Guest Column: Noah Wyle Urges ‘No’ Vote on Actors’ Equity’s 99-Seat Theater Proposal

Noah Wyle
Paul Archuleta/FilmMagic

Since the late ’80s,  Actors’ Equity has recognized the Los Angeles 99-Seat Theater Agreement, which allows members to showcase their work for negligible stipends. Now, the union is proposing to eliminate the agreement in favor of two new internal membership rules and one new agreement.

The new agreement, if enacted as it is currently proposed, would require actors be paid minimum wage ($9 an hour in L.A. County) for rehearsal and performances, with no contributions to pension or health insurance. To many in the L.A. theater community, the proposal represents a threat to the city’s vibrant intimate-theater scene.

Equity members in L.A. County can vote today through April 17 on the proposal (i.e., an “advisory referendum”). The outcome of the vote will be taken into account when Equity’s National Council meets April 21 to deliberate over the proposal and determine the final form of the new arrangement.

NOAH WYLE, IN HIS OWN WORDS:

In 17 years serving as artistic producer of Hollywood’s Blank Theatre Company, I’ve learned two things about running a small theater.

The first is that you will spend most of your time engaged in an exhausting, bare-knuckled fight for survival. The second is that it’s worth it.

The Blank operates a 49-seat black box on that stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard recently designated “Hollywood Theatre Row” by the Los Angeles City Council. We’re a membership company, dedicated to providing a home for artists and to the development of new works for the American stage.

So why don’t we pay actors minimum wage for rehearsal hours? New works. 49 seats. The perfect recipe for a non-profit enterprise. All of our economics begin at that chokepoint: 49 seats x 4 shows a week =  ticket sales alone won’t get us there. Keeping our doors open requires constant fundraising, grant writing and, above all, volunteerism.

Call it “love of the craft,” esprit de corps or old-fashioned apprenticeship, we’ve survived because of a consensus of understanding: We are here to make theater, not money; that’s what TV and movies are for. Intimate theaters show we value you, the actor, by inviting you to create something new with us. You’re compensated by having a place to nurture your talent, showcase your abilities, satisfy your creativity and play roles the commercial entertainment machine would never let you play.

This proposed amendment is the reignition of an old debate, and it’s not “How do we monetize art?” or “How do we compensate artists?” From our perspective, the pertinent question looks to be: How can Actors’ Equity secure more contract weeks in a town where the 99-Seat Plan is so widely used?

The apparent strategy, with this proposal, is to force the closure of small theaters in the hope that they’ll consolidate into mid-sized theaters, thus generating more full Equity contracts.

As a proud member of Equity, I understand the issue and applaud the intention, however misguided. As a small theater producer, however, I am extremely frustrated.

Intimate theater producers have repeatedly proposed sitting down to negotiate a compromise with Equity before and after this proposal was announced, but Equity has not allowed such dialogue to occur.

We are not anti-union, nor are we anti-minimum wage, but Equity’s failure to converse with us and/or articulate the complexity of the issue to its members has forced us to engage in a media campaign to give full context to the debate.

Small theater provides opportunities for actors and directors to stretch and hone their skills. We offer an intimate, affordable theatrical experience to local audiences, play a vital role in the development of new work and are important economic stimulators for the entire County of Los Angeles.

The current 99-Seat Plan may be flawed, but you do not rid your home of termites by setting fire to it.

I will be voting NO on the referendum to eliminate the Los Angeles 99-Seat Plan.

— NOAH WYLE

(The views expressed by Wyle are his own and do not represent those of Variety.)


