Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Save L.A.'s theater scene

A TV writer friend of mine used to be an actor. I once asked why he switched. He said, “Writing I can do myself anytime. But as an actor, to practice my craft I have to be hired.” I hadn’t thought of that, but he’s right. It was never an issue for me because I can’t act my way out of a hard rain.

And then actors have the added hurdle of competition. There are always hundreds of other actors vying for the same few parts. It’s a blessing I’m a terrible actor.

Equity is a union that represents actors in the theater. As a member of the WGA and DGA you know I’m very pro union. Especially in the movie and TV business where major conglomerates are now in control and care only about making huge profits. Unions provide at least a modicum of protection for the little insignificant people who actually make the product.

Likewise, when there are big Broadway productions and theatergoers are paying hundreds of dollars for tickets, the actors deserve their fair share. Leaving it to the goodness of benevolent producers would ensure that these actors would starve. Equity provides a valuable service.

Here in Los Angeles we have two tiers of theaters. Large theaters like the Taper Forum and Pantages, and small theaters of 99 seats or less. There are not that many large theaters in LA. And of those, many feature roadshow productions of big Broadway hits. WICKED was here recently. I’m surprised THE SOUND OF MUSIC isn’t playing. The point is there are not a lot of parts for actors.

A second-tier is the 99-seat theater. These are small neighborhood theaters in the valley, or West Hollywood, or Atwater Village that often are next door to furniture stores or massage parlors. David Isaacs and I once had series of One Acts that were performed at a theater above a pizza parlor in a part of the city that gang members wouldn’t enter.

No one really makes money in these theaters. You’re lucky if you break even. People put a tremendous amount of time and effort into shows that will be seen by a precious few or fewer. Even if you sell out every seat for twenty performances at $20 a ticket you’ll probably still lose money.  We're not talking Time-Warner.

So why do we do it? Because we love the theater. Because we can practice our craft. Because of the camaraderie. For actors, it’s a showcase. And many intimate shows have gone on to bigger venues or even Broadway keeping the original casts. For playwrights, it’s a chance to present your vision without network or studio interference. Trust me, if you’re a writer and you want to make money – you write spec screenplays or TV pilots. You don’t write a play for God sakes!

Up until now there has been an Equity Waiver that has allowed these 99-seat theaters to mount plays without having to pay actors more than car fare. On the other hand, it means more chances to “be hired.” And again, it’s not like everyone is getting rich but them. Viacom does not own 99-seat theaters in NoHo. 

Also, the actors have a choice. If they don’t want to take low or no paying jobs that's their prerogative. This isn’t jury duty.

Now Equity wants to eliminate the waiver. There is a referendum that would force these small theaters to pay minimum wage for every hour of rehearsal and performance. You could make the argument that that’s reasonable. And I think we all could agree that no one, actors especially, should be taken advantage of.

But producers claim that those concessions would add so much to the cost of productions that they would not be worth doing. They’re losing money as it is.

So the end result might be this: 99-seat productions go away. Theaters close. And then who benefits? Equity actors are getting minimum wage of nothing. Potential roles will no longer exist. If you’re an Equity actor you better get cast in PIPPIN or you’re out of luck.

To me this is shortsighted. There is the real danger that if this referendum passes it will kill the small theater scene in Los Angeles. Or producers will only seek non-Equity actors. And you might want to be a non-Equity actor in that case because suddenly your competition for parts might go down from 100 to 10.

Actors themselves don't want this.  On Monday a large group of them picketed their own union.  

I’m a playwright so I have a horse in this race. I’d love to have 99-seat theaters as options for mounting one of my plays.   But that's not my only option.

My greater concern is for the actors themselves. Casting directors go to these Equity Waiver Theaters. These productions provide the opportunity to do the thing you love. The theater scene is shrinking already. Even Equity theaters primarily want plays with only two to four actors now. Twenty years ago plays would routinely have eight to ten parts.

