The high-profile union actors have lent their support to a rally and march slated for Monday afternoon to protest a plan by Actors’ Equity that would force L.A.’s 99-seat theaters to pay actors a minimum wage. The proposal, announced earlier this year, has spawned headlines and hollering from the Los Angeles Times to green rooms across the city. Advocates of the change argue that it’s long past time when actors have to underwrite the development process with their labor, while opponents insist the proposal will kill the city’s small theaters, where no one makes any money, and result in less work for actors.
AEA’s governing council will vote April 21 in New York on whether to require the upgrade, essentially from car fare to $9 an hour. Under the proposed plan, they would receive “a salary no less than the legally mandated minimum wage and ensure members are paid for rehearsals as well as performance hours,” according to a release from the union.
The march, organized by a group calling itself I [HEART] 99, is scheduled to begin Monday, March 23 at 3 PM, when protesters will begin walking from Lankershim/Vineland/Camarillo (4878 Lankershim Blvd.) about a mile to the AEA offices at 5636 Tujunga Avenue near Burbank Boulevard. Promised are speeches by Frances Fisher, French Stewart, Kirsten Vangsness, and taped messages of support from Jason Alexander, Alfred Molina and John Rubinstein. Picketing will follow the speeches.
The issue of paying professional — i.e. AEA — actors has been a divisive one going back to August 1919, when members of the 7-year-old union went on strike against Broadway producers. With the rise of workshop productions and the resident theaters, the issue exploded in the 1970s and 80s, when actors fought producers and even playwrights for a share of revenue when developmental productions moved to larger theaters and AEA contracts. L.A.’s 99-seat plan is the city’s current iteration of the 1972 waiver arrangement.
In the 99-ers, Equity actors rehearse gratis for up to eight weeks and perform in up to 80 performances in exchange for expense stipends of $7 to $25 per performance, depending on ticket price, number of seats and length of run. Some small companies pay more than that, but they’re the exception to the rule.
Actors fearful that the proposal will endanger the city’s small theaters have drawn support from non-starving-artists’ ranks, topped by Tim Robbins, the Actors’ Gang founder who wrote in a March 16 L.A. Times op-ed column that “[i]f Equity is aware of blatant violations of the spirit of the 99-seat plan, then it should use its power against those producers. If there are theaters actually exploiting actors, name them. That simply doesn’t exist. It is a fantasy scenario…most small theater companies in Los Angeles are actor driven. It is actors’ ideas and passion that start the companies and mount the productions. Producers exist as facilitators and fundraisers for small theaters, usually losing money in the process. They are often actors themselves, with little to no business experience.”
The L.A. Drama Critics Circle even got into the act, releasing a statement on February 26 that “The cultural loss” resulting from the proposal “would be incalculable, affecting the hundreds of productions staged annually in Los Angeles. The economic loss of all the businesses interdependent on that production output is calculable, but even without the numbers being run, we believe the net impact on the city could be catastrophic.”
Lost in some of the brouhaha is a grandfathering clause that would allow members to continue to work in existing groups “without benefit of an Equity contract under a new internal union membership rule called the Los Angeles Membership Company Rule. Members may work without benefit of an Equity contract in membership companies in which they have participated and that are in existence as of Feb. 6, 2015 as long as the membership company produces in a theater of 99 seats or fewer.”
“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 the chance to play,” Mary McColl, executive director of Equity, wrote in an email to members. “While there are strong views on all sides, we heard clearly that L.A. members want the Plan to change so that actors’ contributions to 99-seat theater are more fairly valued.”