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Actors Equity: Hear both sides of the 99-seat plan argument

Actors Equity members recently picketed their own union over the proposal to end the 99-seat theater plan in Los Angeles.
Actors Equity members recently picketed their own union over the proposal to end the 99-seat theater plan in Los Angeles.
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Los Angeles has a large and vital live theater scene, especially on small stages where everyone from new actors to veteran performers can hone their craft — and maybe catch the eye of a casting agent.

Those small theaters, with 99 seats or fewer, typically work under rules that don’t require them to pay actors for rehearsals. Once opening night comes around, cast members might earn as little as $7 a night, or nothing at all.  

Actors Equity represents theater actors and stage managers. The union wants to mandate a new, minimum hourly wage for all rehearsals and performances. Critics of the plan — including many of the union's own members — say the proposed changes will result in fewer shows and opportunities for actors, and may force dozens of theaters to close their doors.

The 6,000-plus local Equity members are currently voting on a non-binding referendum on the new guidelines. The results of that vote will be turned over to Equity’s National Council, which will have the final word later this month.  

The Frame's John Horn spoke with Gail Gabler, the Western Regional Director for Actors Equity, and actor Alex Fernandez. He’s an Actors Equity member who has performed at numerous regional theaters around the country, and he’s a member of Pacific Resident Theatre in Venice: 

Interview Highlights:

Alex, what's wrong with actors making more money, even if they're already receiving non-financial compensation in terms of publicity or exposure to casting agents?

FERNANDEZ: There's absolutely nothing wrong with it. I've been a professional actor for 25 years, and I'm very fortunate to have been making my living for a long time as an actor, but what we're talking about here is not whether or not an actor should be paid.

We all agree that an actor should be paid. But the proposal to insist that these theaters now have to pay actors a minimum wage for rehearsal and performance is simply unrealistic. The money doesn't exist within this community to be able to afford that.

Gail, how do you counter that idea, that this will drive a lot of companies out of business or lead to fewer jobs, or that actors will work on non-union jobs?

GABLER: Right now we have members who want to work in paid theater and will not work in 99-seat theaters because it is unpaid. They are literally going out of town, sometimes out of the L.A. area altogether, because there isn't enough paid, contract work in LA.

It's funny that some of the opponents of this say, You're going to close down the theater because so much of the theater is unpaid and there isn't enough paid, contract work. That's exactly part of the reason for it, is that you actually want to have more of those theaters be paid, contract work.

Will some of the theaters say, We can't afford to pay actors? Some of the theaters might say that. Some of them right now are operating on a shoestring, can't afford their rent, and they're going to have to figure out what they're going to do to be a professional theater.

But we have many, many of these theaters that have very hefty budgets that are actually paying the set designers, costume designers, and the creative personnel — everybody but the actors. Why should the actors be last on the list?

Alex, I want to hear your response to that point, that there are people who may be getting paid more than the actors who are actually doing the work on stage.

FERNANDEZ: That money that you're talking about may sound like a tremendous amount more than the stipend that the actor is making, but the fact is that a lot of these designers are not making some kind of huge amount of money beyond the actors. 

Actors have a variety of reasons for wanting to do a show in a 99-seat theater, and I want to speak a little bit to the idea that other cities have situations that are different from Los Angeles. That is true, because Los Angeles is a unique market, unlike any other market in the country.

There are more actors here than any place else: there are over 100,000 actors, and as Gail mentioned, there are 6,000 Equity members pursuing very few contract jobs which Equity leadership can't guarantee will increase. There were no financial impact studies on this proposal.

GABLER: The information that we got was not looking [at] how "Theater A" or "Theater B" is going to be able to pay their actors. Our job as a union is to represent our members, and what we know is that members in other cities are getting paid while members in L.A. do not have those same opportunities. This proposal would give them those opportunities.

FERNANDEZ: I just want to say that every artist of every medium understands that they have to work on spec at some points of their careers, mostly in the early part of their career. But when it comes to a writer or a painter or a musician, they could presumably stay at home and work on their craft, and write things without being paid, paint things without any commission, and be enriched by that.

Actors require a collaboration. They require a framework, and these cooperations have been happening in this city for nearly 30 years. To try to change it as if it's a situation where people are being exploited, rather than a situation where these actors love their theaters and love doing this work, doesn't feel like we're trying to right a wrong. It feels like a forced market correction.

GABLER: You mention how much actors love their work, and absolutely, our members love their work. That's why they want to make it their profession. They're so committed to it, but you know what? I know a lot of nurses who love nursing, and they're paid. I know a lot of teachers who love teaching kids, and they're paid. Their unions are not vilified for fighting for better conditions and pay for their members. 

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