STAGE : To Pay or Not to Pay: The Issue Isn’t New
All senior members of Actors Equity Assn. shall receive not less than $40 per week, based upon eight consecutive performances per week, and may receive a pro-rata thereof for each performance given . . . .
--Actors Equity Little Theater Contract, 1937
If anyone’s doing math, it’s ironic that in the middle of the Depression Equity actors performing in small houses in Los Angeles earned $5 a show. That’s $5 better than actors have known since the Waiver plan revolutionized the operation of West Coast Equity workshop theaters in 1972.
Little theater in Los Angeles during the pre-Waiver years was fraught with debate. The issue was spelled out in an Equity newsletter of December, 1943: “For a great many years, Equity has had the problem of experimental, or non-commercial, productions tossed at it. . . . It has been an extraordinarily difficult problem for Equity to handle.”
The problem pits the contractual rights of actors against their desire to develop their professional talents in non- or low-paying venues. Thus was born Equity’s Little Theater contract in the ‘30s, to be replaced by the Workshop Code of the ‘60s, and then by Equity Waiver in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
Equity’s first Little Theater contract affected venues with 299 seats or fewer.
The pact made Screen Actors Guild or AFTRA members join Equity before they could appear on an Equity stage. It compelled non-Equity actors to get a “working permit” from Equity before they could appear on stage alongside union performers.
In 1965, Equity, faced with proliferating workshop theaters in Los Angeles (mostly reconverted storefronts), devised a highly restrictive Workshop Code.
This limited the Equity actor to give nine performances in a three-week period without pay. The workshop space was limited to 49 seats and the operator could not charge admission, solicit donations or advertise.
Houses seating more than 50 were considered theaters, not workshops, and had to pay their actors according to the appropriate Equity contract, often the Hollywood Area Theatre Contract.
I remember reviewing a workshop production in 1966. One of the actors was performing under a pseudonym because he had far exceeded the nine-performance limit and didn’t want Equity to catch him at it. (This was common practice for workshop actors all over town.)
I ignored the alias in the program and complimented the actor’s work with his real name. The actor did not appreciate the trouble my review caused him with Equity and let me know it. I realized that the Workshop Code compromised reviewers too.
In those days, one also heard rumors about actors kicking back payments to producers so they could have the stage exposure and lure the casting directors and agents. Pre-Waiver was a sad way to operate. The Workshop Code went down under heavy pressure from actors seeking to free theater from its Workshop shackles. Enter Waiver in ’72 and air for the actor to breathe.