Here’s a tweet that appeared under #pro99 (a pro-99 seat theater hashtag) over the Martin Luther King holiday:
— 99BLACKLIST (@99Blacklist) January 17, 2017
How did we get here?
Two years ago Equity began floating the idea of getting rid of the backbone of LA’s intimate theaters: the 99 seat plan. That plan, in essence, allowed union stage actors to volunteer on LA’s stages for basically gas money. Actors wouldn’t receive any pay for rehearsals and only get about $7-$15 for each performance. The rationale, on the actor’s side, was that practicing their art onstage was more valuable than a tiny paycheck.
This thinking comes, importantly, from the actors themselves and dates back to the 1970s when actors asked their union to waive union pay so they could create a small theater ecosystem in Los Angeles. The history of LA’s intimate theaters is a long series of skirmishes between actors and their union about whether making art is more important than making money.
In 2015, Actors’ Equity, the national union for stage actors, put forward a plan to do away with the 99-seat plan and instead compel small theaters to pay actors minimum wage for both rehearsals and performances. There was a ton of opposition. Local actors marched in NoHo. When given the opportunity to vote (in an “advisory referendum”) they voted down the union’s minimum wage plan by a margin of 2 to 1.
The union’s response? Basically, divide and conquer. Recognizing that the most vocal opposition to the plan was coming from “membership companies” (theater companies in Los Angeles that have a group of members who pay dues and run the companies), the union created a “carve out” that spared these member based companies from the new minimum wage.
This created a useful wedge for Equity within the local theater community. Now those with the greatest ability to organize (the membership companies) were silenced and the rest of community was fragmented.
The local actors’ last great hope was a lawsuit against their union. They lost and as of December 14, 2016, the old 99-seat plan was done and the new minimum wage plan (with membership company carve out) was put in place.
A terrible situation, to be sure, but many assumed that at least the membership companies were safe. And these companies, like Antaeus, the Echo Theater Company, Rogue Machine Theater, Pacific Resident Theater, to name but a few – were making some of the most exciting work in intimate theaters, so everything would be fine.
Enter the hashtag: #everystage
Over the holidays I got in a couple of twitter fights with the anonymous twitter handle @99Blacklist, the de facto (though unofficial) propaganda machine for Actors’ Equity. One of the things I noticed was their new line of argument and new hashtag #everystage.
Notably the hashtag isn’t #everystageexceptthosespecificallyexemptedbythecarveoutsthatequityputinplacetodividethecommunity. But online brevity and etiquette aside, #everystage is pretty clear. It means every stage. Coupled with the new (faulty) argument that these intimate theaters have been engaging in wage theft against actors, the propaganda has a very clear goal: Transform every stage to minimum wage. That means, as many thought, that membership companies are in jeopardy, their exemption tenuous. Will Equity wait a year before imposing minimum wage on these companies? Two years?
That’s a big deal. That means less theater in Los Angeles, that means less diversity on Los Angeles stages, that means theater becomes more expensive, less accessible and less local. That’s a shift that will make no one rich and Los Angeles culturally much poorer.
The painful genius behind Equity’s strategy is, much like the fake news that’s clogging our social media, it sounds like it make sense. Who doesn’t want to make something great again? Who isn’t for a minimum wage? Who doesn’t want artists to make more money? Who isn’t for every stage being treated the same?
But, of course, the devil is in the details – details that these mouthpieces choose to ignore.