Why I Support Equity's 99-Seat Proposal

As an actor whose majority of professional experience has come in the theater, I feel it my duty to express my support for Equity’s proposal for actors performing under the 99-Seat Theater Plan.  Given the heated debate, other actors who are supporters of the plan have understandably remained quiet, but I feel it’s important to publicly articulate all sides and stand up for what you believe.

Several times during my career, I have worked under the 99-seat Plan, but most of the time I’ve pursued work at larger theaters that pay me a decent wage.  I continue to work at those regional theaters both locally and in other cities, all the while maintaining Los Angeles as my home.  I think my union’s proposal to be paid minimum wage makes a lot of sense. 

First let me say that I respect other actors’ opinions on the issue and it’s an important conversation to have.  All artists who want to engage in their respective art form should be able to do so and I certainly understand the notion of actors needing to act.  I do not, however, accept the analogy Tim Robbins recently used in his opinion piece in the LA Times.  I’ve heard it from others as well.  Robbins argued that 99-seat theater is akin to musicians holding a jam session and Equity’s proposal denies that artistic freedom.  In 99-seat productions, however, actors spend weeks and weeks rehearsing, sets are constructed, costumes are gathered and audiences pay to attend.  That’s not exactly an improvised jam session.  And under Equity’s proposal, actors will continue to be able to self-produce and volunteer. 

I am not one that believes that 99-seat theaters are exploiting actors-- they are choosing to be there--  nor are these theaters making a bundle.  Nevertheless, it makes me uncomfortable to think that many theaters still manage to pay the director, the designers, the choreographer and the musicians, some of whom are protected under their own union contacts with set wages and rules.  Meanwhile, the actors usually receive a $7 stipend per performance and rehearse unpaid for weeks—as if that part of the artistic process didn’t count as much.  Furthermore, the small stipend really represents an effort to reimburse the actor for transportation expenses.  When confronted by the reality of these numbers, it seems ridiculous that we, as professionals, are fighting tooth and nail to get minimum wage.

 Macbeth @ The Antaeus Company

Macbeth @ The Antaeus Company

Many of the theaters that would be affected by the change to pay actors operate with annual budgets in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.  That’s a fact.  Several of these 99-seat theaters are established institutions that have been around for decades developing an audience, but have never transitioned into contracts that pay actors, nor are they looking to do that.  Can you blame them?  Why would they?  If they can operate with free labor, why change?  The brutal long-term effect is that unlike other cities in the country, this has prevented medium-size theaters from emerging in Los Angeles, as the vast majority of spaces operate under the 99-Seat Plan.  The overall result is no development toward paid opportunities, no contributions to pension and certainly no credited health weeks, which are crucial to actors looking to make a living as a professional artist.

Tim Robbins states that 70% of the Actors’ Gang annual budget is put back in actors’ pockets through the company’s production tours (which obviously don’t operate under the 99-Seat Plan, by the way), staffing positions and education and outreach programs.  I have always admired the Actors’ Gang for making that happen.  As a company member, one of my best friends has directly benefited from those opportunities.  The problem is that most other 99-seat theaters do not have education components and touring possibilities and other avenues that generate income for the actors.  The 99-Seat Plan does not incentivize theaters to develop such programs, so the overall Los Angeles theater scene remains stagnant.  The current 99-Seat Plan simply does not encourage growth nor provide a road map toward paid wages.  We are overdue for a change. 

A Noise Within, which no longer works under the 99-Seat Plan, is a great model for growth.  Slowly but surely through the years, ANW has continued to expand as a company with, among other things, education and outreach programs.  They now offer an Equity contract that includes health weeks.  They have an internship program and understudies.  They produce a full season of classical theater with large casts.  They even have a beautiful brand new space!  So it’s not impossible… but sadly, a medium-size house like ANW is an exception among Los Angeles theaters.

 Pride & Prejudice @ Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Pride & Prejudice @ Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Our union was founded 100 years ago when actors went on strike precisely because they weren’t being paid for rehearsals. To say my union’s fight for me to get paid is “insulting to the history of labor struggles,” as Mr. Robbins put it, is misguided, to say the least.   

Months before drafting the proposal, Equity’s 99-seat Committee heard an increasing number of complaints regarding intimate theater productions.  The complaints numbered in the hundreds and there was nothing the overwhelmed committee could do because there was no contract in place to protect these actors.  It became clear that changes needed to be implemented so, among other things, Equity hired a third party research company to conduct a survey and focus groups.  I attended one of the focus groups and thought it was expertly run.  The group was comprised of actors and stage managers with a variety of professional experience, which reflected the wide-ranging points of view regarding the 99-Seat Plan.  The discussion was fair and balanced, it was strictly facilitated in a healthy way, and everyone was respectful.  It’s important to mention Equity’s research process because there exists a misinformed notion that Equity officials are not listening, but rather imposing these ideas on the theater community, when in reality, the need for change came directly from the actors.

Some members of Equity, Tim Robbins and other producers claim paying minimum wage would hurt, or even destroy theater in LA.  I think the current 99-Seat Plan is unfair and it creates a theater scene that is static with no incentive to grow.  Theater is a collaborative, multidisciplinary art form and when some skills are valued above others, there exists a divide.  And it’s not just about money.  It’s about quality and what being a professional truly means.  Far too many professional theater artists like me have to leave Los Angeles and go to other cities where they can get paid for their expertise.

I incurred a hefty student loan in order to earn a Master’s Degree in Acting and I chip away at it every month.  My dream was always to be a professional actor.  As such, I want my time to be valued, I want the same respect that’s shown my fellow collaborators and I want to get paid to work.  That’s why I’m voting YES.