Noah Wyle, pictured below in the Blank’s production of “Lobster Alice”

noah-wyle-99-seat-plan-vote-equity

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  1. j ranelli says:

    there are of course several types of sub 100-seat enterprsies, and it may be that mr wylie’s fall into the purer form, no one makes money and the work is, for artists, like going to the gym, a craft-honing opportunity that gives all of us, writers, directors, designers and producers a place to experimnent, protected from the yes-no critical judgement of the commercial theatre…on the other hand there are theatres which exploit volunteers in service of the commercial and/or career ambitions of their managements (most of whom beg for indulgences from actors and taxpayers toward the development of so-called “artistic homes” for one and all, (yet keeping actors sleeping on sofas while they ascend to penthouses)…anyone who has worked for free or carfare or even showcase minimums has done so for one or more producers who have parlayed their tax free and low-overhead operations into six-figure salaries.and leverage into separate for-profit operations – doubters can look it up.

    what to do? simply this: taking on the heavy lifting of such a theatre and its fund-raising burden has to include the artists they enlist as an essential line in their budgets…yes, it may mean more time on foot, on line or on the phone, but experience informs that many prospective donors are impressed when the commitment to collaborators is fundamental…unlike, say, painting tom sawyer’s fence.

    • jay leach says:

      So, j, I got curious to know where long-lost mentors, colleagues, friends got to, so I googled you. At my age, it is a relief to see that my addressee is even alive! If you get this, recall your Macheath from WesU in 1968 and drop me a line at jleach@pacific.edu. As my url shows, I went the teaching route, with a fair amount of community theater along the way. Will fill you in more if we connect. All the best, Jay Leach

  2. The Memetrix says:

    Reblogged this on The Memetrix.

  3. Christopher Carothers says:

    I’ll only consider your position, Noah, when all of your directors at the Blank, all your choreographers, all your designers and Mr.Henning likewise volunteer their time, hard work, and talents only for the “love of the craft.” Until then, your position is only defending continuing abuse. And according to the terms of the 1988 Settlement Agreement that governs the current 99-Seat plan, AEA is not allowed to sit down and negotiate anything with 99-Seat producers. They can only talk to the Review Committee.

  4. Steve Witting says:

    what the defenders of the old 99 seat theater plan fail to realize is that the digital revolution has shattered the old norms forever. No matter how much movie exhibitors use 3D, smell and earthquake-o-vision, movie going numbers in L.A. are plummeting. Even the DGA is giving away screeners. All this “not going out to the movies” is occurring just when Uber and Lyft is finally enabling people to go out to see something with friends without getting a DUI. These new facts of life in L.A. may very well give a boost to the ancient and honorable art of theater. In order to take advantage of all these chauffeured Angelenos, the theater has to be good. Quality not quantity is what a theater goer is looking for. For 30 years hundreds of storefront 99 seaters have had thousands of third rate little productions go through a revolving door every three to four weeks.The only people who went to these shows were industry “friends” and a tourist (once).
    L.A.has first class opera houses, museums and sports teams but it’s intimate theater scene is mediocre at best. By choking off the no pay 99 seaters, Actors Equity is doing L.A. a favor. Paying the theater craftsmen and women a decent wage forces the producer to present a live theater experience that an audience would be willing to leave their homes to see. Producing world class theater in a medium sized house costs a fraction of the budget of a small hollywood movie. If no one is going out to see movies, maybe they’ll go out to see professional theater.

  5. John Allee says:

    It is my hope that my fellow local AEA members will also vote NO in the upcoming advisory referendum and that the AEA Council will find a better way forward that a majority of local Equity members can support. There’s no strength in a splintered union.

  6. Jerry Hoffman says:

    Thanks, Noah.

  7. Thank you, Noah Wyle. LA 99 seat theatre has been the greatest resource for growth I have known as an actor.

  8. Wendy Worthington says:

    Eloquent words from a dedicated artist who has made this town better because of his work and the work others like him have encouraged. Shame on AEA for not finding ways to help him, ways that would also help other union members. A union’s role should NOT be only about money, especially when they represent artists, and especially when they represent artists living and working in a unique cultural context. I am voting NO and encouraging AEA to go back to the drawing board, this time with people at the table who can help them craft a solution that will preserve all that is good about the current situation while also improving the situation for actors. This proposal does neither.

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