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.
“The effect of the rule as written would be that as the company continues, it will be aged out—no new members could join after April 1,” said Bill Brochtrup, one of Antaeus’s three co-artistic directors, pointing out that Equity’s concession—new members can join after that point, but only if they’re put on a minimum-wage contract—would create an awkward, unequal two-tiered system. He analogized the dues-paying company to a gym: “It’s so much more than a place to put on a play—it’s an artistic home in a city that can be a cold, isolating place.” And he said that Equity misapplies an “old-time” labor/management frame to companies like Antaeus: “We don’t feel that the employer/employee relationship is the correct model; we are volunteers, professionals working pro bono for nonprofit corporations, if you will.”
Brochtrup knows how this sounds to some actors: “I understand how it looks odd to the rest of the country, but L.A.’s always been odd to the rest of the country.” Bottom line, he said, his company is comprised of loyal Equity members who choose freely to work with minimal compensation, and want to be free to keep at it. And it’s hard to see how their volunteer labor at Antaeus could be seen as a threat to the collective bargaining power of actors at the city’s large Equity contract houses (the Taper, the Geffen, Pasadena Playhouse). “We honestly didn’t feel like the system was broken,” said Brochtrup.
At West L.A.’s Odyssey Theatre, which operates three spaces, artistic director Ron Sossi has been at it long enough to recall the days before Equity waiver, which was instated in 1972; his efforts before that were non-union and decidedly avant-garde.
“In some ways, it’s absolutely astonishing that Equity would put this out,” said Sossi of the new proposal; he was also on the front lines of the “waiver wars” in the mid-1980s. “Yet on the other hand, it’s not astonishing at all, because a lot of us have known for years that Equity has been trying to destroy the plan.” He calls the new proposal “completely unworkable, completely unsubtle in its efforts to shut us down,” estimating that a minimum-wage requirement would “quadruple or quintuple what we’ve paid to artists.” And while Equity’s proposal would lift the cap on ticket prices and on the number of performances, few producers, Sossi said, can realistically raise ticket prices in L.A.’s audience-challenged market.
Even if they could, the 99-seat plan’s strict seating cap was designed from the start as a corrective constraint, so that even the most cutthroat producer could only make so much off the backs of poorly paid talent. It’s certainly no coincidence that the companies in L.A. that have grown from 99-seat self-producers into theatres offering Equity contracts (the Colony, East West Players, International City Theatre, A Noise Within) have also expanded their seating. How is Equity’s new proposal, which expects 99-seat theatres to raise their compensation levels but not their number of seats, going to work for a company like, say, Theatre @ Boston Court, a performing arts center in Pasadena that produces an ambitious roster of world-premiere plays, and which recently imported the aforementioned Sheila Callaghan play to the Rattlestick?
I spoke to Boston Court’s executive director, Michael Seel, at the recent opening of Sheila’s play in New York, and he told me that while the theatre is drawing up budgets that would satisfy the new proposal’s requirements, he’s not entirely sure how it will be able to continue under the new regime.
Jay McAdams, managing director of 24th Street Theatre, has been heartily beating the drum against the Equity proposal, and he told me last week that he feels “pretty optimistic.” He doesn’t mean he thinks the proposal won’t go into effect—few people I spoke to doubted that Equity fully plans to “promulgate” the new plans, no matter the referendum result—but that “people have awakened now. I’m confident that the West Coast membership will rally and start to realize that this effectively retires Equity members from L.A. theatre.” If the plans go into effect, McAdams guesses that many small theatres—and actors—will go non-union, though he said he predicted that in “about four years, Equity members will say, ‘You better roll this back.’ ”
Actor/director Douglas Clayton was one of the leading voices behind ReimagineLaTheatre.com, a website/movement launched last year that was designed to air many of the problems with the existing plan; it attracted supporters who sought varying degrees of change, from radical to incremental, while rousing the suspicions of many pro-99-seat folks that it was a stalking horse for Equity. In fact, Reimagine, like the founding of the Theatrical Producers League of Los Angeles/Intimate (TPLLA/Intimate), was a response to industry insiders’ sense that Equity had big changes in store.
Still, Clayton told me that he, too, is disappointed with Equity’s new proposal: “It doesn’t address the things I thought were most important that need to be changed.” He admitted that the proposals are “certainly hugely traumatic. The biggest downside is, if what you’re trying to do is start small and grow, this would shift around where the jumping point is. But will there be less theatre in L.A.? People will have to do things differently, but we’ll always find a way to do theatre—companies can dis-incorporate, stop taking grants, go perform in a park.”
McColl echoed Clayton: “We fully understand that when you put a change in front of people who have lived under this calcified system for so long, that it is scary as heck. But these theatres managed to live through the addition of stipends in the 1980s—they used their resources, their great thinking and their professionalism. We have expectations that they’ll do that again, once they get over being mad.
“There’s no interest on our part to do damage to theatre in Los Angeles,” McColl continued. “We’re putting human resources and time and attention into a long-range plan for theatre in Los angeles. We want it to look different than it does now. We want it to be stronger; we want it to be a better-paying scene.”
McColl put some numbers on the table: “Last year there were 12,000 work weeks in the 99-seat plan, including non-compensated rehearsals, and 1,500 members attached to those 12,000 work weeks. I believe that in a year’s time, all of those people will have things to do onstage.”
That sounded almost delusionally sanguine to me, to be frank. I would imagine instead that, forced to choose between their union and their small-theatre work, a certain number of current Equity members will consider dropping their card altogether (with the slight wrinkle that no one knows exactly what will happen to actors who are only members the film/TV union, SAG/AFTRA, if they work in non-Equity theatres; SAG did not respond to a request for clarification).
I floated the divorce metaphor to McColl, a reasonable-sounding person who previously worked as a theatre producer in Minneapolis.
“What we hope to do is get that couple back into mediation and see what kind of relationship they can have going forward,” McColl said.
To which I would respond—with not an ounce of sarcasm, since L.A.’s theatre scene is one whose material and aesthetic survival is dear to my heart—good luck with that.