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Spring News Roundup

Actress in 2015 Hollywood Fringe Files Claim for Back-Wages; New Theater Movement in LA; Michael A. Shepperd elected to AEA National Council; Laura Zucker Steps Down at LACAC; Dan Bonnell on a Slow Road to Recovery

By Paul Birchall

Actress Files Claim for Back-Wages in Four-Performance Hollywood Fringe Show

La Llorona, at the 2015 Hollywood Fringe

A hearing is scheduled June 5 at the Department of Industrial Relations Los Angeles Office in the case of plaintiff Dolores Quintana, an actress in Matt DeNoto’s play La Llorona. Quintana was in a production of four performances at Hollywood’s Theatre of NOTE, in the 2015 Hollywood Fringe Festival. The claim for almost $3,000, originally filed against defendants DeNoto and director Kathryn Mayer in 2016, was for back-wages and penalties for unpaid wages, at a rate of $9/hour minimum wage for rehearsals and performances.

DeNoto claims to have recruited a cast of volunteer actors for his Fringe Festival production. Furthermore, a public casting notice submitted in the case file clearly states the rate of pay as “none.” (DeNoto paid each of his ten actors $140 in expense reimbursements. That amount has been deducted from Quintana’s claim, and none of the other actors has filed a complaint.) 

Quintana is being represented by David Mack, who is also representing actress Ann Colby Stocking in a similar case regarding a performance in 2013 under the 99-Seat Theater Plan at the Odyssey Theater. All of the actors in that production, including Stocking, signed a statement acknowledging that they were performing under that AEA (stage actors’ union)-sanctioned Plan as volunteers who were entitled to expense reimbursements, which they received. Nonetheless, three years later, Mack and Stocking filed a claim for back-wages and penalties against the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble (though not against co-producer L.A. Women’s Shakespeare Festival) for over $6,000.  

For that case, AEA attorney Susan Davis (Cohen Weiss Simon, LLP) recently filed a letter of support for Stocking, claiming that 1) The 99-Seat Plan was an internal rule and not a collective bargaining agreement and that 2) despite the AEA Plan permitting actors to volunteer, Stocking should be entitled to back-wages and penalties under State labor law, because the Odyssey Theatre is a “commercial enterprise” — as defined by the selling of tickets, refreshments and charging for parking. (Tickets were also sold to three out of the four performances of La Llorona. The fourth performance was “pay what you can.”)

If the “commercial enterprise” argument holds, then every community theater across California that uses volunteer actors, and sells tickets and refreshments to offset occupancy costs and other expenses, is potentially in violation of California’s labor laws.

And if Quintana prevails, the most vulnerable first victim could be the Hollywood Fringe Festival itself, which is a laizzes faire assemblage of volunteers putting up shows for all reasons under the sun, except commercial ones. If the judgement is in Quintana and Mack’s favor,  anybody performing in a Fringe show could potentially file a claim for unpaid wages, up to three years after the fact, despite signing off as a volunteer going into rehearsals. This couldn’t help but have a chilling effect on anybody who wishes to stage a show in the Fringe.

Under California labor law, both cases will rest largely on who had the power during the rehearsal process — whether the producers were working around the actors’ schedules in setting up rehearsals, and whether the actors had the liberty to leave at any time without consequences.

DeNoto and the Odyssey Theatre’s Ron Sossi are arguing that their actors had such autonomy, and that the working relationship between the actors and the producers was not predicated on the producers profiting financially from the labors of the actors. If they were, that would be the foundation of an “employer-employee” relationship in a commercial enterprise, which DeNoto and Sossi insist was not the case in their respective productions — an assertion contested by the AEA lawyer Davis, in Sossi’s case.

Though the Odyssey complaint was filed in 2016 — three years after the performance in question — the DIR has still not ruled in the case.

New LA Theater Movement/PRO99 Plaintiff Elected to AEA National Council

Michael A. Shepperd

As LA theater continues to adjust to Actors Equity’s rewriting of the local intimate theater scene, a group of the city’s small theaters has bound together to form a consortium – an organization of theaters that have been denied the “membership company” exemption in the new AEA rules — meaning that unlike those theaters have been granted that exception by AEA, the consortium’s theaters are not allowed to have AEA actors volunteer and possibly accept expense reimbursements.  

A press release for the group, first published by Footlights, lists 16 local theater companies that have formed the Independent Theatres of Los Angeles — members of which are part of the creative core of the L.A. stage community. These include the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, The Skylight Theatre, the Santa Monica Playhouse, and Playwrights’ Arena, among others. The consortium has already held general auditions for interested non-AEA talent.  Almost one thousand actors have been seen so far, or are on a waiting list to be seen.

