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For actors in L.A.'s small theaters, curtain rises on new minimum-wage rules

Paula Christensen, left, and Bonnie Bailey-Reed in Rogue Machine's presentation of Deb Hiett'€™s "The Super Variety Match Bonus Round!" The theater's leader is worried that new wage rules will hurt small theaters.
Paula Christensen, left, and Bonnie Bailey-Reed in Rogue Machine’s presentation of Deb Hiett'€™s “The Super Variety Match Bonus Round!” The theater’s leader is worried that new wage rules will hurt small theaters.
(John Perrin Flynn)

Theater loves metaphor, so let’s call John Perrin Flynn, the artistic director of the Rogue Machine theater company in L.A., our Ghost of Christmas Future as we face the big question for 2017: As controversial new wage rules kick in for the city’s small theaters, will the local scene thrive or decline?

It’s a question that has hovered since April 2015, when Actors’ Equity Assn. passed the 99-Seat Agreement for local companies performing in Los Angeles County theaters with fewer than 100 seats. The change prompts small companies to increase actor pay from a tiered stipend system (often $7 to $25 per performance) to a minimum hourly wage for all work, including rehearsals as well as time spent on set for performances.

Somewhere in all of this is the idea that commerce must come first. Theater is not commercially viable in and of itself, so art loses.

John Perrin Flynn

The mandate moved forward despite a nonbinding vote in 2015 by L.A. Actors’ Equity members, who favored the status quo by a two-thirds majority. Union members brought a lawsuit against Actors’ Equity, but that suit was tossed out of federal court in early December of this year, clearing the way for changes to take effect Jan. 1.

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In one version of this “Christmas Carol,” Actors’ Equity is Scrooge. And the grave that the Ghost of Christmas Future shows to Ebenezer is that of Los Angeles’ intimate theater scene.

“Somewhere in all of this is the idea that commerce must come first,” said Flynn, who was the only non-union plaintiff listed on the lawsuit. “Theater is not commercially viable in and of itself, so art loses.”

When asked if the scene will change under the new rules, Flynn responded by email that “theater in L.A. will be different.”

Critics of the change fear the wage rules may force some theaters to produce fewer plays or to choose plays with smaller casts. Theaters that can no longer afford to use Actors’ Equity actors will lose top talent, they say, or will try to survive using non-Equity members.

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“A few — not very many — theaters will try to make the minimum wage agreement work,” Flynn said. “Many will try to continue to exist as non-AEA houses — thereby denying opportunities for many AEA actors.”

He feared younger or newer actors will get fewer opportunities to get the practice they need, and playwrights will see fewer works staged.

“There will be a shaking-out period,” Flynn said. “Will theaters that choose to go non-Equity be able to continue to do the same quality work that they have been doing, and will their patrons stay with them if their work falls off?”

As one of about 60 Actors’ Equity membership theaters citywide, Rogue Machine is exempt from the new rules. However, Flynn said, the AEA Council could revoke that exemption at any time. Membership companies will “live with an ax hanging over us.”

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Most theater groups cannot survive on ticket sales alone and need other funding from individual angels, corporations or foundations to help pay for rent, sets, costumes, sound, lighting and advertising, not to mention actors, directors and stage managers.

“There need to be local and national foundations to support this,” Flynn said. “We need large donors. Annenberg or the Ahmanson Foundation is going to have to decide that midsized theaters are a good idea in this town.”

Which is one of the arguments in favor of the rules change: Commit to pay actors a living wage, and theaters are one step closer to facing their full reality — that they need to raise more money from donations, grants and other sources as part of their long-term survival.

Actors’ Equity Executive Director Mary McColl has told The Times that the old system does not encourage small theaters to grow into medium-size companies, ones that operate under Equity contracts and pay actors better wages. The old system, she said, did the opposite.

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“A business model grew up around not paying actors, and if you moved to a larger venue, you had to pay the actors,” she said after the local member vote last year. Theaters had motivation to stay small, she said, and leave actors largely unpaid.

When the curtain rises on 2017, the city’s small theaters will begin Act 2 of a drama whose ending has not yet been written.

jessica.gelt@latimes.com

@jessicagelt

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