Equity actors will get a chance to vote, although I’m told the Board ultimately will decide. So essentially they could ignore the wishes of its membership. The scuttlebutt is that’s what they plan to do. They want to adopt this referendum. Ballots should be received by members today. The only way to get the Board’s attention is to resoundingly vote NO.
I hope this referendum is defeated. And by the way, should the status quo remain and a play of mine gets produced at a local Equity Waiver venue, I’m happy to make just as much (or little) as the actors. After all, it’s the thee-ah-tuh… unless the referendum passes, and then it’s the 7-Eleven.


Carol said...

As a community theatre actress, I find this interesting - we act for free anyway, simply because we like acting.

I have a friend who has a brother who's been trying to get famous in LA for years now, but he's never even tried to get into any kind of theatre production, and I think that's stupid of him. His problem is he wants to be famous first, an actor second.

I believe real actors do it because they like acting, not simply because they want to be famous - those are the ones you see doing theatre; and not just the Big Broadway stuff.

Friday Question, Ken - if my community theatre ever got the rights to do your show A or B, think you'd be able to come to Pennsylvania to watch it? Would you even want to?

Bud Wilkinson said...

Don't you mean "shortsighted" - not short-sided?

Dan Ball said...

Okay, now that I've read this whole post about something I'm not connected to and had no previous interest in, I'm invested in the story nonetheless. So are we going to find out the results of this vote tomorrow? I hope so.

MikeK.Pa. said...

Broadway is geared to vacationers, hence the reboots of oldies but goodies and the numerous musicals, bringing in film or TV actors.

Regarding Equity issue, would an NFL solution work? Sixty percent of the gate for the producers and 40 percent for the actors? Probably not something the union would go for, but everyone would have some skin in the game.

"David Isaacs and I once had series of One Acts that were performed at a theater above a pizza parlor in a part of the city that gang members wouldn’t enter."

Funny line.

Re: your review of FRESH OFF THE BOAT. Last night had to be the weakest episode of the nine that have aired. Hope they aren't running out of ideas already. Even Constance Wu was not up to her usual self.

Anonymous said...

Acting is complicated. I will always support the theater.


And listen to you heart LA, don't listen to Readers or the Critics.

Bill Jones said...

Very insightful post and analysis, Ken. Thank you for bringing it to your readers' attention (even those of us who are not in California, or in the theatre industry).

That said, I think it is necessary to point out that a lot of what you've pointed out as problematic in the theatre world is, to some extent, a consequence of unions. Why is there such a gap between large productions and small productions, leaving few acting parts for the large ones? Because the costs of production are artificially higher due to the need to pay union-required minimum costs (not just the actors, but stagehands, writers, etc.). Which makes a production only worthwhile for a producer if s/he is able to capitalize on scale, by making everything bigger. But the consequence is fewer acting (and writing, and directing, and tech) parts in well-paying jobs, with all the rest going to extremely low-paying parts.

Now, you can say that this is worth it because those who do get jobs get better pay, and union dues protect those who don't have as much work. But that is the trade-off of setting an artificial floor on any cost input--those who benefit get a very good benefit, but those who don't get left out completely.

I think you already get this, and I don't think I'm saying anything pro- or anti-union. Just pro-economics.

Richard Rothrock said...

Maybe I missed it by why has Equity decided to get rid of the waiver? What is the perceived benefit of doing so? They must know what the effect will be (closed theaters) by doing so. Why do they want this?

RW said...

This is similar to the "low pay, no pay" argument in the UK where UK equity are trying for a similar rule (here through minimum wage regulations as Equity can't prohibit members from working on non-equity contracts), the argument is that when people don't get paid this precludes people from low income backgrounds from taking part (since only people with money can afford to work for free- I don't know that I agree with the argument and I still haven't seen any one tell me how the producers will suddenly find the money to pay people minimum wage in a 60 seat theatre..

Oat Willie said...

"Intimate theaTRE"? Well, la-de-da, ya pompous swells...

ScottyB said...

I'm from a traditionally pro-union part of the Midwest, but holy jeez, there's also this thing known as being reasonable. I see the benefit to actors getting paid at least some wage for their time and toil (which is pretty reasonable), but the union should be reasonable enough to see that because we live in an imperfect world, sometimes things are less than perfect and leave things as they are. After all, it's not like actors have taken up torches and pitchforks demanding little theatre ante up first-borns and a pound of flesh. As Ken points out, actors do what they do in little theater for the other benefits not measured in wages. And most often, those benefits transcend money.

