Since the 1980s, members of the Actor’s Equity union have been able to volunteer their time and perform in theatres with fewer than 99-seats for small stipends of $7 to $15 per show, helping small theatres in Los Angeles thrive. But in a decision on April 21 that overruled a union member advisory vote, Actor’s Equity announced that it would now require contracts for 99-seat theatres to pay actors minimum wage for both rehearsals and stage time. According to some of the owners, artistic directors and managers on Hollywood’s Theatre Row, their spaces now face an uncertain economic future.
Under the new rule, budgets could more than double due to additional labor costs. The decision has sent shock waves through the theatre community of Los Angeles, and brought a darkened mood to Theatre Row. Many theatre owners, producers and managers believe that the new rule could alter the types of actors they use, the plays they produce and whether their spaces can continue to exist.
Until June 1, 2016, Equity members can use waivers to work at 99-seat theatres, allowing them to be considered as volunteers.
“About a year ago, members said to the union ‘I want to work a 99-seat theatre, and I can’t afford to do it. I can’t afford all these hours’,” said Maria Somma, national communications spokesperson for Actor’s Equity.
The union began to hold hearings and meetings and considered a replacement for the 99-seat waiver system. It developed a new plan that eliminates the waiver and categorizes actors as workers with contracts stipulating that they be paid minimum wage for rehearsals and productions. Half of the members voted in an advisory vote to the union council. They voted against it 2,046 to 1,075 but were overruled by the 81-member council.
The new plan is not without certain exceptions for actors and producers. Actors may join “membership companies” that meet certain qualifications or can self-produce with other union members. Theatres with fewer than 50 seats can avoid paying minimum wages provided they are producing plays for $20,000 or less or for fewer than 16 performances. Somma acknowledges that additional contracts will require more planning from theatres, but that it is up to the union to negotiate with the theatres to figure out how to make viable productions.
“We can negotiate with them during the particular times, when they maybe don’t need a three hour call,” Somma said.
The union stated that the new rules are meant to produce “a strong foundation for intimate theatre through more paid opportunities in Los Angeles,” although members will have options for working outside the system. It’s an intention that has not been well-received in the production community.
For most owners and directors on Theatre Row, the new proposal places a new burden on their budgets. Depending on the number of actors in a play and the lengths of rehearsal time, the new rules could add $10,000 to $20,000 to a budget. For many plays in small theatres, that is essentially doubling the budget.
“Theatre is already impossible,” said Daniel Henning, artistic director of the Blank Theatre, “but under the new set of rules, impossible really becomes impossible.”
Ticket sales cover some costs of a production, while fundraising or grants are often required to cover the rest. The business relies on volunteer work not only from the actors, but from set designers, costume designers and anyone who wants to chip in for a production.
“There’s nobody making money in 99-seat theatre. You fundraise, you try and get grants. But we don’t make any money. The only people getting paid, really, are the techies,” said Dave Fofi, producing artistic director of Elephant Stages.
It’s a sentiment that many actors understand. Jason Lovett, an Equity member for the last five years, regularly works for free.
“The reality is that as actors, we spend a significant amount of our lives not getting paid for doing what we want to do,” he said. “You can’t get blood from a stone. If there’s no money there’s no money.”
And the little money available is increasingly being taken up by the rising rents on Santa Monica Boulevard. A few theatres, like Celebration and Open Fist, have already been priced out. Celebration theatre owner Michael Kricfalusi said his theatre already had to leave its space on Santa Monica, and the imposition of a minimum wage is another added burden as he looks for a new space.
“Equity has not taken into consideration how expensive the rents are, and then add in the minimum wage, it’s just going to be hard to produce anything,” he said. He wants to come back to the area because of the strength of the theatre community, but the uncertainty of the new contracts are holding him back.
For Zeke Rettman, producing managing director at the Hudson Theatres, the new proposal could make negotiating rentals much more difficult.
“How will we be able to help facilitate our own clients’ productions without having their budgets balloon?” he asked.
Matt Quinn, the owner and operator of Theatre Asylum Lab and Elephant Space, said the community is feeling the various economic pressures.
“The shrinking Theatre Row, on top of all the union issues, it’s tough. It’s setting up a tough environment,” he said.
While theatres can adapt by shortening rehearsal or call times or choosing plays with smaller casts, it is seen by some as threatening some of the most beneficial aspects of 99-seat theatres. Theatre offers an opportunity to rehearse and test out new things in front of an audience, actors and producers said.
“I feel like it allows for an experimental, lab environment to try out all kinds of new projects, new plays, that otherwise wouldn’t get produced if these plays had the financial responsibility to pay everyone on the staff,” Lovett said.
If theatre does get significantly more expensive, the people who can afford to fund it could bring about a drastically different scene.
“The people that will do it will have to be so wealthy that, well, there certainly won’t be anything experimental, it would be something that they have to make their money off of,” said Matt Chait, owner of the Complex. There is also the option, raised by several producers and owners, that new productions will simply not hire Equity members, thus avoiding the issue altogether.
Quinn points out that at least the issue has brought some attention to theatre. It especially has galvanized the theatres of Santa Monica Boulevard.
“Of course,” Quinn added, “I wish it had brought us together to say, ‘Let’s showcase our new shows,’ and not, ‘Let’s go to court’.”
All of this suggests a trying year ahead, as actors and producers try to fight the rule before it’s put into effect.
“It’s going to be uglier before it gets better,” Kricfalusi said. “I believe in the end something will break and there will be something that we can all live with, but it is going to get uglier first.”
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