When actors voted, at a contentious West Coast Equity meeting in 1972, to instate an Equity Waiver plan for Los Angeles–area theatres under 100 seats, they gave birth to a scene—a movement, really—that would produce thousands of shows and mint some of the nation’s great theatre companies, from the Actors’ Gang to the Fountain, the Matrix to East West Players. But in allowing themselves the leeway to work onstage without restrictions or compensation, those self-starting actor/producers also gave birth to a struggle that has continued unresolved to this day—a battle which mostly lies dormant but flares up fiercely every 15 years or so.
It’s almost like clockwork: In the mid-1980s, after the L.A. small-theatre scene had exploded, the “Waiver Wars” pitted Equity’s East Coast headquarters against L.A.’s actor/producers, and ended with the union creating a new agreement, the 99-Seat Theatre Plan. Mandating some basic protections and compensation of $5 a show, the plan was an agreement, not a negotiated contract—in fact, Equity wouldn’t negotiate with L.A.’s small-theatre producers, since many were also Equity actors themselves. Those actor/producers in turn sued Equity, and the union settled in 1988, leaving in place a review-committee structure by which a group of producers meets to consult with Equity about any changes to the plan.
In 2000, more tweaks were made to the plan, though with less Sturm und Drang than before. But starting again in 2014, a group of L.A. theatremakers representing a cross-section of the field began meeting to propose a fresh reconsideration of the plan and the assumptions that it underlie it. The document this group eventually posted on a website in late September, ReimagineLATheatre.com, calls for a field-wide reassessment of the status quo. Upwards of 350 artists and advocates have signed on, if not to any specific set of recommendations, then to the notion of dialogue toward change.
Unsurprisingly, many small-theatre producers have responded with some variation of fury or concern, and the debate has reawakened many of the old battles and enlisted many of the same warriors. Both the heat and the meat of the discussion would be familiar not only to anyone who’s followed L.A.’s undersung small-theatre scene but also to anyone versed in ongoing disputes over New York’s showcase code, or the arguments around the volunteer acting company at the Off-Off-Broadway Flea Theater—not to mention larger conversations in the theatre field about artist compensation versus institutional funding.
Indeed, the debate over L.A.’s 99-seat plan may seem so stark because it dramatizes a fundamental conflict—one the arts face in every sector in our late-capitalist American moment. One side essentially asks, quite reasonably: Do arts workers deserve better compensation, even middle-class lives? Why is there seemingly only funding for new buildings, for infrastructure, for a handful of committee-approved geniuses, but not for the field’s rank-and-file workers?
The other side responds, passionately, that such talk is inimical to the creative instinct, to freedom of expression and association, and that we need look no further than the cautious programming and piecemeal hiring at major institutional theatres to see how little such bottom-line thinking has done for actors and the field.
So is this just another iteration of the same old art-versus-commerce argument, or has the conversation deepened? One thing that’s different is that the L.A. area now has a robust theatre ecology, encompassing large theatres (Center Theatre Group, the Geffen Playhouse, the Pasadena Playhouse) alongside the dozens of 99-seat-plan companies, as well as a growing number of midsized companies, some of which began under the 99-seat plan but have since graduated to Equity contracts or letters of agreement (East West Players, the Colony, International City Theatre, Independent Shakespeare Company, A Noise Within, Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum, the Falcon).
The other thing that’s different about the conversation this time is that while the old Equity Waiver argument seemed to be a local-versus-out-of-town divide—with the pro side comprising folks who actually lived and worked in L.A. theatre, and the con side comprising actors accustomed to working under commercial and LORT theatre contracts in other cities—those lines have blurred considerably. Indeed, the Reimagine movement is unmistakably indigenous to L.A., and represents the concerns of artists committed to working in theatre there. While that doesn’t give their mission any more intrinsic weight than the views of many other L.A.-based artists who are happy with the 99-seat plan as it is, it does change the terms of the discussion. In this pitched battle for the future of L.A. theatre, the playing field looks more even than ever before.
The Reimagine website begins with a call to action, positing that L.A.’s “amazing and diverse community” continues “to use outdated and uncoordinated structures that do not serve us,” and that “most L.A. theatre artists find themselves with significant obstacles to climbing the ladder of a professional theatre career.” Some conversation-starting addenda documents line up striking comparisons to bolster the case for change: While other cities have “showcase” codes for small theatres, in which actors make little more than transit fare or gas money, only L.A.’s allows shows to run for as many as 80 performances before union protections kick in (New York’s code, by contrast, allows a maximum of between 12 and 24 performances, depending on the theatre’s budget size). And while other cities’ codes have “favored nations” understandings, by which designers, directors and other creative personnel may not be paid more than the performers on a given show, L.A.’s has no such stipulation.
The site also, more controversially, invokes minimum wage—or, more accurately, the plan’s failure to even approach it—as a serious legal concern for small theatres. (The minimum wage is currently $9 in California, though L.A.’s mayor Eric Garcetti is pushing for it to rise as high as $13.50 in the coming year.) The Reimagine documents go on to sketch out new tiers and classifications for stage efforts that are workshops versus professional productions, and to weigh a transitional process for change, ostensibly aimed at allaying fears of a radical revolution.
