Spokes & Mirrors by Steven Leigh Morris

Actors’ Equity Association vs. Los Angeles Theater

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Perhaps the most incendiary Equity position is that the 99-seat theaters are standing in the way of developing more mid-size contract theaters, and that L.A.’s actors who support these tiny theaters are therefore harming their own financial interests. This is like blaming the homeless for poverty in America while calling yourself “progressive.”

Contract theaters emerge from benefactors, patrons, and a friendlier arts funding environment than what currently exists in Southern California. There is no evidence that the existence of the 99-seat theaters, with or without union actors, has any bearing on the kinds or quantity of funding that pours into, say, Center Theatre Group, the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, the Geffen Playhouse, or even the more modest mid-size theaters in the region.

According to its 2013-2014 IRS filings, the annual budget for Pasadena’s A Noise Within, a comparatively young mid-size theater, hovered at around two million dollars. Contrast that against the budget of the Fountain Theatre, a 99-Seat Theater that’s been around for 26 years, and is one of the handful of such established theaters that maintains a small paid staff. The Fountain’s budget of about $500,000 is one-quarter that of A Noise Within, and the Fountain is one of the higher budget 99-seat theaters. Grants are almost always tied to annual budget, so it’s specious to argue that The Fountain Theatre is somehow impeding the existence of mid-size theaters, or blocking the emergence of new contract houses.

The assertion is also historically inaccurate. From 1980 to 2000, an era of comparative prosperity, and in the midst of an already robust 99-seat theater scene, a number of mid-size theaters emerged, sometimes from the 99-seat theaters themselves: The Los Angeles Theatre Center (a downtown four-theater complex) emerged from the 99-seat L.A. Actors’ Theatre in Hollywood; Little Tokyo’s East West Players and Burbank’s Colony Theatre, both contract houses, each grew out of 99-seat theaters in East Hollywood and Silver Lake, respectively. More recently, in the economic slowdown, fewer theaters have transitioned from 99-seat theaters to mid-size houses, but we have seen the appearance of Independent Shakespeare Company, A Noise Within, The Broad Stage, and the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts — all contract houses emerging in the company of the current 99-Seat Theater Plan.

Furthermore, the union is speculating, recklessly, that sending the production budgets of money-losing intimate theaters through the roof will compel them to rise to more professional standards. This presumes that these theaters will continue to use Equity actors, the ratio of which using the 99-Seat Plan has been hovering at around 50% of casts. Unlikely. Remedial economics suggests that these theaters will likely resort to non-Equity actors, or close, as has happened in San Francisco, Dallas, and Chicago. More on that below.

Rather than blaming L.A.’s economic malaise in the arts on the people who are trying to create art, perhaps the union might consider that State arts funding in California ranks fifth from the bottom in the nation, and that philanthropy nation-wide is shifting from the traditional arts towards non-traditional arts and areas of social justice. Perhaps the poverty out here has to do with factors slightly more existential than the 99-Seat Theater Plan, which is a response to poverty rather than the cause of it.

As noted above, the 34% of the nation’s union stage actors who found any contract employment at all during the year worked for an average of 16.7 weeks.

67% of those work weeks occurred in the Eastern region. While only 17% of those work weeks unfolded across the West, from Seattle to San Diego. (The remaining 15% came from the Central region.)

Furthermore, of the union’s stated 50,000 members across the nation, in any given week, 3,783 were working in the Eastern region, contrasted against only 974 across the West. And that’s where the 90%+ unemployment figure in any given week comes from, given the 10,454 union members in the West that Equity cites in its annual report of the 2013-2014 season.

That same report cites over 8,000 members in Los Angeles alone. This means that in any given week, over 7,000 of them were doing something other than working on the stage in contract work. Which brings us back to Dan Sullivan’s assertion in the L.A. Times in 1988: “They need an outlet. The 99-seat-and-under houses give them that outlet. Kill it and you kill a lot of hope, promote a lot of unrest.”

