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  • Kim Tobin-Lehl

    One of the main problems with the 99 Seat Waiver is simply the fact that you are in a budget model that has enough sets to raise enough capital to cover the cost of your entire budget for a production estimated at $40,000. That is not what the waiver contract was meant to do. My understanding (and I have worked under it in LA and NY is it was created in order to allow AEA actors out of work who wanted to come together to put up a show (or showcase) to gain exposure or to “exercise their muscles between jobs. $40,000+ productions are full scale professional shows abusing a loophole in the system where professional artists can waive their equity status and work for free so that what has now come to be a highly competitive small professional market can compete for attention and national recognition – that is not what the equity waiver was designed for. I run a professional theatre in Houston, TX where since our inception we have never hired less than 3 Equity artists per show under AEA contracts and paid also all our non-union artists, our designers and directors and all our productions run at about $45,000 (so don’t tell me you can’t pay artists at this production cost!). This is because we model our budgets around paying actors/designers/directors FIRST! Actors are the only working professionals in this country who you can go up to and say “hey I have this great job for you, it will require you to work at least 20-30 hours a week but I can’t pay you what do you say?” and they say “SURE – when do I start!” The worst thing that is happening as a result of the lawsuit that the AEA artists in LA are bringing against Equity for their right to not get paid (because that is what you are doing make no mistake) is the fact that this dialogue is being spread out into the rest of the country that Actors DON’T want to be paid! For those of us all over the rest of the country who have worked tireless hours to get our board members and donors and communities on board with making artists pay the number one budget item on our annual operating budgets and to be making a real difference in the way grant organizations see awarding money to organizations that put artists pay as a priority and top line item in how the monies given in any grant award will be allocated – you are undermining so much work by fighting to not get paid and putting this message out there and particularly in a lawsuit against the union when so many of us just do not agree and in fact fight everyday to get paid MORE. You have every right to not get paid – JUST NOT AS A MEMBER OF THE UNION. When I joined Equity I made a commitment to be a part of a collective organization that represented me under a certain number of labor rights as a member of the professional workforce of Actors, and the main thing I signed up for was the right to a fair and equitable wage….what did you sign up for? It is very easy to not get paid in this industry and I am sure that was what you were doing before you joined equity – just let go of your union card and you can work for free anywhere you want. The only reason to hold on to your equity card is so that you can have the best of both worlds and that is not fair to your fellow union members who ARE adhering to the guidelines of the union all around the country and NOT working unless it is under contract. You are not suppose to be able to use the union only when it is convenient to you and then just toss it aside when it is not. My understanding is that you can still waiver in a 50 seat or less theatre in LA – I don’t see what the problem is? I would still go to a 50 seat theatre as readily as a 99 seat if the show was good? My inclination is to believe that the 50 seat model is not profitable to the organizations you have formed that are not not-for-profit because you do not want to have to do all the work involved in running these organizations, and that is why a 50 seat waiver is not acceptable to the theaters still arguing the plan? Plus the minimal AEA contracts are only minimum wage for God’s sake!? You are fighting to not get minimum wage!? You are actively telling the rest of the country that Acting is NOT a real job it is a hobby and making us get paid for it is not necessary because it is not really a job just a thing I do on the side like my bowling league. Well, maybe I should write a letter to SAG-AFTRA and tell them that I don’t think they should pay any of us in movies that have budgets under say 10 million dollars because everyone knows that the producers and creative staff really need all that money to actually get the film “in the can” so to speak and produced, I mean hell I just want to be seen and be a part of a great creative project right? Might create more work for SAG-AFTRA card holders and I mean I get to “exercise” my film acting muscles because all I really care about actually is my theatre work, film is just for practice. Some of us don’t think theatre is just for “practice” or a substitute classroom, some of us make it our life and believe in the hope and right to earn a living there. LA is not the only market effected by what the is happening here – it matters for all of us. Food for thought…..

  • Noel Balacuit

    So a lot of people I personally know have read your article and there are mixed reviews on how your observations fit with what those of us in the Pro99 community who do a lot of theatre on a weekly basis experience.

    The problem is ultimately if your top priority is paying actors well then that is what you will get: well paid actors.

    If on the other hand your priority is to build highly collaborative theatre communities comprised of designers, directors, playwrights, stage crews, publicity and marketing specialists and of course actors the intangible benefits are too many to list here.

    Single industry labor unions like AEA do not have a monopoly on the concept of symbiotic collaboration.

    I understand why AEA is so against against the 99-seat agreement. The 99-seat agreement empowers more than just union actors. It empowers all those who enjoy working in close collaboration with a variety of artists. And I suppose AEA wants a sense of negotiating leverage to have a sense of self-importance.

    It doesn’t matter what happens with this lawsuit. The LA Pro99 theatre community will adjust and if AEA wants to out price themselves out of the LA intimate market, it might sting but we’ll get over it.

    As far as fundraising is concerned, generally speaking it’s not all that complicated.

    Two points:

    1) It’s personal. The astute knows who is putting their money where their mouths are. We know who is keeping us afloat. If someone shares their resources and you then turn around and say it’s not enough and I deserve more, you have no future with fundraising. Humble graciousness is mandatory.

    2) Everyone is waiting for AEA to settle their grievances with themselves before anyone can make serious decisions for the future regarding how much to donate and where to allocate resources.

    But make no mistake about it, whatever happens with AEA will not stop the desire to create intimate theatre in LA with or without AEA’s partipation.

    Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong. The way I see it, AEA is dependent on highly functioning production teams. But highly productive production teams can find non-union actors to fill the void if necessary. You don’t have to pay union dues to have talent. Let’s not forget actors from all over the world migrate here with or without a stage union card. This is Hollywood.

