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Performance Anxiety

The Talent take on the Suits in the SAGIAFTRA strike.

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By Rose Spinelli

What do we want?

The picketers chanting slogans and dancing up and down the streets belong to the Chicago local of the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. Call them the Talent. Their three-year contract expired March 31 and today they stand united against the employers represented by the American Association of Advertising Agencies and the Association of National Advertisers. Call them the Suits.

Fair Play!

The picketers walk in formation under a light but steady spring drizzle, chants sounding like persistent prayer.

How we gonna get it?

Let your mind lapse for a moment, however, and their rhythmic repetitions take on a subtle distortion.

Paper Plates!

Paper plates? No, no.

Pay for play!

Maybe it wasn't a hallucination but mischief making. Maybe it was this group's way of leavening a gloomy day and a bitter struggle.

The May 1 kickoff rally begins in an empty lot at Erie and Wabash, a block from the SAG/AFTRA office at 1 E. Erie. The picketers call themselves, formidably, Strike Force, and by 11:30 AM their numbers are large enough to fill one rented trolley bus and leave about as many folks to set out on foot. A Dixieland band is keeping the energy at a high pitch. Strike Force seems buoyant, ready to do battle. Several picketers are pushing strollers; a few have kids on their shoulders.

Some of the Talent have more to lose than others. Many here consider their commercial work supplemental income, but to others it's a livelihood. That's the case with James Schneider, a musician and voice-over talent. "I'm no Huey Long," he says, "but this strike has gotten me to learn more about the issues. I've been doing voice-over work for five years, and I have no problem with the fact that you have to spend money to make money--it's a reality. But the return shouldn't be getting smaller."

Schneider is referring in part to the cash a performer is expected to lay out to launch--and keep up--the self-promotion campaign needed to get commercial jobs. "Some people do it more intensely than others," he says. "There's a guy named Larry Moran who brings a tin of cashews to each of his auditions. He's the nutty guy. This is a very competitive business. You can't just show up. You have to learn how to market yourself and then spend the cash."

To stay on top of their game, performers spend money on classes, head shots, pagers, and cell phones. Schneider regularly sends out postcards and a voice-over reel. He bought a computer to keep up a mailing list of producers and agents. He says, "I just try to keep my name out there."

Tom Ciappa, a picket captain, has revved up the crowd by describing the proposed fee reductions as "commerce without conscience." The Suits, he said, intend to eliminate the long-standing "pay per play" compensation for network commercials. They plan a 13-week "buyout," or wage cap. Beginning the 14th week a commercial airs, the Suits will no longer have to pay the Talent. Yet management has admitted that the longer a performer's identified with one sponsor, the less likely he is to be hired by another.

The union proposes not just keeping "pay per play" for network commercials but expanding it to cable, where the Talent would be paid about a third of network rates. In the union's opinion, management has refused to put forth "fair and positive" proposals regarding cable commercials despite soaring cable advertising revenues.

Jurisdiction over Internet work is also on the table, in the belief that commercials made for the Internet will soon be commonplace. And the union is asking the ad agencies to create an automatic method of monitoring radio and television commercials for contract infringements. The advertisers are even on SAG/AFTRA's side on that one.

Ciappa has described the strike as an "elaborate game of chicken." And he cried, "But we don't blink. That's what we're trained to do."

Strike Force has split into two groups. The first is being chauffeured by trolley bus to the Leo Burnett ad agency at Dearborn and Wacker as the second heads south on foot to the Quaker Oats corporate offices at Clark and the river. Later they'll converge at Leo Burnett, continue en masse to IBM Plaza, make their way to the Wrigley Building on Michigan Avenue, and finally end up at Foote, Cone & Belding, at Erie and Rush. Both groups take off chanting.

It pays to advertise,

But advertisers won't pay!

Tim Dadabo is a member of Strike Force's PEP team--that's picketing events planning. He leads the walkers south on State Street, and also in their first chant. He is known to other picketers as a man with answers, no doubt because of his position on the PEP team but perhaps also because his list of voice-over credits is prodigious. Dadabo works a lot (Budweiser, McDonald's, Kellogg's, Kraft), and his peppiness may owe something to his conviction that he has a lot to lose if the strike fails.

