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  • Writer's pictureArlene Bozich

Strike Out; I Stand With The Union to Reach for the Co-op

The first time I acted onstage, I was a prop.

I was in high school and working on the props team for the school play, a murder mystery set in a convent called, “Murder Can Be Habit Forming”. When the teachers realized the suit of armor the Detective character was supposed to jump out of at the end of the play to catch the killer wouldn’t work, they had everyone on the stage crew try on the knight costume they had on hand and I was the only one it fit. So, I spent the tech and run of shows standing in my costume and getting my National Honors Society volunteer hours as a prop instead of just handling them.

At first, I was terrified. I even missed my very first cue because the shop teacher was still explaining how the trap door that I needed to use to switch costumes with the detective worked. But, after a while of just staring out at the audience and getting comfortable onstage, I started to have fun. I poked people, tripped them- I even copied and followed a character Scooby Doo style at one point. I ended up getting the Best Supporting Actress award without a single line. After years of trying to find what I wanted to do, I had accidentally been thrown directly into the path I wanted to take.

I’ve never had much inclination towards musical theatre, though I do enjoy it. The commercialization and the competitive nature of the social cliques reminded me too much of sports- I loved being on a team, not competing with other people. The best thing about a stage play is that you, your cast, and the audience are all on the same side- it’s just all of us sharing a story. I started reading about the history of theatre and learning whatever I could. We didn’t have a strong theatre program, but I was able to do Speech Team, Contest Play, Group Interpretation, and other (still competitive) activities where I could practice and get better.

College came up and, instead of prepping for law school like my parents wanted, I double majored in English & Theatre at Purdue. I’d even gotten a scholarship from my performance as Germaine in my senior year Contest Play, Steve Martin’s “Picasso at the Lapin Agile”. The great part about going to a program that was a BA with MFAs (instead of one of those elite BFA training programs) is that everyone was encouraged to double major and create their own work. I was able to mesh my love of writing with theatre and started writing plays during that time. I followed up my time at Purdue by heading to the University of Connecticut for my MFA. I not only got my terminal degree, I also played enough parts at Connecticut Repertory Theatre to earn my place in the stage actors union, the Actor’s Equity Association.

Then, onwards to New York City. After getting hit by an 18-wheel semi-truck two weeks after graduating (this was after I ripped my ACL and repaired it twice during grad school), I was finally free to take my acting career into my own hands. I auditioned, sure- but a majority of my work came from producing with friends under the Showcase Code that AEA offers. There weren’t enough jobs or jobs that paid enough for the roles they were auditioning for, so producing work with my friends was the only way to be an artist and do what I love.

I had done some student and independent film work throughout my collegiate career, but I never really cared for it. One of the perks of the stage is that it’s ephemeral; not only can my makeup suck because the audience is at least 50 feet away and I’m moving, there are no photos or videos after unless I’m warned beforehand. I don’t think I’m ugly, that was never the issue. Acting is extremely vulnerable for me, the difference between being out in a bikini versus accidentally caught in your underwear. To have someone setting a camera down, viciously recording every move, and then blowing up my insecurities for people to play on screens repeatedly does not lend itself to connection, communication, and storytelling. There’s also the fact that theatre is the actor’s craft- I have control and responsibility over my performance. Film is the director and editor’s craft- my work is filtered through someone else, but people still attribute that performance, however badly hacked, to me. I started working as an extra to try to get comfortable on sets and learn to adapt my acting process, but after watching so many commercial actors burn themselves out for jobs that didn’t pay anywhere near enough for the performance they were asking for, I realized I might as well get back to independent filmmaking. My zero-budget first film, created during the pandemic and shot on my Android phone, placed at a film festival. I’ve got a second short film in the can, I just need to process and edit the footage when I find time.

I’m grateful for the strikes in a way- they’re giving me additional time to decide how I want to move my career forward. I cannot in good conscience continue to take part in an industry that treats actors like ATMs. Between overpriced classes to network and meet people but then getting stuck with unpaid assistants who don’t care that you’re there, the ludicrous headshot industry, paying for casting services (which means we’re paying just to apply to jobs), having to keep in perfect shape without any guarantee of financial outcome, the obscene demands of every audition that refuses to treat actors as humans, and the gatekeepers like agents who keep auditions and jobs behind closed doors so they can overcharge for access and steal a cut of money they do not deserve, the entire industry is set up like a godforsaken trashfire. It makes it so that the only people who have a chance of even being seen in the bottom rungs of the industry have to be independently wealthy, not just financially stable. And with all of the cost of living crises and other compounding social issues, the unions are not doing enough on behalf of actors.

