For LA’s intimate theaters, it’s ‘Déjà Vu all over again!’

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Updated to include Equity’s follow-up response.

As Yogi Berra may have said, “It’s like déjà vu all over again.”

This week, the next shoe dropped in the ongoing dispute between local union stage actors and their union, Actors’ Equity. Actors’ Equity, the nationwide union for professional actors, announced that their negotiations with a group of Los Angeles union actors have fallen apart and litigation seems inevitable. The plaintiffs have released their own statement. Predictably, under a thin veil of decorum, both sides say the other side is effectively lying and disingenuous.

I’ve written a lot about this dispute over the last couple of years. In a nutshell, it’s a dispute about how to think about actors in LA’s small theaters, specifically under 99 seats. Broadly, are these actors volunteers who are generously giving of their time and passion for their art form? Or are they employees who should be paid minimum wage?

What’s surprising about this dispute is both its history and how it recasts traditional roles between a union and its members. When we hear “union dispute,” we think of workers against employers. We assume that if the union members are arguing for something, it’s for higher wages. We assume the union’s adversary is a big, greedy company. The easy sound bite “Actors’ union argues for minimum wage” plays on a particular narrative. We expect that the actors want to get paid more.

That’s not what’s going on here.  

The two parties in this dispute are not actors versus employers but a complicated mixture of local actors against their union. What’s tricky is many of the intimate theater companies in Los Angeles are run by actors. The clear line between actor and producer is not clear and has not been for decades.  Local union actors voted last year by a margin of 2 to 1 against their union’s proposal for minimum wage. This is union members arguing against getting paid more. Why? In part because they recognize that their theater companies cannot afford to pay them. The economics of small theaters do not pencil out.  These actors argue it’s more important for them to hone their art and make their art as volunteers who are reimbursed for gas money than get paid minimum wage. They argue that if small theaters have to pay minimum wage most small theaters will have to close their doors.

This is a dispute that has really been unfolding over the last 40 years (if you want a glimpse into the origins have a look at these two articles by Rob Weinert-Kendt from 2009). This is less like a sudden conflict and more like a long war that’s been punctuated with uneasy peace settlements that have tenuously held for a decade or so before the next skirmish. This is “deja vu all over again” because the last “peace” settlement was an actual settlement to a previous lawsuit between some of these same actors and their union.

Over the coming weeks you are going to hear a lot of arguments about actors getting paid and the value of volunteers. You are going to hear about a union’s responsibility and an actor’s passion. You are either going to see a community come together or slowly fall apart. There will likely be a lot of noise and very little signal.

Regardless of which side you are on and what you believe and dismiss, the future of Los Angeles’ theatrical ecosystem will be determined by this dispute.  

Buckle up, it’s going to get bumpy.


That was quick.  Like I said, this thing is going to get bumpy now that the gloves are off.

Here is Equity’s latest statement:


Equity Puts Forth the Actual Facts

Los Angeles, June 30, 2016 – Actors’ Equity Association Executive Director Mary McColl issued the following statement:

Actors’ Equity Association (Equity) remains disappointed that the facilitated discussions with the plaintiffs in the Asner vs. Actors’ Equity lawsuit were unsuccessful.

If the end of the facilitated talks brings the service of the lawsuit, Equity will stand up for its members and will immediately file for a dismissal of all claims brought in the suit. Equity, a labor union representing more than 50,000 stage actors and stage managers across America, was founded upon the belief that actors should be paid for their work and treated fairly. Actors on Broadway. Actors in Kansas City. Actors in Los Angeles. All actors.

The lawsuit, which is procedural in nature, claims that Equity did not follow the steps outlined in a 1989 settlement agreement to alter the terms and conditions by which 99-seat theatre is produced in Los Angeles. Some producers and actors in Los Angeles, however, claim that the goal of the lawsuit is to retain a system that allows producers to cast actors in productions without paying for their services. And the plaintiffs have been talking about it.

Absent the facts, confusion is created. The plaintiffs have been generating misinformation while at the same time releasing insupportable “data” as their rationale for why actors should not be paid.

Let’s look at the facts.

More than 7,000 Equity members live and work in Los Angeles County.  Despite being the “entertainment capital of the world,” with actors flocking from around the globe to Southern California, Equity’s data reveals that LA County actually provides less paid work for stage actors than markets such as Baltimore/DC, Boston, Chicago and Minneapolis/St. Paul.

Incredibly, in the most recent period where data is available (2014-2015), LA County (with 7,000 members) had 6,500 paid work weeks for Equity members; whereas, Baltimore/DC (with 854 members) had more than 8,700; Boston (with 845 members) had over 7,900; Chicago (with 1,589 members) had more than 15,800 paid work weeks; and Minneapolis/St. Paul (with 437 members) had more than 6,700.  

The fact that these far smaller markets eclipsed LA in paid work weeks confirms the fact that a theatrical community can thrive and still pay the performers.

As you drill further into the data, more interesting facts about the plan become apparent.  During the same period (2014/2015), there was atotal of 11,013 unpaid work weeks for actors in Los Angeles CountyIf those unpaid work weeks were actually paid work weeks, then 99-seat theatre would represent the second largest source of paid employment in the Western Region – second only to LORT.

In markets from Seattle to Chicago, unpaid work weeks are below 1%. This begs a simple question: How is it that the rest of the nation can afford to pay its actors who perform in small theatres, yet Los Angeles cannot?  Equity takes great pride in the diligence with which its producing partners nationwide work toward adding contracts.   It’s time LA producers — some of whom are incorporated as not-for-profits, but all of whom sell tickets to their productions — play by the same rules as everyone else.

Another argument often cited is that the system results in creating productions that go to Broadway. While it’s true that some shows have made the move, the path is not a direct one. Generally, years of work in multiple productions on paying contracts occur before a production that began in a 99-seat theatre makes it to a Broadway production.  Along the way, there may be productions in LORT or other theatres, changes are often made and enhancement money may be made available for development. The data shows that when a 99-seat production is staged again, the actors in the original cast — who were not paid a wage to develop the work — seldom move on with the production. One production, SMALL ENGINE REPAIR, has been cited as an example of a 99-seat production that moved to New York, but, of the actors in the original cast, only one (who was also the playwright) made the move, which was two years later.

The old 99-Seat Theatre Plan represents an unnecessary and avoidable roadblock for actors in Los Angeles attempting to make a living in live theatre. An ecosystem has been allowed to develop where even midsize theatre suffers because it is competing with a small theatre system that pays actors little, if anything at all. This has created a downward spiral, or race to the bottom, where the real losers are the actors, the stage managers, the audience and the theatre industry overall.

It is one of the founding principles of Actors’ Equity Association that those who work in live theatre deserve to be paid for the work that they do. Every actor and stage manager who has joined this union has agreed to work under conditions that, to the best of Equity’s knowledge, are most beneficial to the whole. This is one of the fundamental definitions of a union.  When an actor works through a rehearsal break, he or she contributes to an expectation that everyone else will give up that break as well. When an actor develops work without ever expecting any return on that development, he or she makes it more difficult for colleagues to ask for developmental compensation.  Finally, when a member — any member — works for a few dollars a show, with no pay for rehearsals, he or she damages the earning power of every other member, both monetarily and philosophically. This has not been an easy process, but Equity is committed to doing the right thing.

It is for these and many other reasons that Equity stands behind its decision to bring Los Angeles County in line with the rest of the nation, and defend its members’ right for fair compensation.