Actors Equity ProtestArmed with picket signs and the support of such recognizable stars as Tim Robbins and Helen Mirren, some 350 people marched Monday afternoon a mile-long route to the North Hollywood office of the Actors’ Equity Association to protest the union’s proposal that would require small theaters to pay actors the minimum wage for performances. Stretching in a line several city blocks long, the marchers called on the union to retain the current plan that allows professional actors and stage managers to work in theaters seating fewer than 100 people for little more than car fare. “We want change, but not this change,” they chanted. “Hey, hey, ho, ho, 99, it cannot go.”

“This would kill almost all 99-seat theaters,” said actor Jeff Perry, co-founder of the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago.

One of the protest organizers, Frances Fisher, who served on SAG’s board for 10 years, told Deadline that the 99-seat waiver is akin to SAG’s low-budget agreement. Even that contract, however, pays more than minimum wage. “This is not the issue,” she said. “The 99-seat plan was never created to do that. We all want to be paid, but this is not the way to do it.”

Helen Mirren And Manish Dayal In The Hundred Foot Journey WallpapersMirren, the British star currently appearing on Broadway in The Audience, sent a statement of support: “Actors are often taken advantage of and often abused,” she said. “But this is a case of actors doing what they want to. No one in this situation is going to make a million while a contributing artist starves.”

Jason Alexander also sent a note of support that read: “I can assure you that the current revision to the waiver contract that is being put to a vote has not been negotiated or even discussed with waiver theater owners, and I can also assure you that if it is enacted, those owners will either fold or produce only non-union shows. They cannot survive under the dictates under the new proposal.”

The dispute could determine the future of small theater in L.A. The protesters are outraged that AEA is even considering asking producers to pay them minimum wage. Such a move, they say, would put many small theaters out of business. But the union feels it’s time for small theater companies to pay actors at least as much as they pay janitors. It’s a classic case of art versus commerce; of union members versus their union’s reasonable demand that employers abide by state and federal minimum wage laws.

The current plan allows producers to pay their actors as little as $7 a performance, and nothing at all for rehearsals. the new plan would require them to pay the minimum wage, which in California is currently $9 an hour and will be going up to $10 an hour on Jan. 1, 2016.

“Tiny theaters on micro-budgets would be hard-pressed to meet such a sudden new requirement.”

Those opposed to the new plan — who also count such theater-world heavyweights as Ed Asner, Amy Madigan, Ed Harris, Tony Shalhoub and Valerie Harper — argue that this represents a “massive threat to the continued existence of LA’s intimate theatres.” On their website, ILove99.org, they write: “Our labor union has issued a proposal that Los Angeles AEA members will be asked to vote on in the coming days that could make it almost impossible for many of its members to perform on stage in this city anymore. Scores of beloved theaters would be forced to double or triple their budgets overnight in order to give actors a drastic pay raise. Tiny theaters on micro-budgets would be hard-pressed to meet such a sudden new requirement. Many would likely either have to stop using union members, severely curtail doing the kind of artistic work they set out to do, or fold entirely. There are no greedy, cigar-chomping profiteers in LA 99-seat theater. We, the actors who do these shows, are not being exploited. We have chosen in the past to work for tiny stipends in order to be seen; to hone our craft; and to honor the unique chemistry of necessity and love that drives any artist.”

The dispute also pits the protesters against California’s tough labor laws. Many of the 99-seat theatres are non-profit organizations, but state minimum wage laws make no exceptions for stage actors regardless of the emplyers’ tax status. Small theater producers have long skated by on the pretext that their actors are “volunteers” — a term the union also uses in describing its members who work under its 99-seat theatre plan. It’s the same argument that companies make when they employ unpaid interns. Recent court rulings have made it clear, however, that the industry can no longer used unpaid interns unless they receive college credit.

Kathleen Hennessy, a spokesperson for the California State Labor Commissioner, told Deadline that stage actors are not exempt from the state’s minimum wage laws. “There is no such exemption for actors at non-profit theaters.” One exception, she noted, was for “learners.” According to state law: “Employees in the first 160 hours of employment in occupations in which they have no previous similar or related experience may be paid not less than 85% of the minimum wage rounded to the nearest nickel.”

That would still be more than the 99-seat theaters are paying their actors, and wouldn’t apply to any of the veteran actors protesting today. It remains unclear why California State Labor Commissioners haven’t enforced this law for the past 40 years.

The union made its position clear in a recent email to its members. “Many members told us they think of 99-seat productions as their ‘gym’ — a valuable space to strengthen their artistic muscles, hone their craft and take on roles they might not otherwise have a chance to play,” wrote Equity executive director Mary McColl. “While there are strong views on all sides, we heard clearly that LA members want the (99-seat) plan to change so that actors’contributions are more fairly valued.”

Ballots will go out to the union’s members on Wednesday and must be returned by April 17. The full, New York-based Equity Council is expected to make a final decision on April 21.