Internet of anger


Hey, theater friends! I'm back, after a week off where Laura VanZandt took over News and Notes. I give many thanks to Laura for not only writing a good article, but also for covering a topic that I don't believe I have ever touched before in this column.

Before we get started, I just have a pair of updates to previous stories:

(1) We've recently talked about the problems at Intermedia Arts. In case you haven't kept up on it, Intermedia has now officially put their building up for sale. If you're especially keen on rescuing this venue from the hands of Uptown condo developers, I hope you have about $1.5 million to spare.

(2) You most definitely don't remember when we talked about this one, but about two years ago I shared the story of a former theater agent who got caught bilking investors out of over $200,000 with a crazy scheme that involved a script that was never written, a star player who was never contacted, and a theater space that was never contracted, all for a biographical play whose subject never gave permission. If you do remember that, good job on having a very good memory! You should know that this guy has finally been sentenced over the matter. It's good to know that at least one pathological personality from New York who repeatedly lied to people while bilking them out of money for a bullshit project that he never intended to deliver as promised will spend some time behind bars this year.

To join or not to join?

It's been just a stellar week for bad communication on the interwebs. Despite all the great promises of brighter futures and better tomorrows that a digitally-connected world could bring, I'm pretty sure that when this world wide communication network finally achieves sentience, it will take one hard look at any random subreddit and declare, "I don't think you people are ready for this. I'm gonna take off. I'll check back in with you humans in about a century." It seems like all our super-fast hyper-connectedness has done so far is allow us to run roughshod over nuance and understanding like Gravedigger rolling over a line of junked Honda Civics.

Case in point: Actors Equity recently announced a pretty big change to the requirements for prospective members to ascend into its ranks via the Equity Member Candidate program. In a mass email to current EMC candidates, Equity announced that it was cutting in half the number of weeks that a prospective member must work in Equity houses in order to be eligible, while also raising the cost of applying for membership through the program.

Within minutes of that email landing in people's inboxes, the theater-sphere of the internet went bonkers. Producers at small companies complained that the flood of young performers who would suddenly become eligible for Equity would hurt their ability to afford to put on shows. Some current Equity members fretted that there would suddenly be more competition for those few coveted roles at larger houses. The poor EMCs (Equity Membership Candidates) who had previously not been eligible for full membership and now suddenly were thought they were being forced into a decision that they hadn't imagined making for a while yet. And, of course, to we cynical non-members, it looked like AEA was making a shameless cash grab by making it easier for people to join while simultaneously asking them for more money. (By the way, Twin Cities performer Josh Carson wins my "Facebook Comment of the Day" award for his post reading "Looks like Actors Equity kicked in their membership drive.")

And so, many a faithful member of the union was left with the unenviable duty of trying to clear up all the many, many speculative panics that broke out in the wake of this announcement. Former Twin Cities actor, and current member of the AEA council, Sid Solomon, put out a blog post attempting to separate fact from fiction on the matter. As it happens, the increase in dues was actually a separate matter from the reduction in required work weeks, having been voted on pretty decisively by current AEA members in September; but EMCs can hardly be blamed for the confusion. AEA didn't send them any communication about that vote until just now, and after seeing a copy of the email that was sent to them, I don't blame them for thinking the two changes were linked.

So, it came to pass that some EMCs here in the Twin Cities decided to organize a public meeting to discuss these changes. There were EMCs there, along with at least one small theater producer and at least one local liaison from Equity. If you wished you would have been there, they did live-stream the meeting; unfortunately, it appears that the live stream of the whole thing was stretched across three different feeds. Watch here, here, and here to catch what I believe is most of the evening. (They also produced notes from the meeting, if you don't feel like sitting through three different viewing sessions to get the gist.)

This meeting pretty quickly morphed from getting the straight scoop on what the actual changes are (they're pretty self-explanatory, actually) into more existential questions on what, exactly, Equity is for in a market like ours, and whether or not it is advantageous to join. Of course, these are pros and cons that actors have been weighing forever, but they do tend to get exacerbated when you work in a market that doesn't have its own Equity office (our area is controlled by the Chicago office, which, you may have noticed, is rather far away).

These will most likely be perennial questions when it comes to Actors Equity. Even though actors will constantly be asking themselves whether it's better to stay in Minnesota or head for larger cities, the hard truth is that hardly anybody makes a living solely as an actor anywhere.