As Douglas Clayton, an actor and director who was among Reimagine’s key architects, puts it, the thinking he’d like to see from producers is: “If we’re running an institution, then we should run it like an institution and pay people minimum wage. But if we’re doing something else—if it’s people coming together with no money to experiment or create or network—let’s really strip out everything that looks like a business.” That would likely mean limited performance dates with donation-only admission and dramatically curtailed compensation for all involved.
Many small theatres, Clayton says, “act like staff salary and rent are locked costs, but compensation for artists is not something they prioritize. When you have institutions and they are choosing not to pay artists, how big does it have to be before we say they are just taking advantage? In L.A. there is no line—or, there is a line but it’s so uncontrolled, and it’s infinitely higher than in San Francisco or New York.” He points out that both United Scenic Artists and the Stage Directors and Choreographers union treat 99-seat theatre as contract theatre, albeit with “very small contracts,” and he’d like to see at least the same recognition on the part of Equity.
Jay McAdams, executive director of 24th Street Theatre, couldn’t disagree more, and in fact finds the terms of the new discussion naïve at best, dangerous at worst. A conversation about meaningful change might be fine in principle, he concedes, but “what’s happening is that a lot of people are unwittingly doing Equity’s bidding. And Equity is not about making 99-seat theatre healthy; their interest is more work weeks for their members.”
Of course, that’s the whole point for Reimagine supporter Kyle Nudo, who also serves as vice chair of Equity’s 99-seat committee. “The 99-seat plan needs to change in a dramatic way,” he says flatly. “I can’t think of any other industry that wholly relies on its employees to work elsewhere for a full-time wage, and then do a second set of full-time hours.” In Nudo’s ideal revision of the 99-seat plan, rehearsal and performance hours would be limited to a lean, part-time schedule, and the maximum number of performances allowed would be eight.
Not everyone on the Reimagine side has such drastic changes in mind. Says Diana Wyenn, an actor, director and designer who was among the document’s key organizers, “This conversation is not about obliterating anything. I still believe in options. There’s more than one way to produce theatre in this town; it should not be one-size-fits-all.”
Tom Ormeny, co-artistic director of Burbank’s Victory Theatre Center and one of the key figures in the waiver wars, says he can see plenty of common ground with some of the Reimagine crowd, and can imagine the conversation moving in a positive, constructive direction. “Nobody likes where we are,” he admits. Still, he finds its economic logic self-defeating.
“We’re getting into a whole electronic culture, and what is needed more than anything is public getting-together—having an event that bonds society,” says Ormeny. “That is being destroyed, and the people who are suffering the most are the workers. But the way to counteract that is not to say that workers are just going to pull out now unless they get more money. You have to build the system so it can support a living wage.”
The desire to broaden the discussion to larger issues facing the field—declining audiences, shrinking funding—sounds to some Reimagine supporters like an attempt to change the subject. But one producer who supports the Reimagine document, Playwrights’ Arena artistic director Jon Lawrence Rivera, embraces both the specific desire for better compensation and the craving for a larger conversation.
“It shouldn’t be a war, it should be a conversation about how to make things better,” says Rivera, who helped form a group called L.A. Theater Network, which has been gathering since late May, both in person and on Facebook, to share ideas; the group is independent of the Reimagine coalition but is broadly aligned with its thinking. One idea that some 20 network-affiliated companies have signed onto: voluntarily upping actors’ per-performance pay to $25. Rivera knows that’s not a living wage, or even minimum, but he said it’s a gesture to performers “so it doesn’t feel like we’re abusing them.”
But for Fountain Theatre producing director Simon Levy, the conversation is frustrating, because, as he points out, the 99-seat plan isn’t going to be changed by any number of well-intentioned meetings.
“In this long train of issues and ideas and emotions, this is between Equity and its membership,” he says. “It is completely a labor issue.” While the Fountain follows the rules of the 99-seat plan, he says, it often negotiates higher fees than are mandated—a case of the marketplace at work. “I have had actors say they couldn’t do the show for what we were paying, and, conversely, no actor has ever been forced to be in a show.” Referring to proposals to raise the per-performance rate, he wonders aloud: “If somebody’s getting paid $15 or $25 a show—how do you measure that? It’s a made-up figure. It’s someone saying, ‘I’m worth this amount of money.’”
How much their work is worth is, of course, precisely what some Reimagine supporters hope West Coast Equity members have started to think about. Recently canvassed by an Equity questionnaire, they may be asked to vote on changes to the 99-seat plan if the producers’ side of the review committee rejects any changes proposed by the Equity side. With Equity’s recent appointment of a new Western Regional Director, Gail E. Gabler, and a new location in North Hollywood, the union seems committed to a new strategy for L.A. in the new year.
So the stakes of this struggle for the theatre field, and not just in LA., are high. As scenic designer Tom Buderwitz wrote recently, L.A.’s “current plan is setting the floor, on the floor.” Indeed, seen through an economic lens, L.A.’s 99-seat plan looks like the bottom to which the American theatre’s fragile compensation structure could be in danger of racing. For artists working under the least restrictive Equity agreement in the nation to reverse that trend, even a little, could be a large and resonant step.
On the other hand, if its members vote, as their predecessors have, to keep waiving most Equity rules so they can get onstage with token payment, that will be that—until the next battle. But Reimagine supporters are betting that this time will be different. As Wyenn puts it, “The biggest thing is that we need to value ourselves and our work.”