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Ep. 106: Bear Bellinger and Matt DaSilva Break Down the Actors Equity and Open Access Policy

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Transcript
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This is the Beltline to Broadway podcast. I'm Lauren Van Hemert, your host,

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and on this episode,

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I'm chatting with Bear Bellinger and Matt DaSilva about

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Actors Equity and open access.

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When Actors Equity announced that its open access policy

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would take effect immediately last July,

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equity and non-equity workers on both sides of the issue took to

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social media to express their views. On one hand,

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according to Kate Shindle, the President of Actors Equity,

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this policy builds a union that uplifts the entire theater

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community,

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especially those who have not felt included or welcome in the past.

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Critics, however,

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say that this new policy is bad news for an industry already hard

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hit by COVID and question the union's motives.

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To help me understand open access better.

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I reached out to Actors Equity and was put in touch with two of its

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representatives, Bear Bellinger,

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one of the union's Central Principal Counselors and

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Matt DaSilva, a delegate to the Actors Equity Convention.

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As a side note, this conversation was held via Zoom,

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and since that technology doesn't always render the best sound recording,

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I've captioned the episode and posted it on both YouTube and our

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website. Here is our conversation.

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So talk to me for people who may not

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be a theater artist or theater-maker,

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talk to me about what joining the union entailed prior

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to this open access policy taking effect.

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Back when I was looking to join, the most common way,

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at least was an accumulation of, I think the most common way, I don't know,

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uh, was an accumulation of, uh, what's called EMC points,

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Equity Membership Candidate.

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If you were working at, uh,

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equity theaters on a non-union contract each week,

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you worked was a point. It used to be 50 points to join,

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and then I think it was like three, four years ago, Bear, two,

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three years ago that they dropped it to 25 points. So that was one way,

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and then another way, uh,

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was just being offered an equity contract,

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so being hired by a producer, essentially, um,

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to do a job, which, you know, in both of those situations,

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we were sort of relying on the,

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the boss, uh, essentially to determine who, you know,

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was able to join the union and receive all the

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protections and benefits of being in the labor union. Bear,

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did I get it?

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Yeah, you've got, uh, two of the three. The only other, uh,

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way into the union used to be,

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that you could join if you were a member of one of our sister unions.

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Uh,

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so if you were a member of SAG Aftra or AGMA and

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wanted to join, uh,

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you could pay to join and become a member of Actors Equity.

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a lot of theater workers marched down Broadway,

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and they were mainly protesting Scott Rudin,

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but they also took the opportunity to protest the union,

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which they saw as being ineffective in protecting

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the membership from racism, sexism, and unsafe work environments.

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So after that,

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they had a convention and during that convention,

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several BIPOC members walked out.

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But most of what we've heard about that,

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that convention was behind closed doors,

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I shouldn't say behind closed doors, it was open to delegates,

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but it wasn't open to the public,

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and most of what we've heard about that convention has been via social media.

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So tell me about the convention, Matt, you were there, you were a delegate and,

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and what happened there.

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Yeah, it was, it was three days.

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We heard and discussed and argued passionately and voted

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on, uh, a number of different resolutions,

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many of which I'm really excited about, many of which, uh, you know,

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coincidentally, uh, and being related to, uh,

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all the open access stuff that's now happening, um,

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which tells me as someone who's new to equity governance, um,

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that there are a lot of folks who are looking to,

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uh, get involved and take, uh,

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take Actors Equity to a sort of new, uh, direction,

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which is really exciting. Um, as far as, you know, the way things ended,

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there was some unfortunate stuff that went down. Um, I don't,

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I don't know exactly what happened to be a hundred percent clear.

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I know that there were, uh, BIPOC members who, you know,

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thought that the space was not necessarily, uh,

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as welcoming as it's needed to be,

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is probably the sort of most basic way of putting it.

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It just shows that even though there are, we are making strides as a union,

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there are still interpersonal growing pains, uh,

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and unfortunate white supremacist sort of ideology,

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not ideology is a strong word,

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but the union itself is still, uh,

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a reflection of American society in general. Um,

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it's a microcosm in a lot of ways, uh, and that there are,

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you know, uh, going to be missteps and,

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and things shitty things that happened. Um,

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putting it bluntly.

