There has been so much misinformation and misunderstanding about the 99 Seat situation that it boggles the mind.
As a 37-year member of Actor’s Equity Association I have been a working member on many of AEA’s contracts as both performer and stage manager. I have also served – as a volunteer, mind you – as a Councilor, Chair of the Western Advisory Committee on Chorus Affairs, and as a member of a handful of AEA committees. (These are the people who discuss details and make recommendations to Council and the union negotiators for wages and working conditions for the various contracts that protect actors and stage managers working in professional theater.)
Twenty-some years ago I was on the committee that met with, and wrestled with, the Waiver Theater Operators, the Actors who made themselves into Producers so they could produce theater while asking their fellow actors to work without pay. In that process I learned much about the history of what was originally called “Waiver Theater” which after 16 years became “99-Seat Theater” and has now become a collection of three plans; one of which is the new Agreement that controls working conditions for AEA members working in small theater.
So, I know a little something about all this. And, I gotta tell ya, if you don’t know the history, and the real facts behind this issue, you are likely to come to the wrong conclusion about what is rapidly turning into a lawsuit by the 99-Seat producers against Actor’s Equity. Those who do not know their history are bound to repeat it.
Twenty-Some Years Ago this exact same scenario happened. And wasted hundreds of thousands of dollars of YOUR dues money so that the union could continue to do what it is, by design, meant to do: PROTECT THE ACTOR FROM ABUSIVE PRODUCERS!.
As you read the following press release sent today by Actors Equity I ask you to put aside emotional responses and remember: Actor’s Equity Association is a Labor Union. Not your psychologist. Not your acting teacher. Not your means of creative expression. Their mandate is to negotiate and monitor wages and working conditions so that their members can actually make a living in professional theater.
⇒ Read on.
MOVING 99-SEAT THEATRE TO LEGITIMATE PAYING PRODUCTIONS
Equity Puts Forth the Actual Facts
Los Angeles, June 30, 2016 – Actors’ Equity Association Executive Director Mary McColl issued the following statement:
Actors’ Equity Association (Equity) remains disappointed that the facilitated discussions with the plaintiffs in the Asner vs. Actors’ Equity lawsuit were unsuccessful.
If the end of the facilitated talks brings the service of the lawsuit, Equity will stand up for its members and will immediately file for a dismissal of all claims brought in the suit. Equity, a labor union representing more than 50,000 stage actors and stage managers across America, was founded upon the belief that actors should be paid for their work and treated fairly. Actors on Broadway. Actors in Kansas City. Actors in Los Angeles. All actors.
The lawsuit, which is procedural in nature, claims that Equity did not follow the steps outlined in a 1989 settlement agreement to alter the terms and conditions by which 99-seat theatre is produced in Los Angeles. Some producers and actors in Los Angeles, however, claim that the goal of the lawsuit is to retain a system that allows producers to cast actors in productions without paying for their services. And the plaintiffs have been talking about it.
Absent the facts, confusion is created. The plaintiffs have been generating misinformation while at the same time releasing insupportable “data” as their rationale for why actors should not be paid.
Let’s look at the facts.
More than 7,000 Equity members live and work in Los Angeles County. Despite being the “entertainment capital of the world,” with actors flocking from around the globe to Southern California, Equity’s data reveals that LA County actually provides less paid work for stage actors than markets such as Baltimore/DC, Boston, Chicago and Minneapolis/St. Paul.
Incredibly, in the most recent period where data is available (2014-2015), LA County (with 7,000 members) had 6,500 paid work weeks for Equity members; whereas, Baltimore/DC (with 854 members) had more than 8,700; Boston (with 845 members) had over 7,900; Chicago (with 1,589 members) had more than 15,800 paid work weeks; and Minneapolis/St. Paul (with 437 members) had more than 6,700.
The fact that these far smaller markets eclipsed LA in paid work weeks confirms the fact that a theatrical community can thrive and still pay the performers.
As you drill further into the data, more interesting facts about the plan become apparent. During the same period (2014/2015), there was a total of 11,013 unpaid work weeks for actors in Los Angeles County. If those unpaid work weeks were actually paid work weeks, then 99-seat theatre would represent the second largest source of paid employment in the Western Region – second only to LORT.
In markets from Seattle to Chicago, unpaid work weeks are below 1%. This begs a simple question: How is it that the rest of the nation can afford to pay its actors who perform in small theatres, yet Los Angeles cannot? Equity takes great pride in the diligence with which its producing partners nationwide work toward adding contracts. It’s time LA producers — some of whom are incorporated as not-for-profits, but all of whom sell tickets to their productions — play by the same rules as everyone else.
Another argument often cited is that the system results in creating productions that go to Broadway. While it’s true that some shows have made the move, the path is not a direct one. Generally, years of work in multiple productions on paying contracts occur before a production that began in a 99-seat theatre makes it to a Broadway production. Along the way, there may be productions in LORT or other theatres, changes are often made and enhancement money may be made available for development. The data shows that when a 99-seat production is staged again, the actors in the original cast — who were not paid a wage to develop the work — seldom move on with the production. One production, SMALL ENGINE REPAIR, has been cited as an example of a 99-seat production that moved to New York, but, of the actors in the original cast, only one (who was also the playwright) made the move, which was two years later.
The old 99-Seat Theatre Plan represents an unnecessary and avoidable roadblock for actors in Los Angeles attempting to make a living in live theatre. An ecosystem has been allowed to develop where even midsize theatre suffers because it is competing with a small theatre system that pays actors little, if anything at all. This has created a downward spiral, or race to the bottom, where the real losers are the actors, the stage managers, the audience and the theatre industry overall.
It is one of the founding principles of Actors’ Equity Association that those who work in live theatre deserve to be paid for the work that they do. Every actor and stage manager who has joined this union has agreed to work under conditions that, to the best of Equity’s knowledge, are most beneficial to the whole. This is one of the fundamental definitions of a union. When an actor works through a rehearsal break, he or she contributes to an expectation that everyone else will give up that break as well. When an actor develops work without ever expecting any return on that development, he or she makes it more difficult for colleagues to ask for developmental compensation. Finally, when a member — any member — works for a few dollars a show, with no pay for rehearsals, he or she damages the earning power of every other member, both monetarily and philosophically. This has not been an easy process, but Equity is committed to doing the right thing.
It is for these and many other reasons that Equity stands behind its decision to bring Los Angeles County in line with the rest of the nation, and defend its members’ right for fair compensation.