Actors’ Equity has launched a new website, equityworksla.com. I wondered why a new website? After all, Equity already has a website and anyone in IT will tell you that maintaining a single website is easier and more efficient than two. The domain name was registered on May 18, 2015 – two days before voting ended in Equity’s national election. In other words, the domain was registered by Equity before Kate Shindle was elected as new President of Equity and Mary-Pat Green and Jeff Marlow were elected as new Western Region Principals. These wins were perceived as election upsets created, in part, by L.A.’s ballot box reaction to Equity terminating the 99-Seat Plan.

The timing of the purchase suggests Equity wasn’t willing to wait even one month to see what the new leadership brought to the table. It makes one wonder if the elected union President has any significant say in guiding policy.

Also interesting is that Equity chose a “.com” domain extension rather than a “.org” one, like it has on its official website. “.org” stands for “organization,” “.com” stands for “commercial.” In fact, equityworksla.org was registered on August 21, 2016 – two days after equityworksla.com was launched.

Why was “.com” – commercial – Equity’s website name choice? Perhaps it’s because the new website represents a product Equity is trying to pitch. A look at the homepage design indicates this as well:

equityworksla homepage

Anyone familiar with purchasing services or products over the Internet will recognize this style. The three icons under the header picture say “Get Informed!“, “Work with the theaters you love“, and “Get paid“. While the first two topics are given more detail on the homepage, the last topic (“Get Paid”) is discussed nowhere on the website.

Hmmm…

So what’s the product? Information. That’s according to the website itself:

This site was created specifically so that Equity members can get a complete understanding about the new contracts and codes now available in Los Angeles County. With this site:

• You can get the facts
• You can learn more about the new internal membership rules* and negotiated agreements in Los Angeles County
• You can learn what these codes and agreements mean for actors and stage managers working in theatre in LA

Never mind that significant amounts of information, including the “Where Can I Find Out More?” section, are behind a members-only wall on the original Equity page. In other words, Equity only wants some of this copy to be public on their new site, away from the original website, but not all of it.

Hmmm…

But what about the info that is publicly available? Well, things got off to a bad start when Equity chose this photo to represent the City of Angeles:

Singapore Equity

For anyone who has ever been to L.A., this is obviously not its iconic skyline. In fact, this is a photo of Singapore. Highlighting a portion of a similarly framed picture of Singapore makes this readily apparent.

detail Singapore_Skyline_at_Night
Photo: Erwin Soo, “Singapore Skyline at Night”

Equity has since changed the photo to an actual one of Los Angeles with an apology that oddly and awkwardly includes an assumption of intent on the part of its readers:

We want to thank those who carefully looked at the EquityWorksLA website to better understand what the contracts and internal union membership rules mean, and who alerted Equity to the fact that one of the photographs was published in error. The photo, obtained from a photo service and labeled “Los Angeles night shot,” was in fact not a photo of Los Angeles. The photo has been changed. We didn’t confuse the LA theatre scene with the Singapore theatre scene and we regret using the wrong photo.

The original mistake, however, will live on in its Broadwayworld.com press release, including any Facebook postings.

160819 Singapore for LA on Equity site 23x17

Big mistake? Nah, not really. However, it gave me pause. After all, this is a site for the purpose of information dispersal and you’d think that would include some serious vetting. Perhaps we should create a hashtag:

#AskIfItsAccurate

I wondered if a simple flipped photo was the only questionable item on the website. It was time to do a real review. To spend some time with the website and measure its quality against its stated purpose of providing information. Here is a sampling of what I found:

1) Membership Numbers

As I’ve written before, Equity has a habit of reporting two different sets of membership numbers. That habit is continued on the new website:160819 Equity MembershipThat’s what they tell their members. Here’s what they tell their government on their official LM-2 forms:

Actor Union Sizes final cropped

That’s a large difference. Equity has never made it clear why there’s a discrepancy. Some have guessed that Equity is reporting active members only on the LM-2 forms. However, there is a space on the LM-2 forms for “inactive” members (those with unpaid dues, for example). The other actor unions use this box on the form. Equity leaves it blank.

