The afternoon heat of North Hollywood’s Arts District got decidedly hotter Monday afternoon as an estimated 400 local members of Actors' Equity Association, the national union representing stage actors, took to the streets to protest AEA’s proposed overhaul of the contract that has governed Los Angeles’ 99-seat theaters for nearly 30 years.
The estimated 400 marchers, led by TV and theater stars Frances Fisher, French Stewart and Steppenwolf Theatre co-founder and L.A. transplant Jeff Perry, made the show of force to dramatize their differences with the official proposal that Equity’s National Council put forward in February.
The march comes on the eve of a nonbinding referendum vote on the proposal by L.A.’s estimated 6,500 union actors. A final decision will be made by AEA’s National Council in New York on April 21.
The new contract language would replace current actor performance stipends with “a salary no less than the legally mandated minimum wage” for rehearsals as well as performances. It also would freeze union membership in the city’s many dues-paying member companies at current levels. Protesters claim this plan overrode the input offered by local actors in a series of town hall meetings with union officials held earlier this year.
The changes, marchers said, would effectively devastate the variety, professionalism and artistic vibrancy of Los Angeles’ intimate-theater scene by forcing many existing companies to either go out of business or simply stop using union actors altogether.
Organized by I Love 99, an activist group that claims to represent “thousands of actors in Los Angeles,” the protesters, who carried “We Heart 99” placards, were at times strung out for blocks along Lankershim Boulevard, causing traffic tie-ups of rubberneckers and at least one confused bystander to ask, “What is Proposition 99?”
“We are a large group of Actors' Equity members and theater patrons,” Fisher told L.A. Weekly during the march, “people who love 99-seat theater. We are telling Equity that this proposal, which would shut down 99-seat theater as written, is not right for us in this L.A. theater community.”
Fisher, a respected acting teacher as well as a star of the ABC series Resurrection, explained that imposing a minimum wage sounds good on paper but is economically unsustainable and is contrary to the spirit of a contract that was never meant for actors to make money.
“[The 99-seat plan] was created as an incubation ground for new playwrights, large casts, designers, directors to all come together and develop their craft,” she said. ”We all come from the theater, and when we’re not working at paying [film and TV] jobs, we hunger, we yearn to get back onstage, where it’s just us and the audience.”
The march culminated in a sidewalk rally in front of AEA’s gleaming new headquarters building on Tujunga Avenue. As curious union staffers periodically peeked out the door, Fisher and other speakers urged the crowd to cast a no vote, and they read letters of support from the wider actor community, including messages from Helen Mirren, Jason Alexander, Robert Patrick, Ed Harris, Sally Kirkland and Blythe Danner.
Actor Curt Bonnem pointed out to the crowd how the current 99-seat plan actually is working as designed at his home company, Sacred Fools, which has had several shows over the past year move up to full contracts at large theaters. He then spoke of his shock over the AEA proposal.
“I heard my union tell me they were listening,” he said, “and I believed them, and I felt hopeful. I was actually visiting New York when this proposal came to my email. And as I read it, I literally yelled out loud, ‘They didn’t listen to us at all!’”
Jeff Perry took the mic to cite the founding of Steppenwolf and his own current and critically acclaimed Odyssey Theatre production of Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie starring his daughter Zoe Perry as examples of the artistic self-determination threatened by the AEA proposal. The actor vowed to go outside the union should the National Council ignore a no vote: “We’ll cook up something else. We won’t call it 99, we’ll call it ‘We Love Theater and We’re Doing It — Fuck You!’”
The group also heard a letter from Al Pacino in which the film star likened L.A.’s small-theater scene to the “fervent years” of the off-off-Broadway movement that gave him his start.
“Some of the greatest things I have ever seen in my entire life have been seen in intimate theaters under 99 seats,” Pacino wrote. “People’s lives have been changed by those kinds of experiences. … I’m sure Equity has their reasons that are legitimate for the actor and certainly necessary. But perhaps we can have a period of contemplation here to think about our future and come up with some kind of compromise. I hope that is the case.”
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