Actors' Equity's Proposal for L.A.'s Small Theatres Elicits Uproar

News   Actors' Equity's Proposal for L.A.'s Small Theatres Elicits Uproar Asked to name the top theatres cities in America, most people might name quite a few candidates before they mentioned Los Angeles. But the very considerable L.A. theatre community this week found itself at the center of one of the bigger stage battles of the moment.

Mary McColl
Mary McColl

The fracas has nothing to do with the city’s high-profile companies, such as the Mark Taper Forum and Geffen Playhouse, or large presenting houses like the Ahmanson and Pantages. Instead, it concerns the metropolis’ many theatres that have 99 seats or fewer.

Actors’ Equity Association, the actors' union headquartered in New York, recently put forth a proposed new contract that would guarantee better pay for performers at these tiny houses. The measure has been met with considerable opposition. But in a twist, much of the blowback to the pay hike is coming not from producers (though they are not happy about it either) but from the local members of Equity themselves.

L.A. has more than more fifty 99-seat membership companies. A significant portion of the city’s creative stage activity takes place inside these miniscule incubators. But no one’s getting rich doing it. Under the prevailing Equity code that governs the theatres, actors receive $7 to $15 a performance, and no pay at all for rehearsals. The new proposal would raise pay to the current California minimum wage of $9 an hour for performances. It would also ensure pay for rehearsals.

Explaining the thinking behind proposed raise, Equity’s executive director, Mary McColl said, “Some actors say to us, ‘I can’t even get to participate in what seems to be the largest part of L.A. theatre because I don’t make enough to pay my babysitter.’”

To opponents–including folks like movie star Tim Robbins, who no longer has to worry where the next dollar or job is coming from–the contract, if imposed, would mean the death of L.A. theatre scene as they know it. They argue that the increased cost would mean fewer productions, safer artistic choices, fewer opportunities for local actors to exercise their creative muscles and even the complete closure of some theatres. Many of the actors who participate in productions in these small theatres regard the scene as something they’ve nurtured into being over the course of decades–an environment they now consider under attack. They also see work in such troupes as one of the best ways of getting noticed and then hired from more remunerative work on bigger stages and in film and television. “I absolutely do think this proposal would decrease the number of small theater productions in L.A.,” said Rebecca Metz, an AEA member who moved to the city in 1996. She was a member of Open Fist Theatre Company for five years and has acting with other small troupes. “What many people outside this market don't understand is that most small theatre ‘producers’ here--not all, but most--are actors who started out wanting to do a show with their friends, and had such a great experience they decided to do more of them, and eventually a company was born. If those people can no longer afford to work with friends who are Equity, the original purpose is lost.”

The proposal also has had the unusual, unexpected effect of eliciting an official response from the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle. Typically, reviewers hold themselves apart from internal industry disagreements. Not this time.

“We are concerned that the inevitable result of such changes will be a drastic reduction in the amount and quality of local theatre,” said the body in a statement that echoed the concerns of some AEA members. “Indeed, we foresee what could be the virtual demise of Los Angeles as a leading incubator of plays and theater of innovation and diversity.” Asked about what motivated the statement, Terry Morgan, the president of the LADCC, told Playbill.com, “We agree that, as a general matter, this sort of thing is private and not a matter for public concern. In this case, we feel that the association's plan will have a material adverse effect on civic life and the region's economic well-being. We made this statement precisely because we believe that this is a matter of public concern and we want all potentially impacted members of the public to be alerted to what is happening and consider how it may affect them.”

The L.A. situation is hardly without precedent. Throughout its 100-year-plus history, Equity has regularly been forced to find a balance between its mission to secure fair pay and working conditions for its members and those same members’ natural urge to create creative crucibles in which they can practice and improve their art. When the union tried to invent a contractual framework to govern the emerging Off-Broadway movement in the 1950s and the Off-Off-Broadway movement in 1960s, fierce debates arose similar to those now being voiced in Los Angeles.

McColl said the new proposal grew out of fact-finding mission that began last summer.

“Why now is a very good question,” said McColl. “Over the past number of years, we have been hearing from members who want us to help them. They want access to working in those theatres but they can’t afford to do it if they’re not being paid.” The union decided to do some research, including surveys of members and focus groups. These were followed by two membership meetings in the fall and a special membership meeting earlier this month.

Asked if she agreed with people who thought the wage hike would hurt L.A.’s small theatres, she said, “I’ve been asked that question a lot recently. In reality, I think it’s possible. But I don’t know that it’s actually mandated. Is it going to be the death of small theatre? No, I don’t think it will be. Are they going to be impacted? Yes, they will. But the proposals we’ve put forward, there are two ways that members can continue to volunteer if they choose to do that.”

The two measures she referred to are called Los Angeles Self-Produced Project Code and the Los Angeles Membership Company Rule. Both seem to suggest a way out of the salary increase in specific situations. The first will allow members in the Los Angeles area to self-produce and collaborate under a new internal union membership rule, but without with the benefit of an Equity contract, when they self-produce in theatres of 99 seats or fewer in Los Angeles County. The second is a kind of grandfather clause that says members may work without contract in companies in which they have participated and that are in existence as of Feb. 6, 2015, at theatres of 99 seats or fewer. (Members will not be able to participate with companies that come to fruition after Feb. 6, 2015. But Donal Thoms-Cappello, an AEA member since 2003 who has done a dozen plays at the 99-seat level, including several at Sacred Fools Theatre, is unconvinced of the value of these provisos. The Self-Produced Project Code, he said, offers none of the current protections of an established L.A. company–“no contract, no safety protections, no guarantee you won't be arbitrarily thrown out five weeks in, no guarantee the lead won't drop out because of a film or TV project.” And while the Membership Company Rule helps sitting company members, it does nothing for future generations of actors. “It most certainly affects the next kid who falls into an Equity card six months out of Rutgers, travels to LA for more opportunity, then realizes he should keep working to develop his craft,” he said.

Many of the Equity members who don’t like the union’s proposal nonetheless agree that the current arrangements could do with some improvements. In a prepared response to Equity’s plan that Thoms-Cappello circulated this week, he suggested a structure that ties pay to box-office performance or budget; and introducing a cap to the number Equity actors who could be a standing member of a company at any given time.

“One of the mottos that has been emerging is we want change–[but] not this change,” said Metz.

McColl expects changes to the proposal to be approved, and says she is not opposed to them.

She suggested that Equity might assist theatres to mount a campaign to fix the growing rental problem that in L.A, and also help them to raise money to build their infrastructures.

There are more than 6,000 Equity members in L.A. County. They will have the chance to voice their opinion at a non-binding March 25 referendum on the proposal. The union’s 81-member governing council in New York will then vote on the issue April 21. A quarter of the council members are from L.A.