To pay or not to pay, that is the question facing L.A.'s sprawling small theater scene, where dozens of stage companies provide a rich menu of choices for playgoers, along with the assurance that they'll be in the hands of experienced professional actors.
For decades, members of Actors' Equity, the national stage actors' union, have all but donated their time and talents to shows in venues of 99 seats or fewer, where the union has agreed not to enforce its usual contracts.
The theory is that honing their skills and gaining exposure on smaller stages can pay off for actors in the long run by leading to bigger paydays on screen or in larger theaters that pay full union wages.
But now Equity's national leaders are poised to replace the existing "99-seat plan" with something considerably more remunerative than the token stipend of $7 to $15 per performance that actors receive in small theaters, depending on the ticket price and seating capacity.
The union's national governing council is scheduled to deliberate April 21 whether to enact unilaterally new pay and working conditions stated in a 14-page proposed contract that producers in 99-seat theaters would have to accept if they want to continue tapping members of Actors' Equity for their plays. The union counts more than 6,000 members in Los Angeles County.
If the proposal goes into effect, L.A. actors who currently might typically get about $280 for an eight-week rehearsal and performance period could see their earnings rise to about $1,080 – or more, if the rehearsal sessions were lengthy.
Actors get nothing for rehearsals under the existing system, their stipends kicking in only when a show opens. Under the new proposal, they'd be paid the same hourly wage for all their work, whether rehearsing or performing for an audience.
That proposed wage is just $9 – hardly sumptuous by regular employment standards. But it would mark a big and sudden shift for L.A.'s small theaters, most of them nonprofit companies that rely on donors along with box office earnings to meet their budgets.
There's widespread concern that the proposed new contract would price some companies out of existence and cripple the remaining ones' ability to take on ambitious projects involving big casts or long rehearsal periods.
The Theatrical Producers League of Los Angeles/Intimate, representing the small theaters, is convening a town hall meeting Saturday morning at the Los Angeles LGBT Center's Renberg Theater in Hollywood to discuss the proposal.
"I think it's fair to say this contract will close down a lot of theaters in L.A.," said veteran producer Charles Johanson, executive director of the GTC Burbank stage company. "And for any company that regularly produces large shows, it will have a devastating effect."
Johanson said that in addition to the pay hike, a new provision mandating workers' compensation insurance for Equity members would pose an additional "massive" cost for theaters. They typically use less expensive insurance plans designed for nonprofit volunteer workers, Johanson said.
Michael Seel, who chairs the small-theater producers' league, said that changes are needed, but the Actors' Equity proposal "goes too far." He said he hopes union leaders will vote it down, then begin talks with the producers "to negotiate a workable 99-seat plan."
But Mary McColl, national executive director of Actors' Equity, said the proposal is a first step in helping L.A.'s small theater scene develop into something bigger. Very few of the county's 99-seat theaters have evolved into bigger companies that operate in larger venues and pay actors regular union wages.
"We determined we would make a commitment to the Los Angeles area, to a long-term strategy to help the theater industry grow," McColl said -- with a new regional union headquarters building that opened last year in North Hollywood as perhaps the most tangible step to date.
She denied there's any Darwinian intent behind the contract proposal -- clearing away weaker companies that can't pay actors more and focusing the small theater scene on those that can.
"We're not starting forest fires, burning down brush so healthier trees can live," McColl said.
In a mailing earlier this month to its L.A. area members, McColl wrote that the union's national governing council, which has more than 80 members, will act on the proposed changes April 21 after getting input from the L.A. membership.
Starting last August, the union assessed the L.A. members' views on the existing small-theater plan.
"We heard clearly that L.A. members want the plan to change so that actors' contributions … are more fairly valued," McColl wrote in her letter, noting that 70% of respondents wanted some kind of change, with 50% urging "major" change.
The process of deciding whether the union should enact the proposed changes will begin with a meeting of its L.A. members on Monday, followed by a period for written comments. An "advisory referendum" of L.A. members will be conducted from March 25 to April 17, with balloting online and by mail.
The advisory process is required under terms spelled out in the settlement agreement that ended a 1980s legal battle over a previous effort by Actors' Equity to change the economics of L.A.'s small theaters. It wasn't the producers but a group of union members who sued to stop the changes. The settlement launched the system that's now in effect.