"We're all one big family here. We're all in this together." Ever heard a 99-Seat theatre producer utter those words? In many cases, it's true. A lot of independent producers are also actors, and many of the small shows that go up in this town are produced by loose collections of old friends and colleagues. Perhaps that's all the more reason to remind actors, producers, and actor/producers that despite everyone's good intentions, there are rules set out for 99-Seat productions that are meant to help things sail smoothly. On the one hand, the rules of the 99-Seat Plan protect the actor from exploitation; on the other hand, they provide some protections to the producer as well.
The 99-Seat Plan is an agreement all producers must sign with Actors' Equity in order to put up a show with union actors in a house with 99 seats or fewer in Los Angeles County. Its rules cover all actors who are members of any of the following unions: SAG, AFTRA, AGVA, or Actors' Equity. It's an agreement-not a legal contract-and by signing that agreement, producers are allowed to use union actors in their shows.
The plan originated out of the Equity Waiver, which came into being in 1972 as a way of allowing union members to showcase themselves in unpaid productions as a means to get other, paying work. "The rationale from the beginning from the union's standpoint was that being seen in a show is in a sense a job search for actors," said Equity business rep Michael Van Duzer, who handles the 99-Seat Plan.
The waiver allowed producers to use union members without signing an Equity contract-effectively meaning all Equity rules would be "waived" on productions in theatres of 99 seats or fewer. "That number was chosen because they figured anything that small wouldn't have payoff for the producers."
Under the waiver, in effect from 1972-'88, if an actors called Equity with complaints, they would simply be advised to leave the show.
A number of broad changes happened in the 1980s that led to the establishment of the current 99-Seat agreement. The number of productions began to multiply. Van Duzer pointed out another important change: "There was the rise of the importance of the casting director as opposed to the agent. So there were lots and lots of productions, but fewer and fewer actual industry people in the audiences, and fewer people in the audiences, period, because it was a small audience to begin with and there was more competition.
"Once actors began to see there were no industry people," explained Van Duzer, "actors began to say, 'Why am building the set, and staying here until 2 a.m. in the morning, and not getting anything?'" Actors also began looking at the budgets of these shows, and the fact that some of them were profitable, and began asking questions.
In 1987, after a good deal of controversy and debate, the Equity membership ratified the 99-Seat Plan as an agreement that would help set some standards for the way actors in these productions were treated and compensated. The plan has undergone only one major revision-which happened in 2000.
Back Stage West has put together the following list of Frequently Asked Questions to help answer a few basic questions actors who work in 99-Seat theatre may have:
-What are the most common violations to watch out for?
The most common complaints Van Duzer gets, he said, are about producers not following the rehearsal schedule requirements. Especially during tech week, producers are apt to forget that the contract limits actors to eight-hour rehearsal periods, with 12 hours of rest between sessions, and a one-hour meal break every five hours. The plan also insists on one day off every six days.
Another common violation is that the producers either do not pay actors their stipend, or ask them to voluntarily donate it to the production. The problem, said Van Duzer, is that so many actors willingly accept this and do not call to complain.
"Even when I've gotten that complaint, someone will call me and want to remain anonymous," said Van Duzer. "What's surprising is how willing producers are to sign these agreements and take care of all the other things, but for whatever reason they can plead poor to the actors. It's that sort of, 'Hey, we're all in this family together. We're all producing this, blah blah blah.' But just like your sets and your costumes, the actors are a line item in your budget. That's really easy to figure out."
-Does the plan protect me if I get hurt on a show? Is there insurance covering me?
Officially the plan requires the show's producer to have "appropriate liability/personal injury" insurance covering "actors as volunteers at all interviews, auditions, rehearsals, and performances." This means the producers should have general liability insurance covering audiences (often they will obtain a "rider" and piggyback onto the insurance of the theatre itself) and volunteer insurance or workers' compensation insurance covering the actors. This insurance should cover the actors at all rehearsal venues. According to the agreement, the producer is also supposed to make the name of the insurance carrier available to actors.
The reality of the situation is quite different, however. Insurance is costly, and according to some sources few producers obtain the kind of insurance that covers actors.
"It was just too expensive," said one independent producer who wished to remain anonymous. "It was like $500 and that was $500 we didn't have. We figured we would make the cast aware of the fact that we didn't have it, and we told them to be careful. No one's going to sue each other. We're all old friends."
"Nobody does it. Nobody gets insurance," said Leigh Fortier, co-artistic director of the Hudson Theatres. "In the real world only one theatre in the city asks a great portion of renters to supply a certificate of insurance. When my partner and I at the Hudson tell producers they must have insurance to produce here, they will call back and tell us they went to another theatre who didn't require it. Equity doesn't in any way aggressively assure that actors are covered."
Van Duzer does, in fact, require producers to submit proof of insurance in order to use the plan. "I can only go by what is sent to me," said Van Duzer. "I'm not an insurance agent, but I can see they've taken out insurance and it's supposed to cover their production."
Ultimately, obtaining insurance coverage protects the producers as much as the actors. Ask actor/producer Bob Basso about that. He said he's spending his life's savings in legal fees for a current lawsuit brought by an actor who claims to have been injured in a rehearsal for The Chaos Follies, which he produced in February 2000 at the Hudson Theatre. Basso said he had not taken out full insurance covering actors in all rehearsal spaces because he wasn't aware he needed to. He filled out the 99-Seat form, sent it in, and said he got approval.
"It would have cost me about an extra $300," said Basso. "And after putting down $15,000 for the show, I certainly would have put it down if I'd known."
-What do I do if my producer is violating the plan?
Call Equity at (323) 634-1756 and file a complaint with Van Duzer.
Immediately. This can't be stressed enough. Said Van Duzer, "The problem is that people who aren't getting paid go, 'Oh, It's only $15 bucks this week.' And before long, it's the end of the run and they're calling me to get all their money.
"The only strength I have is pulling the actors. If you call me the last week of your show and say, 'I want my money,' and I call the producers and say 'I'm pulling your actors,' at that point I no longer have any teeth. If there are violations, call as early as possible."
What if the producer refuses to comply with the plan?
"The producer has signed and agreed to follow all of our rules," said Van Duzer. "It says we have the right to take the 99-Seat Plan away from you." Basically, if they refuse to comply, they may have their names put on a list of producers who are prohibited from using the plan in the future.
Though that has happened in the past, Van Duzer admitted, "There are not really a lot of producers on that list." He also pointed out that producers have found ways to get around being on that list by having other people sign the paperwork.
-Will the producer blacklist me?
Possibly, but as Van Duzer put it: "People may scream at you, 'We're a family here. How could you betray us?' But at the same time, would you really want to be a part of that family?"
-So why take that risk?
"As with most union activity, it's about what is best for the majority," said Van Duzer. "In some cases, that may be less comfortable for you. The most important thing is to be informed. Read what it is you are getting into. Read what it is you are signing and don't be afraid to speak up. Don't be afraid to give a call here and at least find out what the possibilities are."