Hamid said...

It's funny we've been discussing Cybill Shepherd recently, because she's popped up in, of all things, a new faith-based movie, Do You Believe, in which she and Lee Majors play a couple. It's one of those awful looking evangelical movies which are only consumed by evangelicals needing to see films that just reinforce their beliefs.

Whilst I can understand Cybill taking whatever work comes her way, why are Mira Sorvino, Delroy Lindo and Sean Astin doing this sort of tripe? OK, Astin already did Moms' Night Out, the "hilarious" evangelical comedy that basically told women to shut up and stay at home, but Mira Sorvino and Delroy Lindo deserve better than this.

Here's the hilarious trailer

I'd have more respect for these faith-based filmmakers if they just tried to tell a story instead of making propaganda for their beliefs. But hey, Cybill Shepherd's gotta eat!

Hamid said...


You should watch The Reader. Good movie.

Rod said...

Hi Ken-- Friday Question-- What did you think of the recent Modern Family episode that took place entirely on Claire Dunphy's laptop?
As a computer illiterate, and a fan of the show, I enjoyed it immensely. As a writer, are these "gimmick" episodes hard to conceive? I'm thinking all the way back to the MASH episode "The Interview" which was also completely different than the standard MASH format at the time, but highly successful.

Perry Lambert said...

First of all Ken, I would like to say that I am a huge fan of your work and have been following your blog for 5 years, watched you on TCM in January host the Neil Simon Friday evening spotlight segments and also had the great pleasure of being directed by our mutual friend, the wonderful David Lee for Reprise in “On The Twentieth Century.” That said, I have to respectfully disagree with you on your position and assessment on the “ILove99” campaign in Los Angeles.

First of all the “the waiver” that you refer to does not exist anymore. That was changed in 1989 to what we have currently have now which is the “99 seat plan” It is a code, a plan…it is not a contract.

To clarify- Equity is following the terms of the settlement agreement of 1989 between Equity and the 99 seat producers to the letter. In the settlement agreement, it states that an advisory referendum will be sent out to the LA membership and reported back to council. In addition, this code is almost 30 years old and allows for up to 8 weeks of unpaid rehearsal and up to 80 performances in which actors are only paid a stipend before it goes on to a contract.

Equity is a labor union, it is not an employer and actors in the “99 seat plan” productions are not "volunteers" as designated by the Department of Labor. Also recently as of March 23rd, Kathleen Hennessy, a spokesperson for the California State Labor Commissioner, told that stage actors are not exempt from the state’s minimum wage laws. “There is no such exemption for actors at non-profit theaters.” One exception, she noted, was for “learners.” According to state law: “Employees in the first 160 hours of employment in occupations in which they have no previous similar or related experience may be paid not less than 85% of the minimum wage rounded to the nearest nickel.”

That’s right Ken….it’s against the law. And Equity has been aware of it and is going to correct its mistake.

Dan said...

"Also, the actors have a choice. If they don’t want to take low or no paying jobs that's their prerogative."

One could make the same argument in any low/no pay situation. However, if the small theatres are where casting agents scout new talent and actors make other connections, it seems that they do have to.

Perry Lambert said...


You said, “No one really makes money in these theaters.”


Last year 12,000 work weeks were invested into the “99 seat plan.” Approximately 2 million dollars would have been recouped for the Actors under a minimum wage. And 2% of the monies for work dues would have amounted to approximately $52,000 for Equity.

Under the current “plan”, Actors audition for a role, sign an agreement, are given a set rehearsal schedule and perform in front of a paying audience and are granted a stipend in accordance with the “99 seat plan” a stipend…as low as $7.00 a show and as high as $25.00, in some instances.

But it’s still not a contract…did I mention it’s a labor union?

In New York, once you have income over $200K you're transitioning to an off-Broadway contract and are considered a small off Broadway Theater

The following are some of the budgets of “99 seat plan” in Los Angeles.

