous equity contract (obviously that is totally me). Lastly, it looks like the company can use this code up to three times in a single calendar year or up to three years as long as the company is only maybe one production a year during that time. After reading it looks like if this contract works out for me I’ll be encouraged to move on to an MBAT because this contract doesn’t look repeatable. Fine. We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it. Right now, I just want to get my show up on it’s feet.

Is there more information I should know? Back to the links! Producer Material! I bet that has a document called “So You Want To Put on A Show!” Oh, no. These are documents for producers with contracts…agreements…codes…or something in hand. Cool. Fine.

Ok, so I feel more enlightened and it’s only…two in the morning. And that’s fine, right? I mean, when considering employing a person it shouldn’t be done willy nilly. As an employer I should be responsible to make sure the people in my employment are treated fairly and that in itself is hard. It’s hard coming up with an equitable agreement that benefits both parties and ensures profits so the business can continue. It should take effort to…

Browse a website? No way.

If you go back to About Equity in the documents and pull up that beautiful 25 page brochure, that is absolutely intended for new and prospective equity members, you’ll find it is actually a super helpful document. It explains all about codes and agreements. It groups information on different region agreements by region with clear and concise information about each type of agreement and code. It’s is friendly, clear and exactly what I was looking for.

And super hidden. And not written for me.

It would also be possible to use this document as a way to reconstruct the whole website to be utterly readable and, most importantly, non intimidating. Maybe equity doesn’t want me, the first time producer, to have easy access to this information. Maybe it’s easier if their members way out here in San Francisco feel like they have to do all the work of advocating for themselves against the people who are withholding paying jobs.

Honesty time: I’m a person who is connected enough to the community that I could reach out to a few fellow producers who’ve interacted with the union to get advice. I know equity actors who could tell me what my options may be. I’m also not afraid to write an email to equity itself and find out more information. All I’m saying is, that some of what I need to know shouldn’t take me more than a few minutes of easy browsing to find. I should feel welcome to have the information. Hiring an Equity actor should feel as much of an accomplishment as when an Equity actor get’s their card in the mail. Or, it should feel necessary and all part of the process. It shouldn’t feel frustrating and intimidating before I even email Equity themselves.

I should also point out that San Francisco Bay Area does have a Liaison, but again, I think this part of the organization is for members, not producers. [INSERT HYPERLINK

There are approximately fifty equity companies in the 9 counties of the San Francisco Bay Area, but you have to be a member to know what they are. There are two news stories. One about a meeting in October, and the other from 2011. While it looks like a nice website that someone has to volunteer to update and no one has cared to update it in a while, it isn’t helpful either. I can’t imagine it’s actually helpful to members.

OH! I almost forgot, the dancing lady. Well, click on her and you’ll get a really good history (well, a long weird narrative and then a good history) about a sweet way that Equity gives recognition to some of the actors in it’s organization who don’t often get a lot of recognition. I really do think it’s sweet. I also think it’s weird that it was easier for me to find the Rule of the Ritual of the passing of a “Gypsy Robe” then it was for me to find the definition of the word “Code”.

So, AEA, your website sucks.

Special notes and further reading:

What’s Happening Right Now?

Up on the homepage right now there is an important letter from President Nick Wyman that relates to recent controversies about touring company contracts. If you didn’t hear about this controversy you might want to catch yourself up on the particulars. Reading President Nick Wyman’s letter about the tier contracts and the touring controversies is a bleak portrait of a bleak economy with a bleak forecast for the future. “The plane truth is that there currently aren’t enough jobs – – let alone good paying jobs – – for all 50,000 of us.” His Touring 102 post about the economics of touring is just as sad. “ Now, because of the recession, the not-for-profit Random City Arts Foundation has lots half of its subscribers, most of its donors, and absolutly all its local government funding. So, when Peripatetic Production asks for $400K, RCAF says, “No. We’ll give you $280K.” So, yes, the union is advocating for the touring producers. The whole of the message seems to be: It’s better to be paid some than none. It is an open admission that the union isn’t strong enough to ensure that it’s members can be employed. If they don’t lower the rates actors are paid on the contracts then the touring companies won’t hire union actors. Concessions have to be made. Why might you not have heard of this? Because of your proximity to New York. Mr. Wyman says that right at the top. You aren’t anywhere near New York so you probably don’t have any idea what’s going on in the organization that ensures you are treated fairly. Good luck with that San Francisco actors. Sometimes I wonder if New York is the center of the acting universe in part because New York just doesn’t recognize that there is more to the universe than just itself.

SUPER LASTLY: I do want to say when I worked at Theatre Bay Area I had the opportunity to speak with representatives from Equity on a number of occasions and I found them lovely, informative and hard working. If you are interested in working with Equity Actors, you should email or call Equity. Don’t be intimidated. They don’t bite. And if you just produce theatre all the time with out talking to them they really won’t have an understanding of your needs and how best to serve their membership while still supporting the art of theatre.