Actors' Equity Association, Barbarians

For those of you not involved in the American theater, this entry will bore the living hell out of you, so navigate away from this page and instead ponder this. For those of you who are involved in the American theater, there's an interesting discussion happening on the Crowded Fire blog about Actors' Equity Association and the many complaints that theater folk have against the union. I kicked off the comments section by declaring the following:
AEA are motherf#%*ers. They have no concept of the world outside of their rigid rules. I know many companies, actors, playwrights, directors, etc., who have many many complaints against Equity, but nobody will say anything because Equity is like this cabal that won't listen to you and won't acknowledge that some of their rules are archaic, ridiculous, and, frankly, childish. I'm glad they're out there protecting actors, but they seem to be more concerned with protecting the outdated rules and guidelines that just don't cut it in theater today.

Let me tell you a story.

A while back, TheatreWorks sent me into high schools to teach students how to write plays. Some of these students had never been involved in theater in any way, and some had never even taken any kind of creative writing class. A lot of schools in this country supposedly don't have room in the curriculum for anything like that.

Over the course of 12 weeks, students would develop characters, write dialogue, and shape scenes to create short plays. Students would start out shy about their own creative abilities and reluctant to share their work, and they would often blossom into writers with distinctive voices and something to important to say.

Several students at each high school were selected to have their plays presented at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, a beautiful theater venue, and staged by professional actors and directors. Students would participate in rehearsals and watch as their work was performed live in front of nearly full houses.

Audiences were amazed by the quality of workon par or even better than a lot of the scripts circulating around the Bay Area. But witnessing the approval and enthusiasm of the theater community and audiences wasn't the highlight for me. What I will most remember is how each of those students beamed all day longsomething they wrote was being taken seriously, something they dreamed up was coming to life. One student came up to me during the day of performance and declared, almost embarrassed, "This is the best day ever."

I've always told people that my primary job as a writing instructor is not to teach students about plot or structure or character. My primary job is encouraging students to write and write and write and keep on writing and assuring them that what they create has value. Every single artist I know thinks about quitting on a regular basis. As a teacher, as a mentor, it is my goal to tell students that they have a rightperhaps even a dutyto go on, if in fact being an artist is something that sits firmly in their heart. I can only hope to silence a student's internal and external critics long enough so that they can hear what is in their heart. If creative pursuits do not reside there, that's finethey can move on. But if creative pursuits call to them, I want to help them hear that call loud and clear.

Before one of the performances at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, I watched proud parents and excited student playwrights enter the lobby, their eyes shining with anticipation. Some of these parents had video cameras.

And here's how this story ties back to Actors' Equity Association:

These parents weren't allowed to record the performances of their children's work. As we all know, AEA has strict rules against photography of any kind. In fact, a huge sign right in front of the theater's entrance made sure that everybody knew what the union's rules were.

I don't know many things more iconic than parents videotaping their children at school plays, concerts, spelling bees, speech tournaments, etc. And to deny them the opportunity to videotape something that their children created with their own two hands and their own imaginative minds is not only sad but barbaric.

In this day and age, kids document everything. They post photos online, they blog, and, yes, they videotape. For them to be denied the chance to document work that they themselves created is truly truly disappointing.

Now, I have no idea how easy or hard it is to get AEA to grant parents the right to videotape the kinds of performances I have described. And I have so many other complaints against Equity that I don't really have the patience or the energy to find out. After all, I'm not a journalist, for Christ's sakeI blog in my underwear.

All I know is that I witnessed parents with video cameras being told that they absolutely could not record. Maybe the solution really was as simple as giving AEA a friendly call (I doubt it), but I saw what I saw and my heart breaks because of it.

If I'm way off base on this topic, AEA, then let me know. I will then post all my other complaints against you, simply so I can prove to the world that I am not off base when I call you, with affection, "motherfuckers."

—Reporting From Glendale, California


  1. That's interesting - I have no idea why, first of all, the regulations about videotaping weren't made clear to everyone BEFORE the performance. That might have stopped some of the barbaric, devastating drama.

    I, for one, am thrilled that my image cannot be used without my consent all over the damn place. (I mean, how many Girls Gone Wild videos do I need to be in? No, but seriously... ;))) But, for example, I recently participated in a project - CLEARLY theater (everyone involved was from the Women's Project, almost every actor was AEA, the stage manager was AEA, etc); but because it was site-specific (at the World Financial Center), it was out of Equity jurisdiction and people were photographing and taping right and left.

