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Guest Column: Charlayne Woodard Urges ‘Yes’ Vote on Actors’ Equity’s 99-Seat Theater Proposal

Since the late ’80s, Actors’ Equity Association 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 through April 17 on the proposal in what the union calls 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.

ACTOR-PLAYWRIGHT CHARLAYNE WOODARD:

Thirty years ago, a dedicated group of Los Angeles stage actors successfully challenged their own union, Actors’ Equity Association (AEA), to permit them to act in small theaters of 99 seats or less without any compensation other than carfare during performances.  This allowed Equity members to work up to 36 hours per week for four rehearsal weeks and up to 80 performances. Consequently, for a full production, actors in 99-seat theaters receive about 18¢ a day.

It’s okay to volunteer, as long as everyone else is volunteering. In 99-seat theaters, everyone but the actor gets paid, including producers, staff, playwrights, directors, stage managers, choreographers and musicians, as well as set, costume, lighting and other designers.

This agreement was not intended to last in perpetuity. But 30 years later, hundreds of small, often actor-driven theaters continue to rely on this imperfect business model. Many L.A.-based AEA members are no longer willing to work as unpaid volunteers, and have asked their union to step in. AEA is a labor union and must comply with both federal and state labor laws, and these laws do not allow employers to use professional actors as volunteers. They require that actors receive at least a minimum wage. It’s the law, folks.

While it’s true that many of these small but dedicated theater companies are barely subsisting, many companies, including some of those leading the charge against paying their actors, have existed for decades, gross hundreds of thousands of dollars annually and even have their own dedicated spaces.

I myself have worked in, and benefited from, 99-seat theater productions, both as a cast member and a self-producing playwright. Even so, I believe it’s time to improve this business model, which relies on grossly underpaying union labor.

In cities around the country, actors are paid at least a minimum wage, and those theater communities thrive. Our commitment, our craft and our work are worth way more than minimum wage. But we have to start somewhere and change this unfair situation. We are professionals and it’s time we are treated as such.

Our union needs our support. Beginning March 25, AEA members have been receiving ballots to vote on a non-binding, advisory proposal. Our Council of nationally elected representatives will then consider this proposal in depth. Based on the input of members, as well as California state law, the Council will likely make changes to the proposal itself, and a final decision will be made.

A “Yes” vote means you want to make a Change to the existing system. A “No” vote means you want to maintain the status quo and continue to work with no pay.

Vote “Yes,” Change for 99.

— CHARLAYNE WOODARD

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

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