Equity Lawsuit: It's Deja Vu All Over Again

Hosted by

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA theater for KCRW.

Remember last spring when I told you about the dispute between LA actors and their union, Actors' Equity?

On the surface, it was all about a minimum wage. Basically, the union wanted to do away with what's called the 99-seat plan that's been around since the late 80's and replace it with a complicated new set of codes. The most controversial of which had actors making a minimum wage for both rehearsals and performances.

To understand why that's a big deal and why actors would be against it, you have to understand the current economics of small theater in LA. In a nutshell, there's no money and everyone's struggling to stay afloat.

Historically, actors in LA's 99-seat and smaller theaters have basically worked for gas money. They don't get paid for rehearsals and only receive a small stipend for performances. Depending on the length of the run, that might work out to less than $0.75 an hour -- nowhere close to minimum wage.

Long story short, this spring the Union ignored a vote of local actors that rejected this new plan by a two to one margin and pushed their plan through. Now a group of actors has filed a lawsuit against their union and, as the late Yogi Berra might say, 'It's deja vu all over again.'

This has been a battle between Equity and it's actors since the late 80's. You see, the current plan was the result of a 1988 lawsuit between the union and it's actors that resulted in an eight-page settlement agreement. That agreement is at the heart of the current lawsuit because it created a review committee to oversee intimate theater and act as a check and balance to the union. The actors claim the union breached that contract by pushing their plan through against the will of LA actors.

This lawsuit comes as no surprise to the theater community. For a while, it's been a question of who and when, not if a lawsuit would be filed. The who includes actors who settled with the union back in the 80's and some names you'd recognize: Ed Asner, Ed Harris, Amy Madigan, among others.

So why is the union fighting it's own actors? To understand that you need to appreciate two things: the union makes no money off of 99-seat theater and it's a national liability. As they said in their response to the lawsuit when a group of actors argue "they should not be paid, it has an inevitable and deleterious effect on the union's bargaining power for the rest of its members."

What's at stake? The actors argue, the very existence of LA's small theater. If actors go from essentially being volunteers to minimum wage employees, the costs are likely to force already budget-strapped theaters to drastically scale back. That's bad news for the theater and bad news for LA.

Sadly, for the foreseeable future, one of the most dramatic scenes in LA theater isn't going to be happening on our stages but instead between lawyers.

And if you want to see the kind of work that's at stake, go see Uncle Vanya at the Antaeus Theatre Company in the valley.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA theater for KCRW.