Skylight Producer Gary Grossman, also one of the former plaintiffs in the recent Pro99 lawsuit against AEA, states in the release that ““The purpose of ITLA is to say to Los Angeles and all other cities listening that our theaters will continue to provide an opportunity for all artists to volunteer their craft,” which is a euphemism for the theaters hedging their bets. Most of ITLA’s theaters, including Playwrights’ Arena and the Skylight Theatre, are on AEA’s “do not work” list, because they refused to sign the new collective bargaining agreement that the union imposed on them over the strenuous objections of local membership. Grossman says that all actors (AEA and non-AEA) are welcome to work in these theaters, though the AEA actors will have to sort out their options directly with their union.

In other union matters, another plaintiff in the AEA lawsuit, Michael A. Shepperd (artistic director of the LGBT-oriented Celebration Theatre), was just elected to the union’s National Council – yes the same Council that overturned a 2/3 referendum of local membership in April 2015 to preserve the former 99-Seat Plan. That Plan is now history.

Can Shepperd make a difference? Or will he be yet another in a chorus of voices in the wilderness? To represent local interests, he’ll need to conduct a charm offensive, and he’s the right man for that job – capable of being both charming and offensive, each when needed.

Changes at LACAC

Laura Zucker

Laura Zucker, the sometimes prickly, super-smart Executive Director of the LA County Arts Commission has announced her resignation, after serving 25 years in the post.

“The last 25 years have been filled with wonderful opportunities to grow the arts in Los Angeles in so many ways. I’ve been continually inspired by the resiliency and ingenuity of the artists, organizations, educators, advocates and arts and culture supporters who shape our region. The Arts Commission is terrifically positioned to move into its next phase and I’m ready for new challenges,” Zucker said.  

Zucker’s myriad accomplishments include the eight-fold increase of the public arts grant program, which funds almost 400 nonprofit arts programs. In addition, according to the County’s press rep, “Ms. Zucker was instrumental in the adoption of Los Angeles County’s civic art policy in 2005, and since then more than 40 civic art projects have been completed and another 40 commissions ranging in size from $10,000 to $1 million are underway. She led the creation of Arts for All, the region’s initiative dedicated to restoring arts education for all public school students, which is now working with 65 out of the County’s 81 school districts. She also spearheaded the creation of the largest paid summer arts internship program in the country, which employs 132 undergraduates each summer to work in performing arts organizations,” reports the county’s press department.

No word yet on Zucker’s replacement

Landmark Former Globe Theatre Faces Bulldozers

It looks like one of West Hollywood’s last remaining independent theater companies is in danger of losing its home, as Odalys Nanin’s decade-old Macha Theatre Company is engaged in an old fashioned gentrification battle with landlord Emser Tile, who owns the building in which the Macha Theatre resides. The landlord has filed notice to demolish the venue, along with a number of buildings around it, to create an updated mixed-use complex.    

The Macha Theatre, which recently celebrated its 10th anniversary operating in the former Globe Theatre on 1107 N. Kings Row, is a unique structure, built to resemble Shakespeare’s Globe Playhouse, with a circular stage and audience on pew like seats at three quarters round. Under Nanin’s watch, the theater has steadfastly devoted itself to productions of relevance to the local LGBT community, including self-produced shows including Marilyn, My Love, The Adventures of the Lieutenant Nun, and Garbo’s Cuban Lover. 

In an attempt to prevent the demolition of the unique performance space, Nanin filed a request with the West Hollywood City Council for the theater to be named a historical landmark, which would preserve the space. In a brief conversation at the West Hollywood City Council Meeting in April, Nanin noted to me that the playhouse “structure is a post-war corrugated building, the only one in West Hollywood, and the inside is a precise half scale model of the original Globe Theater.  It has been there for 45 years!” 

Although the contract consultants hired to evaluate the building’s historical status returned a report stating that the site was “probably ineligible for designation through the Commercial Historical Resources Survey,” the theater points to consultants from the LA Conservancy and the West Hollywood Preservation Alliance who noted that building’s historical merits. 

At a recent West Hollywood City Council meeting, the city council ordered its staff to perform additional analysis and evaluation of the historical value of the Macha, as well as the buildings surrounding it. Noted Nanin, “(If Macha goes), there will be no artistic landmarks in the city of West Hollywood.  Yet, we’re considered ‘the Creative City’!”  

We’ll keep you informed as to how this story develops.  

Dan Bonnell’s Long and Winding Road

Dan Bonnell

It’s been over a month since we learned about director Dan Bonnell’s stroke, right on the eve of a production planning meeting at Sacred Fools Theater, The news has been covered thoroughly and sympathetically in Steven Leigh Morris’s piece for this website, but now we’ve learned that actress Jacqueline Wright has started a Facebook fundraising page to help pay Bonnell’s medical bills. Dan still hasn’t woken up, though he’s being weaned off a ventilator and is showing some signs of what could be interpreted as responsiveness. Be sure to follow Stage Raw for more information!