    I'm not sure what my point is with this ramble. I haven't thought very much about videos until the debate on the CF blog commenced; but I have been thinking about the showcase code and the challenges it presents for producers AND actors. In essence, the fact that it is a recipe for financial disaster *and* potentially a easy failure also in terms of industry exposure for actors. (mandated short runs, limited possibilities of extensions - honestly, though, I think I know, like, one person who has actually read the whole thing).

    And there are so many weird bureaucratic inconsistencies. For example, if you're doing a benefit and you're AEA, the producers have to get permission; but they're getting permission from something called the Theater Authority, not even from AEA itself.

    I just don't know...I have yet to have this videotaping issue emerge in anything I've done and I've only been AEA for a year.

    And, Prince, you blog in your undies. I blog, I will have you know, in a towel. Or less.

  2. aea...may maggots eat your collective testes before you die.

    or your ovaries, as the case may be.

    i've had to deal with them from the production end of hiring an was our starting out time.. things were arranged, and suddenly, i was on my THIRD equity agent, the contract was not what was agreed upon, flip ups, flip outs, changes a day before rehearsals started.. blah blah blah, we'll shut you down... when you are a start up theater company, and the big bad equity folk are on you, it's scary.

    fortunately, the actor was a friend, and had been in our first seasons before he had his card... and he just slid by...

    i believe in unions... i don't buy clothes unless i hum the old 'look for the union label' song... however, it can be too silly sometimes. your story is one of those times.

    oh, btw, make sure you use a different font for this posting, so they don't know who i am.

  3. Hi, ladies, thanks for your stories. I do find that actors are far more forgiving of AEA. I'm not sure if they're more understanding of AEA's inner workings or they have more compassionate hearts or if they're simply afraid of being kicked out of the union and blacklisted forever.

    But I'm gonna investigate this parents videotaping thing more. Maybe I'll even call them.

    ...Call them "barbarians!" Ha ha ha ha ha!

  4. i don't call actors barbarians.. i call a number of them props that eat.

    shit, did i say that out loud?

    hello, my real name is prince, and i own a cat.

    and i pissed off ae and other famous people.

    i stole quin's password. this isn't her typing. how do you know? she doesn't wear undies.

  5. Wait, I'm confused. The parents weren't allowed to video tape because the actors involved in the performance were Equity? Is that right? Or were they not allowed to video tape because it took place in an Equity theatre.

    What about permission? Or archival use? I was at a reading recently and the question was posed to a more experienced playwright I was sitting next to and I overheard that if the video is for archival use it was permissible.

  6. Marisela, the performances were under a Staged Reading Code agreement. The theater is AEA, and some of the actors were AEA.... I'm about to post the results of my invesitgation.

  7. Anonymous1/18/2008

    The problem isn't the parents, of course...if only it were that simple. The problem is God knows where those tapes end up and to what purpose. Actors' images (whether they be still or video) are constantly being used without authorization for things those actors never signed up for, including for advertisements. This happens, all the time--it happened to my girlfriend, whose archival photo in a past local production ended up in that community's CVB brochure. She didn't get hired or paid to advertise for a tourism bureau. An actor's image and voice and performance are their product as workers (which, if they consider themselves professional actors and not amateurs, is what they are). It's important to know that those products aren't being exploited and/or used without proper compensation. I can't imagine producers would be too happy about unauthorized tapes of their shows going up on YouTube, cutting into the box office they need to get by. Are they "motherfuckers," too? (By the way, I found it amusing that you start your rant by calling AEA this name and then claim they're the ones being childish)

    -Bay Area Actor

  8. 1.) Context is important. I love it when people happen upon my blog and suggest that I am "childish" (see above) or self-indulgent or some such supposedly accusatory insult. Obviously, they don't know that this blog is admittedly full of childishness and self-indulgence. For the love of god--(a) it's a BLOG and (b) I write about fainting goats.

    2.) The follow up to this blog post, in which I called AEA, is here. What I long for in that post is some kind of waiver that--no--doesn't allow parents/students to own the videotaped performance of the actors in perpetuity in all media, in any way they please, but a waiver that allows the videotape to be for private use. This would bar parents/students from posting stuff on YouTube, and, if they do, they're motherfuckers and should be sued.

    I think that's a happy compromise. It's the kind of compromise that happens in other industries that employ actors. "You can use my image for this purpose and this purpose, but not that purpose and that purpose." It's all about spelling it out in contracts, and that's what the union supposedly is for.

    3.) Anyway, thanks for chiming in. As you know, I love actors, many of my friends are actors, and I will continue to fight for actors. I just want everyone to be happy.