Waiver War Weapons: Part II

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To read Part I, please see Waging the Waiver Wars

As anyone who follows international relations might tell you, a key weapon in a powerful player’s arsenal is simple recognition, or more importantly, the strategic withholding of same. By deciding which parties, organizations or even small countries it considers legitimate bargaining partners, a nation or bloc of nations can define the acceptable parameters of discourse and in many cases determine the course of a conflict-if indeed it admits there is a conflict at all.

Union organizers know this tactic well from the other side of the barricades, for very often the first obstacle they encounter, and the first battle they must win, is simply to be recognized by management as labor’s legitimate negotiating representative. So perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that Actors’ Equity Association employed a similar hardball approach in the late 1980s when it faced a virtual insurgency of members opposed to the union’s tightening of small-theater rules in Los Angeles. By most accounts, the venerable stage union kept the upper hand over actor/producers by simply ignoring their demands and refusing, until cornered by a lawsuit, to hammer out a deal.

“The huge frustration was that Equity refused to negotiate with us,” recalls Laura Zucker, now executive director of LA County Arts Commission. In the ’80s, Zucker served as producing director of Back Alley Theatre in Sherman Oaks. As such, she co-chaired an ad hoc alliance of 99-seat theater producers, formed in response to Equity’s plan to rein in an unregulated – and very active – small theater scene.

“That was their primary tactic: not to meet, not to talk,” Zucker relates. “That’s why we brought the lawsuit alleging breach of covenant. And the lawsuit worked in the sense that it forced them to talk to us.”

That lawsuit was among the key battlegrounds in the infamous Equity Waiver wars, which raged from 1986 through 1988 and changed LA theater forever. Actors who were once guaranteed nothing for working in theaters under 100 seats would ever after have some basic protections, some limits on work hours, and a small monetary reimbursement for their hard work. Was the fight worth it? And what brought the contenders to the brink?

As we saw in Part One of this two-part history of LA’s 99-Seat Plan, in 1972 Equity had granted its members a “waiver” to work without union protection or remuneration in theaters with fewer than 100 seats. As a result, the quantity of theater productions and companies exploded, with the roster of venues and independent companies roughly tripling within a decade.

This startling growth-glut, some said-of live theater in LA had a dangerous flip side. Equity’s East Coast leadership had been skeptical of the Waiver from the start, allowing it only on the grounds, as 99-Seat Plan administrator Michael Van Duzer puts it, that it provided “a way for our membership to showcase themselves and get other paying work in film, TV or stage.” That actors-showcase rationale happens to be contrary to the impulse that has given rise to some of LA’s best theater. Contrary to its intention, however, the waiver sets up expectations of career advancement that a thousand tiny theaters in a spread-out industry town can meet only sporadically.

Indeed, as Van Duzer notes, the 1980s saw a plethora of alternative showcase opportunities spring up, from casting director workshops to “industry nights,” where agents and casting directors could watch a series of short scenes and enjoy a catered reception, all without having to endure “three hours of bad Shakespeare and then go out to find their cars had been broken into.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, anecdotal evidence also surfaced to suggest the Waiver had opened the door to abuse-including one notorious long-running comedy at a Westside venue where the roaches made out better than the actors. “The Waiver had no rules at all,” Van Duzer points out. “So if somebody had a complaint, like, ‘They made us work for 14 hours,’ we had to say, ‘It’s not a contract-you can leave the show.’ ”

According to Van Duzer, actors who asked to waive union wages and protections started to wonder, “I’m not being seen by the people I want to be seen by, and this set costs how much?”

It was probably inevitable, then, that the Waiver’s no-rules regime would change. In 1985, a two-page document outlining a new plan for LA’s small theaters was presented at an Equity staff meeting, with basic limits on rehearsal and performance times, working conditions and the actor’s tiny honorarium of $5 a performance. When the proposal made it to a member’s meeting in 1986, Van Duzer got a glimpse of the battle royale to come.

