Why the Actors Union's New Plan Could Decimate L.A.'s Small Theaters

Everything You Touch, performed in the 99-seat Theatre @ Boston Court last year, is now playing in New York.
Everything You Touch, performed in the 99-seat Theatre @ Boston Court last year, is now playing in New York.
Photo by Ed Krieger

Actors' Equity Association, the New York–based union representing stage actors and stage managers, never liked L.A.'s 99-Seat Theater Plan, which allows union actors here to work for a pittance in theaters of 99 seats or less. The actors ratified it in 1987, but it wasn't until a 1989 court settlement that the union finally backed off.

In recent months the union has been at it again, looking for new ways to raise wages. On Friday, the union announced a "three-pronged proposal" to replace the plan, crashing the monsoon of the national minimum-wage discussion onto L.A.'s cash-strapped theater shores.

There's one main problem with the proposal: It's not what the membership asked for. According to reporters from L.A. theater websites Bitter Lemons and Stage Raw who attended the most recent Equity membership meeting, there was a rare consensus: Abuses in the plan need addressing, but the plan should be preserved. Now there's a rage against the union not felt since actors started demanding the right to ply their craft on local stages for less than union rates, in the Equity waiver wars of the 1970s.

If this proposal moves forward, the notion of L.A. theater as a laboratory is dead.

Among waves of typical comments on social media, actress Julia Fletcher writes, "I've been an Equity member since 1974. I attended the town hall meeting, and in reading the new proposals, I feel like my union did not hear what was being said by the Los Angeles membership. The ideas put forward by AEA seem hugely destructive, and I'm incredibly disappointed. But not surprised."

The new proposal, now being discussed and put to the membership for a nonbinding referendum (meaning that the union intends to do whatever it wants after the vote), allows for three options for Equity members working in theaters of 99 seats or less. First, they can go out on their own and produce noncontract shows without any union protections, which include safety protections, limits on rehearsal time and number of performances, and a $7 per performance stipend. In doing so, they may not work with any of the established 99-seat companies that create a lot of L.A.'s best work.

Small Engine Repair was a success for the 99-seat Rogue Machine.
Small Engine Repair was a success for the 99-seat Rogue Machine.
Photo by John P. Flynn

The second option is that AEA actors in membership companies — where a roster of actors is regularly considered for roles, and sometimes pay to be members — may continue working as they have before, but again, without any union protections, and on the condition that no new Equity members may join those companies, unless they alone are paid minimum wage — ensuring that those troupes eventually will die of attrition. Antaeus Company's Bill Brochtrup remarks that his mostly white classical repertory company has been working on introducing minority actors into its fold, but this proposal would hinder its attempts to diversify.

The third option in the proposal is that actors can simply work for minimum wage — which, for 99-seat theaters, is financially ludicrous.

Equity appears to be trying to encourage the creation of larger, midsize theaters, which can sell more tickets per performance, and therefore have a better chance at offsetting the cost of paying minimum wage. But the presence of 99-seat theaters isn't necessarily responsible for the lack of midsize ones — it could be other factors, such as lack of venues or theatergoers. (Equity offered no reply to the questions L.A. Weekly posed on this issue.)

Payment is Equity's central concern, but not necessarily the central concern of the thousands of actors and producers who have worked under the 99-Seat Plan. The plan has generated an artistic beehive of theatrical activity: dozens of actor-created membership companies (Pacific Resident Theatre, the Actors' Gang, Open Fist Theatre) and producer-generated companies (Fountain Theatre, Theatre @ Boston Court) as well as the predictable vanity productions. In addition to enhancing L.A.'s cultural landscape, these 99-seat companies have, in recent years, transferred new works to New York (Small Engine Repair at Rogue Machine, Everything You Touch at Theatre @ Boston Court) and London's West End (Bakersfield Mist at the Fountain).

No more, the union says. "After 30 years of 'volunteering,' Equity members will have the opportunity to be paid," writes Maria Somma, Equity's national communications director.

A more accurate way of putting it is that Equity members now will have to be paid minimum wage, unless they choose to self-produce and forfeit all union protections, or they belong to a membership company marked for extinction.

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Given the fiscal realties of our current arts environs, and the casting opportunities for Equity contract work, union members mostly likely will be staying home a lot, while non-union actors take their places.

Equity is not offering the jobs, or producing theater that will employ them. It's simply talking about greater opportunities while offering exactly the opposite.


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