‘Pro99’ Actors’ Equity members send open letter to AEA President Kate Shindle
Members congratulate Shindle on election victory and respond to inaugural column in Equity News.
Daniel Marmion (at podium), Joshua Castille, Jimmy Bellinger, Austin McKenzie, Joseph Haro, and Daniel Durant in Deaf West’s Spring Awakening
Photo by Tate Tullier
LOS ANGELES (Aug. 27, 2015)—Members of the Pro99 movement of Actors’ Equity Association have issued an open letter to AEA’s newly elected president, Kate Shindle, in response to her victory and to her inaugural address as president of the national union for actors and stage managers. The open letter is signed by more than 400 Equity members.
The Pro99 movement formed in late 2014 in opposition to AEA’s rollout of a new plan that will effectively force “intimate theaters” in Los Angeles to pay Equity actors minimum wage, go “non-union” or even close—despite an overwhelming vote against the plan by 66 percent of the Los Angeles membership on an advisory referendum. Pro99 members around the nation, who take their name from the current AEA 99 Seat Plan that allows members to volunteer in smaller venues, oppose AEA’s new promulgated plan. They are requesting that Equity leadership put a moratorium on the plan until local members’ voices can be heard, and that the union work with its members to develop an alternative plan that will more realistically address the needs of the Los Angeles theater community.
An Open Letter to Actors’ Equity President Kate Shindle from Pro99 AEA Members
Dear President Shindle,
We, the undersigned members of AEA who support the Pro99 movement, both in the L.A. area and around the nation, congratulate you on your win, and wish you a successful term as President of our beloved union. We were satisfied that our passionate campaigning helped to elect you, and appreciated that during your campaign you came to Los Angeles to meet with us and express your interest in the 99-Seat debacle that has galvanized our Los Angeles theater community.
In your “Inaugural Column” in the July/August 2015 edition of Equity News you wrote: "Everyone has a different definition of what’s cool; to me, the coolest thing Equity can do is to encourage its members to be passionate, vocal activists and ambassadors. Because that will not only make our industry more successful, it will also make our union stronger.”
We couldn’t agree more. We are also encouraged and grateful that you mention our cause in your column, especially since we do not feel we have always been fairly represented in Equity News and emails—that is, when we’ve been represented at all. Thank you for your willingness to both meet with us and publicly discuss what absolutely continues to be a crisis in our union. As you noted, we do have much to celebrate about intimate theater in L.A.—almost thirty years of rich and creative work under the guidelines endorsed by our own union.
However, we’re concerned about your mention of a recent Fringe Festival production that was produced under the proposed “New 99-Seat Theatre Agreement.” Though you present it as something to perhaps celebrate, we wish to be clear that that Agreement is precisely what an overwhelming majority of local AEA members voted against in the advisory referendum (66 percent: a landslide). As you can imagine, L.A. members don’t consider this an event to celebrate. We think it is, in fact, the problem, and not the solution. Worse, we think the way the new agreement was promulgated by the union is even more problematic for the democratic process. We have found the actions and messaging of the leadership of our union troubling, and the fact that the leadership ignored the will of its own membership is deeply disturbing. Worst of all, we firmly believe this new plan will effectively destroy our vibrant theatrical community.
We love our union. We have, from the beginning, offered to work with Council and staff to find a solution that will not only address our concerns, but also make our union stronger and respectful of local members’ needs. We welcome turning a new page with your support and willingness to listen to us articulate the realities of our community in order to resolve this crisis.
About “Intimate Theater” and #Pro99
Over the past 50 years, whether it be 99-Seats in L.A., Off-Off Broadway
in New York, or companies starting out like Steppenwolf in Chicago,
some of the most important productions in American theater history have
originated in “intimate theaters.” Right now, a 99-Seat production from
Los Angeles of Spring Awakening is
opening on Broadway, with twenty members of the original L.A. cast all
earning multiple contract weeks and, proudly, earning their Equity
cards. This is only one of countless examples—hundreds of shows,
thousands of contracts for hundreds of thousands of work weeks—over
several decades that have come directly from intimate theater
productions, creating opportunities and work for actors, stage managers,
playwrights, directors, and designers. This is not just a Los Angeles
issue; members across the country share similar issues that create the
need for intimate theater where AEA actors can do their work. To attack
the state of 99-Seat theater is to attack the core of American theater.
We must preserve these venues, not destroy them.
Members of AEA PRO99 movement
Signed by the following members of Actors’ Equity Association (partial list):
Shannon Lee Avnsoe
Tisha Terrasini Banker
Jon Collin Barclay
Dana Lyn Baron
Michael James Bell
Kathy Bell Denton
Caitlin Renee Campbell
Rob Roy Cesar
James Patrick Cronin
Susan Carol Davis
Lee De Broux
Liza de Weerd
John Downey III
Tony Embeck Motzenbacker
Stephanie A. Erb
Jeff Thomas Gardner
Kurt Andrew Hansen
Amy K Harmon
William Dennis Hunt
Mary Ellen Jennings
Jason E. Kelley
Jonathan Kells Philips
Mary Jo Kirwan
Peter Dan Levin
Ana Therese Lopez
David LM McIntyre
Robert Homer Mollohan
David Paul Needles
Thomas James O'Leary
Ramon V. Parra
Jacques C. Smith
Cathy Diane Tomin
Melisaa Weber Bales
Mandy Levin Williams
Mark McClain Wilson
The One and Only
Theater director Shirley Jo Finney walked a lonely path but now builds universal worlds.
