A Union Divided
View from L.A.: Actors’ Equity Association members march to protect the area’s intimate theaters from their own union
Compiled by Stage Raw staff
Responding to Actors’ Equity Association’s recently announced “promulgated” plan to require minimum wage payment to union actors for rehearsals and performances in L.A.’s theaters of up to 99-seat theaters, an estimated 350-400 actors marched from Crown City Theatre on Camarillo up Lankershim to AEA, where they had a rally led by Frances Fisher, Benjamin Burdick and Jeff Perry, defending the right of actors to work pro bono in non-profit, money-losing theaters if they find intrinsic rewards doing so. French Stewart joined Fisher and Perry at the start of the march for a press conference for TV reporters that was held on Lankershim at the bottom of the Zombie Joe’s Underground block. The march began at about 3:30 or so and was strung out along Lankershim for blocks and caused a mid-afternoon traffic jam from passing rubberneckers. Many cars honked horns in support. The actual rally on the sidewalks in front of and across the street from AEA began around 4 p.m. and lasted around an hour.
The union insists that minimum wage is the law of the land, and that it can no longer tolerate the abuse of its membership by producers in theater companies where only the actors don’t get paid.
Opponents of Equity’s new plan say that the union’s argument is a ruse to avoid having to administrate the current, cumbersome 99-Seat Plan, which brings them no fees but which provides a unique garden of creative opportunity for its members. They argue that, under the current plan, participants beyond actors also volunteer and even lose money, and to suddenly impose a minimum wage standard in an era of exponentially rising rents and production costs will diminish the quality and innovation in those theaters by prying the majority of union actors from these theaters. Furthermore, the argument goes, there’s no proof that those theaters impede the availability of whatever limited contract work is out there, as Equity has suggested. (Over 60% of the area’s union actors participated in the current 99-Seat Plan over the past five years.) Another argument is that the producers being demonized by the union are more often than not Equity actors who used the current plan to form theater companies comprised of their peers and colleagues. This last point explains the members’ fury that appears to have caught the union off-guard.
Both Equity and the actors agreed in the settlement of the plan in 1989 that the theaters should be restricted to 99-seats in order to avoid financial exploitation of performers by producers, and to allow actors to work pro bono at such theaters for token reimbursements — an arrangement that has never been challenged legally.
For an op ed on related issues, read here.
And for a contrary view, read here.
What follows are excerpts from the march:
“I think if this proposal actually does go through the way that it is written, there will be very little small, intimate theater taking place here in L.A., and that which does happen will be small casts or non-equity, and it would be to the detriment of the entire L.A. cultural scene.” — Rick Steadman AEA member and former member of Theatre of NOTE
“Last fall I was in a show [Absolutely Filthy] that began at my home now, Sacred Fools, and we won a New York Fringe. That’s right New York, one of our little shows won. And that same show also went to contract at South Coast Rep and is still moving forward today. And I can also directly link being seen in 99 seat shows and getting hired for on-camera work — directly. Absolutely directly. [But that’s] not the reason that I do that at all. I do it because it’s a place where I can originate roles in exciting new plays. So I get to play parts I could never get to play in shows that would never be produced anywhere else. I have friends who make their living doing on-camera work, and who have told me they are jealous of me because of the amazing 99 seat theater that I’ve gotten to be in.” –Curt Bonnem, AEA member, and member of Sacred Fools Theatre Company
“I worked at in New York. I came out here, I wrote a show, I immediately got produced by Artists Confronting AIDS, and then I joined NOTE. And if you told me that Ed Harris and Amy Madigan could be at NOTE Theater watching Hardhat Area by Leon Martell and I was three feet away performing in front of them — this is the most exciting night of my life. This is the most exciting incubator in America, and to destroy all this talent, all these playwrights — their ability and their right to work and create — is something that is dystopian and almost sounds like it is coming from the Tea Party.” –Robert Stoccardo — AEA member, and member of Theatre of NOTE
“If this 99 seat plan has any kind of changes like have been proposed by Actors Equity, it will kill the 20 theaters that we have in the NoHo Arts District along with the rest of the other wonderful theaters that we have in L.A.”–Nancy Bianconi, NoHo Arts District
“I’m proud to be with you here today. I had a high school teacher who was crazy and she told us, ‘Find a play. Decide who you want to work with. Go to the cafeteria. You guys, go into the hallway.’ Then I went to Illinois State University, and I met Laurie Metcalf and John Malkovich and Terry Kinney and Gary Sinease, etcetera, etcetera. Nine of us started the Steppenwolf Theatre in 1976, and we worked for no money for four years. I’ve looked back a million times since then, you guys. It was the allowance, the lesson, the beauty, the crucial nature of self-determination as an artist that has kept me alive. So many times. Unemployed. Looking for work. The ability to teach a class. The ability to cook up a play and do it with my daughter right now at the Odyssey. Work. Volunteer for five months out of love for our art and Eugene O’Neill and feel I can still grow. To have that self-determination in my hands, a proposal that would try to shut off the spigot of us keeping our souls alive is doomed. It’s not going to work. It’s ridiculous. It is not going to work. I have heard we have 6,500 L.A. County members, and if 99 percent of us vote now, and people who have never lived in L.A. overrule it and say that it’s gone, then we’ll cook up something else. We won’t call it 99, we’ll call it We Love Theater and We’re Doing It — Fuck You. The NEA visited Steppenwolf when we were two-years-old, and we listened and we were sucking up as best we could for funding, and John Malkovich said, ‘I have one thing to say. I hope you give us money, I think we deserve it. But I don’t give a fuck if you do, because we’re gonna still do this. Do you hear? We’re gonna still do it.'” — Jeff Perry, co-founder of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company
“We are a large group of Actors Equity members and theater patrons, people who love 99-seat theater. We are telling Equity that this proposal to shut down 99-seat theater as written is not right for us in this L.A. theater community. We all want change, but not this change. And this demonstration is to let the world know what we’re doing. They’re imposing a minimum wage in this proposal on actors, which sounds good on paper but is unsustainable in the 99-seat theater plan. The 99 seat plan was never created for actors to make money. It was created as an incubation ground for new playwrights, large casts, designers, directors to all come together and ply their craft so their ready to go do television and film and whatever. We all come from the theater, and when we’re not working at paying jobs, we hunger, we yearn to get back on stage, where it’s us and the audience. And the collaboration, there’s nothing like it in theater.”–Frances Fisher, AEA Member
The video below, consisting of more testimonies in support of voting NO on Equity’s non-binding member-referendum, was produced by Pro99.com, which sponsored the rally.