NEW YORK CITY: The front lines are in Los Angeles, but the war over that city’s Equity 99-Seat Plan is clearly a national conflagration. That’s not only because Equity and its leadership are based in New York but because the issues of artists’ compensation and the freedom to self-produce raised by L.A.’s theatrical labor struggle are national in scope and consequence.
At issue is a decades-old code unique to L.A. by which Equity actors have been able to volunteer in small theatres for paltry stipends—an arrangement many have found creatively rewarding, and which has inarguably fostered a vibrant theatre community, but which others have deplored as a self-limiting framework that, by running on almost-free labor, holds back the town’s best theatres and artists from forging a fully professional scene.
Actors Equity Association, unsurprisingly favoring the latter view, has moved precipitously in recent months to crush the 99-seat plan. First the union floated a series of proposed changes to the plan in February; then, after a referendum of West Coast members, who voted soundly against the proposals, AEA’s councilors voted on April 21 to release a modified series of proposals carving out exceptions for some kinds of theatres but holding firm to the concept of eliminating the non-remunerative 99-seat plan. The new proposals do contain a version of that plan—only it’s now a contract requiring minimum wage for every hour of Equity actors’ rehearsals and performances.
We spoke last week with Equity’s executive director, Mary McColl, about why AEA thought the 99-seat plan had to go. Later in the week we sat down with Dakin Matthews, an actor/dramaturg currently appearing as Winston Churchill in The Audience on Broadway, who has been a leading voice in the burgeoning Pro-99 movement that has formed in opposition to Equity’s new posture. A cofounder of Antaeus—a classical company in Los Angeles that is among a class of membership-driven theatres exempted by Equity’s latest proposals—Matthews isn’t the only actor in The Audience who has thrown in his lot with the Pro-99 movement; the show’s star, Helen Mirren, also recently offered her support.
AMERICAN THEATRE: We wanted to talk to you because you’ve worked on all kinds of Equity contracts, in L.A. and elsewhere, so you couldn’t be accused of not knowing how it’s done outside of L.A.’s small theatres.
DAKIN MATTHEWS: I’m not a 99-seat baby. I even went into it grudgingly, I have to admit. My dream for Antaeus was always for a professional regional classical company. The move to 99 seats was a necessity to keep the company together.
So you can understand why many actors outside L.A. say, “You do what there? Why don’t you want to get paid to do theatre?”
I completely understand, and I completely understand the bind that Equity is in; I’m quite sympathetic with a lot of the things that they want to do.
So what do you say to people who don’t get it?
I really do think that Los Angeles presents a unique situation that is not like anything else in the country. I also understand that labor unions like consistency—they feel that consistency is solidarity, consistency is strength. But I do not buy the argument that if we give you a 99-seat contract there, then when we go to the production contract with Broadway theatres, that makes us weaker—that’s bullshit. You might as well say, if I make a LORT contract where I’ll work for $1,100 a week, then some Broadway producer’s gonna say, “Come work for me for the same.”
But in a theatre industry town like New York, where there is a real economic food chain and theatres of different sizes are vying for talent and real estate, would you agree that those competitive wage pressures are more real?
Whereas in a place like L.A., it’s true—it’s hard to see how the 99-seat economy impacts contracts at Center Theatre Group.
Broadway alone last year took in $1.3 billion in box office, and that’s not even counting regional theatres in New York, Off-Broadway, Off-Off-Broadway. So many people are willing to buy tickets to go to theatre in New York, besides which, virtually every theatre in the country who has a contract comes to New York to hire people, and some of them don’t hire for good roles anybody but New York actors—so that the ratio of contracts to Equity actors who live there, and the opportunities to get paid in New York, are completely different. If you measure that against in L.A., how many people are actually willing to buy tickets to go to theatre in terms of dollars, and how many actors live there, there’s no comparison. So to suggest that it’s possible to increase the number of contracts for actors in L.A. out of thin air to anything like the ratios that they exist in New York is insane.
Well, some would argue that the air’s not so thin in L.A.—that there are companies with operating revenues comparable to small regional and Off-Broadway theatres, in the $200,000 to the $1 million range, and that Equity could, and should, increase contracts at that level.
I have no problem with that. If Equity had come and said, “OK, we’re gonna say the plan is now available to theatres with less than $300,000 annual budgets—after that, they have to come and negotiate.” But did they do that?
See, here’s one of the mines I’m going to step on. The 99-seat theatre movement, Pro-99—of which I’m a proud member, and I’m no longer a very proud member of Equity—said, “You can’t have a one-size-fits-all plan!” Then when Equity comes back and carves out little things for them, they say, “Solidarity! You gotta treat us all the same!” That’s as disingenuous as the whole campaign that Equity waged.
I think it’s absolutely in everybody’s interest that if Equity can show that theatres have a budget that should be paying actors more money, they have every right to say, “You know, this plan is no longer available for you. You’ve gotta up it somehow. We’ll make it possible for you to do that, we’ll figure out a way to gradually get you there, but come on, guys—you got a million-dollar budget, a $500,000 budget.” I have no problem with that whatsoever. But that is not what they did.
