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Calling all actors willing to work for (almost) free: Theater companies hold auditions for a new 99-seat world

Young actors have waited to audition for Skylight Theatre since it opened more than 30 years ago, so the crowd outside the Los Feliz building on a recent Wednesday appeared like any other.

But it wasn’t. These actors were answering an open audition call for the newly formed Independent Theatres of Los Angeles, a group of small theaters looking to cast upcoming seasons with actors willing to essentially volunteer their time in exchange for professional experience and exposure.

In other words, to act virtually for free.

For decades, theaters with 99 or fewer seats were allowed to hire members of the Actors’ Equity Assn. for non-Equity pay, often $7 to $25 per performance. Starting Jan. 1, however, Equity has required these theaters (with some exemptions) to pay the union’s actors minimum wage for all time spent on set, including rehearsals.

The 99-seat theater community fought the change on the grounds that it was not affordable and would effectively kill small houses on shoestring budgets. The theaters lost the battle with Equity, but they are not nearly ready to lie down and die.

Enter ITLA, which is composed of more than a dozen 99-seat theaters, with another dozen or so expected to sign on shortly. All of the companies — including well known producers such as Skylight, Matrix Theatre Company, Odyssey Theatre Ensemble and Santa Monica Playhouse — found themselves unable to adhere to the new Equity rules, dubbed the Los Angeles 99-Seat Theater Agreement.

So that is why 10 artistic directors, associate producers and others were inside the 40-seat black-box Skylight recently, watching a willowy young woman named Akemi Look audition. Dressed in black jeans and a fitted black T-shirt, she cartwheeled across the stage as part of a monologue from “Bike America” by Mike Lew.

Look studied in New York at the Lee Strasberg institute, and her audition caused a stir. One of the theater reps asked her to share her phone number. This doesn’t mean Look will be cast, though. These general auditions are for shortlisting actors who may be asked to audition again for specific plays once the ITLA artistic directors figure out what kind of talent pool they have and thus what types of plays they can stage.

“We’re opening up a whole new channel, and it’s helping the theaters look at how we’re going to plan shows for the next couple of years with this new Equity plan that’s in place,” Skylight Artistic Director Gary Grossman said. “It’s great for the community to know that we’re still here, and we’re still going to be doing shows.”

Grossman, wearing festive suspenders and a serious gaze, stood in his theater’s brick courtyard, tucked between Skylight Books and its annex on a popular stretch of Vermont Avenue. Nearly a hundred actors had booked appointments for that afternoon, and the event attracted a line of more than 100 actors who hadn’t reserved an audition slot.

The sheer supply of non-Equity actors looking to be seen by multiple theaters was so great that ITLA decided on the spot to add three audition dates to its schedule.

When the auditions are done, Grossman said, ITLA members will have seen more than 900 actors. And that will still leave hundreds of actors on a waitlist, he said.

Matrix Artistic Director Joseph Stern said he joined ITLA to help him navigate the new theater terrain after 40 years of using Equity actors about 80% of the time.

“Now I’m going to do a play with 30 young people,” Stern said, taking a small break from the marathon auditions. “For people doing middle-aged plays, it’s not as big of a pool. But artists will always create their own environments. They adjust.”

The bulk of the actors waiting to be seen were, indeed, young. But Grossman said he felt all demographics were represented in fair numbers. Skylight associate producer Jonathan Muñoz-Proulx noted the high turnout of actors of color.

“These are the people we want to have a relationship with, who we want to have on our stages, but they weren’t necessarily the people we were meeting through Equity,” Muñoz-Proulx said. “No judgment on Equity, but we’re going to keep working with whoever wants to work with us, and if you’re Equity, great, that’s a choice you can make. And if you’re not, then we’re a new home for you.”

Some actors waiting in line, however, seemed to have minimal knowledge of the 99-seat debate that has roiled the Los Angeles theater scene for years. They were just excited to have a shot at another audition, with the bonus of being seen by a multiple theaters.

“I do think this is good for nonunion actors,” said Noelle Rodriguez, who heard about the auditions through a teacher on a Facebook group. “There are a lot of shows I can’t get into because I’m not Equity, and now I’m being seen because of this.”

Ron Esfandiari, who moved to Los Angeles from Northern California a year and a half ago, agreed with Rodriguez.

“It’s my understanding that they are giving nonunion people a chance to audition where they didn’t have a chance before,” he said. “But to us nonunion people, it’s just more opportunity. We’re not going to undercut anyone, but not everyone acts for the money. Some people just want to hone their craft and want exposure and experience in good productions.”

Half an hour later, Esfandiari got both exposure and experience when he auditioned with a rousing rendition of an Eric Bogosian monologue.

This article is one in a occasional series about the new 99-seat theater landscape. Support our coverage by sharing this article, and send us your story ideas about the evolving scene.

jessica.gelt@latimes.com

@jessicagelt

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