The thing that’s foremost on my mind this week is the 99-seat kerfuffle in Los Angeles. I’m sure many of my constant readers are aware of the situation, but for those who aren’t, here’s a precis (as best I understand it). Back in the ‘80s, a plan was implemented in Los Angeles theatres to allow members of Actor’s Equity to act in theatres with 99 seats or fewer at pay rates below Equity minimum. This usually amounted to token payments (in the low single or double figures) for rehearsals and performances. The most contentious part of this was that Equity had to be forced into the plan because of a court order.
Now, I’ll stipulate that, in a perfect world, anyone involved with a theatrical production – actors, designers, directors, technicians, stage managers, running crew, front-of-house staff – would be paid a living wage, but anyone in this business knows that we don’t live in a perfect world, do we? If we get paid at all, it’s a token amount that pays for gas or BART or Muni fare. And that’s fine. There’s an old saying that you can make a killing in the theatre, but not a living; none of us does this to get rich. It’s all about – or should be about – the creative process and the chance to do interesting work.
When I started auditioning for shows in Los Angeles in the late ‘70s, it was (for the most part) not good. The scene was filled with shows that were intended mainly as showcases for people to get agents to do film and television. There was some quality work – at The Odyssey, The Matrix, South Coast Rep; some other places – but most was middling or bad or featured TV and movie stars who wanted to tread the boards, to mixed results. (The Charlton Heston/Deborah Kerr Long Day’s Journey was particularly gruesome, but Dana Elcar, Donald Moffat, Ralph Waite, and Bruce French did an unforgettable Godot; the second-best I’ve ever seen).
Didi, Gogo, Pozzo
Heston as Tyrone. *Shudder*
After the waiver was implemented, LA theatre bloomed and entered, if not a golden age, then an explosion of creativity. Companies sprang up and thrived as actors, both known and unknown were able (to use a phrase I hate) to “practice their craft,” be creative, take artistic risks, and find their own level of success, unhampered by undue financial concerns.
For the last twenty-some years, this system must have stuck in Equity’s craw, and in recent months, they’ve announced plans to get rid of the waiver and ensure union actors are paid, at the very least, minimum wage. Now in theory, who could object to that? Actors should be able to make at least as much as the kid at McDonald’s who runs the drive-thru (a job that actually requires him or her to act being friendly for at least part of a shift), but doing that will drive up production costs to ruinous levels (I’ve read between 5,000% and 9,000%) that will drive a lot of companies out of business – ironically depriving the very actors whom the union wants to be paid for working. It seems Equity’s position is that actual work at small compensation is preferable to no work at minimum wage.
I was stunned to hear that there are 8,000 Equity members in the Los Angeles area. I don’t think there are 8,000 actors in the Bay Area, let along Equity members. (Of course, it seems like a good portion of the Equity actors working here live in New York … ) Now, obviously, not all of those union actors are working on stage, either fully paid or underpaid, but even if half of them were/are doing waiver shows, that half will soon be deprived of work, because the companies that have allowed them to do something with substance (or even something frivolous) won’t be there anymore.
As might be guessed, this proposal is causing large rifts in the LA theatre community, with plenty of actors – and plenty of them famous, if that makes any difference – pitted against their own union. (And let it be notes, the new plan has plenty of supporters.) While both sides are pretty adamant in their stances, Equity isn’t really playing fair, using phone banks to spread, if not misinformation, then incomplete information and deleting opposing comments from their Facebook and other web pages. And, on top of that, even though Equity members will be voting on whether to institute a new plan, it’s strictly advisory, and the union’s board will be free to dump the old plan and put in a new one. (And let me hasten to add, many of the people against the new plan acknowledge that the current one could stand some changes – just not the proposed one.)
Even Hal Holbrook is in favor of the waiver. (Hey, that rhymes.)
Now, even though I’m a member of two unions (which will go unnamed) myself, not only am I in favor of keeping the waiver in Los Angeles, I wish we here had something similar; not because I don’t want actors to be paid, but because the talent pool available to a lot of directors and theatre companies in the Bay Area would rise dramatically (no pun intended). I haven’t been a member of the LA theatre community for over 20 years, but from what I read and hear about it, it’s vibrant, experimental, bold, and, most important, open. Even though theatre space has always been at a premium in the Bay Area – now (when it seems like any building in mid-Market is being replaced by skyscraping condo projects) more than ever – I’d have to think that a move that allowed actors to work in so many venues and with so any company that met the criteria would be a shot in the arm and kick start the golden age of theatre that San Francisco’s been on the verge of for the last 20 years. #pro99