Why would Equity want to have two different numbers out there? An obvious observation is that it’s nice to have a larger number when convincing members they are part of a larger, powerful union while a smaller number would be more handy if you were calculating per capita taxes. Hmmm…

#AskIfItsAccurate

2) Official Theater Company List

The website represents the first time Equity has released a list giving its official view of the L.A. producing scene. From the website (as of Aug 21, 2016):

Equity’s records show that about 180 producing entities used the old 99-Seat Theatre Plan. Of those, 64 are no longer in business, produced only one show or produced very irregularly on the code.

That leaves us with 117 regularly producing companies.

Actually 180 – 64 = 116. Not 117.

We’ll get back to this in a moment. (But always remember: #AskIfItsAccurate)

Equity has chosen to define the L.A. producing landscape in the following way (parenthetical numbers are Equity’s count in each category):

  • Membership Companies Approved by Equity (61)
  • Companies Producing in Theaters of 50-Seats or Fewer (30)
  • Seasonal or Regularly Producing Theaters of 99 Seats or Fewer (26)

The companies in the first category are permitted by Equity to work off-contract in 99-seat theaters. The meaning of the second category is not entirely clear. It appears that Equity recognizes these companies but is locking them into 50-seat theaters in perpetuity. (If that’s not the case, why not put these companies into the first category without the additional 50-seat theater restriction?) This second group’s sin was not to produce in a 99-seat theater before some arbitrary date so as to be placed in the first group.

Equity says termination of the Plan is to promote growth of paid theater in Los Angeles. So why lock this second group down in 50-seat theaters only and, consequently, stunt these companies’ growth?

I’ll consider that a serious error in logic and am deducting points for it. (Oh, yes, I’m keeping score to determine the final rating of this product.)

This brings us to the last group: the producing theater organizations or what Equity terms “the affected companies” – though I would have used the term “the immediately affected companies” since Equity has not committed itself to the membership category carve-outs indefinitely. The Union went so far as to boldface and mark with an asterisk any company on this list who had principals involved in the lawsuit served on Equity.

Is the Union deliberately trying to leave the impression to the uninitiated that the lawsuit is only being brought by these non-membership companies? In contrast, if we look at the list of membership companies with principals who are also lawsuit plaintiffs (here and here), there is no boldfacing and there is no annotation at the bottom of this list indicating the meaning of the asterisk. At this point, there are so many errors on the page it’s hard to tell what is deliberate and what is not.

And if it’s not deliberate, it’s incompetent and that is just as bad.

But there are still more errors!

For example, Equity forgot to tag at least one membership company with a principal who is also a plaintiff. If you think you know which one, leave a comment with the answer. (I invite any Equity official to play along as well. After all, this website represents you.)

And there’s this game: let’s count the number of companies in the second category. Here is the list taken from the Equity page.

I’ll give you a moment to count.

How many did you get?

29?

Congratulations. You get to pass onto the 2nd grade.

Equity got 30.

Yep, Equity can’t even count. And now the errors are piling up so much they are beginning to cancel each other out. While that may make you feel better, it shouldn’t. It implies that Equity knows what result it wants a priori and as long as they get that result, the path doesn’t matter.

That doesn’t build confidence in their judgement, does it?

So let’s correct the next several paragraphs from the original way it presented (screen capture on Aug 21, 2016):

Our members may perform with 61 of those 117 116 entities under the membership company rule; this is a complete waiver of Equity’s usual contract requirement, so the work is done without Equity oversight and without benefit of contract.

That leaves 56 55 of those 117 116 entities. Another 30 29 of those typically use spaces that have 50 seats or fewer, which means that members may participate under the LA Showcase Code.

That means of the 117 116 regularly producing companies, 91 90 (the 61 membership companies plus the 30 29 companies eligible for the Showcase Code) are covered by membership rules that allow members to participate without benefit of contract. In other words, Equity has created waivers to allow members to continue volunteering with these organizations (obviously Equity does not dictate state and federal wage laws, so this is volunteerism to the extent the law allows).

