Spokes & Mirrors by Steven Leigh Morris

Actors’ Equity Association vs. Los Angeles Theater

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Both AEA and SAG/AFTRA fall under the rubric of the AFL-CIO, and are supposed to have reciprocity, but there’s an open question on whether there’s the capacity, or even the desire, to enforce that reciprocity. SAG/AFTRA, which also sees harrowing unemployment among its ranks of TV, film, and radio actors, has equivalent contracts to the 99-Seat Theater Plan for small-budget and independent films — the entrepreneur wing. So far, SAG/AFTRA has remained conspicuously quiet about getting involved in the Equity controversy. It’s likely that SAG/AFTRA has no interest in trying to hunt down people who were in a play a couple of years ago.

McAdams estimates that to hire artists at Equity’s minimum wage requirement would cost him $12,000 just for three actors, including workers’ comp and payroll tax. “If you’re doing a show that costs $30,000, that’s more than 1/3 of the budget, and that’s just for a three-person show.” He adds that most L.A. theaters who want to do larger-cast shows or classics will find such a financial burden unworkable.

For the most part, those 7,000 Equity members in Los Angeles are going to be the victims of their union’s policies should Equity prevail; their already slim opportunities to work will grow even slimmer, or they’ll be working in productions with considerably lower production values, or working under a membership plan with their former union protections gutted, while waiting for the other shoe to drop. No other city has anything equivalent to the 99-Seat Plan, or a carve-out for membership companies, and the union’s oft-repeated argument has been that it wants to bring Los Angeles into compliance with other cities under its jurisdiction.

To quote AEA Executive Director Mary McColl in American Theatre last year:

“This kerfuffle, this challenge we’ve got going on in L.A., is impacting what’s happening nationally, especially when we talk to producers. They say to us, ‘What’s going in L.A.? Why can’t we get in on the 99-seat plan?’ I’ve read on social media that we’re systematically stamping out the 99-seat plan all across the country, like we’re Mubarak’s army moving in. But the 99-seat plan doesn’t exist anywhere else but Los Angeles.”

Perhaps that’s because Mubarak’s army stamped it out. “Equity got rid of a similar plan in Dallas, and in San Francisco,” McAdams says. “They’ve been doing this all around the country.”

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Part III:
A Blue Sky Proposal

Let’s pretend for a moment. Let’s pretend we’re in the theater. Let’s try some suspension of disbelief.

Let’s pretend that Los Angeles has over 7,000-8,000 Equity members, whereas Chicago has 1,829, and San Francisco has 1,143, Seattle has 450 (while Dallas and San Diego don’t even make it to Equity’s top ten list). We’re not pretending yet. This much is actually true, if you believe Equity’s 2013-2014 figures. And I’d like to. I’d like to believe that Equity wants to tell the truth, and that it wants to resolve this “kerfuffle.”

Let’s pretend that all those Equity actors, congregated in our expansive, expensive, smog-laden, drought-inflicted hills and valleys, adjoining the mighty Mojave — the hottest, largest, driest desert in the land — let’s pretend that we want to do something useful for those Equity actors that’s also useful for the local culture.

Let’s pretend that the geography, and the economics, and climate, and all these actors who roll into Los Angeles year after year, decade after decade, all of that, let’s pretend that what works in Minneapolis-St. Paul — a beautiful place in its own right — let’s pretend that theater in a desert has different requirements from theater by a lake, where it rains once in a while.

Let’s pretend that what’s best for a place with hundreds of actors may not be best for a place with hundreds of thousands — if you add in the SAG/AFTRA people, and the actors who haven’t yet joined a labor union, but who still keep showing up.

Let’s pretend that over the past three decades, Equity and its members used a plan by which, acknowledging the obscene dearth of contract work in Los Angeles County, permitted Equity actors to work on stages of 99 seats or fewer, almost for free. Because they figured it’s better to do Chekhov and Shakespeare and a new play by a local scribe than to do nothing but work at Target. Let’s pretend that, given their employment rate in the theater of 10%, they actually made their living wages in some arena other than the stage. Maybe film, TV. Maybe Costco. Maybe Mimi’s Cafe in Glendale. Maybe El Pollo Loco. Maybe the University of Redlands.

