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New 99 Seat Theater Rules Could Affect About Half of L.A.’s Intimate Theaters

Theater union Actors’ Equity Association has taken the latest step in its controversial bid to restructure the employment arrangement for actors working in Los Angeles theaters of 99 seats or less, adopting new membership rules and agreements that could affect just below half of the L.A. area’s intimate theater companies.

The new employment regulations would now require some small theater companies to pay actors minimum wage, or, in larger venues, a weekly salary, and potentially pension and benefit payments, depending on the number of seats in the venue.

Although it’s not immediately certain exactly how many theaters the changes would effect, a preliminary estimate puts the percentage at roughly 47% of the theaters on L.A.’s busy intimate-theater scene.

“In the coming year, we would be looking to organize at somewhere below 50% of the intimate theaters we know about, under the new 99-seat agreement provisions,” said Mary McColl, Equity’s executive director.

To judge from social-media response on Twitter and Facebook, the Equity National Council’s April 21 decision doesn’t look likely to quell the controversy anytime soon.

“This new plan is better than the last one, but the frustration is that there’s never any dialogue,” said Padraic Duffy, the managing director of Sacred Fools, which qualifies as a “member theater” in Equity’s new array of rules and work agreements. “Who Equity is really sticking it to is the staff-driven companies between 50 and 99 seats. They’re the ones who are still staring at their demise, or at least at radical change.”

Inspiring fierce opinions, both pro and con, in a debate euphemistically described as spirited, the first proposal put forward by Equity in February raised a ruckus among actors worried the new rules, aimed at securing minimum wage for actors, would impose too great a burden on L.A.’s intimate theaters and curtail creative and professional opportunities for union members. After a nonbinding voting window that allowed membership to weigh in on the new proposals, Equity has moved forward with new rules and agreements that, in the union’s eyes, respond to members’ concerns regarding the original proposal.

That membership referendum tallied 2,046 votes against the original new proposal vs. 1,075 for it (with a turnout of about 45% of area membership). “We heard loud and clear that our members didn’t think the first proposal was broad enough, and it didn’t have enough nuance,” McColl said.

The revised version of Equity’s work rules for 99-seat theaters now includes a 13-month interim window during which producing companies affected by the new rules have time to transition to the new structures. There are also new rules for membership companies and new agreements for tiers of theaters based on number of seats (50 or fewer, 349 or fewer, etc.).

At the crux of the conflict is Equity’s desire to bring L.A.’s small theaters in line with the city’s minimum wage requirements, butting up against the ethos of a small-theater landscape that often sees actors willingly working in intimate venues for little or no money, betting the payoff will come in exposure, skill-building and creative fulfillment.

According to the new rules and agreements, the transitional window will run through May 31, 2016, when the requirements will kick into full effect. The opposition, meanwhile, has begun studying the specifics of the new rules and huddling to plan a response.

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