Debate Over 99-Seat Theater Heads to Court

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Theaters in Los Angeles with under 100 seats are still facing the potential for a serious financial overhaul after months of negotiations.

For well over a year, the Actors’ Equity Association has been working to enact a previously $9, now $10 as of January 2016, hourly minimum wage for actors working in these small institutions; it is now $10.50 as of July 2016.

The union released a statement June 28 announcing the failure to come to an agreement with the plaintiffs in the Asner v. Actors’ Equity litigation; it also announced the expiration date for the 99-Seat Transitional Code, put in place “while the facilitated discussions with the plaintiffs were underway,” which gave theaters and producers an adjustment period. In light of Equity’s intention to begin enforcing a minimum wage on Dec. 14, the plaintiffs have vowed to take the case to court. Plaintiffs—advocates and actors Ed Harris, French Stewart, and Amy Madigan, as well as former SAG President Ed Asner—filed a lawsuit last October to block the union’s wage requirement but had yet to serve the case.

READ: “Equity Elects 14 Seats to National Council”

While supporters of Equity’s efforts seek to eliminate producers’ right to pay performers as little as $7 per performance and encourage theater growth from small- to medium-sized, critics fear the change in salary requirements will raise costs to a point that would put many small theaters out of business, and consequently deny actors the chance to practice their craft and showcase their work. (The proposed rule changes wouldn’t affect 50-seat-house productions with runs of less than 16 performances and a budget not exceeding $20,000; actors who are “self-producing”; or those performing with “membership companies,” run by and for actors who can set their own pay.)

“We agree that theaters should pay artists more when they can. But they should not be closed down if they can’t,” said the plaintiffs in a statement. “We want to see theatre thrive in Los Angeles. We want to see more contract work here. We will continue to urge Equity to reconsider; to gain an appreciation for the importance of small theatre to our City. We are not New York. We are not Chicago. Models used in those cities, however successful they may be, should not be foisted on us here.”

The proposed changes were prompted after several local Equity members filed complaints with the union about their pay at these small venues. A resulting vote among just over 3,000 L.A.-based union members was held in April 2015, when they voted roughly 2-to-1 against the minimum wage requirement.

“Labor unions, including Actors’ Equity Association (Equity), exist primarily to advocate for better wages and working conditions for their members,” read a statement from the union. “For more than a century, Equity has fought for the basic principle that its members deserve to be paid for their work and to be treated fairly.”

Equity’s last attempt to alter L.A.’s 99-Seat Theater Plan led to 15 of its members suing and settling out of court with the union.

Still confused about union versus nonunion? Read “14 Actor FAQs Answered!”