Saturday, February 14, 2015

The 99 Seat Plan

Strong opinions ahoy!

Anyone even remotely involved in Los Angeles live theatre already knows the basics of the controversy underway.  In essence, the (very large) theater community here (400-600 small theatre companies by most counts) has for thirty years had what passes for a "showcase code' in regards Actor's Equity. This allows members of the stage actors' union to perform for a tiny fraction of what is the usual Equity standard for theatres with 99 or fewer seats. It is somewhat more complicated than that, but that captures the essence.  What makes L.A.'s situation different is a lack of limits on number of performances.

As a matter of history, Equity didn't want this plan and a lawsuit pretty much forced their hand back in 1988.

Last September, at a meeting local Equity membership (reported by several news sources), complaints were heard about how the plan lacked enforcement--namely, that actors were being taken advantage of.  Now the union has an alternate plan that scraps the old one in favor of something far more restrictive.  A "non binding referendum" is to take place in April.

Here are my concerns:

First, this new plans answers the concern for enforcement by scrapping all Equity protections of any kind from members performing for less than Equity standard! Honestly, how does this make any sense at all?  In what conceivable way is this a good thing for members? Quite apart from the fact this is precisely what the members evidently did not want!

Second, this means a lot of Equity actors are simply going to get less work.  Period.  There's no real way to get around that brutal fact.  Smaller theatre companies cannot afford to pay Equity standard.  For the companies themselves, this means not using a certain pool of actors, many of whom have individual relationships with said companies.  That is a shame, to be sure, but hardly a death blow to most (or so it seems).  But it becomes a serious blow to actors who will now have far less opportunity to practice their craft, unless they go and pay for acting classes and the like. Again, does this make any sense at all?

Third (and this is most long-term, albeit subtle point), this new plan erects a very real obstacle in any smaller theatre company from growing. Lord knows that process remains difficult enough already!  But look for example at the East/West Players.  Today they  have their own space in downtown, with major productions and name actors, enjoying a national (at least) reputation.  Yet prior to 1999 they did all their performances in a tiny black box theatre, enjoying the practical benefits of an Equity waver.  But could they have made that switch, grown in terms of budgets and prestige while never using any Equity performers? Maybe.  But it would have been much harder. Why on earth would anyone desiring more opportunities for actors create such an obstacle?

Especially in a market sorely lacking in medium-sized theatres?  Hamstringing smaller theatre companies won't create more medium-sized ones.  Quite the opposite!

So what gives?  What on earth is the actor's union thinking?  Frankly I think maybe it would have been wiser and better for Equity to have spent the millions of dollars used to build a new headquarters in enforcing protections of its members.

That is my couple of pennies.

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