AEA Should Be Making Realistic Choices, and I Wonder If This LA Lawsuit Will Wake Them Up

There’s been an interesting development in the small theatre/AEA controversy in LA. Actors have banded together to sue their own union. 

Part of the complaint is that the union ignored the will of its members when members voted down, by a 2-to-1 margin, AEA’s proposed changes to the 99-and-under code. To be fair, AEA signaled from the start they were going to do exactly that if the LA membership voted against them by telling them before the vote that it was “non-binding.” It doesn’t get clearer than that that a union has no interest in members’ opinions.

A major component of this fight is that LA actors are worried that AEA’s changes will force the LA small theatre scene to go largely nonunion.

Of course the plaintiffs are right. Indie theatre dominates the small theatre scene nationwide since so many places have no showcase, 99 seat, or waiver in place, or very limited ones. LA will just be joining the rest of us who produce indie theatre. I would imagine that LA AEA actors are upset about this because small theatres do the lion’s share of new plays and experimental new work. I’ve seen firsthand that many AEA actors are frustrated that they can’t get in on that. The indie scene is the literal ground floor of the theatre industry, discovering and developing the nation’s new talent. AEA contracts are limited in any market– most of the AEA membership is unemployed in any given week– and they’re usually offered by larger companies doing more traditional, safer, road-tested work, or new work by well-known playwrights. It’s no secret that large companies are risk-averse because they’re reliant on risk-averse subscribers and corporate funders.

It all comes down to funding. A large theatre with a massive overhead, including wages, building costs, and enormous production budgets, must scramble all day, every day to come up with that amount of money. They’re going to be risk-averse in programming so they can attract more subscribers and donors, most of whom come from an older, wealthy, white demographic, as well as corporate funding that doesn’t want to attach its name to controversial content, and very much does want to attach its name to glamour– star writers, star actors. Large theatres have developed relationships with foundations for years, decades even, and those foundations respond by awarding them the vast majority of the available funding. Meanwhile, most small companies are shut out of most funding streams. Companies under 100K a year– many thousands nationwide– are shut out of most grants out of hand, and the hundreds of companies between 100K and 1M are competing for an ever-shrinking slice of the pie.

The numbers are even worse when those theatres are theatres of color (which are underfunded at every level), proving that these funding decisions are not based on merit.

When you allocate the vast majority of funding to the same handful of large theatres year after year, who still must also cater to the tastes of their wealthy white subscriber base and conservative corporate patrons to make budget, it’s going to create a certain landscape. When you insist on defining “small theatre” as companies with a $1M annual budget or less, and then give all the “small theatre” money to those $1M theatres, it’s going to create a certain landscape.

You cannot make enough money in ticket sales for experimental new work to pay AEA wages. Sure, every so often you have a hit, but when you’re producing full seasons, year after year, show after show, you’re just not going to make enough money in ticket sales alone to pay all your bills, let alone union wages. This fact was so obvious to everyone, we created the 501c3 model around it, enabling these theatres to get grants and donations to make up the gap usually filled in other countries by government support. For quite some time, it was possible for small theatres to grow into larger AEA theatres. It was a little golden window of time. And then enough changed (detailing everything that changed about the American economy, funders, and the nonprofit theatre community would be a lengthy post all on its own) to make that growth well-nigh impossible for most small theatres. Some do grow– a few get through the glass ceiling. But for most small companies, growth is simply no longer something you can choose to do. Either you win the funding lottery, or you do not.

We deny most companies– most companies are small companies– the means to pay AEA actors and then refuse those companies waivers, saying they somehow magically “should” be able to pay AEA wages.

OF COURSE most theatres in the country are indie. OF COURSE nonunion actors are the ones getting most world premiere gigs by hot new writers. That’s the financial landscape we’ve created.

Actors in LA decided they would like to continue to have the option to work at small theatres that can’t pay union wages. It’s astonishing that they aren’t allowed that choice, and it’s astonishing that a common response is the demonstrably untrue “denying waivers protects union wages.” Since AEA wages are set by contract, they can’t be impacted by small theatres using waivers or showcase codes. A large theatre can’t suddenly decide to start paying less while they’re under contract. The existence of a waiver agreement at one theatre has as much impact on the existing contract at another theatre as a same sex marriage contract has on an existing heterosexual marriage contract. And when that AEA contract is up for renewal, the theatre can point to the existence of waivers all they want, but AEA isn’t going to agree to lower wages in the renewed contract, nor should they. So it’s just silly to pretend that shutting down waivers “protects” wages. Waiver work impacts no one but the actor doing the work. Either that actor gets to do the show, or they sit at home while a nonunion actor takes the role. AEA has decided that their actors should sit at home, and that this “encourages” theatres to grow.

But they’re wrong. Small theatres can’t be “encouraged” to grow any more than you can “encourage” a drowning person to breathe. We’re throwing out one lifeline per 1000 shipwrecked sailors in the theatre ocean.

Until the financial landscape changes, nothing else will change. Large theatres will be largely risk-averse, and most of the risk, the new writing, the experimentation, will continue to take place in indie theatres who are lucky to be able to scrape together small stipends for their nonunion personnel. Not every artistic risk or exciting experimental work is going to be a big seller, but that kind of work is enormously artistically fulfilling.

