Actors' Equity and L.A.'s 99-seat theaters: A brief history

Actors' Equity and L.A.'s 99-seat theaters: A brief history
Taylor Gilbert plays Juliana and Sam Anderson plays Ian in a performance of "The Other Place" at the Road Theatre Company. Supporters of the Actors' Equity decision to impose a $9 hourly minimum wage say the move allows L.A. actors to earn a living wage. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

A brief history of the small-theater debate:

The original waiver wars occurred in the late 1980s when Actors' Equity Assn. sought to institute stipends for actors in theaters with 99 seats or fewer.

Compensation had not been regulated since 1972, when the West Coast representative of Actors' Equity, Edward Weston, waived Equity rules for these small theaters. What followed was a heralded time of unprecedented growth in L.A.'s small-theater scene. The number of these so-called waiver theaters grew from 42 in 1980 to an estimated 130 in 1985.

But then came actor complaints about unsafe and unsanitary working conditions. Actors also accused some producers of making actors pay for their own costumes and build their own sets, all while rehearsing and performing free. The ensuing battle looked much like the current debate splitting the theater community. Small theaters feared that any change to pay rules would cause their imminent demise.

The 99-Seat Theater Plan — with its mandated stipends for performances — was born after years of infighting about pay scale and rehearsal limits that ended with an out-of-court settlement.

Actors' Equity estimates that nearly 190 productions were staged in 99-seat L.A. theaters during the 2013-14 season. The problem with this proliferation of small theaters, said Mary McColl, executive director of Actors' Equity, is that small companies are not encouraged to grow into medium-sized companies that operate under Equity contracts and pay actors better wages. The old 99-seat plan, McColl says, prevented that from happening.

"A business model grew up around not paying actors, and if you moved to a larger venue you had to pay the actors," she said. The result? Theaters stayed small, and actors went largely unpaid, she said.

"We are first and foremost a labor union, so it should not be surprising that we would look to provide for wages for the members who work in our jurisdiction," she said.

Critics call that response tone-deaf. Their slogan: "We are for change. Just not this change."

The movement's advocates, including high-profile actors such as Tim Robbins and Frances Fisher, said they aren't against paying actors and would like to see a path to a new system — perhaps a box-office revenue sharing plan or a tiered system in which pay is determined by the finances of each company. A one-size-fits-all mandate, as they deem the recent change, is not the answer, they say.