About two weeks ago, I wrote a post about a situation unfolding here in Los Angeles with our intimate theatres (under 100 seats). The post concerned a move by Actors Equity, the stage actor’s labor union, to replace the “99 seat plan” (itself the successor to what was called “Equity Waiver” theatre) with a new plan that many felt would destroy intimate theatre as it is in Southern California. This new proposal (described in this article, but seemingly unavailable to those not in Equity) would essentially destroy non-profit theatre companies: individual actors could mount showcase productions with no legal protections; membership groups (who could not add to their members) could pay below minimum wage, and any other 99 seat and under theatre that used Equity actors would be required to pay those actors minimum wage for a minimum of 3 hours for each performance, and for rehearsal time.
Now, on the surface of this, you’re probably going — actors are people too (despite what some folks have said in the past). They deserve to be paid at least minimum wage, and to be able to make a living from the theatre. In an ideal world (cue the chirping birds and shining sun), I’d agree with you. Even in a slightly imperfect world — perhaps New York — this might work. Such a world understands and supports live theatre, and is willing to pay ticket prices that permit payment of such wages. Actors in such an imperfect world would not have other lucrative acting opportunities available to them that might make up for poor live theatre pay.
However — and this is the problem in Los Angeles — Los Angeles is far far from being a perfect world. Just ask anyone from San Francisco (hear that, Mr. Roadshow — pick on us for saying “the 405”, will ya??). In Los Angeles, there are many opportunities for actors to make reasonable money acting — there is television and film work, which comes up on short notice and pays well. What LA doesn’t provide is easy — and inexpensive — opportunties to practice the craft. Sure, you can pay for classes … or you can get paid (even if it is just gas and bus fare) to practice on stage as part of a show. Such practice has the side benefit of getting you seen by others in the industry, and permits networking that gets you those lucrative jobs.
I should note that I’m not talking from experience. I’m not an actor. I could never be an actor — I can’t inhabit a role. I’m not a director or producer or other creative. I’m a logically thinking engineer who attends a lot of theatre, and who has been reading what the actors and others have been saying about this proposal. I’m a blogger that some consider a reviewer (I hesitate to use the “critic” term); I attend lots and lots of threatre. In other words, I’m a professional audience. I’ve been trying, in my little way, to capture the audience point of view. Here’s my perspective.
Back in January 2014, I saw an excellent production of Sex and Education at the Colony Theatre. If you aren’t familiar with that show, it concerns an English teacher giving her last test before a well-earned retirement. She catches the star football player, who has already been offered a football scholarship, passing a note to a cheerleader to get her to sleep with him. The note is riddled with grammatical problems, and she refuses to pass him until he rewrites the note as a proper persuasive essay. In doing so, he learns not to think about what he wants to get out of the arrangement; he has to convince the cheerleader why it is to her benefit to sleep with him. This is a very important lesson.
So in this discussion, it is pointless to talk about what the actors want, or even what the producers want (and no one cares what the audience wants). What is important is what Equity wants, and what Equity wants is to protect the financial health of its members. Get that: its members. It doesn’t care about non-union people. It doesn’t care about the health of theatres. It doesn’t care about ticket prices. It wants Equity members to be paid minimum wage — the demand of other unions — and to be able to sanction employers (read “producers”) who hire Equity actors and fail to pay them that.
Pure and simple, the plan they propose will not do that. Los Angeles is a market with three types of theatre goers: those that only know of the “big” theatres that book tours; those that attend any and all theatre in Los Angeles; and those that are friends of actors that attend for free. The big musical tour crew won’t care about this proposal — they don’t even care if they see a non-Equity tour (I’m looking at you, Pantages). The rest of the folks rarely pay full price — they quest for the discount ticket. They will not pay what is required to permit non-profits to pay minimum page. A few non-profits might survive with equity actors, but the rest will not. They will either close — or more likely — employ non-union actors or actors working under assumed names (no sanction for the theatre there). That will hurt, not help, the union.
Everyone seems to agree that the current 99-seat plan is broken. But AEA’s proposal is not the answer. On Facebook, the AEA conciliators suggest voting for the plan to initiate the change — but I’ve seen no guarantees that the plan will change if voted in. Certainly, it is not in AEA’s interest to change it. I’ve seen some excellent proposals that increase actor renumeration based on the budget and size of the theatre. These can only be considered if this AEA proposal is voted down (and even that might not stop it, as the vote is only advisory).
I’m not an AEA member. I can’t vote. If you are an AEA member, I urge you to vote the proposal down. I urge you, in membership meetings, to use Roberts Rules to your advantage, and introduce motions to consider a different proposal and reject this one. See if you can find a win-win, not the current proposed lose-lose.
Everyone can learn more about this. The LA 99 Theatre Community has posted a large number of articles on the subject. There have been numerous position statements on the subject, all of which Colin over at Bitter Lemons has collected. [ETA: And the I Love 99 folks have created a new Facebook community you should like.] Read learn.
But as I’ve said: I’m an audience member. What can I do? We don’t want to take actions that will hurt our actors or our theatres. I think the answer is to be there and to support. We can let our theatres know we support them. We can let them know of the economic impact we provide to the community at large — not just the tickets we buy, but the restaurants we support. This will encourage public officials to come out on the side of the 99 seat theatres. We can encourage actors we know to vote against the plan. We may also have services and skills that we can provide to the pro-99 community. We may not be able to act, but we know how to work computers, to build mailing lists, to analyze data. Audiences consist of not only unpaid actors, but lawyers, labor specialists, engineers, and problem solvers. We can bring our expertise to the fore to help.
Lastly, we can spread the word. Those of you on Twitter and other services supporting hashtags, use the tags #pro99 #LAthtr #ILove99. Don’t be passive. Speak up and keep LA’s intimate theatre community vibrant. Oh, and go see a show or two while you’re at it!