“There was a lot of hysteria-people saying theaters would go out of business and actors wouldn’t have any place to showcase themselves,” Van Duzer recounts. “On the other side, people either wanted to curb Waiver or just had distaste for professional actors getting paid nothing, saying this took us right back to the actor/managers that created the need for Equity in the first place. There were a lot of eloquent speeches and a lot of hysterical screaming. This clearly went to an emotional core.” Needless to say, Van Duzer sums up, “We went back to the drawing board.”

It’s On

Clamoring for a place at that drawing board was a large group of theater producers who called themselves the Equity Waiver Theatre Operators Committee (ETWOC). These were the leaders of LA’s large, unruly, oft-acclaimed theater scene, including the Colony Theatre‘s Barbara Beckley, the Victory Theatre‘s Maria Gobetti and Tom Ormeny, the Matrix Theatre‘s Joe Stern, the Odyssey Theatre‘s Ron Sossi, and Back Alley’s Laura Zucker. Many of them, such as Zucker’s husband, actor/director/teacher Allan Miller, also happened to be Equity members-a technical conflict of interest that meant, although Equity was willing to hold non-binding meetings with EWTOC to hear their concerns, the union saw no reason to formally negotiate a new small theater plan with them.

While EWTOC did this wooing dance with Equity, the union had another Waiver fire to put out. In 1987, a producer named Paula Holt opened the Tiffany, a new theater complex on Sunset Blvd., containing two state-of-the-art 99-seat spaces. Equity viewed this as an illegal division of one larger midsized-and hence potentially full-contract-theater in its jurisdiction. More privately, the actors’ union fretted that two sleek, professional-looking theaters operating under the Waiver would set a terrible precedent. Would producers with deeper pockets just exploit the Waiver as a cheap way to open their pet projects or import Off-Broadway hits?

At the time, Holt wasn’t part of EWTOC’s struggle for union recognition and had no stake in the gathering Waiver wars. But when she sued the union successfully and won the right to keep the Tiffany’s doors open, the defeat only seemed to solidify the union’s resolve against the Waiver’s advocates.

At least, that’s one way to explain what happened next. Tom Ormeny recalls a last-ditch attempt to make EWTOC’s case directly to the union’s East Coast brass.

“I flew to New York and went in front of the national committee and said, ‘I don’t want to sue my own union,’ ” Ormeny says. “We left the meeting and we felt pretty strongly they were listening to us.”

Listening or not, Equity unilaterally decided in late March of 1988 to send a referendum directly to West Coast members, who handily voted to instate the new 99-Seat Actors’ Theatre Plan in place of the Waiver. To the folks at EWTOC, this was the last straw.

“We said, ‘OK, this is war,’ and we got a pro bono lawyer,” recalls Gobetti. The lawyer took the case, Ormeny says, because “he thought he could win it on breach of covenant. Without any attempt to negotiate, Equity had shut down the talks.”

In the ensuing volley of threats and counter-threats, newspaper op-ed pieces and contentious overflow meetings, both sides hardened their positions. EWTOC rechristened itself ATLAS (ostensibly an acronym for Associated Theatres of Los Angeles, though where that final “S” comes from is anyone’s guess), which later joined the Producers League of Greater Los Angeles to form Theatre League Alliance, a.k.a. Theatre LA (now LA Stage Alliance, the publisher of this blog). Some of this was mere positioning but most of it was sincere anger.

“When push came to shove, we started ATLAS. We said, ‘Equity is outdated, it’s a rhinoceros,’ ” recalls Odyssey founder Ron Sossi. “We even started doing auditions for our own actor members and we picketed the union.”

By the fall, though, the battles ended with a whimper. A grace period passed and the new 99-Seat Plan went into effect. The Waiver was history and most members of the erstwhile ATLAS, however grudgingly, signed onto the new system.

Not that they lost everything: that restraint-of-trade lawsuit ended in a settlement that included an important concession, as Van Duzer points out.

“The major change was that another committee would be set up with members of the 99-Seat community, which would meet a couple of times a year to discuss the Plan,” says Van Duzer. “And if the 99-Seat committee disagreed with any proposed changes, they would have the option of taking the case to our board. There was now an open path for a dissenting opinion that hadn’t been there before.”

