ACT I. SCENE 1: A small black-box theater with a scuffed black floor. A charcoal gray armchair and matching ottoman sit in the center of the stage. Two long metal benches flank the armchair. Taylor Gilbert (mid-50s) stands stage right staring into the empty 78-seat theater. She has auburn hair and wears a black pantsuit with a baggy sweater.
The stars of "The Other Place" are in tech rehearsal at the Road Theatre Company in North Hollywood, where they are co-artistic directors. It is late April, and they are agitated. News has just broken that national leaders of the Actors' Equity Assn. imposed a $9 hourly minimum wage for members who perform in Los Angeles County theaters with fewer than 100 seats.
Anderson (scoffing): "They think we're making a lot more money than anybody knows about and we're just not sharing. That's not happening."
Gilbert (scratching her nose guiltily): "Well, we are going to Rio next week."
There's a clatter backstage, and Danielle Stephens (mid-20s) pokes her head out.
Stephens: "I knew it all along, and I quit!"
All three actors laugh, although their laughter has an uncomfortable edge. The joke is funny and not funny at all. The new Actors' Equity rules, they fear, could change everything about the vibrant small-theater scene they know and love.
Actors' Equity passed down its controversial decision April 21 after L.A. Equity members held a local nonbinding vote favoring the status quo by a two-thirds majority. For 27 years, small theaters in Los Angeles have operated under the 99-Seat Theater Plan, known colloquially as "the Plan," which allowed them to waive Equity rules and pay actors a stipend of $7 to $25 per performance. The new rules, called the Los Angeles 99-Seat Agreement, will force these companies to increase actor pay from the tiered stipend system to a minimum hourly wage for all work including rehearsals and time spent on set for performances.
Supporters of the Actors' Equity decision say the move was long overdue and allows L.A. actors to earn a living wage. Dissenters worry that small theaters won't make rent or will begin hiring non-Equity actors. And producers like Gilbert and Anderson fear they will no longer be able to take risks on cutting-edge material because it might not deliver big ticket sales.
The debate has gone national as Equity cities look to the fight in Los Angeles over artist compensation. A community that thrives on inventing drama has real drama on its hands, as friends and colleagues find themselves arguing over the soul of small theater.
The Road Theatre — as small as the controversy is big — provides an ideal lens through which to better understand the passions on both sides of the divide.
FLASHBACK: It's spring 1991. Gilbert is sitting in Jerry's Deli in Studio City with fellow actors who have just walked off the set at a local theater where they say they were treated poorly. They order tea and water because nobody can afford anything else. They decide to start their own member-operated theater company to create important work — risky material from new playwrights with ideas not necessarily palatable to the mainstream.
What would become the Road Theatre is born. For the first 18 months members pay $75 per month to produce shows and pay rent. Their first production is "Balm in Gilead," which gets a positive review in The Times with a nod to Gilbert's performance. The company's members are elated. They are creating art and doing it for love.
PRESENT DAY: Since Gilbert founded the Road with fellow actors in 1991, it has grown into a critically acclaimed company with about 360 Equity and non-Equity members, more than 100 considered "active" and heavily involved in the Road's two North Hollywood theaters. For the first time, this season the company is staging two shows simultaneously in each theater. The goal is to share certain sets, cut costs and increase profit.
As a membership company, the Road is exempt, along with about 60 other membership companies, from the new Actors' Equity agreement. Nonetheless Gilbert and Anderson remain passionate about the fight. They believe that L.A.'s small-theater scene will be flushed of life. They also worry that the exemption for membership companies could be revoked at any time.
The economics of small theaters feeds their anxiety.
The Road Theatre's tax returns show that in 2013, the latest year for which records are available, revenue was $192,394. Expenses were $185,381. That means the Road ended that tax year $7,013 in the black.
But here's the first catch: The theater paid actor wages and stipends totaling only $6,412 for that year's three productions. The second catch, Gilbert and Anderson say: The Road does not pay rent on either of its two theaters. Its 44-seat house at the Lankershim Arts Center is subsidized by the city in return for 30 to 40 hours of free arts programming a week. The 78-seat theater on Magnolia Boulevard is provided by the adjacent NoHo Senior Arts Colony. In return for its home, the Road programs activities including readings and acting classes for the senior community.
Most small theaters pay on average about $2,000 per week if they are renting space, Gilbert and Anderson say, and considerably more if they are a resident company with a permanent home.
"The board doesn't get paid, it's all volunteer," says Andre Barron, a director and board member at the Road. "I'm always pitching in. I went out and bought the cheese and bread today [for audience refreshment], and I'm going to jump in tonight and help house-manage because we need somebody. You always need to do more."
That includes attracting an audience, signing up subscribers, securing donations and writing grant applications, he says.
Barron has another job that provides his income. He volunteers at the Road, he says, because it's "a connection back to my own creativity."
