L.A. per­form­ers send ad­vi­sory mes­sage to union, cit­ing ef­fect on small the­aters.

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - By Mike Boehm

With lead­ers of the na­tional stage ac­tors’ union poised to de­lib­er­ate Tues­day on a new $9 hourly min­i­mum wage in small Los An­ge­les the­aters, the rank and file in L.A. has voted over­whelm­ingly against the pay hike.

The 2,046 to 1,075 vote by lo­cal Ac­tors’ Eq­uity Assn. mem­bers was only ad­vi­sory. The Ac­tors’ Eq­uity na­tional gov­ern­ing coun­cil still has the author­ity to change the pay rules for L.A. mem­bers, who for decades have per­formed for to­ken amounts in the­aters of 99 seats or fewer.

The $9 min­i­mum would ap­ply to re­hearsals as well as per­for­mances. It would re­place a sys­tem that pays $7 to $15 for each per­for­mance, depend­ing on the ticket price and seat­ing ca­pac­ity, and noth­ing for re­hearsals that can con­sume scores of


The new wage could quadru­ple what ac­tors earn from a typ­i­cal pro­duc­tion.

But op­po­nents say a change could back­fire on ac­tors by shut­ting down the most eco­nom­i­cally frag­ile the­aters and putting the rest un­der pres­sures that would drain much of the fla­vor and adventure from L.A.’s small-theater menu. They warn that pro­duc­ers would no longer put on shows re­quir­ing large casts and that their main con­cern would be­come en­sur­ing a safe box-of­fice re­turn in­stead of pick­ing plays that em­body cre­ative ex­per­i­men­ta­tion and risk.

The cur­rent Los An­ge­les 99-Seat Theater Plan stems from a 1989 legal set­tle­ment in which L.A. ac­tors thwarted an at­tempt by the union to change the rules gov­ern­ing small the­aters. A sev­en­mem­ber “re­view com­mit­tee” of L.A. theater fig­ures was es­tab­lished back then to mon­i­tor the plan, and it’s now call­ing for Ac­tors’ Eq­uity lead­ers to set aside the pay-hike plan and work on craft­ing changes that would be more widely ac­cept­able.

In a brief state­ment Mon­day, Ac­tors’ Eq­uity’s na­tional lead­ers did not com­ment on the im­pli­ca­tions of the L.A. ad­vi­sory vote, which was re­quired un­der terms of the 1989 set­tle­ment, nor did they re­spond to the call Mon­day to post­pone ac­tion.

“Eq­uity’s lead­er­ship has re­ceived im­por­tant in­for­ma­tion from its mem­bers over the last sev­eral months,” the state­ment said, adding that the Na­tional Coun­cil “will take all of the in­for­ma­tion into ac­count be­fore mak­ing any de­ci­sion.”

Ac­tors’ Eq­uity’s ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor, Mary McColl, has said the $9 min­i­mum wage pro­posal is a re­sponse to L.A. ac­tors who con­tacted the na­tional union say­ing they couldn’t af­ford to per­form in small the­aters, of­ten while jug­gling un­paid re­hearsal sched­ules with pay­ing jobs.

Back­ers of the wage hike also have cited a core prin­ci­ple at stake: that act­ing is pro­fes­sional work that should be dig­ni­fied with a min­i­mum wage.

Union lead­ers also sug­gest that the $9 min­i­mum wage would prod L.A.’s small theater com­pa­nies to take growth more se­ri­ously. Only a few small the­aters have grad­u­ated to mid­size sta­tus since the 99-Seat Theater Plan went into ef­fect. When the­aters move up the lad­der in size, they begin to op­er­ate un­der regular union con­tracts call­ing for bet­ter wages and benefits.

The union, which last year ac­quired a build­ing in North Hol­ly­wood and turned it into a West­ern re­gion head­quar­ters, has of­fered to help with fund-rais­ing to foster that growth.

Re­view com­mit­tee mem­ber Gary Gross­man said now that the ad­vi­sory vot­ing has shown strong op­po­si­tion to the pro­posed changes, he hoped na­tional union lead­ers would lis­ten and post­pone their vote.

Gross­man said the na­tional union emailed re­sults of the ad­vi­sory vote to L.A. mem­bers on Fri­day, the day that sev­eral weeks of on­line and mail bal­lot­ing had ended.

The re­view com­mit­tee, which in­cludes Joseph Stern of the Ma­trix Theatre on Mel­rose Av­enue and John Flynn of the Rogue Ma­chine Theatre in Mid-Wil­shire, ac­knowl­edged in a state­ment that although “change is needed,” it shouldn’t hap­pen with­out “an in-depth study and thor­ough con­ver­sa­tions with ac­tors, com­mu­nity lead­ers and theater pro­duc­ers.”

The com­mit­tee called on Ac­tors’ Eq­uity lead­ers “to strate­gize, study and craft a work­able 99-Seat Plan that will take into ac­count not only where we are presently, but ... where we would like to be five and 10 years from now.”

Gross­man said it’s un­clear what will hap­pen if the Ac­tors’ Eq­uity na­tional coun­cil pushes through the $9 wage.

Op­po­nents of the changes have spo­ken of pos­si­ble legal ac­tion were that to hap­pen.

“I don’t want it to come to that. I don’t think any­body does,” said Gross­man, who is both an Eq­uity mem­ber and, as pro­duc­ing artis­tic direc­tor of the Sky­light Theatre Com­pany in Los Feliz, an em­ployer of ac­tors.

De­bate over the pro­posed wage hike has been in­tense since Fe­bru­ary, when union lead­ers an­nounced that change was on the ta­ble. The bid to in­flu­ence more than 6,000 Ac­tors’ Eq­uity mem­bers in Los An­ge­les County took on some of the trap­pings of a po­lit­i­cal cam­paign.

Op­po­nents of change pointed to the mar­ginal eco­nomic po­si­tions of most small theater com­pa­nies, which typ­i­cally are non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tions that need to aug­ment ticket sales with dona­tions.

An­nual bud­gets for a few of L.A.’s small the­aters range from $500,000 to about $1 mil­lion, but typ­i­cally they are con­sid­er­ably less. Some com­pa­nies get by on less than $100,000 a year.

With a $9 hourly min­i­mum, pro­duc­tions re­quir­ing 60 hours of re­hearsals fol­lowed by a typ­i­cal run of 16 per­for­mances over four weeks could see costs per ac­tor rise from less than $250 to nearly $1,000.

Some op­po­nents of the wage hike have ar­gued that union lead­ers fun­da­men­tally mis­read what small theater pro­duc­tions mean to L.A. ac­tors.

Ac­cord­ing to that school of thought, the 99-seat stages are venues where ac­tors more or less vol­un­teer their time so they can hone and en­joy their art and get ex­po­sure.

From that point of view, com­pen­sa­tion is ei­ther sec­ondary or ir­rel­e­vant.

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