Bosh bosh bosh, loads of money

Imagine these four in a room, arguing.
Imagine these four in a room, arguing.
                              A jail cell somewhere near South

               I will likely have us out in three minutes if you would all
               stop using all the room's oxygen.

               Unlikely.  Your weapons and ours were confiscated.

                                   (indicating his brain)
               I carry my weapon here.

                                        DOCTOR WHO
               Excellent!  You're a telepath!  I need you to visualize the
               TARDIS's control panel.  The red recall lever.

               Narcissistic personality disorder, narcissistic personality
               disorder, Asperger's syndrome.

                                   (to House)
               Are you a doctor?

                                        DOCTOR WHO
               Actually, I'm the Doctor.

               And I'm Sherlock Holmes.


Alas for poor MacBeth, he found a shallow grave

The Los Angeles branch of Actors’ Equity is currently promoting several new plans to replace the current 99-seat theater code.

The road to unemployment is paved with good intentions.  Well intentioned though the plans may be, they break the business model of 99-seat companies in Los Angeles, and make it impossible to produce new works.

In place of the current code, they are proposing three new items:

The Los Angeles Self Produced Project Code.  This is for actors who “are part of a collaborating group and are not employed by any producing entity.”  If you’re any kind of company, profit or non-profit, you can’t use the SPPC.  In other words, if you use the SPPC, you are completely uninsured.  Make sure not to trip on anything backstage when working under the SPPC.  Expect that a lot of producers will tell actors “you’re a producer now!” and use the SPPC to get Equity actors to perform, for free, without the protections of any kind of employment agreement.

The Los Angeles Membership Company Rule.  This rule grandfathers in all the repertory companies that existed as of yesterday, February 6, 2015.  Since existing repertory companies are exempt from the new 99 seat rule, it creates a secondary market for existing money-losing membership companies in LA.  So now any producer can buy up a dead theater company that exists only on paper, and use it to bypass all the worst elements of the new 99 seat plan.  Because grandfathering.  This rule exists because the repertory companies lobbied for it; it doesn’t benefit anyone except the owners of these companies.  New membership companies, of whatever sort, will never qualify for the Membership Company rule, and new blood will not enter those existing companies.

And finally, we have the new 99 seat code.  Most of the new code is the same as the old code, with one major exception: all performers get paid minimum wage for all rehearsal as well as performance time.  Currently this is $9 per hour.  While this sounds superficially reasonable, in practical terms this increases the total cost of shoestring theater by between 25% and 50%.  Shows with small casts go from breaking even to losing money, and shows with large casts, like musicals or Shakespeare, suddenly become guaranteed financial sinkholes.

I created the following spreadsheet to try to understand the financial impact that the proposed plan would have on a new production of a new work in LA.  I have three theoretical shows of three different sizes.  In every case, with reasonable financial assumptions, every show I budget loses money under the proposed Equity plan.  Here’s the spreadsheet; feel free to download and experiment with it yourself.

In show A, by my math, a show with four Equity actors that rehearses for 40 hours and plays a total of twelve shows, needs $2,736 to pay actors.  If the entire rest of the show (that’s theater rental, staff, costumes, tech, insurance AND publicity) costs $10,000, and if the show earns $15 revenue per ticket and sells the house to 70% of capacity for each show, the show still loses money.

Actors Equity can set payment minimums, but they can’t make a show profitable. If the proposed Equity plan goes through, a great deal of experimental theater in Los Angeles will vanish.

No we’re never gonna survive

In addition to McKee’s and Egri’s books, I have found one other book to be tremendously useful in creating believable, rich characters with strong motivations.

It’s the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, currently in its fifth edition.  Some call it the DSM for short.  The fourth edition is more punchy and more direct, and a lot of diagnosticians prefer the old to the new; but for a writer’s purposes the version doesn’t matter.

Open up this thick book to a random page, and you have a complete and fascinating description of character traits for a random character.  Let’s do that now: “Has deliberately engaged in fire setting with the intention of causing serious damage.”  How cool is that!  That’s a friggin’ one-hour crime drama right there, and the character is already mapped out for you on the page in loving detail.

Let’s go again.  “Preoccupation with one or more perceived defects or flaws in physical appearance that are not observable or appear slight to others.”  What, you can’t see my extra nose?  You can take that character trait and run a hundred different directions with it.

Oh, one more, please!  “Recurrent thoughts of death (not just fear of dying), recurrent suicidal ideation without a specific plan.”  In a sentence or two, you’ve established a protagonist and given him a problem that needs solving.  Neat, quick, and punchy.

The DSM works brilliantly as a rogues gallery, or as a source for richer and more complicated characters.  The DSM gives us believable, immediate problems for our characters to solve.

You could write for ten lifetimes and still not run out of story ideas if the DSM were your only source for characters.

Thank you.  Thank you, DSM 5.  I love you.