Actors' Equity, ATLAS Reach a Truce on 99-Seat Theater Plan

An uneasy truce has been declared in the battle between operators of smaller theaters and Actors' Equity.

Their 10-month dispute moved closer to resolution this week when a coalition of theater operators agreed to play by Equity's new rules governing playhouses with fewer than 100 seats. But even as the drawn-out and often heated labor conflict cooled, both sides continued to pan each other's performances.

The 40 theater operators who make up the Associated Theatres of Los Angeles (ATLAS) announced their intention to operate under Equity's Los Angeles 99 Seat Theatre Plan. Among its provisions, the plan mandates minimum payments to actors and restricts the length of runs to 80 performances.

Since the plan was passed in a controversial Equity referendum last spring, ATLAS members had spearheaded efforts to revoke or revise it. A lawsuit was filed last year challenging how the union instituted the new rules.

Last fall, after talks between Equity and ATLAS, Equity agreed to 33 revisions of the original plan. But until late Tuesday, ATLAS was still insisting on further changes.

At a press conference, ATLAS chairwoman Laura Zucker said ATLAS had decided--at least for now--"to trust that Equity will honor its word" to act fairly and responsibly in the remaining areas of contention.

Specifically, said Zucker, "we trust that Equity . . . will continue to issue the plan to all those who would qualify under the old Waiver . . . will set up a responsible and responsive system for reviewing or changing the plan . . . (and will not) cause the demise of large-cast shows or productions with low budgets until such time as provisions for these circumstances are incorporated into the plan."

She said ATLAS was "encouraged" by Equity's recent agreement to allow the Flight Theatre in Hollywood to pay each of the 16 actors in "Gameface" $2.50 per performance--which is half the minimum payment normally required by the plan.

Such concessions to individual productions "are the only way the plan will work," said ATLAS member Ron Sossi.

Equity's Michael Van Duzer responded Wednesday that Equity "has been granting lots of concessions." He added that "people have known since the very first production to use the plan that we would make a break for large-cast shows." The first production to sign on to the plan was a North Hollywood staging of "Hamlet," for which the union approved payments of $5 per actor per performance instead of the $10 that the size of the theater and the plan initially mandated.

Van Duzer also noted that the Globe Playhouse in West Hollywood will be allowed to pay actors $2.50 per performance for its entire season--"as long as they use a certain number of union members and don't extend (individual shows) beyond six weeks."

ATLAS's decision to stop holding out for further changes was reached "because the majority of the theaters do not believe that by not signing, we can continue to improve the plan," said Zucker.

Sossi said the theater operators had two options: Sign on to the union plan or encourage actors to defy the union by declaring "financial core membership," a controversial non-voting union membership protected by right-to-work laws.

"To put actors in the front lines made us hesitate," said Zucker.

ATLAS and Equity will now move on to another round of talks, in an attempt to negotiate contracts governing productions that run longer than 80 performances or move into larger theaters. Zucker said that "bargaining will begin in February."

Edward Weston, Western Regional Director of Equity, said Wednesday he was "very pleased" by the ATLAS decision, "but I wish they had done it a little more graciously."

He was particularly referring to this statement by Zucker on Tuesday: "Every entertainment labor union that was asked, testified in favor of the creation of the (Los Angeles) Arts Endowment, except one--Actors' Equity. (Weston) refused to support the Arts Endowment."

"This is completely false," said Weston. "No one asked us to testify." He was asked to write letters of support, he said, but at the time "there was nothing in writing about (the Endowment) and I was concerned about how it would be administered." However, he cited several letters he had written in support of the Endowment concept. Weston's account was supported Wednesday by Mark Siegel, a former aide to city Councilman Joel Wachs who initiated the Endowment.

Weston ridiculed the remaining ATLAS concern over which theaters would be able to use the plan. "I'm not aware of anyone who has been denied the use of it," he said. "We're not seeking vengeance. It's very difficult to deal with paranoia." He said that procedures for modifying the plan are already in effect.

Equity will gladly resume bargaining with ATLAS on future contracts, said Weston, though he disputed Zucker's contention that some new contracts will be necessary. Still, "if they (ATLAS) feel they are so unique," said Weston, "we're certainly willing to negotiate something we all feel will work.

"It would be nice," he added, "if they withdrew the lawsuit."

Weston was referring to a suit against the union filed by a group of Equity members, some of whom are also theater operators, who contended that the referendum that voted in the plan was unfair. Many observers believe that it was the pressure of the lawsuit that persuaded Equity to revise the plan. The plaintiffs' attorney, Jerome Birn, confirmed Wednesday that the lawsuit would continue.

ATLAS maintains that the lawsuit is completely separate from its efforts, and Zucker refused to comment on it Tuesday. Responded Weston, noting that Zucker's husband and partner Allan Miller is one of the plaintiffs: "If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it's a duck. It's senseless for them to continue the lawsuit if their intentions are serious. It does not create a congenial atmosphere when they say, 'We're friends, but we want to hold a loaded gun to your head just in case.' "

But then ATLAS isn't claiming that its new stance creates an eternal friendship with Equity.

"It's business," said ATLAS member Ted Schmitt. "It isn't about being friends and dating and getting married."

And Sossi warned that ATLAS's acceptance of the plan could be temporary. "I regard it as a holding pattern. We can always withdraw and pursue other actions."

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