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Actors Equity Lowers Curtain on Piece of L.A. Civic Culture

04/27/2015 03:27 pm ET | Updated Jun 25, 2015

By most accounts, urban planners don't need to pay much mind to the policies of stage actors unions. It's the rare city in which theaters have much of an impact on the built environment. And yet, planners have every reason to care about the culture of the cities that they build and administer, and cities can profit mightily from healthy theater scenes -- especially when the the city in question is Los Angeles.

That's why everyone in Los Angeles, actor and non-actor alike, should care about this week's vote by the leadership of Actors Equity. Actors Equity is the guild to which most professional and aspiring stage actors belong. After a bitter dispute over questions of professionalism and exploitation, the 100 members of the guild's National Council voted to require union actors to accept no less than $9 per hour to work on professional stage productions. Formerly, actors could essentially volunteer to perform in "equity waiver" productions, which were limited to theaters of fewer than 100 seats. This opportunity goes away June 1, 2016. (There are some provisions for small theaters and membership organizations.)

The policy is admirably intended to ensure that actors get fair compensation and respect as professionals. National Council members say that they were responding to "problems" and "complaints" in Los Angeles. I'm sure there were problems and complaints, as there are with any pursuit. But there's a reason why the equity-waiver system has persisted. Most actors who participate in equity waiver productions aren't seeking compensation. They're seeking experience, connections, and exposure. That puts them in league with many professionals who have to go to school or serve apprenticeships before they can ply their trades. Hair stylists and barbers, for instance, need 1600 hours of training before they get their licenses.

To put it more romantically, though, actors who perform for free are wedded to the pursuit of art. The trope of the starving artist is, in many ways, a depressing one. (Scott Timberg describes the contemporary plight of artists passionately in Culture Crash, which I reviewed on Planetizen.) Whether they are created in the city streets or in a solitary mind, the arts are infinitely enriching. If only artists were paid accordingly.

Artists often forego payment, though, because the creation of art can be as satisfying for the producer as for the viewer. And often the exchange value of art emerges only time. Meanwhile, many professionals forego payment during apprenticeships. Most artists, be they musicians, painters, dancers, or whatever will create regardless of whether they're getting paid or even watched. I'm no artist, but I've written plenty of pieces purely for my own satisfaction. (This is one of them.)

These are the arguments that inspired 6,500 rank-and-file members of Actors Equity in Los Angeles to vote, by a 2-to-1 margin, to retain the traditional equity waiver rules. The leadership clearly disregarded this advisory vote.

Given that Actors Equity can't vote itself higher ticket prices, larger audiences, or free rent for theaters, this development likely means that dozens of small theaters in Los Angeles will go dark while hundreds, if not thousands, of actors will have to find other ways to hone their craft. (Many will probably take more acting classes, which will cost them dearly.) Ironically, the "Entertainment Capital of the World" doesn't have a theater district, nor does it have theater zoning. Nevertheless, small theaters are sprinkled throughout the city, often in warehouses, mini-malls, and other marginal places. Carnegie Hall, they're not. But, wherever they may be and whomever may attend them, they are integral parts of Los Angeles' cultural landscape.

Los Angeles has always been short on communal spaces, and its economy is more wedded to pop culture than to true craft. It's heartening to think that, sometimes, some random, ugly building on one of our hideous commercial strips might bring people together and play host to a thing of beauty. Actors Equity has just made some actors slightly wealthier, others much more anxious, and the city that much less beautiful.

Unless someone writes a play about planning -- and produces it in the next 14 months -- there's probably nothing planners, or anyone else outside the small cabal that voted for this policy, can do but watch as a tragedy unfolds.

Author's note: I typically write about college admissions on the Huffington Post. I'm also a land use journalist and contributing editor to the California Planning & Development Report. I'm wearing the latter hat today.