With AEA, the sins are numerous and longstanding. Ask Davon Williams, the author of the Black Theatre Matters Bill and host of “The Receipts”. Davon is not only the best source to turn to about the racial inequity that AEA has actively enforced, he’s a true friend to every worker in the field and has been directly attacked by AEA just for telling the truth about how they run the union. Did the “Cats” cast ever get the money they were due but was stolen by producers with Equity’s blessing? Or maybe talk to Nora Schell, who was told by her doctor she needed urgent surgery and then coerced and bullied by production staff to endanger her own health for the sake of the production. Keep in mind the stage manager who is mostly responsible for this egregious harm is a leader in AEA. We could look at how our healthcare is dependant on working weeks, but the union doesn’t ensure that there are enough jobs for people to regularly meet those weeks and maintain healthcare- or how much time AEA leadership wasted during the pandemic getting us COBRA coverage when none of us qualify for it or can afford it. We could look at how the Nederlanders and the Schuberts run monopolies on our theatrical spaces, yet AEA has done nothing to challenge these land barons. Theatre requires a space and letting private corporations set the terms and steal the profit of our labor is unacceptable. And do not get me started on non-profit theatres- after working as part of the Front of House staff at one and seeing who puts in the actual work to make a production versus who is getting the money, it’s clear that non-profit theatre is not a viable way for workers in our industry to find any sort of power. But, whether through ignorance or malice, AEA is unable to even lift a finger to defend stage performers or improve their lives. It’s beyond disappointing and I wish I could get the thousands of dollars I invested in my and my colleagues' protection back, but we all know AEA ate that money through inefficient, useless systems of power years ago. They can’t even be bothered to stand in solidarity with our Film and TV colleagues and make actual change in the arts. The idea that they’re a union led by and for the workers is hilarious.

Technically, I am eligible to join SAG-AFTRA, the Screen Actor’s Guild. I would like to make the leap into film work now that I’ve had time to mature and become a fully developed human because I can handle the variability of the industry better. I’ve also got a better handle on how to be vulnerable without risking my mental safety, that was the main block to me doing more TV and Film work. But after AEA’s complete, objective failure, it’s really hard to trust another union in this industry. I’m looking at what the union is asking of the AMPTP and it’s just crumbs- I want a union to actually fight for us, to make producers prove their worth or get their hands out of the profit pot. SAG-AFTRA also does not control the healthcare of its members, like AEA- it’s a trust that they, for some reason, don’t seem to mind even though every actor, whether they’re booked constantly or not, should have coverage. The Paramount Ruling was undone during the pandemic (I called it two months before it happened and I have witnesses), so how are they going to stop a studio system from re-developing while these monopolies stay in power? And, while I absolutely adore Fran Drescher from the bottom of my heart (and she just won her SAG-AFTRA re-election bid!), her surprise at the producer’s response made my heart drop right through the floor and straight to hell. Things have been so bad for working and blue-collar actors for years- have she and other leadership really been so far removed from their union members that they didn’t expect this? These cruel, selfish producers are the problem. While I understand there are dynamics to the politics of striking, just walking around outside the buildings isn’t enough anymore. We need to develop a system that renders the AMPTP and all other producers irrelevant- we need to stand with the union to move on to artist and worker-owned producing co-ops.

One of my many projects right now is learning about AI and Robotic Process Automation. After producing with friends in New York and working on more and more independent film sets beyond my own projects, I’ve realized there are so many tasks and information hubs that are easily automated. I think there will always be the need for a production manager in order to coordinate everything, but they could coordinate under the direction of the workers creating the piece of art with the assistance of AI- there’s no need for a ‘producer’ role to take over and control everything like some feudal lord. As of now, producers are the key decision-makers on the business side of production and are responsible for assembling the creative team, securing financing, managing the budget, and ensuring the film is completed on time and within budget. However, the tasks and literal job of a producer are now able to be automated. Let’s take location scouting as an example- when looking for locations, programs like Browse, Bardeen, and other tools can scrape and monitor locations online, then codify that information based on what the creative team needs. If the creative team says, “We need an outdoor location that has a waterfall and access to a main road, but also far enough away from populated areas to not reveal story details”, and then also apply the necessary permits & requirements for that location all while staying within budgetary limits. These programs can then send out the location options to the camera crew, cinematographer, and others in the decision making process to vote on, correlate that information on behalf of the creatives, and give a set plan for the team to follow- they can even generate a schedule automatically once these decisions, along with creatives scheduling needs, are made. These programs are already capable of democratizing business decisions previously made by producers. For day to day problem solving, you just need someone interacting with these systems- not a producer making the choices on behalf of the creatives. This is why a production manager will still need to work with these systems, but the decision making process can now be given to the artists rather than controlled by a single producer or small group of executives.