Another board member, actor Chet Grissom, is co-producing two shows at the theater and starring in one, the L.A. premiere of a two-man dramedy by Wendy MacLeod, "Things Being What They Are."
With meetings and performances and putting staff in place for each show, Grissom estimates he volunteers about 30 hours a week. That's on top of the 40 hours a week he works at his day job, providing office support for a Santa Monica real estate investment company that allows him to take time off for occasional film and TV work.
A typical performance day starts with walking his dogs at 6 a.m. and finishes when he gets home from the Road at 11 at night.
"I have a very understanding wife," he jokes. "I don't know any actor who doesn't have another job unless they are a series regular or something."
Kevin Shipp, a young actor-producer member at the Road, is just learning the ropes of this world. He is two years out of college at Pepperdine and two years into his membership. He estimates he makes 10% of his income from acting and commercial work and the rest from part-time work he does for an online entrepreneur coaching business.
He commits about 20 to 30 hours per week to the Road. He sees to the details of programs, postcards, marketing and advertising and generally picks up the slack for whatever falls between the cracks. Sometimes he gets stuck with the painting, but the work pays off in experience and connections.
"I've met probably 90% of the people I know in the industry through this theater," he says.
Once the focus shifts to the bottom line and actors cannot freely choose to volunteer their time to projects they are passionate about, the good work goes out the window, critics of the recent Equity changes say. Small companies will be able to afford to work with only one- or two-person casts, or worse yet, they will begin staging vanilla classics. "On Golden Pond" has the dubious distinction of being frequently tossed out as an example.
Donald Sage Mackay is an Equity actor who says the new union rules are long overdue. Because Los Angeles is the only city in the country that had the 99-Seat Theater Plan, Mackay says, he had to fly to cities including New York and San Francisco in order to make a living in theater. Mackay is co-artistic director of the Aspen Fringe Festival in Colorado, and he says that since he must abide by Equity rules there, he puts nearly 7% of an average $26,000 budget toward actor salaries. That doesn't include travel, housing and per diem.
"In Colorado, I can't choose to bring professional actors in for free, so what does that do? It forces me as a producer to raise funds and get donations and grants. It forces me to look for money and plan very well," Mackay says. "If I were offered a 99-seat contract, what do you think I would choose? When people are trying to save money, if you don't force them out of that situation they're going to choose free actors every time."
Still, many in the small-theater scene say the math of the new Equity agreement doesn't add up. The budgets for the two current shows at the Road were about $23,000 each. "The Other Place," which is a Times' critics choice, is on track to break even. The other, "The English Bride," closed after 11 weeks and lost nearly $10,000.
Where does the money go? The budget tally after 11 weeks of shows for "The Other Place" included $538 for programs, $600 for costume design, $1,000 for set design, $600 for sound design, $750 for lighting design, $1,488 for advertising and $3,997 for the rental of projection equipment used in the show. The director stipend was $750, the stage manager stipend was $1,400 and the actor stipends were $2,260 total (there were four actors) — about $17 per actor, per performance, although Equity requires the stipend to go up every four weeks based on a tiered plan.
Some actors might be willing to work this way, but it takes away from the integrity of actors everywhere, says Adolphus Ward, 80, who moved to L.A. from Milwaukee in 2001.
Ward was shocked to discover that he wouldn't be paid for the first part he landed in a 99-seat play. He says he's all about creativity and the exposure granted by working in some of L.A.'s most prestigious 99-seat theaters, but, he says, "I'm a professional, which means I'm supposed to be getting at least some of my living paid for out of what I'm doing."
Paying actors a fair wage has worked in other cities, Equity spokeswoman Maria Somma says. Portland Playhouse in Oregon has 50 seats and pays its actors more than $400 a week plus benefits.
Portland Playhouse's tax returns for 2013, though, show revenue of more than $800,000 — nearly four times that of the Road.
Another theater mentioned by Somma is the Gift Theatre in Chicago, which had revenue of more than $192,000 in 2013, similar to the Road. The Gift has 50 seats and pays its actors $234.25 per week. It ended that tax year more than $30,000 in the red, although in 2011 the Gift reported revenue of more than $172,000 and expenses of nearly $150,000.
This is why critics of the new rules say any proposal needs to take into account the financial situations of small theaters on a case-by-case basis.
"L.A.'s 99-seat theater scene is complex with many different fabrics," says Gary Grossman, the producing artistic director of Skylight Theatre Company in Los Feliz. "Some are less than 50 seats and some are 99, some operate with budgets in excess of $400,000 and some with budgets of less than $50,000. You have to take all of that into consideration. A comprehensive study must be done."
Still, Ward says a benchmark must be set for what Equity actors get paid.
"Somebody has to say from here on out, here are the rules of the game," Ward says. "Who better than Equity to say that in support of their membership?"
Until a compromise can be reached — or the new rules takes effect for existing producers in 2016 — the drama will continue backstage.