L.A. Theater Heads Say Screw the Union, We Can't Afford Minimum Wage

Tim Robbins, who directed this production of Midsummer Night's Dream at the Actors Gang: "We're not going to let any government or any labor union determine the way we create art."
Tim Robbins, who directed this production of Midsummer Night's Dream at the Actors Gang: "We're not going to let any government or any labor union determine the way we create art."
Photo by Dianna Oliva-Day

"After 30 years of volunteering, Equity members will have the opportunity to be paid," says Maria Somma, national director of communications for Actors Equity' Association.

The union for actors and stage managers is campaigning to end L.A.'s 99-Seat Plan, which currently allows actors to volunteer at theaters of 99 seats or less in exchange for expense stipends — per the rights of anybody to volunteer for a nonprofit institution. (There may be a smattering of independent for-profit ventures abusing the Plan, but they're the bathwater that Equity aims to toss out with the baby.)

The Plan has never been challenged by any branch of the government, but the union has suddenly determined that, after almost 30 years, it can no longer permit this illegal activity.

The national councilors of the union are expected to approve the new plan imposing a minimum wage for rehearsals and performances for all union actors in all theaters, large or small. There are some exceptions — such as an option for extant membership companies to pay less than minimum wage. However, that option does not include the traditional union health and safety protections. Plus, those companies may no longer accept any new union members without paying them minimum wage for rehearsals and performances, creating a caste system within those companies.

The union is trying to equate tiny money-losing theaters with Walmart exploiters. But L.A.'s 99-Seat Plan was designed to lose money for theaters, in order to prevent union actors from being financially exploited. In North Hollywood, for example, Theatre Unleashed's critically acclaimed production of Ligature Marks cost $6,000 to produce. Of that budget, $4,800 went to the theater rental for rehearsals and performances. Despite performing well during the final weeks of its run, the production lost money. This happens all the time, even with shows that sell out.

There have been loud and nationally broadcast howls of protest against Equity, even by people who like both unions and the minimum wage, people such as Tim Robbins, Ed Asner and Ed Harris (and yours truly), who insist that L.A.'s intimate theaters give actors creative opportunities and personal dignity in a field plagued by unemployment. Overtures to the union by the Producers League of Los Angeles for a more gradual change have been so far rebuffed.

So what might a post–99-Seat Plan Los Angeles actually look like? According to interviews with a number of L.A. theater leaders, the plan would force intimate theaters to consider using fewer and fewer union actors, or go nonunion altogether. It also could incentivize Equity actors to deceive their own union.

Over at the Actors' Gang in Culver City, artistic director Robbins says, "We're not going to let any government or any labor union determine the way we create art."

Robbins adds that about half the members of his 33-year-old company are in the union, but how they should respond to their union is something he can't and won't dictate. Robbins says that some have talked about taking a leave from the union through a "FiCore" exemption (a politically unsavory option often equated with "scab" labor), some have said they'll quit the union, while others have proposed simply not reporting that they're in a show until opening night — since the company already pays minimum wage for performances.

"I don't know how we're going to do it if we have to take these increases in costs" — paying minimum wage for rehearsals as well as performances, for large ensemble productions, he says. "I know that when we were a younger company, we couldn't have survived a blow like this. ... I've got lovely, committed people who see this as a nuisance and will not allow it to affect their commitment to the company."

Another veteran artistic director, Jon Lawrence Rivera, has been presenting only new plays by L.A.-based playwrights at his Playwrights' Arena for decades. "We may just become a theater that does workshops," he says, "or cut back to one production every year or two, presuming we can raise the funds — which is not easy for new plays. One obvious option is just to hire nonunion actors."

Rogue Machine's John Flynn says he'll slide his theater into Equity's proposed membership-company option.

"We will [continue to pay] actors $25 a performance and we will be paying a rehearsal stipend," even though the union doesn't require any of that under the membership option. Flynn adds that his company will abide by all of the health and safety protections that the union proposes abandoning under this option.

Rogue Machine's 2014 play Uploaded
Rogue Machine's 2014 play Uploaded

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Ron Sossi, who's headed the Odyssey Theatre for more than 40 years, adds that since productions under the 99-Seat Plan will be allowed to complete their seasons, he won't be affected until February 2016. After that point, Sossi says, he might work under the membership option, "so we're currently trying to expand the number of those members before the [union's] April 1 deadline."

Sossi says that the other option, if the Odyssey lacks enough members to "produce the scope and quality of what we want to do, is to go totally non-Equity . ... probably the more likely path."

Sossi's "more likely path" is echoed by Gregory Crafts at Theatre Unleashed (trying to keep his doors open on a $50,000 annual budget), by Martha Demson at Open Fist Theatre (now homeless after a devastating rent increase in Hollywood) and by Maria Gobetti, who has been at Burbank's Victory Theatre Center for 30 years. Says Crafts: "As we bring in new members, we're basically going to have to hang a sign that says 'Equity Need Not Apply.'"

Sixty-three percent of L.A.'s union actors have participated in the Plan over the last five years, peppering the productions of L.A.'s intimate theaters. They often provide these theaters with an added sheen of excellence, and the accompanying possibility of transferring to Equity contracts (almost 200 productions have done so since 1989). At the L.A. Drama Critics Circle Awards on March 16, playwright Marja-Lewis Ryan spoke of how, under the 99-Seat Plan, you can see an 8-year-old girl share the stage with a Broadway veteran.

There's a chance that the Plan, or a part of it, will be saved. Union members in the "Pro99" movement are mobilizing against their own union for their right to practice what they regard as their calling. The L.A. Drama Critics Circle has issued a statement citing the artistry and the civic contributions that inevitably will be diminished if Equity's proposal goes through and union actors are removed from the equation — a sentiment echoed by the Hollywood Arts Council and City Councilman Mitch O'Farrell.

The end result, however, will probably be determined in court, perhaps on procedural grounds but more likely on whether an actor volunteering a performance for a nonprofit, money-losing theater company is partaking in a commercial or a civic function. Equity's case will depend on the former, standing resolutely on one side of a divide between the right of minimum wage and the freedom to follow a muse.


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