So when we do the math, here’s what we’re actually left with: Only 26 companies are affected by the elimination of the availability of the 99-Seat Theatre Plan. That is about 14% 22% (there are 116 companies not 180!) of the organizations that our records show ever used the old 99-seat plan, (this is a deliberate attempt to swap numbers hoping the reader isn’t paying attention – “ever used”? – so as to artificially lower the percentage calculation to 14%) , and fewer than 25% of the 117 116 companies that regularly produced under the plan. Or, to look at it another way, you will be able to continue performing with more than 75% of intimate theater producing entities in Los Angeles without benefit of contract. That’s a very different picture than the one that’s been painted for you by those wishing to go back to the old 99-Seat Theatre Plan. For a detailed explanation of the rules, click here.

The Romper-Room tone of this passage is a nice touch, particularly because the teacher got all the “math” (i.e. counting and substraction) wrong.

And, yes, there’s still more wrong arithmetic!

Because even if you use the wrong numbers that Equity posted on its website, there is no way that their pie chart represents those numbers. Here is the original and the corrected version:
Equity Pie Charts plotted wrong and corrected hires

Now, if I wanted to fool you into thinking there weren’t that many theaters affected by this change, which graph do you think I’d show you? Remember, both graphs above plot the same numbers. It’s just that Equity wanted to use a fallacious 14% number instead of the correct 22% number. And here I assign motive: Equity wanted to use the fallacious 14% number for the orange piece.

How can I be sure?

Because Equity graphed the Membership Companies (61 of them) as about 1/2 the total pie which implies that the total must have been 117 116 and not 180. And if the total is 117 (if we stick with Equity’s numbers), then 26/117 represents the pie slide shown on the right (about 22%).

So, even with the previous mistakes, Equity should have presented the pie chart shown on the right. It did not. That is not an accident. That’s deliberately going for a result. This graphic will leave a large impression with the casual reader about the impact of Equity’s changes.

And Equity created a significant error in the graphic.

A reader presented with the pie chart on the left will think that Equity’s new agreements won’t have much impact. Not so for the reader presented with the pie chart on the right.

#AskIfItsAccurate

I’m beginning to think we should add: #AskIfItsHonest. Because when you occasionally swap in 180 as the number of theater companies – when in reality the current number is 116 – just to provide a smaller percentage to your membership which you hope will be the number they remember, you aren’t being honest your membership.

3) Equity’s View of L.A.’s Future

Let’s revisit that last line of the math “explanation” provided by Equity:

That’s a very different picture than the one that’s been painted for you by those wishing to go back to the old 99-Seat Theatre Plan.

ILove99_Horizontal_LogoThis, too, is misleading and deliberately so. First, the slogan of the Pro99 movement, which contained the overwhelming majority of Los Angeles actors who organized against their Union to defeat its plan by a landslide 2-1 margin, was “We are for change. Just not this change.” The slogan was on many of the logos distributed at the time. In addition, this was the same sentiment expressed by most actors in the town hall meeting Equity organized in January 2015. This town hall meeting was attended by ranking Union staff and elected officials.

There is plenty of evidence that few want to “go back to the old 99-Seat Theatre Plan.” And there is plenty of evidence that Equity knows this.

So I gotta ding points against Equity for that statement.

And it’s also a little disingenuous for Equity to point to an orange slice of pie – even when correctly presented – and say “See? You still have 75% of the other companies doing business as usual.” Well, sort of. There are many ways of determining scale. For example, in the Senate, representation is equal among every state while in the House, representation is based on population. Just as California looks the same size as Rhode Island in the Senate, so too, Equity wishes to assume every theater has identical artistic impact in L.A. We can, however, add relative artistic impact to our picture by including a metric such as Ovation Award nominations. In this way, the absence of heavily fêted but “orange slice” theaters such as The Fountain, The Blank Theatre Company, and The Theatre @Boston Court would have a profound impact on the City’s cultural landscape, far more than the disappearance of other, but “safe-from-Equity,” theater companies.