Equity seems to want to draw a really firm line between waivers, by which members can volunteer without pay or protections, and contracts, where it’s minimum wage or nothing.
I don’t have a problem with minimum wage, if there’s a contract. That’s just basic law.
But I think Equity’s feeling was that the 99-seat plan was neither fish nor fowl—it had protections but not pay, except stipends.
It wasn’t a contract; the premise was that actors would volunteer, and there would be reimbursements, but the primary goal was to make sure that the work arrangements and the work rules were beneficial to actors. Equity suddenly decided—this is the hard part, and they were not honest about it—that they no longer wanted ever to use the word “volunteer,” so they eliminated that word, even from the new transitional code, which is virtually identical to the 99-seat plan. And in the new proposals, for those theatres for whom they carved out exceptions—the membership companies and the self-producers—they withdrew all oversight. Basically, they said, “If you’re gonna volunteer, fuck you; you’re on your own. We’re not gonna provide the oversight that even the plan did.”
They’re presenting this as steps toward professionalization, but in fact these are steps away from professionalism. They’ve decided that they no longer want to be involved with any company that does not have a contractual relationship with them; that’s the decision that they’ve made.
That does seem clear.
And that’s a voluntary decision; it’s not mandated by law. It’s not even mandated by the rules of Equity, which places compensation rather low on the chart; they’re really more interested in the art, they say in some places, then working conditions, and then compensation. So that’s a decision they’ve made. You could argue whether that’s the right decision for L.A. The arguments they’ve made in favor of it are, some of them, pretty reasonable: Yeah, it’s hard to administer a plan that you don’t let anybody else have. It’s tough—but that’s why you’re being paid a quarter of a million dollars, ma’am!
But you could argue that actors under the 99-seat plan want to have it both ways: They want the protections of the plan but without a contract.
Well, Equity exists to not just help actors get paid but also to make sure they’re working in safe conditions.
The slogan of the Pro-99 movement in opposition to Equity’s original proposals was, “Change, but not this change.” What changes does the movement want to see?
I think that the majority of people who joined the Pro-99 movement believed that slogan. But there are some people who don’t want any change, and now they’re all sort of fessing up: “I think things were perfect, why change it?” I’ve said to them, “Then leave this website and form your own.” The Pro-99 movement really has to sit up and say, “We do want change, we do accept change.” As I said to you, it’s perfectly logical to have a financial cut point where the plan is available to those below a certain amount. You have to look at each production budget, though, and understand that some of these theatres do a lot more than produce 99-seat theatre. And the difficulty with that is that you have to have honest and consistent budget reporting, and this is Hollywood; people don’t do honest and consistent budget reporting, even in the smallest theatres. So then you have this problem of trying to make all budget reporting consistent across the line. That’s really, really hard to do, and it would be expensive to do. You’re gonna have to really have accountants.
That’s one argument I’ve heard why they make it about seats rather than budget numbers.
Yeah, you can’t lie about your seats.
What changes would you like to see?
My three suggestions were: Something like the plan should be allowed to exist, even the plan itself. It must still continue, because it works well for certain circumstances. Number two: It is perfectly all right, I think, to discriminate between types of organizations and sizes of organizations. That’s a no-brainer. Three, those who qualify really do have to make serious steps toward professionalization. One of them would be, if you think you’re a theatre that Equity wants to contractualize, then you’d better form a really good producers’ organization and start negotiations at a real level, and take it seriously.
You say it makes sense to discriminate among companies, but now that Equity has carved out these different proposals and is approaching companies to negotiate, many on the Pro-99 side see it as a “divide and conquer” strategy.
Absolutely, and I agree with them, because Equity leadership has lost of the trust of its members in L.A. It’s very hard to believe that they are making this approach in good faith, because they forfeited the trust of the membership by the duplicitous and disingenuous campaign they waged, the complete pretending that there wasn’t a landslide vote, and the complete evisceration of the plan. So they say, Let’s sit down and have a nice talk. But you didn’t listen to us before; you lied to us before; why are we to believe you now?
Tactics aside, there’s still an argument to be made that unless Equity mandates change, producers will never voluntarily choose to pay more, even if they could.
I don’t disagree with you on that. I think contractualizing is a legitimate goal. It’s a union. I’ve got no problem with that. But that’s not why they did this. The fact is, the whole purpose of this exercise—minimum wage was secondary, contracts were secondary—the whole purpose of this was to get rid of the settlement agreement and the review committee.
Right—you’re talking about the terms under which the 99-seat plan was first put in place, as part of the settlement agreement of a lawsuit by actor/producers against their own union, the terms of which mandated that a review committee partly composed of plaintiffs had to approve any changes to the plan. So you think that was the real target of Equity’s moves here? And if so, will it work?
I think the council’s vote (on April 21) was absolutely illegal and non-binding. The settlement agreement says that it cannot be voided or thrown out without written agreement of both sides. I think that the plaintiffs have got to act now. They have to sue, and point out to the judge that the settlement agreement has been violated. And they have to take the pressure off the Pro-99ers, who don’t know what they should do now.
So you don’t foresee a happy outcome after all this struggle?
No, I don’t.
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