Theater makers in L.A. and beyond have become a denigrated, migrant population, behaving in some ways like undocumented laborers. True, they're mostly native-born, pale-skinned, college-educated types, with English being their first language. Nonetheless they are outsiders, searching for a place to call home. The artistry of their work has been celebrated by the few professional critics who are paying attention, while entities such as the California Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts have measured the impressive way their theaters support local economies. Yet, like so many undocumented workers, they labor for less than minimum wage — not just in local 99-seat theaters but in nonprofit midsize venues here and across the land.
Of course, there are many differences between theater makers and migrant workers, but the most salient distinction (to this discussion) is that the artists' decision to work for pittance reimbursements is a decision of principle and conviction rather than of survival stemming from the lack of other viable options.
This is why, when the living-wage monsoon comes crashing into the arts, as it did in 2014, the real clash is not between laborers and the business owners charged with exploiting them but between the entities of art as art and art as commerce. How exactly are producers of plays in small theaters, knowing ahead of time that their productions will lose money, abusing the actors who essentially volunteer their talent and have the right to leave at any time in rehearsal or performance for any reason? How does preventing union actors from working in such shows, or diminishing the status of such shows, better the actors' situations or foster the art form?
These are the issues on the table when the union representing actors and stage managers, Actors' Equity Association (AEA), meets with its membership on Jan. 13 to discuss the future of L.A.'s 99-Seat Plan. That plan, a descendent of the 1972 Equity Waiver Plan, was ratified by its membership after much sturm und drang in 1987. In its current iteration, in theaters of up to 99 seats, the union permits its actors to rehearse for up to eight weeks and to perform in up to 80 performances while waiving their typical union salaries. Instead, they get receive expense stipends of $7 to $25 per performance, depending on the show's ticket price, the theater's size and the length of the run. (Several theaters, including Theatre @ Boston Court, Rogue Machine, the Odyssey Theatre and Playwrights Arena, voluntarily pay up to triple the mandated stipends.)
Over the past two decades, L.A.'s 99-seat theaters have been responsible for some of the most dynamic, innovative and evocative theater to be found anywhere.
AEA has had a long history of hostility to the plan, which was essentially thrust upon it by its own membership. Terms of changing it were agreed to in an out-of-court settlement in 1989, after 15 Equity members sued their own union.
The union has muzzled its members from talking to the press about the location, time or content of any of its meetings, such as the one on Jan. 13. Much of the information in this article was obtained off-the-record at various holiday parties.
AEA conducted a survey of its Los Angeles members last month. Among the questions, causing shudders among producers who generally lose money on their small-theater productions, was the somewhat rhetorical query, would you like to make more money? The producers, many Equity members themselves, fear that with its new multimillion-dollar office in Los Angeles, the union is looking for ways to better monetize L.A. theater, and the 99-Seat Plan is close to useless for that goal.
Producers fear that if Equity institutes changes that further restrict the numbers of rehearsals and performances of small theater productions in which its members perform, the quality of those shows will tank. Their sense is that Equity is pushing for more if not all productions to be on full Equity contracts, while the local economy can't support such a scheme. Financial realities would compel theaters to be midsize — larger than 99 seats — in order to sell enough tickets to meet costs, although many midsize theaters are already dying on the vine because of those costs. With constrained rehearsal periods and small casts, both of financial necessity, their work is less exemplary than in theaters currently under the 99-Seat Plan.
Even a large space such as the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts might feel this pressure, since it lacks the resources of, say, Center Theatre Group. An upcoming musical there emblemizes the producers' fears: The show is under a full union contract but rehearsals are restricted to two weeks, for budgetary reasons.
The dread is that in trying to monetize L.A. theater, the union will exploit the faulty premise that the 99-Seat Plan chokes potential midsize theater contracts. (In fact, during the comparatively robust economy of the late 1980s, both midsize and small theaters in L.A. grew robustly in number, side by side.) Furthermore, the union has little time or incentive to police the terms of the current 17-page plan.
If the plan's core elements are gutted, as some fear, the quality of work involving complicated texts and large ensembles could be seriously impeded. As they did in the late 1980s, Equity members who also produce shows in L.A. are lawyering up for a confrontation with their own union. One veteran theater producer involved in the last three-year legal battle with Equity bemoans the waste of time and energy spent fighting the union, when producing theater is difficult enough.
Producers would rather gamble on the risk of actors leaving rehearsals and shows to work on TV (as the 99-Seat Plan permits), rather than suffer the consequences of the plan being castrated: smaller theaters becoming non-union “community theaters” and the diminishment of artistic excellence and innovation.
Also, the producers dread the kind of shadow economy that allegedly exists in Chicago (where there is no comparable small-theater plan) and used to exist in L.A. before the “Equity Waiver wars”: actors voluntarily and secretly kicking back large portions of their salaries to the theaters, in order for the producers to cut their losses, and in order for the shows to go on.
Nobody wants that kind of quasi-legal existence, for migrants or for anybody else.