Actors' Equity Touts $263,000 Paid Under L.A.'s 99-Seat Theater Agreement

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The deal had been opposed by many actors.

A controversial Actors’ Equity contract that requires actors in 99-seat theaters to be paid at least minimum wage rather than a nominal stipend has yielded more than $263,000 in salary payments since it was introduced two years ago, the union told The Hollywood Reporter.

The contract was opposed by many Equity members, as well as producers and venue owners, who feared that requiring payment for actors who had been deemed “volunteers” would make the economics of small theater untenable in Los Angeles.

Since 2015, the deal — known as the 99-Seat Theater Agreement — has been used in 30 productions by a total of 225 actors, the union said, leading to an average payment of $1,170 per actor under the contract. Actors must be paid for at least three hours per performance, or $31.50 under the current $10.50/hr. Los Angeles County minimum wage for small employers (set to rise annually, reaching $15/hr. in 2021) and four hours per rehearsal.

Under the prior arrangement, called the 99-Seat Plan, actors in a 99-seat theater could be paid a stipend of as little as $7 per performance and nothing for rehearsals.

That was always somewhat dubious legally, since a California labor authority opinion letter regarding volunteers at churches states that “when religious, charitable or nonprofit organizations operate commercial enterprises which serve the general public … volunteers may not be utilized.” However, few actors complained, viewing the visibility and résumé credit of a performance as compensation enough.

“This [new] agreement has ensured that more members are paid for every hour that they work,” said Equity executive director Mary McColl. “Now we have members who are taking home $1,100 paychecks for their work, instead of a minimal stipend. Whether it is the 99-seat agreement or others introduced over the last two years, members have more options for working on contract than ever before, and we expect more and more of our members will work and get paid using the 99-seat agreement in the next few seasons.”

Although the union’s move aroused so much anguish that a group of actors led by Ed Asner sued — unsuccessfully — to block the deal, Equity has built in several degrees of flexibility. For instance, the agreement, which applies to theaters of 99 seats or less in Los Angeles County, does not actually require that all actors in the production be paid. Rather, for a cast of four or less, at least two must be on the contract and thus be paid; a cast of five to 10 must have at least four on contract; and a cast of 11 or more must have at least five on contract.

In addition, no salary is required for actors working in theaters with 50 seats or less under the 50-Seat Showcase Code; or in more than 60 small theaters designated as Equity Membership Companies under a grandfathering provision called the LA Membership Company Rule; or in self-produced projects under the LA Self-Produced Project Code.

None of which is to say that producers opposed to the Equity moves have given up. Under the rubric Independent Theatres of Los Angeles, a group of 16 theaters held open auditions in May that were oversubscribed and resulted in a “huge wait list” of performers hoping to be seen.

Equity says that wages under the 99-seat agreement have grown in each of the two years the contract has been in place and that membership has, too, with more than 500 new members joining the union in Los Angeles County since the 99-seat agreement was introduced.