In the 30-years since Sullivan made that prediction, dozens of theater companies have sprung up under the Plan, and a few have evolved fairly sophisticated administrative structures, some with paid staff, along with their reputation for top-tier work: The Fountain Theatre, Theatre @ Boston Court, and the Odyssey Theatre spring to mind. There aren’t many that include paid staff, but among the complaints made about the 99-seat-plan is the inequity of a theater that pays staff but claims it can’t afford to pay actors more than expense stipends. The most often cited example is Ron Sossi, who gave up a lucrative career as a television producer to run the three-theater Odyssey Theatre complex. After 40 years of building, maintaining, and operating the theater, 27 years under the 99-Seat Plan, Sossi draws an annual salary from it of about $60,000, supplementing his income, like other staff members at that theater, with teaching at local colleges. These are people who are working in that building 12 months a year. But one argument in support of the union position is that Sossi and his likes are profiteering off the actors’ backs.

So let’s compare the Odyssey Theatre to the kind of theater that the almost everybody admires, Southern California’s biggest rags-to-riches success story, South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa. SCR is an acclaimed three-theater, mid-size theater complex that sub-contracts L.A. theater companies, as well as employing its own actors on Equity contracts. It’s a robust and indispensable organization.

If the Odyssey Theatre’s $25 expense stipend per performance were extrapolated out to 50 weeks for a hit show running Tuesdays–Sundays, with two shows on Saturdays and Sundays (a performance schedule in many regional theaters), each actor at the Odyssey Theater would be receiving $10,000 for the year, or 1/6 the salary rate of the artistic director. An outrage, you might say.

According to SCR’s 2012 Form 990 filing, Artistic Director Marc Masterson drew an annual salary from SCR of $212,425. (And that was four years ago.)

An actor in SCR’s second stage works on a LORT D contract for a minimum of $618 a week, which, extrapolated out to 50 weeks a year, were there employment year-round, would be $30,900, or 1/7 the salary rate of the artistic director, which is an even smaller cut than at the Odyssey Theatre.

So if Sossi is profiteering of the actors’ backs, as has been alleged, couldn’t the same be said of Masterson? Which is nothing against either Sossi or Masterson, or what they deserve, or what they earn. It’s only an illustration of how the science of “fair pay” is actually a highly interpretive art.

The larger question is whether staff salaries at a handful of 99-Seat Plan theaters in Los Angeles is sufficient reason to eliminate a Plan that benefits almost 200 other theaters, and thousands of actors, playwrights, designers, directors, and attendant industries.

How do we find equity?

Yet another sampling in the union’s dubious claims comes in Equity’s letter to its membership: With all its workarounds, the union says, gutting of the 99-Seat Plan will only affect 26 theaters.

Plaintiff Gary Grossman, who produces mostly new plays at his Skylight Theatre, has a different view — citing the restrictions on 50-seat theaters in its new plan: The union won’t allow them to produce more than three shows per year, and those must operate with “severe budget caps,” not to mention the new restrictions on all the membership companies.

“They’re not referring to any of the new restrictions they’ve imposed,” says Grossman. “The staff theaters are definitely going to be affected. I don’t know where they get 26 from.”

Grossman then turns to his wish list for Equity: “Help us create a plan where some of these small theaters that are more financially capable right now, help them to become mid-size houses. That’s growth. That’s an avenue for success. But all Equity is trying to do right now is restrict. And we’re fighting that. We’re saying no.”

Grossman and the union agree on one point: That none of this is going to destroy L.A. theater, though they agree on that point for opposite reasons. Grossman says the smaller theaters aren’t going anywhere, whereas the union believes they do damage.

“We’re going to be fine,” Grossman says — a view shared by producer Jay McAdams, who runs the 24th Street Theatre, near USC, with his wife, Debbie Devine. That theater produces highly sophisticated theater productions — targeted for youth but grappling with adult themes — that tour domestically and internationally.

Both Grossman and McAdams believe that if Equity succeeds in its attempt to kill the 99-Seat Theater Plan, the vast majority of these theaters will simply turn non-union, or to a different union. There are an estimated 100,000 SAG/AFTRA (Screen Actors’ Guild/American Federation of Television and Radio Actors) members in the L.A. area, contrasted against the 7,000 AEA members.

“What’s the choice?” McAdams asks rhetorically. “They’re forcing our hand, the way I see it. There are some wonderful actors in Equity, and some wonderful actors who aren’t in Equity.”


Steven Leigh Morris

Steven Leigh Morris

Steven is the Executive Director of LA STAGE Alliance, and is the founding editor of the community-funded digital arts venture Stage Raw (www.stageraw.com). Morris chaired the Jury for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2012, and served on that Jury in 2011. He received the Critic of the Year prize for his print reviews by the National Entertainment Journalism Awards in 2011.