On Being an Actors’
Equity Member in Los Angeles
by Travis Michael Holder
Courtesy of Hudson Theatres
A candidate in New York for Actors’ Equity’s national council asked on the 7,000-member-strong Pro-99 Facebook page Tuesday if anyone could explain, “for those members working exclusively in 99-Seat theater,” what we see as the benefit of our Equity membership. “In other words,” he seems to sincerely ask, “what’s the most important thing the union provides to you while working in 99-Seat houses?
First of all, I don’t think I know any AEA members whose goal is to work exclusively in 99-Seat shows. To the contrary, nothing would be finer than to be paid full Equity wages for a project. But simply, there is very little AEA contract work in LA. Of the handful of union houses here, most are enough out of town where some of us can’t or don’t want to travel for limited wage compensation, and the bigger houses mostly cast outside of Los Angeles. Case in point is the current Switzerland at the Geffen, with both high-profile actors not only cast in New York but rehearsed there.
Aside from all that well-worn yet sincere stuff about keeping our instruments in tune while waiting for film and TV auditions, and of having the honor of doing work that could make a difference in our screwed-up society despite the lack of financial reward, there’s always something else looming around the stage doors of 99-Seat theater productions in LA: the wee-tiny chance that a successful 99-Seat show will make the jump to an Equity contract, something that is in the talking stages right now with a project I was part of last summer. If it transfers to an Equity house, that alone would be worth the dues I’ve paid over the years to keep myself currently available for potential though rare union work. And of course, most of us deluded artists are also dreamers. Who knows? I’ve only been acting for 61 years or so—maybe one day I could still be the oldest new discovery since Fayvesh Finkel.
Personally, there are a lot of factors that keep me away from more union contracts, including taking care of my partner of 45-plus years, whom I’m desperately trying to keep living at home for as long as he can while the degenerative ravages of Alzheimer’s make him disappear ever-so-slowly before my eyes. Then there is the fact that I have found great pleasure in teaching acting during the last five years at New York Film Academy Hollywood, coming to realize it’s a fine way I can pass on (before I pass on) the knowledge I have gained over the past six decades to a “new stand of cotton,” as Tennessee would say. Then selfishly and with decidedly more mercenary thinking on my part, I have also discovered, working quite regularly these days as a personal coach for the film community, that one gig holding the hand of a spoiled, neurotic superstar pays more in an hour than I could make in a week on a LORT-B contract in some suburban enclave with a wealth of fast-food eateries and a Super 8 Motel along the main highway.
Keeping this in mind, I have turned down my share of AEA contract offers and auditions since Victor’s illness reared its unfortunate head and since the beginning of my latter-day teaching career. This has honestly left me very sad I am unable to spend my usual springs in New Orleans during the Tennessee Williams Literary Festival and enjoy my own fiercely held apartment while looking for work in New York—a city where, by the way, I have seen nowhere near the cutting-edge and courageously bold work on small stages over the years that I see regularly in the poor, maligned, reclaimed-desert wasteland known as Los Angeles. And over the past decade, I have done 15 plays on the West Coast—13 as 99-Seat productions and two on Equity contracts. Of the 13 small-theater experiences, 12 were incredible rich and rewarding and I wouldn’t have traded my time in them for anything—and the 13th was, shall we at least say, great fun, even if I did warn friends not to come. The two AEA contract jobs were a misery to live through and, honestly, both were at least partially made miserable because of the rigidity, nastiness, and dysfunctional “assistance” and decision-making of the West Coast office.
A few years ago, I was offered a fairly nicely sized role in a film shooting 10 to 12 weeks in Alaska at a very impressive rate, even if the role could have been played by any similarly odd-looking automaton. At the same time, I was offered a chance to play the dying Brian in The Shadow Box in a Culver City 33-seat space for $9 a show. I turned down the film and took the play, losing a longtime agent over the decision. You see, I was then a four-time survivor of cancer (and at this point in time, a five-timer), and I knew what I wanted more than anything was to say the words Michael Cristofer won a Pulitzer Prize for creating. I had previously played Mark at age 28 and Joe in my mid-30s, the latter of which became another controversial decision for me, as during the final gasps of rehearsals, I received my third cancer diagnosis and was told I had about a 40 percent chance of survival, but only if I went immediately into surgery.
Again, I chose the play. We were scheduled to run four or five weeks, so I knew, although I was taking a chance with my life, I would get more personal healing and comfort from saying Joe’s words and submerging myself in Joe’s situation than from focusing on my own crap. Instead of a few weeks, however, we played several months. We closed on a Sunday and I went into surgery at 6:30 the following morning. The tumor was still there to be excised but, despite my doctors’ dire warnings of gloom and destruction, had not grown or spread in any way.
Courtesy Third Street Theatre
Art heals. I believe with all my heart art healed me then and continues to do so today. For AEA to try to destroy that outlet for me is unacceptable. I am still unwilling to give up my passion to somehow change the world, drip by torturous drip, through whatever talent I have been given. That should be my decision, not the decision of some little miserable worm sitting in a little cubicle at the Equity office. Several theaters that gave me that unique chance to heal and grow and communicate the human condition to others would be totally wiped out if Equity barrels through with this dastardly proposal, just because it’s frustrated it cannot control the unstoppably passionate intimate theater scene in Los Angeles. If I need to one day soon chose them over what should be the sheltering wings of the union I held dear for most of my life, there would be no contest whatsoever.
By the way, I currently have two pair of students, in two separate Scene Study classes at NYFA, working on scenes from The Shadow Box. The beat goes on.