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International news: Pay row over 99-seat venues

Second Skin’s Cockroach Dialogues, by William Whitehurst, at the Dorie Theatre, a 99-seat venue in Los Angeles. Photo: Marnie Lustig
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A court case that could have repercussions across the US threatens to see the small theatre industry pitted against Actors’ Equity Association, which made a controversial ruling last year forcing Los Angeles’ 99-seat theatres – the equivalent of the UK’s fringe – into paying actors a minimum hourly wage of $9 (about £6). Previously, actors received as little as $7 (£5.30) per day.

In 1988, responding to pressure from its membership, Actors’ Equity Association created the Los Angeles 99-seat theatre agreement, allowing members to showcase their work for negligible stipends. The plan only exists in this form in Los Angeles, and was designed to be a volunteer endeavour for actors, many of whom work regularly in the film and TV industry.

While Equity has changed this with the minimum wage, it has also created three internal union membership rules giving members the opportunity to volunteer their time: a) self-producing, b) performing with membership companies, or c) appearing in 50-seat showcases.

But 99-seat supporters, including Tim Robbins, Ed Harris, Amy Madigan, Alfred Molina and former Screen Actors Guild president Ed Asner, argue that the new wage ruling means that many small theatres will have to close, and it should be overturned.

So is there a case for a minimum wage?

“No,” says Ron Sossi, founder and artistic director of Odyssey Theatre. “Because it’s financially impossible. The 99-seat theatre plan was designed by Equity itself so that it could not make a profit nor pay actors beyond a modest expense stipend.

“Not only was there the limited income potential of 99 seats, but also a limit on ticket prices and length of runs, making it usually impossible for a 99-seat theatre to even approach a break-even point. Likewise, California is among the bottom five of 50 states for government arts funding, while most of the private foundations that are traditional arts funders are located in the East Coast and serve it. Los Angeles is not New York.

“There is a segment of Actors’ Equity that has always wanted to get rid of the Los Angeles 99-seat plan. Some of the reasons, I believe, are a lack of understanding of the Los Angeles community and its artists and audience, a certain amount of jealousy on the part of East Coast theatres that would love to have such a plan but do not.”

Director and writer Andy McQuade, a Brit who moved to Los Angeles, agrees. “People talk about sustainable market models for theatres, but if the 99-seat plan is abolished, then a large chunk of fringe theatre vanishes.

“The beauty of theatre in LA is that little theatres pop up, stage unlikely shows and then implode. Companies with a more canny and structural approach do survive, but they still put on productions that no investor would touch, but which can launch art and careers.”

Other US cities are suffering because there is no practical provision for small theatres to allow artists to practise just for the sake of the art. As Sossi says: “With Equity, unfortunately, it’s all about business, not art. A huge part of the actor population in cities like Chicago and San Francisco have opted to give up their Equity cards in order to perform in a booming non-Equity theatre movement there. They would love to have the Los Angeles 99-seat plan.”

Although neither of the official sides are now legally refusing to comment, Equity stated: “This was and remains an essential step forward for fair pay in LA County, which was out of sync with the rest of the nation prior to the new rules being adopted.

“While we are disappointed that this dispute will enter the courtroom, Equity intends to vigorously defend itself against the meritless lawsuit and will file an immediate motion to dismiss.”

odysseytheatre.com; secondskintheatre.com

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