  • normanx

    The vast majority of Los Angeles Equity members voted to reject AEA’s plan to dismantle the 99 seat theatre agreement. Now it is going to court. Again. The right of Los Angeles Equity members to collectively bargain on their terms has been ignored. The tone deaf approach of the New York based AEA is destructive to theatre at large, and particularly to the theatre community in Los Angeles.

  • Angela Sauer

    Twice this article states that Sacred Fools Theatre has a three-show season. It actually has a five-show season (which might also affect some of the numbers mentioned).

  • Guy Sanville

    Where does the term “Not for profit” enter the picture? I assume every theatre soliciting and accepting donations has obtained not-for-profit status. 501C3? A not-for-profit must operate at a deficit; meaning the sales income does cover or equal the cost of doing sales. For a not-for-profit theatre that means that tickets sales do not equal the cost of doing business. That’s why a not-for-profit is legally able to fundraise; to make up the difference or deficit between cost-of-sales and sales income. Donated income is not sales income. A not-for-profit can have it’s income exceed it’s budget, but any such overages, or “profits,” must be put aside for, or channeled back in to, the institution. A not-for-profit must have a yearly audit conducted by an accredited independent source, and the results of each audit must be made available for public scrutiny. By law. So checking each others books in the not-for-profit world is not hard.

    • DrewKowalkowski

      Yeah, very little of that is true. For one “not for profit” is not actually a legal term. Not all nonprofits are required to have an annual audit. It may be required under state law for some, but for most nonprofit theatre companies operating at the level discussed in this article, they’re only going to start conducting an audit when they’re at a level where a funder requires it, not the federal government (source: https://www.councilofnonprofits.org/nonprofit-audit-guide/need-independent-auditNonprofits). Nonprofits can indeed have surpluses, and while your point here is mostly true, it’s much more nuanced than that, and it certainly is not true that they must “operate at a deficit” (http://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/taxes-nonprofit-corporation-earnings-30284.html).

      I’m not sure the point you’re trying to make here in relation to the article, but this is just not accurate information.

      • Guy Sanville

        I’ve been running one for 20 years. Our current budget is around 3 million. What I said above is true for any theatre that has obtained not-for-profit status; 501C3- from the federal government. It is indeed a legal term. And it is required of theatres who solicit donations. My point was that companies soliciting donations must have not-for-profit status to do so legally-especially if they are claiming a tax deduction for the people donating money.

      • Bill Lelbach

        Drew – as someone who’s been running professional, non-profit theatres in multiple states for 30+years, you’re just wrong. Not for profit (and non-profit) are both legal terms, both on the state and federal level. Yes, audits are generally required by funders, but if you check, most states that fund theatres in some capacity require an audit once a theatre reaches a certain budget size. And if you’re a non-profit, the IRS requires you to file a 990, disclosing all your income and expenses. You’re classified under the same category as churches and other charitable organizations for a reason – there’s a transparency to your operations AND there’s little or no chance of you being able to sustain your mission without valid donations. Having said that, if a small, rural theatre like mine (budget 210,000 and yes, 99 seats) can find a way to pay Equity actors under a standard Equity contract for every show, for every season, then the small theatres in LA can damn well play under the same rules if they want access to professional talent. We don’t have access to major corporate funding that you can find in any major metropolitan market. We don’t have a huge base of local talent, so we have to bring actors and designers in for our productions. In LA, you’ve got a huge talent base both in front of and behind the scenery. If you can’t figure out how to raise enough money to pay minimum wage to your actors, then you shouldn’t be able to use professional actors on any kind of ongoing basis. The “waiver” scene simply shouldn’t exist. Grant every AEA actor one exemption/year to participate in a show where they’re not under contract – that’s a solution that allows for some level of startup theatres to access better talent. But don’t keep allowing LA theatres to do an end run around AEA rules that the rest of the country can find a way to work with.

  • Armina LaManna

    A very informative article. Thanks Jason. The unfortunate and glaring difference between the store fronts in LA and those in Chicago and NY is that so many decades of waiver/99-seat plan theatre proliferated the idea that actors/SMs are not even a line in the budget. As the other artistic directors explained in your piece, they prioritized for their artists first. This is the bottom line. They value actor/SM time & talent, LA doesn’t. As Mr. Duffy said, he is too busy to raise money and build funding relationships. He runs a non-profit without realizing he runs a non-profit – he, like so many others, shirks the responsibilities that come with running a non-profit corporation. The whole reason for forming a non-profit is to fundraise – but Mr. Duffy and his colleagues just don’t get that. So when they say that there is no money, what they are really saying is that they don’t want to spend the effort to fundraise. Thornton understands this (needs of a non-profit, especially one that is a theatre) and this is why the Gift Theatre has grown. And now that AEA has finally remembered about LA, Mr. Duffy and his colleagues have freaked out about all the real work they will have to do now – fundraise, build real audiences, engage in outreach, follow labor laws, put together boards that financially invest in their theatres and actively pursue their theatres’ interests, etc.

    • hayleybird

      I don’t think it’s fair to say LA doesn’t value actor/SM time and talent. That may seem to be the case in some companies, but as an actor/producer with a newer company, I can personally attest to our budget priorities being 1) space rental, 2) artist compensation, 3) everything else. My co-producer and myself don’t include ourselves in artist compensation so that we can divide whatever we can among the rest of the artists. If we make extra money through ticket sales and fundraising, that gets divided equally among the artists (not including ourselves). I can only speak for us, but I take issue with this repeated argument that *all* LA theatre companies don’t even have a line in their budgets for their actors/stage managers, because it’s just not true.

      • Noel Balacuit

        Fundraising is about catering to those who donate and pay full price tickets. Unfortunately some AEA actors aren’t concerned with catering to the paying audience and donors as much as they are concerned about what they thenselves are getting paid.

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