24th Street has an annual income of over $500K
Skylight is over $250K
Victory Theatre is at $150K
Odyssey Theatre is at $865K
Anteus is $550K
Fountain Theatre: $638,406
Blank Theatre Company: $277,458
Actors' Gang: $671,196
Theatre at Boston Court: $1,035,635
Celebration Theatre: $280,466 Sacred Fools: $197,369 Rogue Machine: $355,380

Also your play was put up a The Falcon Theater in Burbank under a periodic $45.00 performance rate for a theater that has 130 seats…..not that far from the NEW 99 seat proposal which would be a minimum wage rate. The NEW proposal would have NO pension and Health and NO Medical. Ten years ago council would have never allowed a proposal like this ever to go out to the membership….but they listened and so they did.

Perry Lambert said...

You also said: “Also, the actors have a choice. If they don’t want to take low or no paying jobs that's their prerogative. This isn’t jury duty.”

Not when it’s the only game in town.

This is the cold hard fact of the matter; the 99 Seat and the wavier plan NEVER should have been implemented 42 years ago by Actor’s Equity to begin with, it was wrong, immoral, and short sighted. It institutionalized a financial mess on our theatrical landscape and for our membership. It has done incredible damage and a disservice to the actors, producers, and the theaters. Our former council colleagues who ran this union should have their hands slapped for causing such chaos. You want to do a movie or a TV show, then go and do the movie and the TV show, but you can't do stage work and have it for “free” for your convenience at the sake of the whole membership.

It's a labor union.

Be an adult and make a decision. Pick one or the other. This is not your toy.

It's a labor union.

Commercial producers have been coming to Los Angeles and taking advantage of the “plan” by working out shows here and then taking them to New York. Why not if you can get Actors cheap and not have to pay them a contract…let’s do it!

And so in the meantime, over the past 30 years, the “plan” morphed and continued to grow into a monster that was taken advantage of by certain theaters and individuals for the purposes “of creating, growing, nurturing, “feeding of the soul”, and sharing artistic endeavors” or as you put it…”Because we can practice our craft. Because of the camaraderie. For actors, it’s a showcase.” ...and so along the way the union forgot the one thing that's most important...creating contracts and paying actors! They were too busy trying to help the “feeding of the soul” part that they lost sight to what its actual purpose is

Perry Lambert said...


You said: …“To me this is short-sided. There is the real danger that if this referendum passes it will kill the small theater scene in Los Angeles. Or producers will only seek non-Equity actors. And you might want to be a non-Equity actor in that case because suddenly your competition for parts might go down from 100 to 10.”…

You also said: …“And many intimate shows have gone on to bigger venues or even Broadway keeping the original casts.”..

To address your remarks: For one, it will not kill theater in LA…Hardly….please refer to the budgets of some of the theaters above. And second, NO they would also have to pay non-Equity Actors too…remember that little thing called the “labor board.”

Third: It’s true some have gone to contract…..very rarely…..but it is NOT true that they have taking the original casts…remember this is not a contract. In MANY instances they have transferred the project to another producer or entity which then takes them out of the first refusal clause of the plan. I know of several Actors who have been dropped from a show when it has moved on to a contract…it happens all the time. It’s NOT a contract.

You said: “Casting directors go to these Equity Waiver Theaters.”

No, not really…not when you have Youtube, Vimeo, and all the other media platforms on your iphone…those days are over.

Actors have been stating for many years that is was time for the plan to change and that they deserved to be paid. Equity conducted a survey of over 800 local AEA members, had several focus groups and met with members at a Town Hall in January that was attended by 300 AEA members. Over 80% of the attendants stated that they wanted the Plan to change and they deserved to be paid.

Council put together three proposals that were sent out to the membership. They are proposals only and on Monday, February 23rd, Equity conducted a membership meeting that was attended by over 400 people for the purpose of hearing suggestions and ideas in regard to the proposals that were sent to the membership. Equity flew in national officers from around the country so that they would be able to hear in person the ideas and suggestions of the LA membership .In the past few weeks, members of council have received numerous suggestions including 99 to Hat- and other versions of a tiered system based on budget- they have met with members individually and in groups- and will continue to do so up until April.

