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”