By Ethan Davison
Bernard K. Addison, Simone Missick, and Leith Burke in the Shirley Jo Finney–directed Citizen: An American Lyric, at the Fountain Theatre
Photo by Ed Krieger
If the role of the storyteller is to expand our perspectives and open us to diverse ideas, why does it seem so many stories are created by white males? Shirley Jo Finney says she struggles with this issue every day. The director of such plays as The Ballad of Emmett Till, From the Mississippi Delta, and her most recent project, Citizen: An American Lyric, at the Fountain Theatre, gravitates to projects that focus on the pain and struggle racism has caused throughout history.
Finney never intended to be a director. While a student at UCLA, she focused solely on becoming an actor. “I would direct on and off on school projects and wouldn’t think anything of it,” she says. “I would just think, ‘Eh, it’s something to do. But I’m an actress. That’s what I’m going to do.’ That was the mantra.”
That changed when a friend of hers suffered a heart attack. Finney recalls, “He said to me, ‘If I live through this, I would love for you to work with me in putting on a show.’ Well, he lived through it, and we took pieces of poetry…created the story, made a character arc…. Then we decided we wanted to put it up.” The piece, directed by Finney, was honored by Los Angeles Times as one of the 10 best Equity-waiver productions of the year. Finney would later be invited into the director’s program at Los Angeles Theatre Center, which would cement her path from actor to director.
Still, it hasn’t been an easy path to walk. Says Finney, “I was female, and even though I hate to say that, that becomes a challenge. And I was a female of color. And one thing I learned from that was how to navigate the political system, because there’s a lot of theaters across this country, where I was the first either female or female of color, to walk in those doors.”
Finney refers to this as “The Only One Syndrome.” She says, “When you’re the only one in a place, there is a certain burden that comes with that. So what I had to learn is what was mine and what was theirs.”
Societal challenges weren’t the only obstacles that presented themselves. The emotional journey Finney had to embark on with some of her projects also took their toll on her. When Yellow Man, a play centered on the color caste system within the African-American community, was proposed to her, Finney initially turned it down. “It’s all about trying to dissimulate into the main culture, and what that does, and how that impacts relationships,” she explains. “I lived it. I did not want to go there because it’s a wound. But I did.”
Valuing the Core
Finney’s process involves finding the emotional core of the piece. “I believe that the playwright has given you the themes of the play. So it is my job as a director to do the visceral work of it, to do the emotional investigations. So, when I first read a play, I go, ‘How do I feel about this? What does it trigger in me?’ Then start with the conceptual process. And I usually try to find out what the emotional heart of a play is.”
With this emotional core, Finney universalizes the story. Though each story may tell of a very specific group or individual, Finney still strongly believes that the message of the play should provide knowledge of or insight into everyone. “Just like in ancient times with the very first indigenous people, it’s about how we navigate the world,” Finney says. “Every story tells us, the people sitting in a circle in the tribe, how to navigate the world. And because we’re human beings and emotions are universal, they don’t see color or gender, right? That’s a key human experience. So you as the audience member, and I as the facilitator, and the acting team, we’re conduits. We’re witnessing each other and taking this journey energetically.”
And it’s not just the overall story she applies this process to but also the individual characters whose journeys we follow. In doing so, she asks herself, “Who is this person to me? What does he want? How does he feel? How’s he going to feel when he gets his objective? What are his human flaws? What are his joys?”
Finney points out to actors she directs that humans have only three basic needs: to be nurtured, to be seen, and to be safe. She says, “So you’re getting all those when you come out if you’re a pretty healthy human being, but if you’re missing one of those, then you’re going to act out to get it. So when you’re looking at a story and the protagonist, or even the antagonist, you have to keep that in mind.”
This work with her actors begins around the table, much like the storytelling in tribes. “We start looking at the theme of the piece and how that relates to us in our lives,” she says. “So when you have a group of people sitting in a circle and they begin sharing, then they start bonding. And that’s how you create great ensembles.”
Being a Good ‘Citizen’
Citizen: An American Lyric, adapted by Stephen Sachs from the book by Claudia Rankine, focuses on today’s racial issues. Says Finney, “Her conversation is about the everyday encounters of the unconscious/conscious racism. And it’s the speak of middle- and upper-middle-class whites and blacks, which is the discourse that’s happening in America now. So I lived that. This is one of those pieces where everything that she’s talking about I have lived.”
Ultimately, Finney’s message is about breaking out of the roles society sets up for us. Rather than just being defined by or limited to what is expected, she says, we should strive for what’s important to each of us. “Don’t get locked in a box,” she says “We didn’t come here in a box so why put yourself in a box?”
As for how to start breaking out of that box, Finney recommends taking advantage of modern media. “You can blog, you can write, you can put it on the Net. So there is nothing stopping one from expressing oneself.” She wrote, directed, produced, and helped to finance her first opportunity, a decision she refers to as “an investment in who I am today.”
Adenrele Ojo and Lorenz Arnell in The Ballad of Emmett Till at the Fountain Theatre, 2010
Diarra Kilpatrick in In the Red and Brown Water at the Fountain, 2012
Gilbert Glenn Brown and Theodore Perkins in The Brothers Size at the Fountain, 2014
Production photos by Ed Krieger
Portrait of Shirley Jo Finney by Dany Margolies, ©ArtsInLA.com
Citizen: An American Lyric is at the Fountain Theatre through Oct. 11. 5060 Fountain Ave. Sat 8pm, Sun 3pm & 7pm, Mon 8pm (dark Sept. 7) $15–34.95 (323) 663-1525.
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