Did you know there’s a satanic plot by Actors’ Equity (the stage actors’ trade union) to demolish the 99-Seat Plan (the hard-fought, exclusively local code allowing Los Angeles’s small theaters to employ union actors for token stipends rather than salaries and health and pension benefits required under the union contract) and thereby decimate a theater scene that flourishes almost entirely because of that code? To counter such rumors, the union held a town-hall meeting for Equity actors last Monday night at Burbank’s Colony Theater.
I arrived at the lobby of the midsize theater about 15 minutes after the meeting started and presented my L.A. Weekly business card to a large man behind a table, who then sternly asked to see my driver’s license.
“Don’t want any producers sneaking in?” I asked.
“That’s right,” he said, checking my name against a list of Equity actors who had, at some point, signed union papers as a producer of a show under the 99-Seat code. This was for actors only. (Are you now or have you ever been a theater producer?)
A gentle bear of a man, Michael Van Duzer — Equity’s 99-Seat Plan administrator
— and a slender brunette, Glenda Chism-Tamblyn of Equity’s National Council, sat
cross-legged in chairs on the stage, playing to an audience of about 99 or less,
which seemed appropriate. Van Duzer told of proposals for incidental changes affecting
complimentary ticket policies for union members, incremental raises in the current
$5- to $15-per-performance stipends, and a first-ever ticket price cap of $34.99
— a sum charged by some midsize theaters that actually pay their actors
while contributing to health care and pension plans.
He also clarified a proposal concerning access to toilets, which took up more time than it deserved.
“We learned of one theater where, to use the bathroom, the actors had to shimmy down a pole, crawl through an alley and then re-enter the theater through a rear door,” Van Duzer explained. “All we’re asking is that an actor be able to enter a bathroom through a door.”
Damn meddling unions.
The proposals getting the most buzz are those restricting the length of rehearsals from eight weeks to six, and the amount of performances from 80 to 60 (from 14 weeks to 10 at five performances per week) before a production must switch from code to contract (requiring the producers to pay salaries, pension plans, health benefits, etc.).
After Van Duzer admitted that very few small theater productions ever made it to 80 performances, and very few rehearsed more than six weeks, somebody asked why, then, legislate it, to which Van Duzer responded, “Why not?” He also remarked that the changes were not in reaction to any wave of outrage; rather he’d received a phone call or two from actors complaining that they’d been stuck in one production for months.
Some found this strange since under the existing 99-Seat Plan, actors can leave whenever they want.
Van Duzer answered this with the earnest explanation that actors feel such loyalty to their peers, they sometimes have difficulty standing up for themselves. (Most actors I know would leave a show at intermission, in costume, for a bit part on CSI.)
Camps emerged: There were those actors, including most of the older members, who understood that the beauty of the 99-Seat Plan is the way it has transformed Los Angeles into a laboratory for the development of new work, which takes time, adding that film and TV execs, if they come to the theater at all, wait until the 79th performance. The other camp consisted of those who believed that shortening the length of the run would encourage producers of hits to jump sooner to a professional contract. Each side gently scoffed at the other for being naive.
My favorite moment was Van Duzer’s annoyance at the rampant, unauthorized videotaping
of Equity actors. Most actors don’t mind, but Van Duzer wants to protect those
who do mind and feel ostracized if they make a fuss. Such videotaping is
illegal, and producers sign an understanding to that effect.
“I once walked into a 99-seat theater,” Van Duzer said. “They knew I was coming and still they were setting up a video camera to tape the show. I had to get all melodramatic and order them to cease and desist.”
Van Duzer doesn’t seem like the type to get all melodramatic. I’m wondering if
his outburst was really triggered by the cameraman asking Van Duzer to slump in
his seat because his head was blocking the view.