Op-Ed

Tim Robbins: Ending the 99-Seat Theatre Plan would be bad for actors

It's as if the musicians union were going to penalize its members for jamming.

I am a proud member of Actors' Equity. I am in full support of paying actors.

At the Actors' Gang, the theater company where I'm the artistic director, we put 70% of our annual budget into our actors' pockets. We pay them for their work on tour with our productions, in staffing positions, as teachers in our school programs and as facilitators in our prison outreach programs. Most started as volunteers and now earn far above minimum wage.

As much as I support paying actors, I oppose Actors' Equity's attempt to end the 99-Seat Theatre Plan, which allows union members to work for a stipend in small theater productions. The union has cleverly spun this as a demand for minimum wage. In my opinion it is far more complicated than that.

I oppose this referendum in recognition of my roots, and in support of companies that are what the Actors' Gang was 33 years ago: scrappy little companies with actors who want to do real theater in the midst of a film and television town, actors who want to keep their acting muscles toned, play parts against racial and gender stereotypes, work with like-minded colleagues, create ensembles and, yes, reap the benefits if an agent or director or casting director happens to get excited by their performances.

We at the Actors' Gang will survive this bad idea if it is passed. But we would not be here today if this rule had been in place when we began.

Equity-waiver theater has never been a moneymaking enterprise. That's why it's limited to 99 seats — it almost guarantees that producers cannot make money. Most small theaters that want to produce plays with more than four characters know that they will be operating at a deficit, that they will have to rely on fundraising to realize their productions.

Then again, that's true of the Geffen Playhouse and the Mark Taper Forum; only about 55% of Center Theater Group's budget comes from ticket sales. Where does the rest of the money come from? Generous benefactors, God bless them. But if the top theaters in L.A. have to rely on subsidies, where does the fantasy come from that small theaters with, say, 40 seats and no staff are raking in the dollars?

If Equity is aware of blatant violations of the spirit of the 99-seat plan, then it should use its power against those producers. If there are theaters actually exploiting actors, name them. That simply doesn't exist. It is a fantasy scenario.

One thing that's missing from this debate is that most small theater companies in Los Angeles are actor driven. It is actors' ideas and passion that start the companies and mount the productions. Producers exist as facilitators and fundraisers for small theaters, usually losing money in the process. They are often actors themselves, with little to no business experience.

What the leadership of Equity fails to understand is that there are many actors willing to volunteer their time and talents to a small theater company. They find it necessary for their creative survival. They volunteer not only their talent on stage, but some actively raise funds to help their companies survive.

Would they like to be paid beyond the stipend allowed by the 99-seat plan? Of course. But they understand the financial realities of trying to produce in small theaters.

And so they volunteer. According to California Labor Code Section 1720.4, Actors Equity cannot legally tell actors they cannot volunteer in service of something they believe in.

If Equity passes its proposal, it could, in effect, severely limit opportunities for hundreds of Los Angeles actors. It could force its own members to change their union status to “financial core” in order to continue to work on their craft in small theaters. Going “fi core” allows actors to accept any wage, but it removes them from many union protections. It's as if the musicians union were going to penalize its members for jamming or singing in a choir.

It's disingenuous to frame this as a fight for minimum wage. It's insulting to the history of labor struggles. No one is being exploited here. Ask the hundreds of actors who are appalled by this measure and are embarrassed and angry at the stubborn refusal of their union to acknowledge the reality of the Los Angeles theater scene.

Their opinions aren't being posted on Equity's website. They aren't manning the phone banks at Equity's new $7-million offices. Those are volunteers, working for a union that is trying to prevent its members from volunteering. Kafka, anyone? The most recent deceptive spin? Equity will be receptive to listening to the opposition only if its members vote yes. Wow.

Theater actors should be paid way above minimum wage. And governments should vigorously support the arts to make that happen, as should the private sector and the unions. But until that unicorn flies, we all have the right to volunteer our services and our talent if we choose.

Equity members: Make art! Sing loud! Vote no!

Tim Robbins is an Academy Award-winning actor and the founding artistic director of the Actors' Gang, where he often directs productions.

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