Council has been responding to the dozens of emails they have received and in return- those personal responses to mass emails have been posted on social media. there is such a wide range of budgets and size of theatres- there are theatres in LA that have annual budgets of $1 million, they spend over $40,000 on costumes alone, they pay their designers and directors between $1500 to $10,000 for the same 8 weeks that the actors are in unpaid rehearsals- and yet, they claim they cannot pay their actors.

In addition- Equity is a national union. It has to consider the fairness of saying to other members in other cities- yes, the union expects this show in Chicago or San Francisco to move on to a contract after 4-6 weeks- but in LA- they have months until actors move on to a contract in accordance with a plan that is almost 30 years old. It is time for change and the proposals are proposals only. Members of council are reviewing the numerous proposals and suggestions they are receiving in emails, in groups in private conversations- and in April- they will meet and discuss and debate for hours each and every one of the proposals sent out and the alternatives that have come in.

Every member of council is spending up to 20-30 hours per week responding to emails alone.

So please reconsider your assessment and position on this matter…and by the way come see me in a “99 seat plan” show called “Loopholes- A Pain In The IRS” at the Hudson Theater beginning on April 14th!

Mike said...

I'm guessing that the actors who lose this work would be the same ones that happily vote for minimum wage increases.

DrBOP said...

Sorry to be so off topic, but just wanted to let you know that the Goldberg's will be featuring an episode tonight about old Philly Vet Stadium :

Anonymous said...

Ever since I moved to LA , I can't trust Readers and script contests.

Why are script contest SCAMS?

I am writing a pure visceral thriller. It will knock the baseball ball into the next stadium.

What do script contests and Readers know about filmmaking?

Thanks for your past advice Hamid.

By Ken Levine said...


Thank you for your thoughtful and persuasive argument. You disagreed with me so I'll have to delete you but still. (Just kidding)

Seriously, you make some excellent points. I especially agree that if certain 99-seat theaters are making a handsome profit they need to be targeted and addressed.

But I feel you're spraying the entire field with DDT to kill five isolated plants.

You say the referendum will not kill intimate 99-seat theaters. Maybe so. But actors are playing a game of chicken with their careers. And if you're wrong, and intimate theaters go away or Equity actors are shut out for non-Equity actors everybody loses. Is it worth that chance to possibly score minimum wage on some intimate production?

I'm here to tell you -- theaters will close. Producers will not fund shows. Playwrights will be told to have casts of no more than four (and four is stretching it).

I applaud your principle but this is the reality. Am I wrong? Maybe. But is it worth taking that chance?

When Equity's own membership pickets them you have to wonder if they're really looking out for their best interests?

And again, I repeat, if I'm asking to work for basically gratis I will offer my play for the same. And I'd like to think that my time and experience is worth some value and compensation as well. I'm not asking any artist to sacrifice anything that I'm not willing to sacrifice myself. And from where I stand, it's worth it.

But again, what a pleasure to read a well researched and articulated point of view.

VP81955 said...

Ken, the comment preceding your reply regarding script contests and "Readers" has been part of a debate (some might call it a harangue) by this particular "Anonymous" since you were in Asia. Would like to get your thoughts on the matter -- though I sadly note that my table reading of "Fugitive Sweetheart," set for tomorrow, has been canceled for lack of entries. Oh well, there will be other times, other contests (ones said "Anonymous" probably will not enter). And as a consolation prize Thursday, I can go see "My Man Godfrey" on opening night of the TCM Classic Film Festival.

Angry Gamer said...

I have made this statement before...

"Don't be in the buggy whip business when the automobile is invented"

Netflix is worth a bazillion... Small play theaters are on the endangered species list.

Capitalism is a harsh teacher but would it not be better for 'actors' to discover that Small Theater is NOT a good venue in the 21st century?

There are tectonic changes going on in digital media.

I mean what are Theater actors going to learn about camera placement and action... when the cameras are actually quad-copter drones?

Is theater going to teach actors the skills needed for a 3 min You Tube vid?

Things change... Theater had a good run from it's Greek outdoor origins... let it die.

I mean really, do we still use a typewriter?? Come ON.

Earnest Heavyweight said...

Hey, Anonymous:

If "It will knock the baseball ball into the next stadium" is typical of your writing, I wouldn't enter any contests either.

MikeK.Pa. said...

