EXCLUSIVE: Former SAG President Ed Asner is urging stage actors to vote no on Actors’ Equity’s proposal to scrap L.A.’s 99-seat theater waiver. Balloting on the plan begins today, with an Equity Council vote slated for April 21.

The proposed change would require small theater companies to pay actors minimum wage for performances, a move that opponents say would result in the shuttering of many theater in the city that provide a crucial environment for young thespians to hone their skills while exploring a wide range of roles –even if they’re only being paid car fare.

‘I hate to go against the laws of unionism, but actors need the 99-seat rule.’

Asner’s a lifelong union man who is about to appear in Arthur Miller — A Life, presented by L.A. Theatre Works, where he is a board member. He has plenty of  live-stage credits in addition to his work in film and television and has always been on the side of actors earning a decent wage – until now. “We try to be a union in every respect,” he told Deadline, “except for the fact that acting is also an art, and an art needs rehearsal; an art needs practice. I hate to go against the laws of unionism, but actors need the 99-seat rule, which allows actors to practice their art while defying the laws of minimum wage.”

The actors in these productions refer to themselves as “volunteers” – a term Equity itself uses to describe below-minimum wage acting jobs, even though California does not exempt them from the state’s minimum wage laws. “The law is the law, but sometimes the law is wrong,” Asner said. “There are death penalties in many states, but that doesn’t mean that the death penalty is correct.” Of course, the law depends upon the state enforcing it. in the decades since the 99-seat theater waiver was created, California has never fined a producer for failing to pay minimum wage to actors.

“I think the exception should be acknowledged,” Asner said. “It’s been acknowledged all of these years. I don’t think there is any other craft or union in which practitioners need to practice their art. The 99-seat rule allowed actors to work in front of people and develop their craft. And therefore, I think this exception should be made. This exception cries out to be acknowledged. It’s been working well all these years. It has been sustainable.”

Actors Equity PicketsThe change in the rule was prompted when several local actors complained to Equity that they weren’t getting a fair deal from small companies. At least 100 of them signed a petition in a bid to force a change  in the 99-seat waiver rules. The union then came up with a plan to compel the companies to pay their actors minimum wage — currently  $9 an hour, going up to $10 on Jan. 1 –  if a majority of LA’s Equity members approve it and the Equity Council agrees.

“Most actors say that this is not work – that this is practicing our art,” Asner said. “Since time immemorial, actors have been known to work for free, and will continue to do so. It is not a governable art.”

Clearly, that wasn’t the Screen Actors Guild’s position when Asner was president in the 1980s, but he contends that acting in films is different than acting onstage. “Film automatically means that someone is making money, or it wouldn’t be made,” he said. “When money is being made, it should be apportioned out to the actors as well. I can guarantee you, that if this new rule is passed, actors will go on being unpaid even more than they are now.”

To stay in business, many wives theaters say they will turn to non-Equity actors – or to union actors who quit Equity by opting for financial core status, which frees them from having to follow the union’s rules. Others may simply be forced to close their doors. “Once you shut down theaters, you shut down art,” Asner said. “Theatre is not a mirror – it’s a hammer. Progress will be stopped if it’s not allowed to flourish.”