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You can be frank, it's fine.

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Yeah. A shitty racist thing happened. I don't know who,

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I don't know exactly who or why or what the intent or motivation was,

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but the result was folks not feeling

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comfortable in the room, uh, and then opting to leave.

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Bear, what's your impression of the convention and how it went down?

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I also am a BIPOC member of the,

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of our council and our delegation. I would say in terms of,

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uh, specifically open access, in terms of what we're,

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what we're we just put out, the convention, uh,

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put forward proposals that supported and passed proposals that supported,

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uh, what had already been, been in the works for a few months at that point.

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And in the case of the convention,

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the convention is a reflection of American society at large. Uh, you know,

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every institution in this country is about to suffer from some institutional

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racism, uh,

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that does not suffer from the effects of white supremacy culture in some way,

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and our convention are not absolved of that either.

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Uh, that being said,

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I can't throw the entire convention out because I can't throw the

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entirety of every structure in America out right now. We,

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we live in this country that is, that is founded,

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that was founded upon and has been, uh, built upon the backs of,

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uh, of, you know, specifically,

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Black Indigenous People in this country to begin with.

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And so we live within that, at all given times.

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I live within that in my everyday life, uh.

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There are things that we need to fix and those things that we have to fix

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in the country, also affect Actors Equity Association.

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There's a lot of work to be done, and we are working towards that.

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And, you know, the truth is, um, on this platform, and Actors Equity,

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in the theaters that I'm close to here

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regionally, the work is ongoing.

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It's not just a one and done thing. So it's, it's,

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it's ongoing work, and it's hard work,

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so I appreciate what you're saying for sure.

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Yeah. And I think, I think crucially, it also, it's, it's about, you know,

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engaging, um, members of our union and,

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and, and sort of, uh, you know, creating as,

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as democratic, you know, an organization as possible,

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which I think one of the reasons I'm very excited about open access

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is,

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I see it as an opportunity to get more voices in our union

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and,

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and hopefully get more voices organized in our union

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to continue that work, to get, to continue, um, pushing for, you know,

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things that that folks want, and, and not just relying on,

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you know, top-down, uh, service model organization,

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and more of like a member-driven, you know, organizing model of an organization,

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which, uh, again, I, I do think there are, uh,

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a lot of people in, you know, on our national council and, and,

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uh, certain, uh, delegates and just rank and file members who are, um, you know,

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really waking up to that, or really sort of engaged in that.

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Myself personally,

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and I didn't really think about it much for a few years, uh,

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as far as what it really meant, but then I sort of had a you know,

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wake up call, uh, politically, professionally, whatever

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And, uh, it's been really rewarding in the last couple of years to,

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to get more involved, um, and to sort of, uh,

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feel like part of a collective, uh, you know,

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that we can do more things together, uh, organized together,

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than I could do on my own.

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So what happened between April and

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July to result in the open access policy?

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It sounds like the groundwork for open access happened even before the

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convention.

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So, uh, the groundwork for this convention, uh,

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starts last year when, uh,

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when Actors Equity put together an anti-racism statement. After that our, uh,

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diversity inclusion strategists put together a diversity

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is addressing, uh,

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the full organization and all of the different ways in which it can

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become a more anti-racist organization,

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how we can be more diverse.

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And this is one aspect of that retrofit.

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It has eight pillars that it stands on,

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the things that we could do to change within the union,

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and so the first thing was that was done was to begin, uh,

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ongoing training for our staff side.

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This was another aspect of that.

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We started meetings for open access back January,

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uh, and we started those meetings with the idea of a small working group

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How do we open access? Do we need to open access?

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Why do we need to open access?

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And we worked over the course of nine

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meetings and over 20 hours of meeting time to work

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through all of the individual ways that we might want to open access.

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We started with the question of, well, why don't we just throw the doors open?

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And the group was like, okay, that's maybe a little extreme.

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And we went, okay, well,

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let's break down all of the small ways that we could open access.

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So we went systematically through, okay,

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what if we open access by lowering the amount of EMC points?

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What if we open access by, uh,

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getting schools involved and allowing people in through a school program?

