Town Hall Unites LA Theatre Community in Civil Discussion of Equity/99-Seat Conflict

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[dropcap]December[/dropcap] 14, 2016 is D-Day for intimate theater in Los Angeles. That’s the deadline Actors’ Equity Association (Equity) has set for the implementation of its new Agreement that most observers believe will be the death knell for the way intimate theater in LA has functioned for decades — or, at the very least, will greatly alter the burgeoning landscape of LA theater.

On Monday evening, August 22, LA STAGE Alliance convened a town hall, moderated by Executive Director Steven Leigh Morris, to discuss the Equity proposal with actors, producers, and other theater professionals, along with members of the wider community. More than 240 attendees packed Theatre 2 at the Los Angeles Theatre Center for the meeting, which included a panel discussion by leaders of the theater community.

First, a bit of background for those of you who have been vacationing all year in the Bahamas, or have been obsessively focusing on the presidential race to the exclusion of everything else. For nearly thirty years, theaters with 99 seats or fewer in Los Angeles County have been operating under an Equity-approved Plan (The 99-Seat Theater Plan) that permitted Equity members to volunteer their services — including acting in limited-run productions — and receive only a small fee for each performance. Union actors working under this internal code received health and safety protections from the union.

The 99-Seat Plan grew out of a hard-fought court battle in 1988, resulting in a 1989 out-of-court settlement that set the terms for changing the Plan, and for protecting the Plan, for almost 30 years. Last year, Equity decided to toss out the Plan, essentially requiring small theaters, which are made up largely of volunteers, to pay minimum wage to actors for both rehearsals and performances — a proposal that would have bankrupted virtually all small theaters in LA, should they continue to use union actors. (An informal survey suggests that union actors comprise about 50% of casts working under the 99-Seat Plan.)

In 2015, 66% percent of local Equity membership voted to reject Equity’s then-proposed Agreement in what the union called “an advisory vote.” That’s when the union’s National Council approved the current Agreement with a few minimal changes to the former. The LA membership responded by tossing out the union’s national president in the next election, along with several regional counselors. At the same time, the LA actors announced that they would go back to court to enforce the court-ordered provisions of the 1989 Settlement Agreement.

While Equity may have initially underestimated the strong response of the LA theater community, they dug in their heels and fought back against their LA members, refusing to back away from their proposal — spending money on staff and advertising to support their position and accusing the LA actors of undermining the union. However, when the LA membership announced that they would actually take the union to court, Equity agreed to negotiate in hopes of avoiding litigation that would be costly to both sides.

Unfortunately, a year of behind-the-scenes negotiation came up with nothing, and Equity announced at the end of June that the parties were unable to resolve the dispute. Although Equity’s Agreement includes three “carve outs” (or internal codes) for membership companies, for theaters of up to 50 seats, and for union members wishing to self-produce, all three of these codes come with either new restrictions or the removal of union protections. The union, therefore, has remained firm about enforcing a new regime that threatens to eventually wipe out the presence of union actors in LA’s small theaters.

+ + + Civil War or Civil Discourse?

It was with this backdrop — after early months of open hostilities, followed by a year of what apparently were largely fruitless negotiations — that the LA theater community met this week to discuss their options going forward. In a surprisingly civil and constructive manner, the leaders in the fight to keep LA theater alive and vital outlined the prospects (and obstacles) for going forward.

The panelists included actor-producer Michael Shepperd from Celebration Theatre, actress and playwright Vanessa Claire Stewart, actress Rebecca Metz, scenic designer Tom Buderwitz, producers Armina LaManna and Gary Grossman, and actor Larry Poindexter. Representatives of Actors’ Equity were invited to attend, but declined.

Moderator Steven Leigh Morris began the evening with a discussion of the pros and cons of the Equity proposal. Morris did his best to present Equity’s arguments for the proposal, although he mentioned that it would have been far preferable to have an Equity representative make the presentation.

Equity has argued repeatedly that its plan would not unduly impact small theaters — despite clear evidence that it would bankrupt most of those that continued to use Equity actors. The union has also repeated the claim that the plan would produce more paying jobs for LA actors and encourage the growth of mid-sized theaters, again without any real data to support what most agree is a tenuous argument.

Most of the panelists fired back at these arguments and at the new Equity proposal. Michael Sheppard focused on the “carve-outs,” which would permit some membership companies to continue operating — at least temporarily — under a version of the existing 99-seat plan, while enforcing the new, more onerous plan on the large majority of small theaters. Shepperd, who is African-American and produces at Celebration Theatre (one of the nation’s pre-eminent theaters presenting LGBT work), argued that the Equity proposal would disproportionately impact minority, LGBT and female-driven theater companies.

Vanessa Claire Stewart, Rebecca Metz, Tom Buderwitz and Michael Shepperd. Photo by Mandi Moss.
Vanessa Claire Stewart, Rebecca Metz, Tom Buderwitz and Michael Shepperd. Photo by Mandi Moss.

“Ninety-five percent of the theaters that received so-called ‘carve-outs’ are Anglo,” said Shepperd. He noted that these are theaters that employ mostly white actors. “This makes it even harder for theaters that work with actors of color or from the LGBT community to operate, especially when funding for the arts is at historically low levels.”