#AskIfItsAccurate

Such a study would be relatively simple – simply weight each theater by the sum of its award nominations over the past 5 years – and then see if the “orange slice” is substantial or not.

I’m guessing it would grow. Any takers to prove it one way or another?

Mary McColl outside
Equity Executive Director Mary McColl

Finally, the tone of the impact discussion on the website – though built on a pile of bad arithmetic and false graphics – is supposed to soothe emotions and assuage fears. This is in marked contrast to what Equity Executive Director Mary McColl said to Backstage on February 13, 2015:

“This is the beginning of a long-term organizing plan. So that five years from now, the intimate theater community will look different than it looks now.”

So, is L.A. in the middle of a 5-year Equity plan? Or has something radical changed in Equity’s relationship with Los Angeles in the past 18 months? It’s all rather unclear. Equity can, of course, revoke any membership carve-outs at any time it sees fit. And given the general sloppy nature of the equityworksla.com website goes well beyond a mistaken skyline, it’s not unreasonable to eye the “remain calm” sentiments with a degree of suspicion. What is Equity’s real position here?

#AskIfItsAccurate

4) Equity as a Resource

On the website’s homepage, right under all the company lists, is a section describing Equity itself. And here we find:

We stand ready to be a resource for producers who are struggling to understand how to keep their theaters afloat.

But how does that work in practice? Not particularly well if we read about Michael Seel’s interaction with Equity. At the time, Seel was Executive Director of The Theatre @ Boston Court, a highly respected artistic institution within the L.A. theater community and one that has co-produced with the New York based Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. It’s moved shows to New York. Moreover, Boston Court is well-known among local actors as a choice place to play with, among other things, first-rate greenroom facilities and pay scales well-above the 99-Seat Plan. Seel’s interactions with Equity over contracts pre-date the current situation:

Seel says that for most of its history since 2003, his theater has made repeated overtures to Equity in furtherance of transitioning out of the 99 seat plan, but that negotiations were not forthcoming until July of 2014. In that month, the former Western Regional Director, Ralph Remington, told Seel that the only move available to Boston Court above the 99 seat plan was to embrace the Hollywood Area Theatre (HAT) contract.

Seel says, “I explained that we were a 99 seat theatre and that box office income would never allow us to get the kind of earned income to supplement our unearned income to meet our budget. Remington told me that moving to the HAT contract would take off the ticket-price cap of $34.99. When I explained that doing new works doesn’t mean higher box office income, he said the solution was easy. ‘Just cast celebrities,’ he said.”

Thanks, Equity.

It should be noted that, originally, Equity specifically chose 99-seats as the theater size to ensure it would not be possible for producers to make money where actors were volunteering. It was a built-in fail-safe. So it’s hardly surprising that 99-seat theaters will be struggling – because they were set up that way by design.

After Equity adopted its new plan in April, Seel continued to try to work with the organization:

Boston Court asked whether the new 99 Seat Agreement meant they would be paying actors as employees. “They told us yes,” says Seel, “that would be expected. When we shared that we always cast understudies and would continue to do so, they offered a possible financial solution: Pay the understudies as independent contractors to eliminate taxes, etc.” Seel reminded Equity that this advice ran contrary to labor law, as it is illegal to pay different parties to do the same work through different pay methods.

As that September meeting wore on, Boston Court realized that [Equity’s Western Regional Director Gail] Gabler was flatly refusing to negotiate on all financial terms regarding the agreement beginning June 1st. When asked what could be negotiated, Gabler said, “You tell us.”

Perhaps Equity can provide an interpretation of “ready to be a resource” that fits this story?

For when a producer knows more about labor law than a labor union, that’s not a resource. And we already have an example of intransigence on the part of the Union in action that contradicts the words on its website.

#AskIfItsAccurate

I gotta ding you again, Equity.