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What if we open access by allowing folks who have worked at an equity theater

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before access. And at the end of working through all of these different systems,

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we've looked at what we've compiled and said, well,

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this kind of looks like we're basically opening the access. And, so,

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we said, okay, here's what we want to do.

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We want to open access these couple of different ways, which is, you know,

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we want to open access, fairly, we want to open access, uh, immediately,

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and then we wanna open access permanently. Uh,

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those recommendations were put in front of our council right before convention.

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We went to convention,

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a couple of different convention resolutions came

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directly in line with this policy. Uh, those convention resolutions passed,

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and then coming out of convention, we had another council meeting,

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and we ended up passing the recommendations from the

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working group. It feels like for other people,

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this was all done very quickly and in response

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to convention,

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but this has been in motion for

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almost a year at this point.

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So are the EMC points gone and now anybody

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can join if they've worked in a theater and gotten paid

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in the last year?

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There is no look back period.

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It is open to if you have ever worked professionally, by professionally, uh,

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it just means you have received payment for your work as an actor or a state

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manager.

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Is there a scale for payment? I mean, there's a lot of theaters around here,

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for example,

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that give a stipend and not necessarily any type of what would

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be considered a living wage. So,

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is there any threshold on the payment?

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Nope, no threshold on the payment. I mean, we have the same,

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same thing here in Chicago. We have, uh,

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a very large non-union theater scene in Chicago, that's vibrant,

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and that storefront scene in Chicago is kind of the bread and butter of what

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Chicago, uh, theater practitioners think of as Chicago theater,

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you know. And I have been a part of productions in storefront Chicago,

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I came out of that, where, you know, I,

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I got $150 stipend and that is, uh,

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absolutely applicable.

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It seems like when the policy was announced in July,the

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theater community, as with many things as with many communities,

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um, was, uh, uh, divided on this. On the one hand,

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it is like you said, Bear,

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one of the pillars of the diversity and inclusion efforts that opens

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access. And then on the other hand,

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the membership dues could be cost prohibitive to a lot

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of marginalized, um, actors,

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a lot of stage managers who may have worked

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professionally, but they're not, I mean,

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there's a whole other conversation to be had about making a living wage

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as an artist, as a stage manager, That's another conversation for another day,

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but Bear, you're an advocate for this. You have been an advocate for this,

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you've come out and, and, and made statements about this.

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So how does this move the needle towards making equity a

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more inclusive organization?

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I am an advocate for this. I obviously have been, like I said, involved for, uh,

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pretty much the full run of, of,

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of it from inception to implementation. Uh,

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so I've seen the whole thing happened,

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and I've seen the way it was shaped the body that shaped it,

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how it was at every step. Uh,

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it was a diverse body of folks, uh,

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working to make this happen and shape the policy

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in a way that was inclusive and was, uh,

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pointed towards getting, uh,

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having the ability of our, to join the union,

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put into the hands of the member. And I think that is, uh,

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the important thing to focus on here. Uh,

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any single effort in the history

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of,

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of the United States that benefits marginalized groups

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is also going to benefit folks who are in the majority, folks who are in power.

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That's just kind of the way it works. You know,

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if you look at this history of things that we've thought of

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as benefiting, uh, marginalized groups like, uh,

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welfare or affirmative action,

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they have widely actually benefited, uh,

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white folks more than necessarily a marginalized groups,

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but they have also benefited those groups.

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In the case of open access, historically,

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like Matt said earlier,

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the path to membership went through producers. Our producers,

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as we know, are generally, a large percentage,

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white men. Uh,

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they bring their own set of biases over whenever they decide

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to put someone on a contract. Who deserves it? Who they

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uh, might have gone to school with? Who they might socialize with. Uh,

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when you're casting a show, as much as we like to think that the industry is,

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or as much as folks want to think that the industry is based solely on how good

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of a performer you are, how good of a stage manager you are,

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often it's based upon who you know. Uh, those circles,

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those circles that we live in,

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are influenced by all of the different social structures that we've grown

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up in.