Ed Asner, former SAG president, weighed in on the issue.

Mike said...

There's a story that the big band swing era ended when musicians were paid minimum wage. But a commercial venture which can't afford to pay its staff enough money to live on is not a viable venture and needs to be allowed to die (one instance where the destructive nature of capitalism is useful). Otherwise the venture is indirectly subsidised by the state through in-work benefits paid to the low-paid workers, to the gain of the owners.
A special case for the arts? But special cases are always open to abuse.
Best approach is to remove the grey area and clearly distinguish between entirely voluntary productions in which costs are covered but no-one gets paid (like amateur dramatics) and commercial ventures which pay at least a living wage.
With California one of the world's biggest economies, tax the rich or use lottery money for explicit state funding to certain small theatres, rather than relying on largesse.

Johnny Walker said...

Remember when iPhones worked properly? Sigh. Second time writing this. (Thanks Apple!)

This has been a very interesting read, and while I understand your fears, Ken, I find myself siding with Perry. I'd attempt to explain why, but Mike (above) has written a much better and clearer reasoning than I was about to.

In short: even though art is important, this feels immoral, and really that should take precedence, IMHO.

Johnny Walker said...

Also, like Dan, now I'm interested in this issue, I would also appreciate a follow up of what happens :)

Dixon Steele said...

I'm sure there are now plenty of actors in LA who would never do a 99er under any conditions.

But if an actor wants to do a play and is willing to do it for carfare, it should be his/her right to do so.

On the other hand, I remember when LA theater went from a waiver situation to the 99er plan, and that was also bitterly fought over. The naysayers said it would kill LA small theater.

It didn't.

Anonymous said...

Walker Said:

"But if an actor wants to do a play and is willing to do it for carfare, it should be his/her right to do so."

No, it shouldn't, because he/she is skewing the marketplace by giving away his/her services for FREE! Your attitude shows a supreme disrespect for the craft of acting in general, and acting in particular.

Furthermore, thanks to Facebook, twitter, and Youtube, actors who are hired have the ability to make sure the house is packed every night. That kind of marketing power did not exist just a few years ago.

Also, I've witnessed myself productions that, though the playwright resided in NYC, he began here in LA with the express purpose of "working out the bugs" before taking it BACK to NYC, recast, and produced. In all cases, they COULD afford to pay actors minimum wage, they just didn't want to.

Finally, this seems to come down to "if this passes, our small theaters will disappear."

My answer would be GREAT! Now we don't have theaters with crappy business models, so there's more room for those theaters that DO! And the actors will be paid! A win/win.

The small theater is the last whorehouse standing in Los Angeles in which the "whores" are still treated like shit.

If you don't have a business model, which most shitty theater's don't, then you SHOULD fade away. There's too many new ways to market a production to stand by the old pimp argument of "they're lucky to have me."

If a producer can't make money with a full house every night, then that producer sucks. If a producer can't pay the actor's minimum wage with a full house every night, then that producer shouldn't be producing.

You'd think writers would be the first to stand up to people treating a fellow artist like a whore. In the tv and film business, they're frequently treated like shit.

At least Harlan Ellison would agree with me. Maybe some of you should review:


-Joe Actor

Dixon Steele said...

By the way, here's your next column...

Anonymous said...

No, please!

Not more "meta" comedy!

Johnny Walker said...

Joe Actor, it wasn't me who wrote that :)

Nice Harlan Ellison clip, too. I agree that it's the amateurs that undercut the professionals. I worked on a small movie here in London as a stand-in. It was great experience, and I loved being on set, but after talking for a while with some of the crew I realised I'd done something wrong: I was working for free, because I thought it would be fun, but there were professional stand-ins that I was undercutting by being there. I should not have done the production a favour. By doing so I was hurting someone's livelihood.

It's always worth remembering that, no matter how much of a dream it may be for someone, these things are commercial productions. They exist to make money. If they're giving it away for free when they're done, then fair enough, by all means volunteer, but if their aim to make money then it's not right to ask people to work for free, with no chance of remuneration... And yet it happens a lot.

jcs said...


I understand the dilemma. It is never without a problem, however, to accept a minimum below the minimum. If you allow one group to circumvent minimum wage or union agreements, other groups will demand the same.