Designer Buderwitz noted that the 99-seat plan has resulted in an explosive growth in theater in Los Angeles, from thirty to forty small theaters in the late 1980s to over two hundred today. This was clearly the result of the 99-Seat Plan, which provided venues for actors to ply their craft. Actress Metz re-iterated the importance of the small theaters for all actors, including those who make a living in film or television.

And actress/playwright Stewart emphasized the plight of many small theaters that should hardly be expected to raise enough money from donors or foundations to continue to operate under the burdensome Equity plan. As an example, she cited the difference between arts subsidies in New York — where the tourist industry depends on theater and taxpayers contribute $2.28 per person to the arts — and California, where the per capita contribution is roughly 20 cents.

Since ticket sales produce only a small portion of revenues, theaters must rely on donors and grants to operate. Producer Armina LaManna, who supports the new Equity plan, argued that small theaters had simply not worked hard enough to attract donors or grants. However, a number of panelists countered that the funding environment is highly competitive, with a large number of theaters competing for donations and grants — only a small portion of which goes to support the arts.

Producer Grossman argued that despite the Equity arguments, the proposal really has nothing to do with the minimum wage. Instead, he said that the real issue is how to grow theater in Los Angeles so that actors, theaters, audiences, and communities will benefit. One of the many problems with the Equity plan, said Grossman, is that it simply does not pencil out. “Equity hasn’t done the math, which clearly shows their plan is not viable.” Furthermore, Grossman challenged the logic of two “carve outs,” leaving actors with no health and safety protections, while one (the 50-Seat Plan) does.

Finally, actor Larry Poindexter presented the outlines of a reimagined plan that would ensure both fairness to actors and the continued vitality of Los Angeles theater. The basics of the plan rest on a simple premise — that if a theater can afford to pay actors, it should be required to do so. There are two essential elements of the plan. First, theaters that have a production budget of a more than $40,000 ($50,000 for a musical), then they should pay actors according to Equity rules. Secondly, if they pay more than 25% of their budget to staff (generally a single fundraiser), then they should also pay actors.

The proposal, which was created by a group active in the Pro-99 movement, featured a number of other provisions (including limiting the length of a run, safe and sanitary rules for actors, maximum number of performances, and other provisions) and was described by Poindexter as “a starting point for discussion” with Equity and the LA community. It is notable that, while there has been over a year and a half of public and private discussions and negotiations, Equity has consistently refused to consider these kinds of moderate proposals that take into account the unique realities of LA theater.

Overshadowing the town hall meeting was the looming court decision and Equity’s December 14th deadline for imposition of their plan. Producer Grossman predicted that the court would make a decision on whether to move forward with the case by September or October. He also mentioned that there was a pending action before the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) that would also impact the situation.

Armina LaManna and Larry Poindexter. Photo by Mandi Moss.
Armina LaManna and Larry Poindexter. Photo by Mandi Moss.

Since Equity has announced that no agreement was reached in the negotiations, it is anticipated that the decision will rest in the hands of the courts and the NLRB, unless the parties can reach an agreement in the meantime. While it is impossible to predict what the ultimate outcome will be, it is clear that the LA theater community has been profoundly impacted by the fight over the past year and a half.

What has become abundantly clear is that Equity has decided that it can no longer effectively represent the actors of Los Angeles, since it has decided to ignore their expressed wishes over and over again. It may be that the union felt it had to choose between the interests of actors in New York and regional theaters over the interests of LA actors, although there does not seem to be an obvious conflict between the several groups. New York, LA and regional theaters all have different landscapes and ecosystems — it’s apples and oranges. However, the Equity leadership has evidently decided that it can’t serve both.

This is not a new development in the labor movement. The SEIU, which has become very successful in organizing service workers, split from the AFL-CIO because it was unhappy with the larger union’s organizing efforts among low-income and minority workers. Like the AFL-CIO, which many in the labor movement have criticized for becoming hidebound and even elitist, Equity seems to have fallen into a cozy, bureaucratic mentality that ignores its history as a progressive fighter for the interests of its members.

So what if Equity wins the lawsuit and their new, draconian plan becomes the law of the land? Actor Dakin Matthews — considered by some to be the dean of LA’s small theater community — paints a bleak, if somewhat complex picture of the future. He predicts that a few theaters will go non-union and many actors will quit the union. While some companies will try to work under the new Equity plan, a number will fold or produce only small-cast plays, thus reducing the opportunities for actors to perform.

A few membership companies will find a way to manage, says Matthews, by operating under the “carve-outs” offered by Equity. However, if these membership companies are actually successful, Matthews predicts that Equity will change the rules to shut them down, since the union is clearly opposed to volunteerism.

Whatever the outcome of the current dispute, it has clearly damaged the image of Equity in Los Angeles — its second largest community of members. Whether this conflict results ultimately in a split in the union — which most actors in Los Angeles seem to oppose — or a change in the attitude of the national leadership, is hard to predict. However, there seems to be a general agreement on Equity’s poor handling of the dispute. Or as Oliver Hardy said to Stan Laurel, “What a fine mess you’ve gotten us into!”

For full video, photos, and documents from this town hall event, visit the LA STAGE Alliance website.

Hoyt Hilsman

Hoyt Hilsman

Hoyt Hilsman is a playwright, screenwriter and critic. He writes regularly for the Huffington Post, has been a regular theater critic for Daily Variety and is former President of the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle.