Inside LA Stage History: The 99-seat/AEA Wars, Part Two

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By Julio Martinez

The conclusion of Julio Martinez’s two-part history of the 99-seat/AEA Wars. In case you missed it, you can catch up on Part One here.

By the 1970s, Actors’ Equity Association (AEA) Western Region Director Edward Weston had found himself embroiled in confrontations between local stage producers and actors. Producer/actor Rudy Solar recalled Weston in a 1985 interview, “tried to beat me up over his demands for an open-ended, actors’ co-op profit-sharing plan. He actually hit me.”

Born in 1934 in Modesto, California, Solari graduated from San Francisco State College, quickly establishing himself as a much sought-after Hollywood film and TV actor. He also worked as a drama coach at Warner Brothers and as director of the graduate program in acting at UCLA. Solari’s intense desire to work in live theater led him to create the 200-seat Actor’s Theater in 1961; the company later merged with Guy Stockwell’s Los Angeles Art Theater. It was tough going. Solari’s bitter confrontations with Actors’ Equity continued during the late 1960s as he petitioned in vain for both co-op profit-sharing and the abandonment of the Showcase Code.

Rudy Solari

Pushing forward, in 1976, Solari converted the decaying Beverly Canon movie house into a live stage venue, both for performance and as a teaching outlet. Over the next six years, Solari produced such works as The Goodbye People, starring Patty Duke; Fathers and Sons, starring Richard Chamberlain; Otherwise Engaged, starring William Shatner; and An Evening With Quentin Crisp. Among Solari’s successes: The Second Greatest Entertainer in the World, which garnered 1978 LADCC scripting and performance awards for Dick Shawn; and The Price, which ran for three months, earning a 1980 LADCC featured performance award for Harold Gary.

Unfortunately, the realities of maintaining the theater finally defeated Solari, who closed down the operation by the end of 1981. (In 1983, then-up-and-coming stage entrepreneur Susan Dietz took over the defunct space, renaming it L.A. Stage Company—later the Canon Theatre. Suffering from declining health, Solari died of cancer in 1991 at the age of 56. The Canon Theatre was demolished in September 2005.)

Meanwhile, the formation of the 1972 Equity Waiver Plan, led by Weston, had freed actors to perform in and produce themselves in theaters seating 99 or fewer people.

Interviewed in 1978 by the LA Times, Weston said that while the Equity Waiver Plan hadn’t “produced the employment we’d hope’s helped many actors get jobs—if not on stage, in films or TV.” Still, dissatisfaction among union stage actors prompted Weston to consider revisions to the Equity Waiver rules.

LA Times theater critic Sylvie Drake reported on Aug 26, 1986, that Weston’s planned modification of Equity Waiver “would reinstate a measure of union control in all so-called Waiver theaters where union members work. The new plan, renamed the Actors’ 99-Seat Theatre Plan and subtitled A Code of Fair Practices, was arrived at by Equity’s Joint Committee (its 99-seat Waiver Committee and its Developing Theaters Committee), in response to growing complaints by actors about working conditions in the Waiver theaters.”

In the spring of 1988, a referendum on “the plan” was sent out to West Coast Equity members. Unfortunately, a group of actor/producers—Jordan Charney (Actors Alley), Tom Ormeny and Maria Gobetti (Victory Theatre), and others who were still in talks with Equity about the changes, were not notified. Many felt they had been purposely sidestepped by the move and they were angry. In a 2009 LA Stage Times feature by Rob Kendt, Gobetti recalled, “I remember we were on a plane, and we got the notice that the referendum had gone out. And I said to Tom, ‘I guess this is war.’ It was very painful.”

Tom Ormeny and Maria Gobetti at the Stage Raw Theatre Awards at Los Angeles Theatre Center on May 15, 2017 in Los Angeles, California.

The two most debated 99-Seat Plan issues during the ensuing months were pay scales for actors and the length of time a production could run before it must go to an Equity contract. By the end of November 1988, the 99-Seat Plan was implemented, with a sliding pay scale of $7 to $20 per performance (depending on seating capacity and ticket price) and a maximum of 60 performances. Any production that planned to exceed 60 performances was required to move up to an Equity contract.

(Weston retired two years later and devoted himself to the support of the Actors Fund. He passed away on September 6, 2006.)

