LOS ANGELES: This might look like the end, but it’s likely only the beginning. From its offices in New York City, Actors’ Equity Association yesterday announced the decision of its national council to effectively dismantle the current Equity 99-Seat Plan—a unique L.A. code, in place since 1988, by which union members can volunteer in small theatres for small stipends—and offer in its place what they called “a broad range of options.”
These include a new mini-showcase code like the one used in Equity’s “liaison cities” (i.e., cities that don’t have an Equity office but do have a substantial number of Equity members) and the introduction of the Small Professional Theatre agreement (not previously available in Los Angeles). Equity’s council also issued a series of rulings on the status of the 99-Seat Plan as it’s currently practiced: Existing membership companies who produce under the plan will be allowed to hire any Equity member without benefit of a contract, though no new companies of this kind will allowed to be formed; and other companies using the plan will be required to pay union actors minimum wage for all rehearsal and performance hours, though they’ve been granted a 13-month grace period to make the transition.
The council’s decision comes on the heels of a membership referendum that last week soundly rejected an earlier Equity proposal to effectively eliminate the plan by a 2-to-1 margin, though the referendum was only advisory. That earlier Equity proposal, which was released in February, had included only three planks: the ramping-up of the plan to minimum wage, a membership company exemption that was less generous than the new version, and a self-producing option for union members that would allow off-contract shows in small theatres as long as their actor/producers did not organize or fund-raise as professional nonprofits. Only the latter provision remains entirely unchanged in yesterday’s decision.
A strenuous and impassioned organizing effort on behalf of the existing 99-Seat Plan, including a celebrity-filled march to Equity’s new North Hollywood offices, helped lead to last week’s referendum result. While many Pro-99 voices have expressed dismay with yesterday’s ruling on social media, feeling that Equity has again simply ignored their wishes (this headline, on the L.A. theatre-review-aggregating site Bitter Lemons, sums up the view: “Actors’ Equity Association Defies its Membership and Eliminates the 99 Seat Plan”), Equity obviously feels differently. In a press release, the union said that the new rules and agreements “address many of the concerns expressed by L.A. members about the original proposal, while remaining consistent with Equity’s long history of advocating for wages, working conditions, collaboration, fairness and respect for professional stage actors and stage managers.”
In the same statement, Equity executive director Mary McColl said, “We are proud of our members who shared their insightful views and spoke with passion about the importance of intimate theater. The national council’s decision today is responsive to that feedback and we look forward to working together to build a foundation for the growth and sustainability of intimate theater in L.A.”
From Equity’s release, here are the new rules and agreements, which Equity calls “stepping stones”:
- Los Angeles Transitional 99-Seat Code. This code, with many of the same terms as the existing 99-Seat Theatre Plan, will be in effect from April 22, 2015 to May 31, 2016, and will be available to existing 99-Seat Theatre Plan producers, so they may have time to transition to the newly available options.
- Los Angeles Self-Produced Project Code. This is an internal union membership rule allowing Equity members to collaborate as a group to self-produce theatre without the requirement of an Equity contract.
- New Los Angeles 50-Seat Showcase Code. The council has adopted an internal union membership rule, which allows members to work without the requirement of an Equity contract in theatres with 50 seats or fewer, where the budget for the production does not exceed $20,000, for up to 16 performances. For use up to three times per season, this code puts L.A. in alignment with other areas of the country. The Showcase Code provides for reimbursement of actual expenses, favored nations compensation and future rights for actors in subsequent productions.
- Los Angeles Membership Company Rule. In the council’s original proposal, membership companies would have been limited to their current membership. Council amended this new internal union membership rule to allow any Equity member to participate with any membership company as long as that company was in existence prior to Feb. 6, 2015, had registered their company by April 1, 2015, and had previously produced under the prior 99-Seat Theatre Plan. This new internal union membership rule allows Equity members to participate in their membership companies without the requirement of an Equity contract. Members may negotiate their own compensation, expense reimbursement and other working conditions.
- Los Angeles 99-Seat Agreement. A collective bargaining agreement to be negotiated with producers for productions in theaters of 99 seats or fewer. The agreement provides no restrictions on budget, length of the rehearsal period, ticket price or the length of the performance run. The agreement would provide for salary payments based on the legally mandated minimum wage in Los Angeles County (currently $9 per hour) with minimum call requirements, but with no pension or health benefit payments required. The agreement would require future rights based on the terms of the subsequent Equity collective bargaining agreement and would also require basic workplace standards.
- Small Professional Theatre Agreement (“SPT”). The SPT agreement, which has long been available in other parts of the country, would now be permitted for productions in Los Angeles County in venues with a capacity up to 349 seats. There is no budget cap per production, no limitation on the length of the rehearsal period and no restriction on the length of the performance run. The agreement provides for salary payments ranging from $229 to $664 per week, based on the maximum number of weekly performances, with pension and health contributions required. The Agreement requires future rights based on the producer’s future involvement with any subsequent production and would also require basic workplace standards.
- Hollywood Area Theatre Agreement (“HAT”). The HAT is an existing collective bargaining agreement for use in Los Angeles theatres of 349-499 seats. There is no budget cap per production, and no restriction on the length of a performance run. Productions may rehearse for no fewer than 2 ½ weeks. The agreement provides for salaries between $229 to $582 per week and based on a 5-performance week (up to three additional performances may be purchased), with salary increases every 20th week of employment. The agreement requires pension and health benefit payments, future rights based on the producer’s future involvement with any subsequent production and would also require basic workplace standards. The HAT agreement is an all-Equity agreement.
The union has spoken. Now—both for those who embrace the challenges and opportunities of these new rules, and for those who would organize against them—the real work begins.