Equity Proposal to Pay Actors Roils Los Angeles 99-Seat Theatre Producers

Paying minimum wage is a non-starter say producers, many of whom are Equity members.
Jonathan Handel

A proposal by Actors Equity that actors in 99 seat theatre productions in Los Angeles be paid for their work is stirring controversy among producers – and even among Equity members. The seemingly modest requirement – that actors be paid at least the legal minimum wage for rehearsals and performances – generated almost uniform expressions of rage and contempt at an overflow meeting of producers Saturday.

Many of the producers are themselves members of Equity, the union that represents stage actors. But there was no love lost for their union among the 250 or so attendees.

“No amount of cynicism [about the union] is too small,” said one speaker, to thunderous applause. About 75 percent or more of the attendees raised their hands when asked if they were Equity members.

Equity executive director Mary McColl counters that the issue is simply that actors deserve to get paid for their work. “[The proposal] would make it more fair and actually equitable,” she told The Hollywood Reporter, citing a need to value performers.

But the producer’s association – the Theatrical Producers League of Los Angeles / Intimate – asserts that minimum wage would be a budget buster. If required to pay actors, the organization said in a statement, “the majority of companies operating under today’s 99-seat plan will either close or become non-Equity.”

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“The proposed agreement takes a huge step that is unmanageable for the ecosystem,” said association chair Michael Seel and vice chair Martha Demson in a joint interview. “The move to minimum wage is just untenable,” added Demson.

The association has engaged counsel to challenge the new proposal, alleging that in making the proposal Equity did not follow procedures required by a 1988 settlement agreement that ended an earlier controversy over the Plan and its predecessor, referred to as Equity Waiver. That multi-year conflict, referred to as the Equity Waiver wars, now echo again.

At the producers’ meeting, only one Equity member spoke in favor of the proposal, Ann Colby Stocking. Later, she told THR why she was speaking out, even at perceived risk to her career.

“It’s always bothered me,” she said. “Everyone else gets paid. And actors get nothing except maybe a review and a pat on the back. It’s makes me feel that I’m not valued. And I’m not.”

Equity members are set to vote on an advisory ballot regarding the proposal starting March 25. “I would urge you all to vote no,” said actor Tim Robbins at the meeting. The union’s national council will decide on April 21 whether to accept, modify or reject the proposal.

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Under the current 99 Seat Plan, actors are deemed to be “volunteers” and are paid a stipend, typically $7 - $15 per performance, with no compensation at all for rehearsals, which can be as much as 36 hours per week.

That Plan seems on thin ice legally, since the California labor commissioner takes the position that volunteers can’t be utilized by for-profit enterprises (which some 99 theatre companies are) or even by non-profits that “operate commercial enterprises which serve the general public, such as restaurants or thrift stores.” But it’s unclear whether anyone has ever challenged the existing arrangement.

Even the new proposal would permit some theatre companies to continue to use actors as unpaid volunteers, raising the question of whether those carve outs would survive a legal challenge.

Equity members met Monday afternoon in a closed meeting in Studio City to further debate the proposal.

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Email: jh@jhandel.com

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