National leaders of Actors' Equity Assn. on Tuesday imposed a $9 hourly minimum wage for members who perform in Los Angeles County theaters with fewer than 100 seats, overriding a recent vote by rank-and-file union members in L.A.'s stage acting community.
The minimum wage for rehearsals and performances will take effect June 1, 2016, for scores of theater companies that already work under the 99-Seat Theater Plan. For decades that plan has required only token payments for actors when they perform -- and nothing when they rehearse.
New producers who want to hire union actors will have to start paying the minimum wage immediately.
The new rules include two exceptions: one for "membership companies" controlled by actors, who could set their own pay rates, and productions in houses with fewer than 50 seats -- as long as the runs don't exceed 16 performances and production budgets are no more than $20,000. A company could stage no more than three such shows in a season.
The Actors' Equity's National Council -- about 80 representatives from around the country, including about 20 from L.A. -- made its announcement after meeting Tuesday. The council did not refer specifically to a recent advisory vote of more than 3,000 L.A. union members who voted by a margin of about 2 to 1 against the $9 minimum wage and other proposed rule changes.
"We are proud of our members who shared their insightful views and spoke with such passion," said Mary McColl, executive director of New York City-based Actors' Equity.
The union leaders partly amended a proposal they had submitted in February, but not in ways that would help most of L.A.'s established theater companies avoid paying the $9 hourly minimum.
For companies not falling under the exceptions, the minimum wage requirement is likely to raise production costs exponentially. Actors who now earn about $240 for a typical 16-show run could earn more than $1,000 for shows requiring substantial rehearsals.
"If they pass this they're knocking out about 85% of the theaters," Joseph Stern, longtime head of the Matrix Theatre in Los Angeles, said Tuesday before union leaders announced their decision.
Backers of the wage hike argued that acting deserves the dignity of a minimum wage, and union leaders said they were responding to complaints from the L.A. rank and file about poor pay.
Opponents said the change could spell curtains for a long tradition of adventurous productions that depended on actors willing to volunteer their time and talent for the sake of their art.
Look for more reaction to the vote Wednesday on Culture Monster.