Actors' Equity Association, Barbarians

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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 I'm glad they're out there protecting actors, but they seem to be more concerned with protecting the outdated rules and guidelines that just don't cut it in theater today.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

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