No matter what market you're in, joining Equity is not even close to a guarantee that you will be employed. According to AEA's own reports, in the 2015-2016 season, only 42% of Equity members were employed in any kind of theater at all, and the average member worked just 17 weeks in a year. Nor is Equity a guarantee that pay will actually be equitable. A recent study of Chicago's theater scene showed that, among those employed Equity members, white men still get more jobs and higher pay than women and minorities. Nor is it even apparent that all AEA members actually want to earn a living wage. A majority of Equity actors in the Los Angeles market pushed back against the union's changes to its contested 99-Seat Plan, which ostensibly requires them to make at least minimum wage. And, considering the current market for theater everywhere, it's doubtful that AEA can deliver on any promise about good income for its members. The union bragged about delivering $260,000 to actors over the past two years under the revised 99-Seat Plan in LA, while failing to mention that this is equivalent to the yearly income of about 10 single adults just making a living wage in LA (at least, according to this living wage calculator). AEA has over 8,300 members in LA.

I'm not here to try to talk you out of joining the union and even becoming a fabled fully employed working actor. If that's your goal, then it's your goal. I, personally, have a goal of eating a burrito the size of my head. Neither goal is technically impossible, but, boy oh boy, should you step back and get a sense of perspective before banking on either one of those goals to pay off. Do you have any idea how big that tortilla would have to be?!

At least this time, after all the sound and the fury signifying nothing, it looks like actors have settled down over the changes, and the big potential bomb over the EMC changes has passed by without exploding. Hopefully next time, Equity will be better about communicating changes that have so much potential to cause anxiety in the populace. So, we're all good here, right? We had our conversations, everybody understands what's happened, and we're all on the same page about the union, right? Good. We're back to situation normal.

The naming of things

Speaking of big bombs, here's one that did explode in everyone's faces all over the internet. If you're in the Twin Cities, you might have been a member of the Twin Cities Theater People group on Facebook. You might still be, but you won't be able to post anything to it anymore. I was thankfully away from a computer on October 23, but I woke up on October 24 to find that this Facebook group had gone down in flames, trailing a fine mist of outrage in its wake.

It took me a while to piece it all together, since many relevant posts had been deleted, edited or otherwise locked down, but the gist of it was that a member made a post attempting to warn the Twin Cities community that an actor who had been basically banned from the LA comedy/improv scene for a long stream of alleged sexual harassment and assault had moved back to Minnesota and was auditioning around town. This actor was apparently featured anonymously in a Buzzfeed article about the culture of sexual harassment and assault in LA's comedy scene, but some people have been more than willing to connect the dots.

The moderators of the group deleted the original post, and then the bomb went off. After that, I can't give you much of a tick-tock of the proceedings. Picking between the remaining responses containing "RAPIST!" and the missing threads where moderators obviously deleted comments that further incensed people proved to be impossible. I guess if you weren't following it in real time, you have little hope of knowing the blow-by-blow account. The short story is that by the morning of October 24, moderators pulled the plug and archived the entire Facebook group.

Given everything that's been revealed lately about Harvey Weinstein, it's easy to see why people would be on edge about this sort of thing. And given that, holy shit, Kevin Spacey just came out of the closet while simultaneously apologizing for attempting to sexually assault a 14-year-old, it's easy to see why we can't just get back to business as usual and pretend that killing Weinstein's career has wiped the old sexual assault counter back to zero. Unfortunately, this particular part of the conversation in our neck of the woods went from zero to nasty in about 2.8 seconds, egged on by comments and behaviors on both sides that neither of which probably would have said or done were they physically in the same room together.

So, my kudos goes to Fair Play Improv, which put together the most cogent and persuasive statement on the issue of this actor that I have seen so far.

In the meantime, if you're looking to start the next big Facebook page for Twin Cities theater, it looks like the market just broke wide open. Of course, after what just happened, I know I wouldn't want that responsibility.

And here's some Moore

And, of course, we couldn't end an article about bad information, snap judgements and petty fights on the internet without getting the President involved. Since I guess Trump has definitively solved every single problem in the country and has nothing else to do with all his time (aside from admiring all of the very fine pictures of himself on the cover of Time Magazine, some of which are actually real!), he decided to tweet a few blatant lies about Michael Moore's Broadway show. This induced Moore to tweet back a long series of corrections that the Donald will never read; and thus, the circle of bullshit that we are all drowning in grew one more size that day. Hooray.

Headshot of Derek Lee Miller
Derek Lee Miller

Derek Lee Miller is an actor, puppeteer, writer, designer, builder and musician (basically, he'll do anything to make a buck). He is a founding ensemble member of Transatlantic Love Affair.