Creative teams can be coordinated through actor and crew databases, finance decisions are more efficiently done by financially trained robots, budget management software already exists, and scheduling apps are all around us. Producers are antiquated gatekeepers who hoard money and resources in order to maintain relevance and steal profits from the workers. We need to use the small bit of union power we’ve been able to maintain since Reagan and Thatcher screwed us all over, and stand together- out of many, one. But internally, amongst each other, we need to figure out how to walk towards worker-owned co-ops. My goal is to have a producing app in its beta testing form by the end of the year, if not sooner. The workers deserve self-determination in how they perform their tasks and everyone deserves a share of the profits.

Storytelling is a human craft- sure, AI could generate a story that you ask for and I’m actually excited to see what new forms of individual story immersion we’re going to find with AI mixing in with new technologies. What terrifies me at least five times a day is the idea of those technologies developing under the control of these stupid, destructive, soulless business majors who have taken our art form hostage. By developing ways for productions to get rid of producers, I’m hoping to at least make the independent film industry a viable option until the unions and commercialized part of our industry gets its shit together. Because it hasn’t been together my entire lifetime; I was a teenager when the writer’s strike led to the reality TV show boom- “The Simple Life” did more damage to my psyche as a developing teenage girl than anything else I can think of. I’ve got nothing on the assault later generations of girls had to undergo with the social media boom, but societal misogyny escalated with that dark time on television. We need storytelling to be in the hands of the artists or else when the business majors are the only ones with the resources to fill the airwaves, our brains literally shrink. No shit, these business majors are so bad at storytelling that humans literally devolve and lose brain cells when they watch and listen to their stories. It’s a public health crisis at this point, I feel like that fact alone should be enough for all of us in the industry to band together to hit producers like piñatas until our production money falls out of their pockets. We already have our sticks in our strike signs, I feel like this isn’t a far reach for us. We could call it a fundraiser; hoisting members of the AMPTP up and getting our funding back as quickly as possible. If anyone is upset I’m saying this, worried that, “It’s too violent!” I want to remind you that these are the same demons that are trying to make you homeless, starve you, and steal your identity. That actors and writers have died from this poverty, not able to afford food or housing or healthcare- the crew members as well. In the grand scheme of things, me saying we should get our money back is the nicest response I could have to these unevolved Neanderthals who have stolen society’s loudspeaker for their own gain and forced artists to abandon their own voices and work for crumbs. And if you really aren’t convinced that reality TV and capitalism-driven storytelling isn’t something to worry about, a quick reminder- Kim Kardashian started as Paris Hilton’s assistant on “The Simple Life”. You’re really telling me the world is the better place with the Kardashian shitshow taking over so much of our pop culture? That’s not hot.

As for the alternative payment structures, it’s my belief that it should be a pure profit-share. If you break up profits evenly between Development, Production, Acting, Crew, and Distribution, then tier the profits within each of those categories to account for time spent & work accomplished, then there isn’t a trickle-down, pyramid scheme payment happening like there is now. This also removes the rigamarole of negotiating certain profit percentages- if an actor only has four lines and shows up for one day of work, no matter how famous they are, they do not deserve more than their tiered payment for that production. However, if they are a main face on the publicity tours to promote the production, they would also receive payment from their work in the Distribution bracket. They’re still compensated for their work, but that lead actor playing their first major role would actually get paid fairly according to their work and not some arbitrary industry standard or whatever their agent was willing to fight for. The idea that our paychecks are at the mercy of others negotiating on our behalf keeps us all from being in control of our lives, as we should be. The workers deserve the profit of the labor and everyone should be compensated fairly and evenly based on those profits. Work in, payment out. It’s simple.

It’s time to get rid of these business major assholes, once and for all. For me, that means making them irrelevant. If you’d like to keep up with my AI and automation journey, you can sign up for my weekly newsletter on my website. I wish I had a more definitive way to end this post, but I think I’ve said what I need to say to start this conversation. We need to stand with our unions, but our unions need to actually go to bat for us in a real way, not just for crumbs. And, while we all band together, we need to look at one another shoulder to shoulder, side to side, and realize- we deserve better and we can make it ourselves. We don’t need the business majors anymore. The question isn’t whether or not we should own the means of production- the question is how.

All I know is if you want to go fast, go alone. You want to go far? Go together.


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