NEW YORK CITY: Last week, Actors’ Equity Association made history in Los Angeles, effectively eliminating a longtime agreement, the 99-Seat Plan, that allowed union actors in that film/TV industry town to volunteer their talents in small theatres for small stipends, and with limited union protections.
Indeed, the last few months have been tumultuous ones for L.A. theatres, ever since Equity introduced proposals on Feb. 6 to require 99-seat plan theatres to pay minimum wage to all union actors for all rehearsals and performances, with two corollary proposals that would exempt rosters of “membership companies” and allow a limited self-producing option for union members.
The old 99-seat plan had been put in place as part of the settlement of a 1988 lawsuit filed by actor/producers against their own union; among the requirements of that settlement agreement was that any proposed change to the plan had to go to a referendum of L.A. Equity members, though it would be a “non-binding”—i.e., advisory—vote. On Apr. 17, the results of the referendum seemed clear: 66 percent of those who voted issued a resounding “no” to Equity’s proposals.
Equity national councilors then met, deliberated, and “promulgated” a new series of proposals last Tuesday, Apr. 21. Many L.A. Equity members were shocked: Apart from an expansion of the “membership company” waiver—a major concession, it must be admitted—the other two proposals, in particular the minimum-wage requirement, changed little or not at all from their Feb. 6 versions.
Today I spoke to Equity’s executive director, Mary McColl, about the latest turn in L.A.’s small-theatre wars.
AMERICAN THEATRE: What did the councilors think that 66-percent “no” vote in the referendum meant? Was it taken to mean, “Please do not eliminate the 99-seat plan,” or just, “Please change your original proposal”?
MARY McCOLL: The vote was on the Feb. 6 proposals. We didn’t ask the question, “Would you like us to get rid of 99-seat plan?” What we put forward were three proposals. We’ve heard a lot of people saying they wanted change, just not that specific change. And from Feb. 6 onward, hundreds of emails came in to the council with recommendations, and there was significant social media on this; so the council went in thinking about this, ready to work to distill all the information that was coming through. They had a clear idea of what the most important issues were for members, and they were responsive to the most important things members told them.
But, though Equity added some new options, those original three proposals—the ones that 66 percent of votes said “no” to—weren’t amended much after the referendum vote. The big exception, of course, was to the membership company option, which will now allow existing membership companies to hire union actors without a contract.
The only thing that came through unchanged was the self-producing code. Until now, that code has been available everywhere except in L.A. In other cities it’s called the membership project code. There was one change to the 99-seat agreement between Feb. 6 and last week: We changed the maximum work or rehearsal call time from 3 hours to 2 hours, because our members requested that.
That’s not a very big change.
But the beauty of that agreement, and no one’s talking about this, is that it’s negotiable. We cannot negotiate anything below the mandated minimum wage, but since this includes that, all the other terms and conditions in the agreement are negotiable. If you’ve got a patron that’s got some dough to throw at a production, there’s no limit on rehearsal time, number of performances. It is so flexible.
And there are no caps on budget, either, as there are in the New York showcase code?
Right, no caps.
Just a wage floor.
That makes me wonder, though: Equity has talked a lot about the legal reasoning behind insisting on minimum wage, that it’s mandated by law. But if that’s the law, how can Equity offer all these other options without wages and protections?
I just wanna make sure that you understand, and we’ll be talking more about this: The self-produced project, showcase code and membership code are all waivers of membership. These codes are about us talking to our members about when they can work without a contract, not talking to producers. The reality is that the Department of Labor of the state of California has said that just because a theatre is a 501c3 doesn’t mean it doesn’t have to pay its employees.
Another thing I haven’t understood is that New York, which has the nation’s commercial theatre capital, has a non-remunerative showcase code. So why did these proposals, particularly the one mandating minimum wage, seem to hold L.A.—which has a vibrant but hardly commercially flush theatre scene—to a higher standard?
I’d ask you to look at it from a different perspective. I don’t believe L.A. is being held to a higher standard; it’s starting with a lesser standard. The new 99-seat agreement is the lowest negotiable contract that’s ever been offered anywhere. Outside of that, L.A. has also been given this broad, expansive ability for Equity actors to participate in membership companies without a contract. Just for those two things alone, there is no way anyone can say that L.A. is being held to a higher standard.
But why wasn’t a version of the New York showcase code offered in L.A.?
If we were to allow every intimate 99-seat theatre in L.A. to use the showcase code, there is not one place in L.A. where we could try to organize work. There are three intimate theatres in L.A. that have operating budgets of over $1 million dollars, and five or six that have budgets over half a million dollars. If they are not membership companies who can take advantage of that option, we hope to build relationships with them so that they can start paying actors. That’s what happens all over the country.
Look, the council absolutely believes that they’ve been responsive to members. Some people don’t agree that we should be responsive to those who want to make some money doing theatre, but we have been.
We’re also conscious of the national membership of the union. There are nonprofit theatres across the country that are paying Equity wages; in fact, the majority of our signatory theatres are nonprofits, whether they’re the Guthrie or a small theatre with letters of agreement, or one of the LORT theatres on Broadway. This kerfuffle, this challenge we’ve got going on in L.A., is impacting what’s happening nationally, especially when we talk to producers. They say to us, “What’s going in L.A.? Why can’t we get in on the 99-seat plan?”
I’ve read on social media that we’re systematically stamping out the 99-seat plan all across the country, like we’re Mubarak’s army moving in. But the 99-seat plan doesn’t exist anywhere else but Los Angeles.
It’s been suggested by some that Equity’s real agenda in eliminating the old 99-seat plan was to null the terms of the settlement agreement that put the plan in place in 1988, which mandated that a review committee representing the lawsuit’s plaintiffs had to approve any proposed changes to the plan.
The only thing I have to say to that is that it’s being said by people who aren’t in the room, who aren’t part of the discussion. When every other tweet and email is threatening to sue Equity, I’m not going to make a declarative statement beyond that.
That one-hour change in call time you mentioned sounds pretty cosmetic. Whatever the motivation, it seems clear that Equity really wanted to get rid of the old 99-seat plan; the phrase “eliminate the availability of the plan” was in the original Feb. 6 proposals, and in last week’s verison.
The reason to eliminate the availability of the plan is that none of these solutions we’ve suggested can exist if the old 99-seat plan still exists. We’ve laid out these options, these resources, which I do believe will be positive.
It’s only been a week. Last week’s immediate reactions—Oh my God, how dare they? They haven’t listened to us!—came so quickly, it doesn’t feel to me that people even had time read all the proposals. There are producers in the L.A. area who are calling us trying to work with us, to move forward on this. There is also a transitional period, 13 months; this is not flipping a switch. But of course, there’s still a large and vocal contingent who use many different words to tell me how angry they are.
I had a question about the new 50-seat showcase code option Equity included. Is that seating number based on any data about common seating configurations in L.A.?
That was very specific. One of the things we heard over and over again was, “What about these tiny theatres with under 50 seats—what will happen to them?”
That reminds me of one last question: Some actors have wondered whether the New York showcase code is “next on the chopping block”—whether, now that Equity has succeeded in crushing L.A.’s 99-seat plan, the union is going to go after New York’s showcase code.
Actually, with the introduction of a showcase code in Los Angeles, it’s a clear indication that there isn’t an issue with the showcase code, and it’s not “next on the chopping block.”