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And so that means that racism is at the core of all of these structures,

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and by opening access, by what we did now,

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we've taken that out of the hands of the producers and put it into the hands of

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the individuals. So if you, as a stage manager or actor,

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think that you deserve union protection,

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you get to make that decision for yourself. It doesn't open up the job pool.

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It doesn't immediately mean, you know, that there are more union jobs.

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But it does say that when a producer comes to you to offer you a contract,

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especially if you're outside of New York, where in New York,

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there's more closed houses that are solely Actor Equity Association contracts,

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outside of New York, there's a lot of ratios of what, what we call ratios,

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where, uh, some of the performers are union and some of the performers are not,

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and the producer decides which people they want to offer with contracts.

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But if you're outside of New York andyou're on a ratio contract, or, uh,

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working to either to audition or interview as a stage manager for a

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ratio contract, you

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get to decide beforehand,

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I'm an Actors Equity Association member,

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you have to provide me with a union contract,

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which comes with union protections, which comes with union salary.

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And so that power has now been given to the individual rather

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than to the producer.

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That in itself allows folks who were previously marginalized

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to claim more ownership over their future.

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I'll just jump in and say, personally,

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I think fundamentally what excites me about this is in the

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broader context of like workers in the United States or workers in the world,

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if you want to take it to that level, really, I think if you,

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if you work for a living, you deserve the protections of a union.

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Uh, you deserve the right to join a union. Um,

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and that should be up to the worker,

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not up to the boss,

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if you want to just take it into like super simple terms,

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which I think this is a step toward accomplishing, which is really exciting.

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Bear,

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you mentioned Chicago being this robust

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theater community with a lot of non-equity houses.

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We're in the same spot here

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in North Carolina,

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we have a handful of professional theaters,

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or what may be categorized as professional theaters. And,

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um, a majority of our theaters are not.

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Does this hurt the local theaters,

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community theaters that are not equity houses that haven't been equity houses?

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I don't believe so. Uh, you know, the,

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the thing that I have maintained and said over and over again,

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is that this isn't going to immediately dry up the pool of non-union talent.

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Uh, there are, there are folks who have, you know,

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been able to join who have been at their points under the old EMC system,

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who had been at their points for years, and hadn't joined. Uh,

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I know folks that used to be members and decided they didn't want to be Actors

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Equity members, that that wasn't what they, the way that they wanted their,

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their professional path to go.

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There's always going to be folks who come out of

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school or come into the industry without going to school,

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who want to work a little bit before they join,

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or before they make that decision to join for themselves.

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There's always going to be a non-union talent pool. Uh,

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what this does is just allow folks to claim their own

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agency.

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I know a lot of the conversation,

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the social media conversation around the convention was that equity didn't

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create a safe space for its BIPOC members.

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So Bear,

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as we invite more members

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into equity, how can theaters

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create that safe space as we move forward?

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You know,

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the very first step is letting

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marginalized bodies, marginalized voices have power.

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When we look at the landscape of the American theater,

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we look at a landscape that is primarily white. That is overwhelmingly white,

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especially if we look at our directors,

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especially if we look at our artistic directors,

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especially if we look at our casting directors, our executive directors,

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it is overwhelmingly white.

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If the voices making all of the decisions that shape

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the direction of your theater are all homogoneous,

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then you're never going to be able to work towards change.

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No matter how many trainings that you do,

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no matter how much you, you put up your black square,

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no matter how much you call your senators,

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you can't internalize my struggle. I have been working on this both from a,

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an academic perspective and a personal perspective for my entire life.

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I've come from this from both, you know,

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focusing on African-American studies in my college, in my,

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as I was going through college. And, you know,

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getting pulled over by the cops all the time. This is my life.

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It's not just something that I came to because because of

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George Floyd.

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It's not just something that I came to from knowing other people who had

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struggled. It is an everyday occurrence. I wake up every day,

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I walk out into the streets as a Black man.

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That's what you need more of.

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Our theaters have historically kept out voices like

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mine. And when they have allowed

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a few, uh, marginalized voices in,

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they have curated which marginalized voices they allow though the door.

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And that is not to say that those voices are not powerful and

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beautiful and incredible artists and incredible administrators.

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But, again,

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when the voice that's shaping who gets let through has a perspective,

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then we need to always acknowledge that perspective.