5) Incomplete Narrative

The “News & Press” section has issues as well. It appears to be an aggregation of key stories from the Internet – or at least what Equity considers key stories – to help provide background.

And if you’ve read all the way to here, I’m guessing you wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Equity’s aggregation techniques have a little bit to be desired. If the purpose of their website is to inform, then the information presented requires context, and context is provided by the quality of the aggregation.

And, after 18 months of public discussion, Equity decided that only fourcount’em four! – stories across the entire Internet are worth aggregation at the time of its website launch:

160821 equityworksla screencapture Don Shirley storyI can hear some sighing in New York. “Now, now, Kevin, we aren’t going to use sources from little start-up sites like Footlights, Stage Raw, or Bitter Lemons. We are sticking with professional news organizations only.”

To which I reply: You mean professional organizations like

  • Backstage where Mary McColl insisted that a “silent majority” in Los Angeles (that never materialized) supported Equity’s position; or
  • American Theatre where Mary McColl said “We’ve heard a lot of people saying they wanted change, just not that specific change” (and hence proving that L.A. doesn’t want to “go back to the old 99-Seat Theatre Plan” as equityworksla.com claims); or
  • The New York Times where Gail Gabler said the small theaters were “crowding out most other theater in L.A.” (a provably wrong statement using Equity’s own data, by the way).

I say: if you are willing to be quoted in a publication – a professional publication – you might be willing to aggregate it, yes?

Playbill has covered the situation, too. I’m pretty sure Equity staff is familiar with that magazine. And Equity could also link into broadcasts by Anthony Byrnes who has commented extensively on the cultural fracas. He’s on radio station KCRW. That’s a National Public Radio member station but I believe everyone except Republicans considers NPR a professional outfit.

Besides, there’s nothing really wrong with those smaller, gonzo reporting outlets. After all, Mary McColl even commented on Bitter Lemons. How about them apples? I mean, lemons.

Tim Robbins OccupyLocal445aAnd what of the four stories Equity did decide to aggregate? Well, one isn’t a story at all. It’s a press release from the AFL-CIO, Equity’s parent organization. (No points for guessing what position it took.)

I remember that press release. ALF-CIO singled out Tim Robbins for “leading the charge against the fair pay plan.” I wrote a rebuttal at the time and included a picture of Tim Robbins in case anyone forgot what he looked like.

And then there’s also an aggregated LA Observed story by Don Shirley. In this piece, Shirley wonders about those celebrities weighing in on the L.A. intimate theater scene without really being part of it. I’m not sure why this piece was aggregated. First, Shirley’s piece came out on March 25, 2015. But two weeks earlier, on March 12, Equity forwarded an email to all its members from Samuel Jackson (who is definitely not identified with L.A. intimate theater) urging member support for the union’s position.

Now, c’mon, Equity: why not include that celebrity email in your aggregation section?

And if whoever aggregated the Shirley piece had dug just a little deeper, they would have discovered a lively discussion on Bitter Lemons about the article. And in that discussion, Tiger Reel pointed out there were plenty of high-profile, Pro99 actors who are intimately involved in intimate theater: Frances Fisher, Alfred Molina, French Stewart, Dakin Mathews, and Tim Robbins. (And there are many others, including Jason Alexander.) And then Jeanie Hackett observed that Blythe Danner – a focus in Shirley’s piece – was and is a long-term supporter of L.A. intimate theater, especially with dollars.

Shirley updated his article with this new information. Which sort of invalidates the thrust of the piece and proves celebrities vocally opposing their own Union are directly affected by the Union’s actions on L.A. intimate theater.

But you’d have to read to the bottom of his article to find that out. Or notice the asterisk in the title.

This looks like a sleight-of-hand to me. Equity wants to portray itself as a victim of powerful celebrities when, in fact, it is the celebrities who are involved with 99-seat theater that are being bullied by Equity’s actions.

And finally, Equity decided that the aggregated narrative concludes at the end of April, 2015. As if Equity wanted history to stop the moment the Council officially stamped the new Agreements in place and terminated the 99-Seat Plan.