After years of semi-negotiations between the Waiver Committee and the Developing Theaters Committee, AEA alerted its membership in February 2015 that it was changing the 99-Seat Plan and proceeded to lay out its proposal: Beginning June 1, 2016, Actors’ Equity members would receive the standard minimum wage ($9 hourly) if contracted to rehearse and perform in a Los Angeles County theater with fewer than 100 seats. (This overrode a vote by more than 3,000 L.A. union members, who were against the $9 minimum and other proposed rule changes by a margin of nearly 2 to 1.)

There were two exceptions to the proposed plan: (1) “membership companies” controlled by actors, and (2) productions in houses with fewer than 50 seats. This was essentially in line with New York’s Showcase Code. The union leaders also partly amended a proposal they had submitted in February to extend the deadline for compliance—but that did not help L.A.’s established theater companies avoid paying the hourly minimum.

The new rules resulted in a lawsuit brought against Actors’ Equity in October 2015 by Los Angeles-based actors and theater owners, who hoped to stop the union from requiring small legit theater owners to pay their actors at least $9 an hour. The suit claimed that Equity’s decision to scrap its 99-seat Waiver policy and force the pay issue violated a settlement agreement that resolved a similar dispute in 1989. The plaintiffs in the suit included actors Ed Harris, Amy Madigan, former SAG President Ed Asner, and theater owners Joseph Sterns, Gobetti and Ormeny.

In December 2016,  U.S. District Court Judge Terry Hatter declared the “case closed,” dismissing the lawsuit “without prejudice,” meaning that the plaintiffs could file suit again if they so desired.

“The dismissal of this lawsuit, which we had always viewed as a frivolous and costly legal matter,” said Equity executive director Mary McColl in AEA’s official response, “is a victory for our union. Not everyone in our union agreed with changes in policy that our council put in place in April of 2015. We understand those opposing views; however, many of our members needed more than the nominal performance stipends, which had been the longtime practice. These are not unpaid internships – this is work. Now that this matter has been addressed internally and validated by a federal court ruling, we can devote our energies to working with Los Angeles’ theater producers to help them find the best ways to employ our members.”

This week, Gary Grossman, producing director of Skylight Theatre in Hollywood, gave his update on the stand-off between local small theaters and Actors’ Equity: “We’re all looking at what our options are, all the way around. There are still legal options left. Whether we will appeal the judge’s ruling is still out there, although it is not pertinent right now in the scheme of things.

Skylight Theatre’s Gary Grossman.

“I think the National Labor Relations Board information is still up for grabs. [An independent federal agency, the NLRB protects the rights of private-sector employees to join together, with or without a union, to improve their wages and working conditions.] A lot of actors and theater owners are looking at other alternatives in terms of how to fight this. The fight is now clearly in the actors’ hands, in terms of what they want to do and how they want to proceed.

“At this point, the theater operators are dealing with the facts of their existence. Some theaters have been given membership [to AEA] and some have not. There are actor-member companies such as InterAct that are questioning that Equity ruling. They have asked for meetings with the Equity Council to explain why they were denied membership. The Council has refused to meet with them. So, InterAct and other companies have options where they can go to attack the problem. I know there are a number of companies that are investigating those options right now.

“So, there is a lot going on right now underneath this whole thing that is not being made public…. I think everybody is evaluating his or her own position, individually. That’s why we formed the ITLA [Independent Theatres of Los Angeles], which is our statement that we are going to continue operating and offer opportunities to actors that want to work and to continue volunteering. We have seen a lot of non-Equity talent.

“A lot of theaters, including mine, are operating right now. We are operating with actors that have chosen to go FiCore. As I talk to a lot of people, I think it is going to take six to nine months before we figure out where everybody is and where they want to go. We are in another transition point, where we are all figuring out what the next step is. Don’t think Equity is done with us yet. We are going to have to work it all out.”

Julio Martinez

Julio Martinez

Julio pens the weekly LA STAGE Insider column for @ This Stage Magazine, as well as the monthly LA STAGE History column. He is a recurring contributor to Written By (the monthly publication of the Writer’s Guild of America) and is the TeleVision columnist for Latin Heat Entertainment. On air, he hosts the weekly Arts in Review program for KPFK 90.7 FM. An active journalist for over 30 years, Julio’s articles and reviews have appeared in Los Angeles Times Magazine, Daily Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, L.A. Weekly, Stage Raw, Backstage West, Westways Magazine, and Drama-Logue Magazine, among others.