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And so that perspective is put on every single decision.

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That includes the decision of who deserves

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to be able to come forward and run our theaters,

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or direct the show, or write a show,

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and so when a historically, uh,

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empowered group, uh, generally, uh, we'll say like men in theater,

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that theater landscape, decide which marginalized voices come forward,

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they tend to avoid the voices that scare

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them the most.

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We don't even know how many incredible voices have been left behind because the

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system was never set up to accept them. That's

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the fundamental change that needs to happen in our industry.

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And the idea of relinquishing power, I think is,

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is a tough hurdle for a

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lot of, um, predominantly white theaters,

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predominantly white institutions to, to, uh, wrap their heads around.

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Absolutely. When you're, when you're accustomed to privilege,

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equality looks like oppression, you know, that's, that's the idiom.

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It is, it's that way for a reason.

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We are working against the programming that has been instilled in all of us

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since we were born.

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Yeah, I mean the amount of like, well, intentioned friends,

that came together asking:

good people who I know, who are like, man, I just feel like it's,

that came together asking:

it's with all the, you know,

that came together asking:

there's more diversity in casting and being white right now, it's tough.

that came together asking:

And I'm like, what, what are we that is not the, that is not the, the,

that came together asking:

the move. Um, and, and, you know, it's,

that came together asking:

I feel like that that was the conversation like three years ago. And,

that came together asking:

and amongst my friends, a lot of my friends, a lot of my white friends, um,

that came together asking:

there's less of that, but I'll,

that came together asking:

I'll say there are still like talent agents and

that came together asking:

managers, and it's at every part of the industry,

that came together asking:

where there's just like this undercurrent of like, well, I'm not racist,

that came together asking:

but like, you know, gosh, if you were Latino right now,

that came together asking:

I'd really be able to submit you for like, you know, so many different projects.

that came together asking:

And it's like, are you watching the same stuff? Like,

that came together asking:

what theater are you watching? I see a lot of me on TV. Like, I don't know.

that came together asking:

It's just a lazy, lazy, like excuse, um, that people are, are,

that came together asking:

are kind of, you know, in their worst moments, uh, turning to.

that came together asking:

Um, the other thing I wanted to just add in terms of like promoting, uh,

that came together asking:

you know, diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice into,

that came together asking:

into our theater spaces, I think part of that is about, you know, um,

that came together asking:

equity as a union,

that came together asking:

sort of prioritizing it as we head into all of our various contract

that came together asking:

negotiations. Right? And sort of trying to make sure that like, hey,

that came together asking:

these are important things that, that we, that we want to have happen.

that came together asking:

And I think that ties into, um, a potential benefit down a line of,

that came together asking:

of this open access type policy,

that came together asking:

which is hopefully going to bring more members aboard,

that came together asking:

hopefully to, to change the, um,

that came together asking:

sort of demographic breakdown of, of the union,

that came together asking:

which just will make us more equipped to have those conversations

that came together asking:

in a more productive fashion.

that came together asking:

If I can, I'm going to go even one step farther than Matt on that,

that came together asking:

in that, uh,

that came together asking:

the union is never going to stop an employer from instituting policies that

that came together asking:

are safer than what is negotiated in their

that came together asking:

contracts. I want to say that again.

that came together asking:

The union is never going to stop any employer from

that came together asking:

safer than what has been negotiated in our contract.

that came together asking:

So at any given point,

that came together asking:

all of our producers can choose to make steps that are

that came together asking:

more safe for our members, that are more inclusive for our members.

that came together asking:

They can make those decisions on their own. What we right now have to do,

that came together asking:

is go into the negotiating room,

that came together asking:

when we negotiate new rounds of contracts and say, okay, uh,

that came together asking:

this is a priority for us. Diversity equity inclusion is a priority for us.

that came together asking:

Anti-racism is a priority for us.

that came together asking:

Having spaces be safer for marginalized communities is a priority for us.

that came together asking:

So we're going to pay attention to that in this give and take of a contract

that came together asking:

negotiation.

that came together asking:

