“We haven’t been treated fairly, and everybody knows it," actress Maria Gobetti says.
She's objecting to the Actors' Equity Association's elimination of L.A.'s 99-Seat Theater Plan, which, for the uninitiated, was in effect for a quarter-century and permitted union actors to work for a token stipend in theaters of up to 99 seats in L.A. County.
The Plan has fostered a theater culture hailed by critics, local officials and the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, while allowing thousands of actors to create something of intrinsic value between paying jobs.
Still, last year, the New York–based union announced that L.A.’s 99-seat honeymoon is over. With a couple of exception situations, the union has said it’s time for all L.A. actors to be paid minimum wage for rehearsals and performances, starting in June 2016. Most of L.A.’s small theaters say they can’t afford it, that they’ll be forced to go non-union or close.
After the L.A. membership roundly rejected the union’s new scheme in an advisory April vote, the union’s National Council voted to proceed with the new plan anyway. For that reason, among many others related to the debacle, lawsuits are being quietly prepared against the union — which seems like déjà vu for Gobetti, one of the original plaintiffs in a 1987 lawsuit against AEA that led to the creation of the Plan. It also put its L.A. members in a peculiar and often conflicted position. Many actors interviewed would only divulge their true feelings — and what those lawsuits might entail — off the record. Nobody from the union would speak on the record for this article.
In private meetings between L.A. union members and their representatives, such as executive director Mary McColl, Western regional director Gail Gabler and president Kate Shindle, it appears the union position hasn’t budged. All attempts to discuss a myriad of alternatives — tiered contracts, based on a production’s budget and box office revenue, for example — have been rebuffed. “They keep having meetings that go nowhere,” Gobetti says. “They don’t acknowledge any points that are made. It’s like talking to people who are deaf.”
Behind the scenes, there are some union members eager to sue, those who are eager to work this out with the union in other ways, and those who like the idea of both.
William Salyers, who recently starred in Sacred Fools' The Behavior of Broadus, is one of the union members who feels that a lawsuit has become the only recourse. “It's become clear that those of us who feel Actors' Equity has breached its duties have no allies on the union's council or staff,” he says. “Many members, myself included, have been looking for a way to avoid a lawsuit. Equity seems determined not to provide us with [an alternative].”
Salyers says he's been in conversations with a law firm since Actors' Equity made its decision to eliminate the 99-Seat Plan. “Those attorneys believe Los Angeles' AEA members have grounds to sue," he says. “It seems increasingly likely that that suit will have to happen.”
Aaron Shechet, one of the attorneys Salyers has been consulting, says that he can't comment on the potential litigation, “but we find it curious that the AEA [National] Council went against a nearly 2-to-1 vote of its local membership.”
Not everyone is as gung-ho as Salyers is. Rebecca Metz, Salyers' co-star in Broadus (and the wife of L.A. Weekly music editor Andy Hermann, in full disclosure), was one of the early faces of the “Pro 99” movement arguing for the continuation of L.A.'s plan; she has been involved in meetings with union staff. She concedes that the union has not budged from its minimum-wage-or-bust position. But she adds that, while she doesn't think the lawsuit is a bad idea, "That's not how I plan to participate.”
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Metz’s position is somewhat echoed by actor Leo Marks. Pleading the Fifth on the issue of pending lawsuits, Marks, like Metz, places at least some faith in the “long game” of working with rather than against the union. He hopes that with a small slate of new union officials, elected in May with considerable pull from the West Coast membership, his union will eventually “see the value in some democratic reforms,” so that advisory referendums aren’t rudely ignored.
Actor Dakin Matthews, known for his major roles on Broadway and at Center Theatre Group, also has no desire to sue his union, but he’s irked that his request for viable alternatives has so far fallen on deaf ears. He says he has asked his union representatives, “If I think my union has acted illegally, but I do not want to sue, what are my options according to my union’s procedures and labor law in general?”
AEA requires its members to exhaust all alternatives before initiating a lawsuit. However, the union’s preamble to its constitution states its purpose is “to protect and secure the rights of actors; to inform them as of their legal rights and remedies.” Matthews says the union has so far not been forthcoming on the latter. “I'd love it if one of my representatives would answer the question,” he says.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this article included a quote from Rebecca Metz that has now been paraphrased to more accurately reflect the intent of her statement.