For decades, the Los Angeles small-theater scene has operated under a single set of wage rules based on the willingness of professional, unionized actors to perform for token fees. Now this world is about to break in two.
Leaders of the national stage actors' union, Actors' Equity, on Tuesday adopted a $9-an-hour minimum wage for L.A. members; on Wednesday, they downplayed the effects of the change. Union members can still perform for little or nothing in shows they organize themselves or in shows that take place under the umbrella of a "membership company" formed by actors, Actors' Equity leaders said.
But mainstays of the local small-theater scene, including the Theatre @ Boston Court in Pasadena and the Fountain Theatre and Matrix Theatre in L.A., face having to pay actors $9 an hour for performances and rehearsals starting June 1, 2016. Their alternative will be forgoing stage union talent. To continue hiring union actors after that date, each company would need to negotiate a contract with Actors' Equity.
Mary McColl, the New York City-based union's executive director, said Wednesday that contract talks would focus on work rules other than pay, because Equity would not negotiate with producers who wouldn't agree to pay actors the prevailing minimum hourly wage in Los Angeles County.
Theater companies with no more than 50 seats can avoid paying the minimum wage, but they would be limited to three productions per season.
The Theatrical Producers League of Los Angeles, a consortium of the county's small theaters, has said that paying minimum wage will cause costs to rise exponentially and threaten to break already tight budgets.
McColl responded by saying that the decision reached Tuesday represented new opportunities for the L.A. theater scene to grow by shaking up a system that had stagnated.
"There will be some ebb and flow; change is difficult," she said. "But the big picture here is that [the old system] has not benefited the industry."
Theaters have not shown the will to grow beyond 99 seats, she said, and to develop midsize operations that can pay regular union wages and benefits. McColl characterized the new system as offering "a road map that will help producers figure out how to make it to larger spaces." The focus on opening new 99-seat theaters might shift to building a 150-seat theater, she said, "and that helps everybody."
McColl said the plans going into effect allows for more pay flexibility than an unpopular earlier set of changes that union leaders initially proposed. That version was recently rejected by a 2-1 margin in an advisory vote taken by more than 3,000 Equity members in Los Angeles County.
McColl said 337 productions were staged in Los Angeles during the 2013-14 season under the old 99-seat plan; about half would qualify for a waiver of the $9 minimum wage going forward because they were staged by actor-driven membership companies or took place in venues with fewer than 50 seats.
"It empowers actors," McColl said, adding that the change wasn't meant to give member companies a leg up over regular producers. "This is a response to our members who said they wanted to participate in membership companies" as volunteers.
Some of L.A.'s most established producers aren't buying the notion that union leaders have created a ladder for growth. They see the change as digging a burial hole.
"It's a sad day for Los Angeles," said Gary Grossman, producing artistic director of Skylight Theatre Company in Los Feliz. Like many of the 188 companies that Actors' Equity says have performed in recent years under the 99-seat plan, Skylight has relied on actors rehearsing for nothing and accepting $7 to $15 for each performance. Under the new system, producers who paid $240 or less for a 16-performance run would face costs of $1,000 or more per actor — possibly far more for shows demanding extensive rehearsals.
"We're really disappointed in Equity's response, especially after the landslide vote in the referendum," Grossman said.
Joseph Stern, head of the Matrix Theatre, predicted that the change would create an impossible new economy for companies not qualifying for the minimum wage waiver. He portrayed the changes as a power grab by the union and as "disrespect for our acting community."
The union leaders, he said, "just don't understand the facts" about L.A.'s small theaters. "The audience has dwindled, and there are very few grants nowadays. We live in tough times."
Stern said extensively rehearsed Matrix shows that now budget $5,000 or $6,000 for a 10-member cast would see costs shoot up to about $35,000.
With ticket buyers accustomed to heavy discounts, Stern said, the theater has no way to offset a large wage increase with box office receipts.
"We've been doing everything we can do to sell tickets," he said. "The average price in most places is $12 or $13."
Union leaders began exploring changes last year at the behest of some L.A. members, who said they could not afford to act in small theaters. Backers of the wage hike argued that acting should be dignified with a minimum wage.
But opponents said they wanted to preserve the L.A. small-theater tradition of actors volunteering their time and talent for the sake of their art — with the added hope that a small theater role could lead to high-paying offers on bigger stages or in film and television.
The Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle deplored the proposed minimum wage, saying during the campaign leading up to the advisory vote that the change would stifle the small theater scene's sense of adventure, lead to downsized casts and minimize creative risk for the sake of maximizing box office returns.