Everything in terms of diversity inclusion anti-racism should be something

that came together asking:

that we are working on at all times together with our producers outside

that came together asking:

of the actual negotiating part of contract. Yes,

that came together asking:

it's inside of contract negotiations that there has to be written into the

that came together asking:

contract. But it shouldn't be something that's negotiated.

that came together asking:

It should be something that is, what's the safest thing that we can do for

that came together asking:

stage managers and actors, for the American theater.

that came together asking:

And right now that's a battle that's not necessarily as,

that came together asking:

even as it should be. And I think folks look to,

that came together asking:

Actors Equity saying,

that came together asking:

you're our union you're supposed to protect us and miss

that came together asking:

at times,

that came together asking:

that the power to create more

that came together asking:

inclusive, safer policies,

that came together asking:

is 24/7/365 in the hands of our producers.

that came together asking:

Actors Equity is continuing to work to do better.

that came together asking:

But when we have to do it at the negotiating table,

that came together asking:

we're in the middle of a given give and take,

that came together asking:

rather than a let's do this together to the best of our abilities.

that came together asking:

Yeah. It's a really good point. And it's something that I've,

that came together asking:

conversations I've had with many of my friends as well, uh,

that came together asking:

is that I think there's a misconception sometimes amongst some of our members,

that came together asking:

uh, even that equity makes all the rules. And part

that came together asking:

of this is I think like a decades long attack on labor unions in

that came together asking:

general, in the, in the country. Uh, and, and you know, some of it is, uh, from,

that came together asking:

you know, previous equity, I don't want to throw shade on people from, you know,

that came together asking:

decades ago, it's not really productive,

that came together asking:

but I think there's like this sort of all stemming from this like country club

that came together asking:

mentality of like what, what equity was, um, right, that like, it's,

that came together asking:

it's like sort of, you do this so that you can be on Broadway and, and whatever,

that came together asking:

uh, and less of it as like a labor union. Anyway, all that to say,

that came together asking:

there's there. I,

that came together asking:

I feel like we need to constantly be reminding ourselves that

that came together asking:

like equity is not unilaterally determining what the

that came together asking:

rules of American theater are.

that came together asking:

My concern for theater,

that came together asking:

is that the way seasons are looking

that came together asking:

now,

that came together asking:

there's definitely a shift in who's telling the stories,

that came together asking:

what works are being produced.

that came together asking:

My concern is two seasons from now,

that came together asking:

three seasons from now, how,

that came together asking:

how do we keep our theaters accountable?

that came together asking:

There's been a groundswell of energy around

that came together asking:

changing the stage for years That groundswell of

that came together asking:

energy has been mainly relegated to marginalized

that came together asking:

communities, uh,

that came together asking:

speaking up and putting their own careers at jeopardy,

that came together asking:

uh, as they speak out on the treatment or their

that came together asking:

mistreatment, uh, and their lack of access.

that came together asking:

What we saw in the last year is we saw

that came together asking:

folks with a higher level of privilege,

that came together asking:

get into that conversation often for the first time.

that came together asking:

So much of what we need to move forward and to continue this

that came together asking:

energy is for folks to remember to constantly

that came together asking:

check their privilege, constantly,

that came together asking:

look at what they're saying versus what they're doing and listening to voices

that came together asking:

that maybe scare them.

that came together asking:

Progress never, never feels safe.

that came together asking:

It always feels scary. And if you feel safe,

that came together asking:

you're probably not actually pushing us forward.

that came together asking:

I want to thank Bear Bellinger and Matt DaSilva for their candor.

that came together asking:

I also wanna thank Actors Equity,

that came together asking:

which sent me additional resources following this conversation,

that came together asking:including its:that came together asking:

and information about its Diversity and Inclusion Retrofit strategy.

that came together asking:

I'll put links to those resources in the episode notes.

that came together asking:

I'll also be curious to hear your thoughts about Actors Equity's open access

that came together asking:

policy.

that came together asking:

Feel free to reach out to me through our website at http://www.beltlinetobroadway.org

that came together asking:

or message me on social media on Facebook or

that came together asking:

Instagram @BeltLinetoBroadway

that came together asking:

or Twitter at @BeltLinetobway.

that came together asking:

Until next time, I'll see you at the theater.

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