The narrative portrayed here, particularly given so few articles, hardly provides the context for someone to understand the Los Angeles theater scene. I’m deducting more points.

The Verdict

Since February 2015, I’ve had a lot of experience watching Equity interact with Los Angeles. I was astounded when their own survey, the very beginnings of their campaign to find some rational means to eliminate the 99-Seat Plan, had fundamental mathematical errors in interpretation. I shook my head when Equity deliberately obfuscated the landslide defeat it suffered on its referendum. I shrugged when I used Equity’s own numbers to demonstrate that the 99-Seat Plan doesn’t squeeze out paid work for actors in Los Angeles:300 dpi Equity Actor Work Weeks - AEA paid-unpaidAnd now, I merely sigh when I see more of the same on their new website. Literally more of the same. In their FAQ section, Equity still claims that the 99-Seat Plan is the reason why actors can’t find more paid work. With the same numbers that I used to prove them wrong.

Neither Equity officers nor Equity staff have yet to address any of the serious analytical flaws brought up in discussions. What little official public response does occur, comes not from Equity’s elected President Kate Shindle (and before her, Nick Wyman) but instead from hired staff, like Mary McColl and Gail Gabler, who, according to the Equity Constitution, are supposed to serve the elected officials, not the other way around. Yet the equityworksla.com site was purchased just days before the national election had been completed.

Where is policy being made inside Equity?

And how is that policy being presented? I think it significant Equity created a new website to present this material rather than add pages to their original, official site. The tone on the offical site is, well, official. The tone on the new site is decidedly different – regardless of what adjective you choose to use to describe it. And that’s because the new website, equityworksla.com, is about trust. Trusting the Union to present accurate information. Trusting the Union to make the right decisions. Trusting the Union to represent your best interests.

It should be no surprise that I find the product – the website’s information – seriously flawed. There are many more topics I could have discussed and what you’ve just read represents only a sampling of my observations. The number of errors and inaccuracies and omissions are simply too high to place all in one document. And Equity’s single-purposed viewpoint, flaws be damned, has been sustained by officials for well over a year.

We are left with two possibilities for this behavior:

  1. It’s hard to trust Equity because Equity makes the conversation one-sided. In this view, Equity has to push an unjustifiable agenda. As a result, it is stuck having to use the same persuasion tactics of the corporations, of HUAC, of the Southern Segregationists – the entities Equity used to fight. When there is no rationale to make a cogent case, all that is left is rhetoric and stonewalling. And the organization has become something different from what it once was.
  2. It’s hard to trust Equity because Equity gets the facts wrong more than right. In this view, Equity is an organization run by careless, incompetent people. There is no internal vetting of information and no critical eyes on anything. Every mistake on the website is a result of not worrying, or caring, about the details. And this is the organization that emphasizes professionalism above all else.

Neither possibility is particularly comfortable. But it must be far worse for those who have been defending Equity through the past 18 months. The supporters, both inside Los Angeles and throughout the country, believe in the Union because it is a Union.

But what happens when a Union isn’t responsive to its members? When, instead of putting effort into having discussions, effort is put into framing discussions?

Because that’s what you have on this website.

If the purpose of this product is to convince membership the Union is right in its dealings with L.A., I give the website a decided “meh.” It’s clumsy but its very clumsiness can serve to intimidate the membership into not asking if it’s accurate.

If the purpose of this product is to provide a single repository of the accumulated discussion about the survival of intimate theater in Los Angeles and, indeed, the rest of the country, then I rate it a zero. The website is a poor representation for the professional actors I know in L.A. and elsewhere. Ignoring previous discussions, stonewalling current ones, and awkward attempts to spin data indicate Equity’s lack of confidence in both its position and its ability to defend that position.

A professional organization would not be associated with so many inaccuracies.

As the physicist Wolfgang Pauli would have put it: Equity’s website is not even wrong.

 

Originally published August 22, 2016 in Footlights.

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