99-Seat Theater May Go

  • 04/02/2015
  • Reporters Desk

Proposal Changes May Affect San Pedro, Long Beach Theaters
By John Farrell, Curtain Call writer

Actors don’t agree on much, but recently hundreds of them agreed on one thing: the new plans that the Actor’s Equity Association is considering threaten the theatrical diversity in town.

The association has a proposal that would do away with 99-seat waiver houses as are configured. Ninety-nine seat houses are theaters with 99 or fewer seats, which are currently not required to pay Actors Equity members a minimum wage or benefits. The new proposal would also limit rehearsal time and make those theaters Actor Equity members minimum wage for rehearsal time.

More than 400 actors gathered on Lankershim Boulevard in March in the heart of North Hollywood, a place with several equity-waiver houses. They were protesting new rules for 99-seat equity-waiver houses throughout Los Angeles.

North Hollywood is home to the Los Angeles headquarters of Actor’s Equity Association, which is considering revising or eliminating rules that have been in place since 1972. Many say that the rules have created a thriving and creative local arts scene.

More than 600 actors also got their wallets out to buy the entire back page of March 25’s Los Angeles Times’ Calendar section for an ad expressing their opposition to the proposals.

Kristin Towers-Rowles, who was seen a few years back in Kiss Me, Kate, in San Pedro, and has a professional career as well as an active role in smaller theaters opposes the Actor’s Equity move. “This is an attempt to make Los Angeles like New York,” she said during a recent phone interview. “But in New York, people are flown in by the planeload to see several shows on Broadway.

“There isn’t that kind of attraction here, but some people hope to kill small theaters so that ticket prices can go up in bigger theaters.”

Actor’s Equity is considering a series of proposals that would make even small theaters pay a minimum wage to Actor’s Equity members. Though only $9 an hour at present, it is still a substantial part of a theater’s production budget for small theaters that offer innovative theatrical experiences around San Pedro and Long Beach.

Another voice in opposition is Eric Hamme, managing director of the Garage Theatre in Long Beach.

“The current 99-seat equity waiver plan allows us to cast without limitation in order to bring the highest quality theater to our community,” Hamme said in a recent email. “For a small, grassroots theater like The Garage Theatre, the current equity contract also works within our extremely limited budget.

“If the proposed changes are made to Equity The Garage Theatre would not be able to utilize union actors in future productions. The budget for a single Garage Theatre production is roughly $2,000 to $2,500,” Hamme’s email continued. “We estimate that to hire one union actor in a production would cost roughly $1,500, which would make up nearly 75 percent of our budget. The Garage Theatre always strives to produce the highest quality productions given our limited resources and to lose access to such a large pool of talented artists would be a great loss.”

Suzanne Dean, associate artistic and development director and co-founder of Little Fish Theatre put it succinctly: “Little Fish Theatre will not be able to operate under the newly proposed 99-seat contract.”

In her email, she continued: “This new arrangement is completely cost-prohibitive for our group. The only way we will use (Actor’s Equity Association) actors is under something they are calling the ‘Membership Company Rule,’ utilizing the talents of our current company members. But, if that rule goes into place as currently proposed, we’ll be restricted from bringing in any NEW [her emphasis] union members. No more discoveries of great union talent for us.”

The email continued: “This past year we introduced our audiences to 16 new AEA and SAG/AFTRA actors who participated for the first time in our productions. That may no longer be possible. Luckily, many of those actors have joined LFT as company members now, so we can collaborate with them again, but no one new. If AEA forces this change and we need to cast a role outside of the membership in future, we will only seek out non-union members.” (Dean’s complete remarks can be found in Random Lengths’ Curtain Call online.)

“Without the 99-seat contract [our] growth may be a bit slower,” said Chris Lang, managing director of TE San Pedro Rep, in an email. “[That’s] simply because our ability to work with union talent will be made far more difficult (among other issues), but since we as a company bet on an artist’s potential over almost everything else, working with non-union talent almost exclusively is a real possibility for us and wouldn’t be too damaging to our prospects.

“San Pedro Rep is a company built on our community and that is where we draw our sustenance from for our growth and for our existence at large. As the AEA rules currently stand, we are able to use the 99-seat contract as a stepping stone for that growth. This is especially important to us as we have designs for our future that reach toward becoming a AEA LORT-A Regional Theatre (The highest Equity Contract level regional theaters offer).

“Above all, TE San Pedro Rep will continue to push its artistic boundaries and produce ambitious work no matter what AEA decides to do,” Lang’s email continued. “Our training wing, the Acting Matrix Conservatory, will still serve as the foundation for the company’s continued betting on potential while the Company’s artistic drive though its shows on the main stage fosters our artistic draw for students and artists alike.”

At the Long Beach Playhouse, the situation is different. There, the Mainstage Theatre is not an equity waiver house. But upstairs, the Studio Theatre is a small space and used to have equity waiver rules. “With the upcoming decision still in the works we have decided to retract our 99-Seat Plan applications until we know if this update to the plan will go into effect,” said Andrew Vonderschmitt, artistic director of the Playhouse. “If (the rule change goes through), we won’t be able to use it at all. It is financially impossible for us.”

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