L.A. drama critics pan pay hike plan for actors in small theaters

L.A. drama critics pan pay hike plan for actors in small theaters
Dan Berkowitz holds the floor during a recent "town hall" meeting at the LGBT Center in Hollywood, in which L.A. theater folk discussed a controversial plan to require a $9 an hour minimum actors' wage in small theaters. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

The Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle has roundly panned a plan to require a minimum wage of $9 an hour for actors who perform in dozens of small theaters in Los Angeles, saying it isn't just a mess, but a menace.

"The inevitable result will be a drastic reduction in the amount and quality of local theater," the 21-member theater critics' organization wrote in a news release Thursday, adding that the proposed minimum, scant as it may seem, "could be the virtual demise of Los Angeles as a leading incubator of plays and theater of innovation and diversity…. The cultural loss would be incalculable."


"The… situation is urgent and dire," the Drama Critics Circle added, with "a vastly constricted... less exciting theater scene" the likely outcome if the $9 wage goes through.

Leaders of Actors' Equity, the national stage actors' union, have proposed requiring the $9 minimum when its members perform or rehearse for productions in Los Angeles County theaters of up to 99 seats.

They're scheduled to decide the hotly debated issue April 21 in a vote of the union's 81-member national governing council, which has the authority to impose the new work rule whether most L.A. actors want it or not. Three-fourths of the council members are not based in L.A.

The more than 6,000 rank and file Equity members in L.A. will have an advisory vote in several weeks of online and mail balloting starting March 25.

For decades, union actors in L.A. have performed for very little pay in small theaters, establishing and preserving a stage ecology that largely puts artistic adventure and creative opportunities far above remuneration.

Performers get nothing for rehearsals, and receive a stipend of $7 to $15 for each performance, depending on the number of seats and the ticket price. Cast members can hope to benefit by being seen by people who can tap them for well-paid jobs in film, television, commercials or bigger stage productions. But often they work just to hone their artistic chops or to be involved in a show that excites them.

At current rates, an actor could expect up to $240 for a four-week run of four weekly performances in a 99-seat theater, preceded by 60 hours of rehearsal. Under the union leaders' proposal, costs would quadruple to $972 per actor for the same amount of work.

Equity leaders say the L.A. small theater system gives small companies a disincentive to mature into bigger ones that could pay regular union wages and benefits. Only a handful of small theaters in Los Angeles County have graduated to midsize ones that operate under regular Actors' Equity contracts.

Opponents of the $9 proposal say there's no evidence that the small theater productions could come close to breaking even under the increased costs. Most of the county's small theaters are nonprofit organizations that rely on donations to augment box office earnings.

Public nonprofit tax filings show that box office earnings averaged $351,000 a season from mid-2010 to mid-2013 at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, a 99-seat company founded in 1969 that's a grandaddy of the scene.

Rentals and parking – revenue streams not available to many small companies – lifted its average earned income to $628,000, and donations averaged $201,000.

Ron Sossi, the founder and artistic director, may be one of the few people who earn a middle class living from work in a small theater -- $72,000 to $78,662 a year, according to the tax returns.

Most small theaters earn far less. The Theatre at Boston Court, another respected company with a well-appointed venue in Pasadena, averaged just under $200,000 a year in earnings – including concerts as well as plays.

But it was able to raise $805,000 in annual donations to support budgets of just under $1 million a year. The Boston Court's tax return for 2013 showed that executive director Michael Seel was paid $39,000 as a fundraiser and an equal amount for managerial and artistic duties.


The Actors' Gang in Culver City averaged $149,000 in ticket sales over three seasons from mid-2010 to mid-2013, relying on donations that averaged $268,000 a year to stay afloat.

Film star Tim Robbins, the long-running company's founder and artistic director, didn't draw any pay and said in a recent "town hall" meeting of the theater community that the Actors' Gang's survival has depended on him providing hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years. He said it would have been impossible under a $9 an hour minimum wage.

The Los Angeles Drama Critics' Circle said that nearly all the companies that have won its Margaret Harford Award for sustained excellence over the past dozen years "would be threatened with closure" under the proposed new pay rate. It added that most of the shows it has honored over the years "would likely never have been produced."

Times theater critic Charles McNulty is not a member of the critics group, but it does include two freelance reviewers for The Times, Margaret Gray and David C. Nichols.

Also weighing in this week against the $9 proposal was Dakin Matthews, among the most respected figures on the Southern California theater scene as an actor, writer, dramaturg and founder of two North Hollywood small theaters devoted to classic plays, the Antaeus Company and Andak Stage Company.

"I'm a proud union man. But I think this latest proposal does not represent our union at its best," Matthews wrote in an email to the Los Angeles Times, sent from New York where he's currently working on Broadway and benefiting from the best Equity contract there is.

After making his Broadway singing debut last year playing Rocky Balboa’s trainer in “Rocky,” a stage musical adapted from Sylvester Stallone's first "Rocky" film, Matthews is back on Broadway playing Winston Churchill opposite Helen Mirren’s Queen Elizabeth II in “The Audience,” a drama now in previews.

The $9 minimum, Matthews wrote, "is not just unworkable and punitive, it simply does not acknowledge the reality of the L.A. theater world and the unique and specific needs of the thousands of members who live and work in L.A."

"I really hope the union listens carefully to the wishes of its members, more carefully than they have listened so far," Matthews added, alluding to the Saturday "town hall" meeting in which Robbins and dozens of other L.A. theater people had spoken against union leaders' proposal. There had been just one dissenting voice, an actor who lamented the strain that token pay puts on performers when they have to juggle demanding roles with day jobs they can't afford to scale back on.

"I am nonetheless optimistic," Matthews concluded, "and I think the current galvanization of the local acting community is a positive thing."

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