I would like to add a view from Europe. Theatres, opera houses, public broadcasting and museums will always have a tough time making ends meet with just ticket sales and sponsors. Local communities should strengthen their cultural institutions. In Europe many major cities subsidise art; in the US you have major cities like Boston without an opera house or an established theatre scene that offers sophisticated fare. Art is too important to just let the market decide whether it should survive or not. How many times a year do you have Arnold Schönberg's music performed in LA?

Aaron said...

"I'm sure there are now plenty of actors in LA who would never do a 99er under any conditions.

But if an actor wants to do a play and is willing to do it for carfare, it should be his/her right to do so."

Absolutely. I'm an illustrator and I don't like the idea of being underpaid. I'm also an adult, and that means it's my discretion as to whether or not I take on a gig for low or no pay. Sometimes I have friends who are either starting a small business or want something cool to slap on a T-shirt for some kind of public appearance, and I will do those things either cheap or free, for practice sort of but mostly just goodwill and the fact that the projects sound like fun. The choice should always, always be up to the individual artist - not a union that they are sometimes required to join, and not subject to laws passed by people not at all involved in the creative arts.

(This goes for non creative stuff, too: if I am a carpenter and want to build a deck for free, I oughta be able to.)

Dixon Steele said...

Johnny Walker,

I don't know what the London fringe theater scene is like in terms of pay, etc.

But I really don't think that working on a film (or TV show) is at all comparable to the LA 99er scene.

In those mediums, people are really making money, sometimes big, sometimes small, but it's always something. So yeah, you took money out of someone's pocket.

But no one goes into a small LA theater production expecting to make anything. They do it to be seen, exercise their craft, etc. There are no profits. Trust me, a 99er on Magnolia Blvd. in N. Hollywood isn't raking it in.

Perry L., would love to know all those LA 99er productions that went to NY and exploited the original actors. Can you name a few?

I've been working in the theater all my life, and the only really big money made is by the bigger houses (i.e. Broadway, Music Ctr., etc.) in terms of rent. In a 99er, this really is a non-issue.

Corey Klemow said...

Ken, thank you for your support. As somebody who joined in the rally on Monday, it's nice to see support from other corners of the industry.

My only comment on your post is that you mention "producers" in your post without mentioning that in the 99-seat arena, actors often ARE the producers. This is a semantic point that AEA has used as a cudgel, framing this (as unions do) as the righteous union vs. the big bad evil rich producers, when it's really union members vs. their own union.

To respond to some of Mr. Lambert's points:

* You can always find a lawyer to say what you want them to say, especially if you phrase the question to them just right. But somehow, not one suit has been bought in 30 years. And AEA is offering exemptions that involve NO stipend or wage for anyone, albeit with poison pills cooked in (one for actors who self-produce, so long as they don't form a 501(c)3 or use any other existing infrastructure, so good luck to them and their fundraising efforts and I hope they don't get sued for anything 'cause they'll be personally liable; and one for currently-existing membership companies, permanently freezing their membership lists, so too bad for any future union members who come to town and want to start a company or work with an existing one). If this were really about the illegality of volunteerism at nonprofit 99-seat theaters, those exceptions would not be on the table. Also, if it were clearly illegal, it wouldn't just be actors - it'd be directors, designers, box office staff, EVERYONE getting at least minimum wage. Is Johnny Law going to shut down every single volunteer-driven small theater in the country, union or non-union - including community theatres - if they can't pay everyone minimum wage?

* It's getting wearying to see that copy-and-pasted list of the budgets of various 99-seat theaters keep popping up without any acknowledgement that looking at budget means zero if you don't take into account expenses as well. For example, Actors' Gang gets a major grant for a prison outreach program, and the money they receive MUST be allocated to that program and nothing else. Also, that particular company DOES have some living-wage touring productions. And the company to which I belong, Sacred Fools, pays - like many theaters - most of our annual budget in rent and bills, leaving about $40,000 for all five of our annual mainstages. At the end of a good year, we'll have maybe $10,000 after revenue and expenses to plow back into the company, which isn't even two months' rent. Other companies on Mr. Lambert's list are operating in the red. The numbers are easily findable at You can talk all you like about re-allocating existing expenses and making actors the first line item, but the truth is there's next to no wiggle room when everybody's already donating their time to begin with. You can read more about this issue here:


Corey Klemow said...

