I (like most of us) have no inside information on the reasons behind the cancellation of Helen Lawrence at the FTA beyond what is in the Globe article and the statements Arden Ryshpan and the Canadian Actors Equity Association (CAEA) have posted and comments on Facebook. But (like most of us) the headline alone was a trigger and I have some thoughts. Not so much about the case itself (because we don’t know anything), but about how it was handled and what the response tells us about the state of things.
Where I come from:
- Born, raised pro-Union radical left.
- The legacy organizations and metaphors - labour and producers etc… - in theatre and performance are not helping right now. Change is needed in how we organize and who gets to big salaries and Bay St. offices
- I want a 21st Century Labour Movement. We need it. The increased disparity between the rich and the rest is very bad news and only action in solidarity can change it.
So, in this case - in terms of public or community perception:
CAEA blew it because
- Near-total lack of faith in the CAEA in the indie community (members and non - the poorest of the field) or amongst people trying to figure out how to make and show theatre in the 21st Century. There is little belief that CAEA is protecting anyone other than themselves and their richest members (those working regularly in A house and above) or are in touch with the realities of making and showing work outside of the legacy PACT models. This lack of faith is based on decades of policy, behaviour and broken relationships.
- CAEA release citing timing of the request as cause for the concession. This reeks of the worst nightmare images that artist-producers have of dealing with the CAEA. It seems this is less the reason, but this initial release was perhaps the worst thing they could have said.
- People in community want these big co-production shows to work and know that there is such scarcity and rapidity of change that even the big A houses like Canadian Stage et al. need to find new and different ways and timings of getting things done.
Some good reasons that could have changed the story:
- A struggle against Precarity. That the CAEA is fighting the fight for artists not bearing the brunt of increased precarity in our economic system while executive, administrative, marketing and development staff have relative stability and high wages (cf #2.)
- Income disparity. That the CAEA is fighting for appropriate ratios of expenses between what artists receive and what executive, administrative, marketing and development staff receive (not to mention airline and logistic companies.) Negotiating for reasonable proximity in the ratio between the highest and lowest paid at the producer and presenters organization and where the performers fit in that is something I think people think CAEA could do.
- Unacceptable conditions That the CAEA was protecting members from a room, process, work or tour that had - for whatever reasons - gone deeply south and no longer constituted “safe working conditions.” It happens. It’s shitty when it does but it’s what solidarity is there to help with. Articulating this should include the continued anonymity of details and people involved, but is very different from saying “they didn’t file paperwork on time.”
Some big picture values that might help going forward
- CAEA acting and altering policy in ways to build trust in membership and sector (especially younger and indie) that they are acting in good faith with a dynamic and up-to-date understanding the world. This will take a while and a lot of work.
- Transparent wages in the arts and adoption of Wagemark for all non-profit arts organization.
- Transparent relationships between all involved. See the Brooklyn Commune for some ideas. (but in basketball - down with Brooklyn, up with the North.)
- There is a need to shift to scale and types of work and have all parties able to do that. The world is always changing and we have to get with that.
- Different from compliant or complicit. Responsive doesn’t mean giving in to everything, but it does mean being able to change and contain difference.
- Recognition that cultural workers are vasty underpaid relatively to the wealth of our country and that the long term goal is the raising of quality of life for the most people possible.
- Recognition that cultural workers have privilege and power that can be used to raise the quality of life for the most people possible or to participate in continued systemic failures.
- For all these solutions CAEA and producers would have to be an equal participants - i.e. sharing data on expenses and income disparity between executive staff and lowest paid member.
- Transparency is an often used weapon of the witch hunt, the bully and the oppressor - this is not my goal.
My regrets that this particular case didn't go down in a way we all would like and that people lost the chance to see the show and the work that was possible. Let's make it better going forward.