99-seat theaters and actor pay: The debate so far

99-seat theaters and actor pay: The debate so far
Members of Actors' Equity march last month in North Hollywood to protest plans to change wage rules in L.A. County. New rules were adopted this week. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

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. The mandate, set to take effect in June 2016, overrides the recent advisory vote of L.A. union members who rejected a pay hike by a vote of 2,046 to 1,075. Not since the late 1980s, during a similar dispute over so-called 99-seat theaters, has L.A.'s stage community been so at odds. Here is a primer on the debate, past and present, and what's at stake.

What is the 99-Seat Theater Plan and how did it come to be?

In 1972 Edward Weston, who was the West Coast representative of Actors' Equity, announced that the union would waive its rules in theaters with seating for 99 people or fewer. Prior to that, small theaters worked under something called "the workshop code," which imposed severe Equity restrictions including that workshops not be permitted to advertise, seat more than 49 people per performance, solicit donations, accept contributions or charge admission. Lastly, they were not allowed to run any public production for more than nine performances.

At the time the move was welcome, with Times theater writer Sylvia Drake noting, "It should be the answer to the prayers of many a local Equity workshop and should achieve a variety of goals, not the least of which is that it emancipates the workshop performer, frees him to stand or fall on his own merit."

What happened after the 99-seat Equity Waiver Plan was implemented?

When the plan came up for renewal in 1976, the theater landscape in Los Angeles had drastically changed. Small theaters were blossoming at an unprecedented rate, and a rich creativity emerged with them. "The 99-seat Equity Waiver Plan now four years young, has proved its worth and viability in spades," Drake wrote. "It has had the predicted wide-ranging effect of proliferating theatrical activity here and in San Francisco. By turning theaters loose it has forced them to sink or swim. This generated a survival of the fittest which triggered the inevitable sharp rise in the level of artistic achievement." Growth continued into the 1980s with the number of waiver theaters growing from 42 in 1980 to an estimated 130 in 1985.

Early reaction to new minimum wage for stage actors: 'Sad day' for L.A.

So what happened after that to prompt talk of change?

The rosy picture began to fade in the mid-1980s, with complaints about waiver theaters that included unsafe and unsanitary working conditions. Some actors complained that they were being forced to provide their own costumes, build sets and even act as janitors, all while holding down rehearsal schedules that they juggled with day jobs. In reaction to these complaints, Equity promised to propose stronger actions to protect its members from being exploited.

How did that lead us to the present?

In 1986 a joint committee formed through the consolidation of Equity's 99-seat Waiver Committee and Equity's Developing Theaters Committee (focused on small theater contracts). The new committee got input from 165 waiver operators across the city -- a response to a committee of about 65 theater owners and operators who were worried about prospective changes. A referendum of proposed changes was soon born.

In 1988 tensions erupted after the Western Advisory Board of Actors Equity mailed its 8,000 area members a letter recommending approval of a proposed new Actors' 99-Seat Theater Plan, which would reinstate union regulation of small theaters. Opponents said the restrictive new rules would put an end to small theater in L.A. Eleven dissident members of the union, including actor Jon Voight, threatened to file suit against Equity.

Soon after that Associated Theaters of Los Angeles voted unanimously to adopt a new ATLAS Theater Plan in response to the Equity plan. Key differences included pay scale and rehearsal limits.

In January 1989, Equity and ATLAS reached a truce on a new 99-Seat Theater Plan. Provisions required minimum payments to actors and restricted the length of runs to 80 performances. Things stayed pretty much the same, with a few hiccups here and there, until now.

Who would be affected by the new pay increase, and why has it caused so much upset?

Everybody working in a 99-seat theater, including box office staff, stage hands and actors, would be affected. Opponents fear that cash-strapped small theaters will not survive, and the new rules will shrink L.A.'s theater scene rather than grow it.

Actors fear that given the choice of hiring union members for $9 an hour or non-union members for less, theater operators will do the latter out of necessity. Instead of making more money, actors say, they could end up making no money.

Others fear that the change will prompt actors to leave Equity -- or not join in the first place. And still others are upset that a national council is determining rules at the local level.

Are any theaters exempt from the the pay increase?

Theater companies with no more than 50 seats can avoid paying the minimum wage, but they would be limited to three productions per season.

One point of speculation is that the new rules might cause some theaters to shrink the number of seats to fewer than 50, so they're exempt from the minimum-wage requirement.

How does artistic and creative expression factor in?

Critics of the change say 99-seat theaters provide creative freedom and an opportunity to establish oneself in L.A.'s cutthroat acting world. With so many actors already working day jobs to pay the bills, they can look to small theaters for work that may not pay well but simply feels good. For others, it's a potential springboard to other roles, perhaps in TV or film.

Critics worry that the increased costs could stunt creative freedom. They worry that plays with more than a few characters will be staged less often because of the increased cost that comes with each additional cast member.

Given the challenges that come with change, why do some Equity members support the new rules?

Equity said some L.A. stage actors have expressed frustration that they cannot afford to perform in small theaters. Backers of the wage hike also cite a core principle: that acting is professional work that should be dignified with a minimum wage.

The new rules also are intended to create incentive to grow, so smaller theaters can develop into midsize operations paying regular union wages and benefits.