It would be 12 years before the 99-Seat Plan was revisited or revised. “That tells you how deep the hurt was,” says Van Duzer.

L.A. Exceptionalism

There’s been enough healing, however, that most veterans of the Waiver wars now speak of that time philosophically.

“As much as we fought the coming of the Plan in the ’80s, I believe that was the logical next step and evolution,” says the Colony’s Barbara Beckley.

The unanswered question is how the Plan might evolve. Around the turn of the century, the Colony and a handful of other LA area theaters – East West Players, International City Theatre – made the leap to midsized spaces and hence to Equity contracts. It’s been quite a nail-biter, Beckley says, “The chasm between running a theater at a 99-seat level and with a contract-I don’t see how it’s possible now.”

Though Zucker agrees the 99-Seat Plan has been a net benefit for area theater, she doesn’t think it was the best the producers and Equity could have done-or could still do.

“The irony of this whole situation is that both Equity and the producers wanted midsized theaters,” Zucker says. “We were all frustrated by the limitations of Waiver. Part of the dialogue we wanted to have with Equity was; how can we get from here to there without impediment? The leap from a Waiver situation to a full contract is so huge and so many people get lost in there. So part of the proposal we put forward was a way to allow people to tier up from 99 seats. Equity tossed that out and said, ‘We’re not going to create a tiered plan; you each have to talk to us individually.’ That was the greatest mistake they ever made.”

Zucker still sounds frustrated as she recalls the old battles but she’s quick to add, “It’s really not too late. One could sit down with theater operators and come up with a way they could grow, that will incentivize theaters to start adding seats-it would be a progressive, creative plan and it won’t look like any other contract Equity has anywhere else.”

This is a recurring refrain in the story of the Southland’s small theater scene-what might be called Los Angeles Exceptionalism. The litany goes something like this: This sprawling urban mega region has, by some estimates, a few hundred thousand actors vying for a TV walk-on; it’s notoriously stingy with foundation or government support for theater; and though it’s among the top three theatergoing cities in the US, measured in ticket receipts, it is not by any stretch of the imagination a commercial theater capital.

Given the lay of the land, then, is the non-remunerative 99-Seat Plan a clever workaround that allows thousands of talented theater artists to ply their craft with minimal restrictions? Or is it yet another item in that list of reasons for LA theater’s second-class status?

Says Paula Holt, “You can’t understand the plan unless you consider it was established by actors, not by producers or theater owners. There was no need for union protection because there wasn’t anything at stake-you didn’t have the usual split between producer and actor because a lot of the producers were actors.”

Sossi agrees. Like Holt, he’s heard the zero-sum argument that a glut of Waiver has somehow stifled the development of midsized theater-an argument that would have to ignore the relative health of the Taper, the Geffen, and the Pasadena Playhouse-but he’s not persuaded that LA’s actors would want it any other way.

“The alternative might be half a dozen midsize theaters where you still would only make a meager salary,” Sossi speculates. “The actors would rather have 130 theaters where they make gas money than six theaters where they can make crappy money.”

For Joe Stern at the Matrix, the real victory in the Waiver wars has been changing the minds of his foes.

“Their whole thesis for 35 years was that if you don’t get paid, you have no dignity and you’re an amateur,” Stern says of Equity’s East Coast leadership. “But they’ve begun to get it-part of it is just attrition, and part of it is seeing our viewpoint. It’s now better than it ever was; consciousness has been elevated.”

As Equity’s Van Duzer puts it: “Even the most rabidly anti-waiver and anti-99-Seat-Plan people have realized that the way Los Angeles is, some form of this will always have to exist.”

LA theatergoers may not realize what struggles have transpired behind the scenes to keep the shows going on. But the next time you’re in an audience of 60 enjoying a great night of theater for around $25 a ticket, you might think to offer a silent tribute of gratitude (maybe even a spoken one, or a cashable one) to the fighters who’ve helped to keep Los Angeles theater as abundant as it is intimate.

Image courtesy of www.townhousecompany.com

Rob Kendt

Rob Kendt