But let’s pretend that these people are still actors, union actors, despite their official employment in other fields. Let’s pretend they don’t particularly care whether or not they receive minimum wage from their work in theaters of 99 seats or fewer. Sure, they’d like to be paid more; they’d like to be paid what Mark Rylance gets paid, but they’d prefer their tiny theaters (that they had a share in creating) not close, or that they wouldn’t be locked out of these theaters because their union told them they needed to be more professional — because minimum wages for all the actors when you’re putting on Romeo and Juliet, those wages just don’t pencil out for them. That big grant they were hoping for, the one from the Department of Cultural Affairs? It didn’t come in. Does that really mean they’re no longer actors? Does that really mean they’re no longer professionals?

Let’s pretend that the creation of the 99-Seat Plan wasn’t contentious. Let’s pretend it was friendly. Let’s pretend we’re all friends.

Take a deep breath.

Let’s try that again. Let’s pretend we’re all friends.

Let’s pretend we believe in fairness, but we also believe in circumstances.

Let’s pretend that if a theater has a budget — an actual budget, year after year, that exceeds $1 million — not because of a one-time fundraising campaign for a new building, but because that’s what it earns in contributions and in revenue, year after year — let’s pretend that, under such circumstances, it should probably be using an Equity contract for its actors.

Let’s pretend that if a theater has a budget — an actual budget, year after year, that’s only $20,000, it still deserves to exist with the best actors it can find, if it pleases its community, even if it can’t pay its actors minimum wage for rehearsals and performances. Let’s pretend that even that kind of poverty isn’t a reason to kill it off, or to constrict it from doing the best shows it possibly can, with a set, or musicians, or whatever.

Let’s pretend we set a cap for when theaters can use Equity actors as volunteers. Let’s pretend that volunteering in non-profit theaters is legal in California, because it actually is. So long as everybody volunteers. Nobody is allowed to volunteer if somebody else is getting a salary to do the same kind of work. That’s not pretend. That’s California State labor law. Let’s get back to pretending.

Let’s pretend that if a theater of up to 99 seats has an annual budget of no more than $600,000 — which covers almost all of the 99-seat theaters in Los Angeles County, let’s pretend they’re allowed to use Equity actors as volunteers with expense stipends, established under the best practices program of the Theatrical Producers League of L.A. The purpose of all this is to get a show off the ground. Let’s say a couple of months. Say 20 performances? 30 performances?

Let’s also pretend that the theater can set its own ticket prices. There’s a reason for that.

Let’s pretend that’s a couple of months at four shows a week. Let’s pretend that after that time, the show is a hit. Agreed, hit shows where the actors continue to volunteer are potentially exploitive. So let’s say that after 30 performances, or 20 performances, the producers must convert their volunteers to employees and start working with base-line Equity contracts. That’s the reason not to cap ticket prices, because that’s the income that’s going back into actors’ salaries, if the show’s a success.

This model combines the best of the 99-Seat Theater Plan with Equity’s ache for more union contracts. It preserves the 99-seat theater scene that’s evolved over decades and that union members have declared, unarguably, that they want to keep. And it also incentivizes commercial success, and the move to Equity contracts.

Just try it, for heaven’s sake. What’s to lose? After eight months of facilitated discussions, nobody could agree to such a common-sense solution?

Let’s pretend you’re willing to try out a scheme that drives Equity actors out of an entire swath of L.A. theaters, against their stated wishes, with no proof that will lead to more contract work.

Now let’s pretend that you’re willing to try out a scheme that actually holds the promise of contract work at the end of every show produced in the dozens of 99-seat theaters that have evolved over the last 30 years. There are hundreds of such shows every season. Let’s pretend it’s better to use the 99-seat theaters as a springboard to contract work rather than condemning them to exile, or condemning Equity members to exile from them.

One more thing: what if it’s not a show in a theater that does seasons, but a one-off? How about a budget cap of, say $30,000? $40,000?

Same idea. Give them a couple of months to find their audience, then convert volunteers to employees.

Let’s pretend there’s nothing to lose in trying out something that offers opportunities rather than restrictions.

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.