* So far as commercial producers taking advantage, that problem could be solved very easily by slapping a budget cap on the existing plan. One of the flaws with it is that anybody can use it. With a budget cap, that problem will vanish overnight, without having to impose what amounts to an up to 1000% budget increase overnight for many smaller theaters - which is to say, the majority of them - plus the headache of becoming full-fledged employers and having to deal with paying workman's comp and so forth.

And there have been tons of great suggestions that AEA has completely ignored. At an AEA Town Hall meeting in January, a majority of people in the room were calling for a tiered agreement tied to budget, a reasonable solution that would make sense for theaters of all sizes. One possible implementation of this can be found at - proposed by a friend now running for AEA Councilor. The proposal AEA put forth shortly after that meeting doesn't reflect in any way what the people actually affected by this change want.

And no, accepting a stipend does not affect bargaining with actual producers for actual contracts elsewhere. The idea that allowing actors to produce and act in microbudget productions erodes bargaining power is bogus. I cannot walk in the door at the Mark Taper or any other contract house and offer to work for free. And when you volunteer (and page one of the current Plan explicitly sets it up as volunteerism, which means anybody who thought they should be able to make their living doing 99-seat shows has been very, very misinformed), you've still in theory got a "quote" that you're waiving for a stipend when you choose to do so – it doesn't lower any baseline. While if you accept minimum wage as an actual baseline wage, that's where you're valuing yourself. SAG-AFTRA understands the economic realities of small-budget productions, and that's why we have the New Media and Short Film agreements that allow "deferred" payment where money only kicks in if the film actually makes money, so union members get to act more often. It's a pity that AEA doesn't understand this.

It's also important to understand that the 99-Seat Plan, as currently written, was deliberately engineered to make it very difficult to make money, by limiting length of run and number of seats, as well as ticket price (though market forces mean that lifting the ticket price cap won't really help – is anybody going to pay $100 to see a storefront show?) And some theaters have 40 seats or less. How is a business that's only open 3 nights a week for about 6 weeks, and can only serve 40 to 99 customers a night – and then is closed for another month or two – supposed to survive with such a huge increase in costs? And all this for "minimum wage" – which, for an actor, would currently average to about $130.50/week before taxes for three months of work for the average rehearsal and run of a 99-seat show. Which still ain't a living wage by a long shot.

There's so much more I could say about this, but this is already far too long. Thanks to anybody who indulged and read this far.

MikeN said...

This reminds me of McGovern, who wrote after he was out of politics and running a bed and breakfast, that had he known everything involved in running a business he wouldn't have supported all those regulations.

Why should theaters get special exemptions? Ken mentions that theatres will close. Don't you think there have been a number of stores that have already closed because of minimum wage laws and other union requirements.

I'm a little confused why the union is insisting on a minimum wage. It is usually to a unions benefit to not have such laws, because then the union is more valuable to members.

Corey Klemow said...

MikeN, we're talking about microbudget nonprofits run by actors and other theatermakers for the love of it, not for-profit businesses. Theaters have a civic function. And their presence in a neighborhood also helps other businesses nearby, bringing customers.

I support unions and the minimum wage. I also support volunteering at nonprofits that have a civic or charitable function. These are not mutually exclusive beliefs.

Lou said...

"It's my right to act for free if I want to" is a very selfish attitude. By accepting less than a living wage, you are making it harder for your fellow actors to ask for a decent wage.

That being said, Equity is likely pushing this for the extra money they'll get from dues. $50000 is nothing to sneeze at.

Anonymous said...

And once again, a union shoots itself in the foot. If this goes through, the board will be patting themselves on the back, congratulating themselves, and wondering a few months later where all the productions went, and whining about how the theaters in "right-to-work" states are flourishing!

Since I hope to join a union someday anyway, please keep me anonymous.

Ed said...

Angry Gamer: a world without theatre, the joy of human connection that doesn't come from a damn screen, is not one worth living in.