But his concerns reach beyond his own wallet. "Without the union to provide a pension and medical benefits for a member's family," he says, "the actor has no insurance. And you've got to earn at least $7,500 a year just to qualify. This not an easy job. And yes, I expect to make a good chunk of change. Because I work hard, I watch trends, I practice my craft daily."

Dadabo has the kind of silky voice that, if you close your eyes and just listen, conjures up the good guy who can get that nasty stain out of your carpet without breaking a sweat. In the flesh he's short and regular looking, and you'd cast him as Joey's out-of-work Italian cousin who hangs out at Central Perk.

It pays to advertise

But advertisers won't pay!

Even though this is a strike, in some ways it resembles the ultimate audition. As they sing their mantra, its jingly-sounding melody becomes bluesy and drawn out. It eventually swells into a full-out rap. The picketers' gait changes too. Their stride lengthens; their arms swing and heads bob.

Marty Lennartz, who does voice-over work, starts up a little role playing. "Give it to me in three different reads!" he demands, like the sound engineer at a session would say. Soon the chanters are riffing madly, playing with pitch patterns and timing, using rising and declining intonations. They chant sad, happy. They do young, then they do old.

The union has already written a chant appropriate to each advertiser they intend to rail against. The chant for McDonald's, for example, is Did somebody say fair wages? For Charmin--Please don't squeeze the actor! For Wrigley--Chew on this! Chew on this! Chew on this! The list is long, and some picketers carry an E-mailed copy of it. A few slogans are really silly--Lego my residuals! Sometimes Strike Force favors a spontaneous slogan to the one preplanned. At Quaker someone tries out Don't pay us oats!

No residuals means

Indecent exposure!

"That was one of mine!" exclaims actor John Lordan.

Union actors are the most.

You can't fix that stuff in post!

Jesse Jacobs is a boyish actor with rosy cheeks and shaggy dark hair. Walking along Wacker Drive, Jacobs recites his resumé (Second City, the Bud "Whassup" spot that aired during the Super Bowl) as if it were the alphabet. Jacobs does a hands-down Christopher Walken, and by rearranging a few facial muscles transforms himself in seconds into a perfect Robert De Niro.

Norm Woodel is a tan, stocky Marlboro Man type. He's a Strike Force cochair who's armed himself for the day with many facts. He can tell you about CEO salaries being 467 times that of their employees and about how less than 2 percent of a commercial's budget goes to pay the actors. He claims to know shifty things, like how a certain corporation has already used its own employees as stand-ins on commercial spots, paying them a measly dollar for their performances.

As this is May Day, everyone is out. While the SAG/AFTRA picketers focus their wrath on the Wrigley Building, other protesters station themselves at the nearby Colombian consulate and demand a halt to U.S. intervention. There are various other movements in the vicinity, declaiming on everything from abortion rights to mandatory use of bicycles to Mumia Abu-Jamal.

Riot police, many on horseback, speckle the thoroughfares, but they look awfully relaxed, friendly even, at least in the opinion of some of the Talent. One marcher suggests that it may be time to act like rioters, but this idea doesn't pick up much steam. For one, Nathan Davis, who played Grandpa in Steppenwolf's The Grapes of Wrath (and wears a jean jacket with the play's logo on its back), isn't going to do much rioting. Nor is Amy Landecker. She's protesting with her arm in a sling, having broken it performing in Killer Joe.

As Strike Force returns to base from its final picketing venue at Foote, Cone & Belding, someone with a clipboard announces to great cheering that approximately 600 union members (and some nonunion support) have turned out for this first day of the strike. Several organizers take the mike to give Oscar-worthy thanks to all who came out. Then captain Tom Ciappa speaks again. He reminds members of Strike Force that the picketing will continue every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from 11:30 AM to 1:30 PM, tells them again how important faithful attendance is to keep the cause alive, and recites the SAG/AFTRA hot line number.

But before the crowd can disperse, a rumor of subversion circulates. Word is that certain ad agencies and advertisers have been calling union members and asking if they have a "nonunion" name to use during the strike. That is, they're being asked to scab. For these sudden dark moments an appropriate chant has already been written:

Advertisers won't talk!

I see dead people.

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