I feel like I’m witnessing a divorce between two old friends—one of whom I know all too well, as I’ve spent many days and especially late nights in his company, the other of whom I respect and am glad to know, even at arm’s length. Oh, sure, I’ve heard the first party complain about his persnickety partner over the years—about how she just doesn’t get what he does and resents his perennially empty pockets. And much as I love him, I’ve always had the sense that she has her reasons for discontent, too; my homeboy has his share of flaws, as even he would admit in his clearer-headed moments.
I knew there were issues, in short. But now, with the special, painful shock of a long-brewing disagreement suddenly burst into the open, these two old pals of mine have filed papers and dug out their warring trenches. It looks like they are finally going to do this. It’s over.
I’m referring, of course, to the death match between Los Angeles’s vibrant, quixotic, mathematically impossible 99-seat theatre scene, which was as formative of my theatregoing sensibilities as any London or New York or Ashland stage binge; and Actors Equity, the stage performers union, who I always thought of as a friendly colleague when I ran the casting rag Back Stage West back in the 1990s and early aughts.
The 99-seat plan—which alternately puzzles and horrifies actors and union advocates everywhere except in L.A.—is a kind of non-remunerative showcase code, though with far fewer restraints than those in effect in other cities. It allows Equity members to be paid as little as $7-$15 a performance (and nothing for rehearsal) for shows that can run as long as 80 performances. Sounds terrible, right? Well, the plan’s low overhead has also allowed plays with all kinds of cast sizes, both daring new ones and seldom-revived classics, to get on their feet with world-beating actors in a town better known for its film and TV industry, in productions that would otherwise never have seen the light of day.
I can vouch firsthand that many of the best of these shows have been beautiful ends in themselves, but a non-negligible number have also made their way to other cities, from the Actors’ Gang’s touring shows to two recent plays, John Pollono’s Small Engine Repair and Sheila Callaghan’s Everything You Touch, which made the move to Off-Broadway (there are dozens of examples to be cited; these are just a few recent ones).
But Equity has never liked the plan, reasoning—with a logic as airtight as it is cold—that stage work is work, period, and should be on a contract. So, after having laid the groundwork over the last few years–firing the union’s longtime 99-seat representative, Michael Van Duzer, opening new headquarters in North Hollywood—Equity has made its opening bid, and it’s a doozy. A proposal released two Fridays ago by the union’s executive director, Mary McColl, outlined three new ways small theatre in L.A. must proceed if it uses their members: one, a self-producing “rule” that allows Equity members to work without a contract if they’re footing all the bills, without benefit of nonprofit or incorporated status; two, a membership-company rule that allows troupes of Equity members to continue operating without a contract, as a handful have, so long as they don’t add any new members after this coming April (after which they’ll have to put new members on minimum-wage contracts); and three, for all the rest of L.A.’s many dozens of 99-seat companies, a new version of the current 99-seat plan that increases the current per-performance stipend (between $7 and $25) to an hourly minimum wage for all rehearsals and performances.
The proposals will be subject to a referendum of members, probably later this month, but their vote will only be “advisory”; instead, Equity’s elected councillors, who hail from all parts of the country, will have the last word on the fate of L.A.’s unique small theatre scene.
And here’s one place where my divorce analogy may admittedly be slightly off: The existing 99-seat plan only emerged in 1988 as part of a settlement between Equity member/producers, who sued their union for trying to kill what used to be a citywide Equity waiver scene, and the union, which grudgingly agreed to the settlement but has seethed about it ever since. Equity is required by the terms of that settlement to talk through changes to the plan with a “review committee” of plaintiffs from the original lawsuit, but as the union has never recognized L.A.’s small theatre producers as, well, producers, these talks—and the members’ referendum—are non-binding.
So if the current mess is like a divorce, it’s a split that follows a long and unhappy mediated separation.
“Minimum wage is kind of the floor for everybody across the country,” McColl told me last week in defense of the revised plan. “We are a labor union, and we want our members to have fair working conditions on contract work.” She said that the first two rules, allowing Equity members to self-produce without a contract as long as they don’t form new companies, were offered in response to the concerns of members, voiced at a Town Hall in January, who said they valued the no-strings artistic collaboration afforded by the 99-seat plan.
The membership-company rule seems directly intended to address organizations like Antaeus Company, which actually requires that its core members have an Equity card, work under the plan’s skimpy compensation–and pay monthly dues of $25.