Wednesday, April 29, 2009


Dear Mike:

I have enjoyed reading your correspondence with Todd Olson -- producing artistic director at American Stage Company in St. Petersburg, Florida -- and honestly, I see solid points made on both sides, as I think you do.

However, one important fact has been obscured in the dialogue: When Olson says his theater is "fully AEA," he means he has a contract with Actors Equity -- NOT that all of the actors he hires are Equity members. I'm not sure what contract he is on now, but he can and does use a fair proportion of non-Equity actors. Such obfuscation is not uncommon among small theaters with Equity contracts, as they rely upon the misperception that Equity = professional and non-Equity = non-professional to puff up their stature with statements such as "fully Equity."

Why does this matter? It matters because many of Olson's points are predicated on the assumption that all of his actors are Equity. Talk of how his actors have access to health insurance, of the struggles of finding a way to pay actors more than scale, of the comparatively low pay to his staff, or of what he considers silly ancillary Equity requirements (breaks, cots, etc.) is disingenuous, given that many of his actors have no insurance, are paid well below Equity scale, and are not entitled to most Equity protections -- although they do share in the breaks, and I suppose no one would object if they fainted onto the cot.

Tampa Bay has very little Equity work. Most local Equity contracts are SPT, Guest Artist or Special Appearance, none of which pays a living wage. Aside from a mere handful of actors, Tampa Bay actors have two choices: 1) Stay Equity, and work mostly out of town or work rarely (and fail to qualify for health insurance), or 2) Leave Equity, work for less money and no benefits but work more often, closer to home and, ironically, often in the same theaters as the Equity actors. Because the non-Equity actors often rehearse nights, they are better able to supplement their income with on-camera work, meaning they can make more money while costing local theaters less, which enables lower ticket prices, which enables more people to go see a play. For this they get to be classified as non-professional -- even when standing on-stage next to an Equity actor -- and ignored in Olson's consideration of his theater's financial position.

Before largely retiring from acting, I was an AEA member for nine years. I left Equity seven years ago specifically to take a non-Equity role at American Stage (before Olson's tenure), because I recognized that breaking into the most important area theater was a better bet than keeping my Equity card, which limited my professional opportunities, as it does for actors in many metro areas outside of the major markets. (I also came to believe that Equity fundamentally puts its own interests ahead of its members'… but that's another discussion.) I think I made the right choice, but am always surprised to hear ADs expound upon the difficulties of paying all those pesky Equity actors, as if the Equity contract was forced upon them.

While I do not include myself in this company, there are many fine Tampa Bay actors -- including many who have played leading roles at American Stage in the past -- who once were Equity or have the points to become Equity, but who are by choice non-Equity because they believe that's the better status in this market. They became actors to act, not to ensure a guaranteed wage. The old saw that Equity functions as a talent filter, accepting only the best actors, and that therefore one can rely upon a higher caliber of actor within the union is easily exposed in Florida, where Equity's theme park contracts grant Equity cards to teenage dancers who may or may not be able to utter a line.

A theater's decision on whether to have an Equity contract is a complicated one in that it involves not simply budgeting considerations, but also fuzzier considerations of professional stature and reputation, and I judge no theater for going one way or the other -- as long as its finances give it the luxury of a choice. Nor do I judge a theater for jobbing in actors from out of town, although that's a consistent grumble from local actors in any small market. Still, I can't help wondering why Olson does not alleviate some of his budgetary woes by sticking to local actors, Equity or otherwise. Jobbing-in Equity actors requires not only the higher pay scale and benefits contributions, but also housing, transportation and per diem. Are the actors Olson jobs-in from out of town really so much better than any local option that they return their additional cost in higher ticket sales? And does the audience care where the actors live? That's a question I wish more boards would ask.

While they were at it, the board could do the math on how much health insurance could be purchased with the money spent on jobbed-in actors. You wondered why a company would take on a $4 million building campaign when it gave its employees no health insurance. I wonder why a company that offered no health insurance and admitted that it underpaid its staff would blow money on jobbed-in actors when local actors would do as well.  Some ADs might say that the proportions of Equity actors specified by their AEA contracts may force them to use an Equity actor for a certain role, and that no local Equity actor fit the bill. But that makes my point -- freed to hire from the far larger non-Equity pool in a market like Tampa Bay, the AD could probably find a suitable actor locally -- and much more affordably.

Full disclosure: Olson might counter that as a local non-Equity actor I played a leading mainstage role for him once (an experience I enjoyed and am grateful for), but I would remind him that I got the role only after a Boston actor bowed out at the last minute and a local replacement was the most expedient solution -- he hired the role locally only when he had no other option. In one of his first newspaper interviews after he was hired by American Stage, he was quoted as saying that creating jobs for local actors was low on his list of priorities. At least we knew where he stood.

In recent public discussions about preserving arts funding in a tough economy, I have heard arts proponents argue that public funding employs artists. I then heard funding opponents say that the artists often are not local, and that they don't want to spend local tax dollars on artists who live elsewhere. It's hard to preserve arts funding when the anti-arts crowd happens to be right.

I have long observed that many artistic directors fall prey to the same syndrome as Olson: They are surrounded by ass-kissing actors desperate for work and willing to put up with any abuse, actors who will never complain to the AD or bring to his attention any perception of mistreatment. Behavior that would elicit a hearty fuck-you if committed by anyone else goes quietly unchallenged when committed by an AD. When the AD does hear complaints, he can easily dismiss them as the product of sour grapes among actors upset at not being hired or at not landing a coveted role. Over time, the AD grows insensitive and callous, oblivious to his own casual disregard for his actors. That's the odor you smell in his letter.

Olson has as much contempt for his audience, whom he has publicly castigated on American Stage's website for complaining too much; he actually calls some respondents to his audience survey "complainers" and bemoans their "rudeness" and "cheap shots" -- all because they dared to give him the feedback he solicited and in some cases did so with a degree of insensitivity he is in no moral position to judge. He's talked to his AD buddies elsewhere, he says, and they all agree that Florida audiences are just the worst! So… he doesn't much like his local actors or local audience. One wonders why he does not simply find another job out of state, and hand American Stage over to someone who understands and appreciates the local scene.

All of that said, I think Olson's apparent disdain for actors (and for your work and its politics) and his sometimes perverse illogic may have upset you past the point of reason. Olson's staff is loyal; after a brief period of defections at the start of his tenure, there has been very little staff turnover at American Stage, and that says something good about the happiness of his staff. As someone who briefly was on his staff (as propsmaster), I can verify that he truly does treat his staff like family -- though perhaps a slightly dysfunctional one. For such a small group, they do a hell of a lot, to great value. And I agree with him that professional theater staff often are undervalued, as their contributions are little seen by audiences. His casual disdain for actors (contempt may be too strong a word) aside, he's keeping a regional theater solvent and producing successful theater in tough times, and for that he's earned some props.

As for the rest... Well, think back to the ADs you've known. Is Olson's insensitivity really exceptional?

Keep up the good work,

Ned Averill-Snell
Tampa, Florida