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STAGE : Q & A : Key Players Tangle Over Pay Scales and Profits

Ron Sossi runs the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, a West Los Angeles complex of three theaters of fewer than 100 seats each.

It was established in Hollywood in 1969 as an Equity showcase, but soon became non-Equity until 1972, when the Equity Waiver came in. Last year, Sossi’s theater showed an income of $510,563 and expenses of $578,113. Odyssey actors’ made $32,502 . Sossi’s salary has averaged $150 a week over 19 years. This includes paying himself nothing for the first eight of those years.

Q uestion: The union claims that the Associated Theatres of Los Angeles (ATLAS) plan is a producers’ plan, not an actors’ plan. Is it?

Answer: Equity loves to throw labels around. We knew from the beginning that any plan we tried to come up would be labeled as either union busting or producer-evolved, producer being a dirty word. It’s finally become an expectation on our part.

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We’ve been acting in good faith for the last five months trying to come up with a next-step plan whereby theater could grow. Equity is acting like the old-time bosses. They’re dictating working conditions, unilaterally, without representation or bargaining with the people to whom they’re dictating. They act like management and we’re the workers of old who’ve organized and constantly pleaded for discussion--and continue to be refused.

(At the Odyssey) we pay actors a percentage of the profit (net) after a show goes into the black. They get 30%--that’s minimum--split evenly among actors in a show.

On Sept. 12 we’ll be implementing the ATLAS plan. Since we have that prior commitment to those shows for 30% of the profit, we’ll see each week which is more and pay them the greater amount.

Q: Why didn’t Waiver operators implement a plan of their own before this?

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A: That’s really ironic. We voluntarily formed the Equity Waiver Operators Committee (precursor to ATLAS) with the sole purpose of evolving a code of ethics and practices. We kept getting intimations from Equity of abuses. We consistently asked for any list of abuses and were just as consistently refused.

To this day we have no examples from Equity of the abuses they were talking about. And we were very well organized when we went into the meetings with the Western Advisory Board (in November/December 1986). We’ve been urging Equity for years to work on an interim plan that would facilitate moving up to contract.

Q: What about Equity’s Small Professional Theater Contract?

A: That doesn’t work if you only want to add another 25 or 50 seats. If it did work they’d be using it in Chicago and San Francisco and they’re not. Chicago has its own contract and in San Francisco they have Letters of Agreement.

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Q: Does the new ATLAS plan provide reimbursement for actors based on box-office grosses, regardless of other income?

A: Yes, which is what Equity contracts are often based on. Some are based on potential gross, some are referenced to previous years’ grosses, and some are based on actual grosses.

The Eureka Theater in San Francisco has been operating under a contract--and having a difficult time doing it--under very much the same setup that Equity is asking in the Actors’ 99-seat Theatre Plan. But in a 200-seat theater. The problem is 99 seats.

We’ve been dished out a plan that’s unworkable. We’ve been refused discussion. Since the union wouldn’t sit down with us, we sat down with actors and hammered out (a plan). It’s as fair as we were able to make it. With 99 seats it’s squeezing blood from a stone.

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Q: Equity says you and the Odyssey Theater keep announcing plans to go to a contract situation and still haven’t done it.

A: We kept announcing it as plans and intentions, something we were working on. For a while it looked as if the city of Santa Monica was going to procure a site on the Santa Monica mall, but it fell through. Now there are two strong possible sites and it’s looking more imminent than ever. I can’t talk about it in precise terms because it’s politically premature. We’ll probably make some kind of an announcement sometime in the next three months.

Even that is being screwed up by the current situation, because I need to go in and talk to the union and hammer out projections on what sort of contracts we’ll need . . . but I’m feeling a union that’s too adversarial.

If (the current crisis) forces us to not use Equity actors and suffer an income drop and fire staff, it’s the very staff that’s working on the expansion. Things are in such turmoil that it’s very difficult to do any sort of prudent planning.

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Q: You’ve had consultations with FEDAPT (Foundation for the Extension and Development of the American Professional Theatre). What do they suggest?

A: We’ve been on board with them about three years. They said that whatever resources we could muster should be spent to augment the sophistication of our staff. We were told that if we wanted to take this quantum leap to LORT (League of Resident Theater status), we needed a full-time marketing director, which we don’t have; full-time fund-raiser, which we don’t have; a full-time publicist and a full-time secretary.

We have a half-time secretary and half-time publicist, and thanks to the Irvine Foundation, we’ve managed to bring on a full-time managing director (Nancy McFarland), which they’d also recommended. So we’re proceeding, but slowly. We’re being very cautious.

Q: Wouldn’t this be the perfect time then to make a move?

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A: There’s no place to move to. We’re in negotiation with Santa Monica over the piece of land.

Q: Will eliminating the Waiver spur more work in midsize houses?

A: If you got rid of the 160 small theaters, you’d have four or five houses most likely doing commercial shows. That would be the end of the showcase value to actors.


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