The Rollout of a New Idea for Fixing L.A.’s AEA/99-Seat Theater Dispute
By Paul Birchall
Talk about Community: Essentially all of Los Angeles’ small theater scene turned out Monday for the LA STAGE Alliance-hosted town hall at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, moderated by that organization’s Executive Director Steven Leigh Morris (also the Publisher of Stage Raw). In a nutshell, this was the heart and soul of LA theater, right here. Almost every intimate theater in the County was represented – and at the highest levels, too.
UPDATE: Click here for a video of the entire town hall, as well as supporting documents for all information presented in it.
The subject was the major issue that has swept almost all others off the local map: The new contract by Actors’ Equity Association (Equity or AEA) to require 99-seat theaters pay its members a minimum wage for rehearsals and performances (with three internal rule exceptions), the threat it presents to the local ecosystem of small theaters, and the lawsuit filed by activists in the Pro99-seat movement against their own acting union.
It was delightful to see such the wide expanse of thespians in that steeply raked LATC theater: Frederique Michel of City Garage rubbed shoulders with Jack Stehlin of the New American Theatre. Across the room, Simon Levy of The Fountain was seen in close proximity to luminaries like Janet Miller of Greenway Arts Alliance. Just about everywhere you looked, there was someone vital and creative.
And, yet, who was missing from the event? That answer came quick and easy: Of course, it was any representative from the union, which declined all offers to serve on the panel. That absence made a true impartial addressing of the city’s issues almost impossible.
Morris opened the event by presenting the AEA’s new contract, with its “carve-outs,” then a brief data PowerPoint (statistics provided by the Skylight theater company) anticipating the bona fide net effects if the AEA plan were to go into effect: Under the 99-Seat Plan, The Fountain Theatre would budget $42k for a five actor cast for 20 performances, paying a $25 dollar-per-performance fee plus rehearsal payments) – the Fountain has been exceeding the minimum payment requirements mandated by the Plan. This was contrasted against the union’s new mandatory minimum wage requirement for that theater. Even with the Fountain exceeding required payments under the Plan, the estimated production budget cost would more than double, from $9,000 to almost $19,000, for the performers alone. Other issues included the fact that the so-called “carve outs” (exceptions to the rules created to win over local theater companies in an unconvincing attempt to suggest that the changes would be minimal) either remove former health and safety protections or are onerously restrictive.
Morris read a letter from Rogue Machine Artistic Director John Flynn, who directly addressed the “carve out” exception that would allow producers of shows with 50 seats or less to stage no more than 16 performances, and no more than three shows per season, on a budget capped at $20,000 per show. Aside from suggesting that $20,000 would barely even cover a theater company’s rent for the run of a show, Flynn also noted that Equity’s ability to change the rules at their whim makes it impossible to trust the stability of any internal code.
The so-called “carve outs” allowed by Equity were also addressed at several points by panelists, with many noting their arbitrary nature: Panelist Vanessa Stewart, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit against Equity, noted that the exception supposedly allowing members of certain membership companies to continue as they have done could not be trusted. “AEA says membership can have a ‘carve out’, but we don’t know for how long,” she mused.
Also, said The Skylight Theatre’s artistic director Gary Grossman, also a panelist and a plaintiff in the current litigation, “If you believe the carve outs will last more than a couple of years before it’s all over, then I gotta bridge to sell you.”
Panelist Michael Shepperd, artistic director of the Celebration Theater (and also a plaintiff), opined that singling out certain companies for “carve outs” will actually make work more difficult for actors of color. “It’s going to be harder to produce the 16 shows (the maximum allowed by the ‘under 50’ production carve out),” Shepperd noted. “It really disturbs me: There are already so few opportunities already. I’m not saying that anyone is racist, but there’s a status quo – and I’m saying that it’s going to be even harder to be involved in the theater community [for an actor of color].”
An interesting counterpoint was provided by director-producer Armina LaManna, sole supporter of the Equity plan on the panel. LaManna suggested that the protesters were missing the entire point of the campaign. “No one needs a union to be an artist. The union is for artists who want to work and get paid,” she insisted. “As long as we are willing to work for free, we can’t complain there isn’t enough funding.”
A particularly interesting aspect of the town hall was the surprising lack of venom and animosity towards Equity (and indeed LaManna’s dissident apologia was greeted with polite applause). The sentiment voiced again and again was that the conflict with the union is not about the concept of actors being paid more, but is about, as Flynn noted, “methodology.”
As panelist Rebecca Metz, who for some time has represented the Pro99 movement as Facebook page administrator, claimed, “I believe in unions. I’m not going anywhere! My problems are a matter of policy.” Grossman echoed, “This is not about actors being paid – or one group not wanting to pay actors. This is about methodology: It’s about how to do it.”
Panelist Larry Poindexter underscored this theme with the presentation of a proposal, which, was created with input from Metz and a variety of community groups and interests, and is intended as a template to meet AEA’s main objectives – actors getting paid – while still growing holistically from the community. Many of AEA’s ideas are present, but tweaked: Amongst other ideas, Poindexter hypothesizes a 24 performance run at the present agreement, but then moving to minimum wage if the show extends. (For one show per season, that 24-performance minimum can be extended to 40 performances, after which the show must go to full contract.
A single production would have a maximum budget of $40 thousand ($50 thousand for a musical) in this agreement. Performers would be classified as volunteers, and compensation be paid as reimbursement for expenses, until these shows proved their viability (26 performances or, once a year, 40 performances) before moving to contract. “We want more contract work,” Poindexter assured the crowd.
Poindexter’s proposal was greeted with polite interest from the audience – and even LaManna, who didn’t support the idea, noted, “Two or three years ago, it would have been a great step forward, but now, after all this time . . . ?”
Ultimately, the Town Hall was a wonderful occasion to prove that the Los Angeles theater community can come together in unity and respect, even with divergent opinions. And while Poindexter’s proposal has some merits, you almost see LaManna’s point: Why should Equity accept it at this time? If Equity refuses to consider alternatives that might lead to the contract work they say they want, while preserving the intimate theater ecology, the story of this feud is ultimately going to be dealt with in the courtroom.
Judge Terry J. Hatter presided over a similar lawsuit filed by Equity members against the union in 1988. At that time, he threw up his hands and essentially said, “You guys figure it out.” This is what led to the out-of-court settlement that became the basis of the 99-Seat Plan. If the case proceeds to trial, Judge Hatter could well do the same thing again, which underscores the importance of alternative plans, and why they should be considered by everybody.
Clarification: An earlier version of this article implied that the new, alternative template was created by Larry Poindexter with input from Rebecca Metz. It was actually developed with input from a wide variety of individuals and interest groups: specifically Alex Fernandez, Rebecca Metz, Leo Marks and Larry Poindexter, in consultation with James Babbin, Curt Bonnem, Ginna Carter, Roslyn Cohn. Mel England, Richard Fancy, Peter Finlayson, Julia Fletcher, Lisa Glass, Mike Lorre, Margaret McCarley, Kevin Meoak, Roses Pritchard, William Lewis Salyers, Vanessa Stewart, and Joel Swetow.
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that under the new, alternative template, for the first 24 performances before a show moved to contract (a 40-performance cap might be utilized once per season), actors would be independent contractors. During this time, they would actually be volunteers, compensated via expense reimbursements.