High drama sparked by proposal to require minimum wage for union actors in small theaters

Actors protest in support of 99-seat theaters outside the Actors Equity Association's headquarters in North Hollywood.
Actors protest in support of 99-seat theaters outside the Actors Equity Association's headquarters in North Hollywood.
Brian Watt

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A proposal that would require union actors performing in L.A. county theaters that have 99 seats or less to be paid the minimum wage has sparked a heated debate among actors and the larger theater community. 

In making the proposal, the union, the Actors Equity Association (Equity), says it’s responding to pleas from members that began more than a year ago.  The actors have complained that while passionate about and seeing the benefits of performing in small theaters, they weren’t able to afford to continue working essentially without pay. 

So-called "99-seat theaters"  have been a fixture of the LA theater scene for decades, and stage actors eager to keep creating and showcase their talents have willingly performed in them.  But the actors have only been paid a stipend of as little $7 per performance – amounting often to gas money – and are not paid at all for rehearsals.

Equity has decided to address this by crafting a new internal agreement between the union and its members who want to work in the small theaters.  While some actors back their union’s move to get them paid, others believe the proposal will kill off 99-seat theaters because they won’t be able to afford  to pay the wages.

The dispute is pitting performer against performer.  Actors who are angry with their union see the 99-seat theater scene as a pipeline of creative work and talent…and opportunities to perform.   

“There are no greedy, cigar-chomping profiteers in LA 99-seat theater,” the home page of ilove99.org declares.  “We, the actors who do these shows, are not being exploited. We have chosen in the past to work for tiny stipends in order to be seen; to hone our craft; and to honor the unique chemistry of necessity and love that drives any artist.”

The organization demonstrated in North Hollywood Monday, marching and picketing the Equity office on Tujunga Avenue, and boasting the support of successful actors including Tim Robbins, Jason Alexander, Alfred Molina, Helen Mirren and Blythe Danner.

"My volunteer 99–seat work here has been absolutely vital to my life as an artist," said Jeff Perry, who has eagerly performed in the smaller theaters of Los Angeles.  He's currently starring as Cyrus Beene on ABC's Scandal, but he's also a co-founder of Chicago's Steppenwolf Theater.  He said he's currently working on a theater piece that wouldn't be able to afford paying its actors minimum wage.  "It might have a $10,000 budget, but that would add at least $10-12,000 to dollars that just aren't there."

If Perry is eager to keep "volunteering" in the smaller theaters, actors like Ann Colby Stocking are weary of it. 

"I do love it," says Stocking. "But I feel we should be paid as other members of the collaborators in the project very often are:  the lighting designer, the set designers, box office staff - often paid. The directors are very often paid, and it’s demoralizing to receive $21 at the end of a weekend.” 

The union will send ballots on the minimum wage proposal to its estimated 6,500 Los Angeles County members on Wednesday. In late April, the union's national council will meet to consider the results of the vote and all the other feedback on the wage proposal. 

“This is not about taking away anybody’s creativity," said Gail Gabler, Equity's western regional director.  "This is about doing justice to actors. Actors should be first on a theater’s budget, not an afterthought that doesn’t even happen."