Debate heats up over proposed changes to L.A. 99-seat theater plan

Debate heats up over proposed changes to L.A. 99-seat theater plan
Michael McColl and Amanda Saunders in the 2014 Echo Theater production of Tommy Smith's play "Firemen." Credit: J (eff Galfer / Echo Theatre Company.)

Seismic tremors have been rocking the Los Angeles theater community after a proposal was floated by the Actors' Equity Assn. regarding the 99-Seat Plan. A bureaucratic process is underway that may severely limit and eventually end union members' ability to volunteer their services at those participating institutions.

My Facebook feed has been filled with the apocalyptic outcry of members of L.A.'s intimate theater community who fear that if Equity's proposal is passed, it will mark the end of theater as we know it in L.A.


The biggest sticking point involves paying actors who fall outside of certain exemption categories "a no less than the legally mandated minimum wage … for rehearsals as well as performance hours." Producers say this is financially infeasible and will result in the shuttering of vital smaller theater companies all across town. Actors' Equity argues that the work of actors needs to be valued.

Times arts reporter Mike Boehm will be covering a Saturday town hall meeting hosted by the Theatrical Producers League of Los Angeles and will update readers on the bureaucratic process as it unfolds. But many in the theater community have been asking where I stand on the matter.

I believe that all artists should be compensated for their work. An economic model must be arrived at that can pay actors at least the minimum wage for their time. If the paradigm doesn't exist, it needs to be dreamed into existence. Culturally and economically, Los Angeles is in a different place than when the 99-Seat Plan was put into effect.

But the path forward needs to be one in which those 99-seat producers who have long been in the trenches have a voice in how this plays out. The process needs to be transparent and two-way — and perhaps more gradual than the proposal put forth by Actors' Equity.

I support the union's long-term vision, but how to get there will take time, community consensus and good faith. Change is difficult and will entail losses. How can the various sides work together to mitigate those losses while maximizing the potential gains? Equity might begin by reassuring producers once again that the process isn't a ruse for a done deal; producers, in turn, might devise a counter-plan for moving the discussion forward.

Intelligent compromise strikes me as a wiser strategy than either militantly defending or officiously decimating the status quo. For all the recent sturm und drang, I have more faith in the leaders of our theater community than I do in our congressional representatives to work out a deal that takes into account the interests of all parties.