AEA has a choice: they can continue to move the country towards a more and more indie scene as they continue to gut waivers and showcase codes, or they can increase showcase codes and waivers for companies that meet strict financial requirements and empower their members to take the gigs now going to nonunion talent.

Either is fine, of course, from a producer’s standpoint. The indie scene doesn’t actually need AEA actors. We’d love to work with our friends, and it would be great to access a larger pool of actors, but it’s not necessary. We build your actors in our factories. We develop the nonunion actors you eventually sign and collect dues from. Your actors come from our theatres; they don’t spring full-formed from the head of Lynne Meadow.

AEA has pretended for years that they’re “encouraging” growth by shutting down waivers, but we all know that’s impossible, especially now, when the funding has been so dramatically tipped away from those small companies. The choices for most of us aren’t go indie or get more money to pay AEA wages. The choices are produce as an indie or stop producing. Most small companies are indie not because we’re horrible people who don’t want to pay actors, but because that’s the one option available to us.

So the real choice AEA faces is: Do you allow your actors access to the indie scene? Or do you work to keep it 100% indie? In LA, actors voted for the former, and AEA essentially told them to shut up and sit down. This lawsuit is the result, and we’ll see how that goes.

Until we change the funding landscape, the indie scene is only going to grow larger. There’s only so much funding for theatre out there, and it creates a finite number of AEA contracts each season at larger theatres. There is no magical untapped funding stream. Any company who gets money is getting a piece of a predetermined pie. Denying waivers will not create more funding. It just creates more indie theatres.

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24 thoughts on “AEA Should Be Making Realistic Choices, and I Wonder If This LA Lawsuit Will Wake Them Up

  1. Patrick Dooley says:

    Thank you for keeping this conversation alive in the Bay Area. Shotgun, obviously, isn’t eligible for the waiver – but having access to a wider pool of artists is better for everyone. It was certainly great for us back in the day. The AEA rep recently said that the employment rate for AEA actors was around 15%. I bet a lot of those folks would like more opportunities to keep their skills sharp and explore new work. More great actors on stage means more great theatre and more demand from audiences. Why wouldn’t that translate into more better paying jobs at big houses? How is Amy Potozkin going to see local AEA actors if they’re sitting on the bench waiting for one of the handful of BAT or other AEA houses to call them in? Let them “showcase” their talents wherever they can! Restricting waivers for small companies makes no sense to me. If certain AEA actors don’t want to work for small stipends – they won’t take the work. Larger companies shouldn’t whine that smaller companies get AEA actors for less money. It is a travesty that SO MANY ACTORS GO AEA AND THEN AREN’T ABLE TO GET WORK! Rising tide, y’all!

  2. Lurie Pfeffer says:

    Regardless of the fact that the 99 seat contract was created by AEA years ago to encourage upcoming “indie” theatre to grow, and then take on better AEA contracts (resulting in higher wages for the actors),no theaters did that- instead only dozens of smaller theaters were born. I have mixed feelings about the whole thing, but I do know that the US is cracking down on companies that pay only minimum wage, and certainly those who don’t pay minimum wage at all. As a labor union, AEA cannot be expected to generate contracts which specify its members make less than minimum wage. It is illegal. Bottom line. Sadly, loss of the 99 theatre contract has taken the brunt of this. Should AEA have ever created the 99 seat contract at all remains a question……So many of us AEA members complain about the lack of strength and bargaining power AEA has in comparison to other performer/musician/stagehand unions, having our membership “fight this out” in a court of law will only make the union weaker, and smaller. If you don’t like AEA, don’t be a member- no one is forcing you. But it feels right that they want their members to make at least a minimum wage. It does stink, I know- for now. But “indie” theatre will survive, as will gifted small theaters- they did before the 99 seat agreement, and they will again.

    • To clarify: A waiver is not a contract. Of course AEA shouldn’t agree to a contract that pays under minimum wage. A waiver allows a union member to volunteer at a nonprofit either pro bono or for a small stipend that covers travel expenses (gas, parking, public transportation). It’s essentially the same as a union electrician volunteering to rewire the local preschool, or a union carpenter volunteering to build your set. I only wish the government would “crack down” on companies paying only minimum wage, and of course they’re not “cracking down” on nonprofits who use volunteers– No one’s hauling senior docents out of museums, high school students out of Habitat for Humanity, or the union carpenter out of the theatre down the street whose wife is in the upcoming show.

      • Lurie Pfeffer says:

        Thanks, Melissa. I admit I know far from everything, and you are indeed more savvy than I am- I read your blog regularly. Are the AEA actors just asking AEA to allow them to work and waive them each time with actual documentation? Or do they just want to be able to keep their AEA status, even though working as AEA terms “without a contract?” I’m not sure.It seems many AEA people work for non-union shows, and are never booted from the union.Another sign of the weakness of our union , sadly. But why not just continue to do that? AEA seems to turn a very blind eye. Some of us insist on only auditioning or working on union projects, only to find out fellow members went for the non-union gig, then AEA gets in there somehow, and creates a ( usually “lesser-than” the proper agreement ) equity agreement for them. So the honest ones lose out. That sucks too. It just doesn’t seem that simple to me………

    • It depends on the market you’re in, but if a union actor is performing in a nonunion show, they’re almost certainly working under a waiver agreement, a showcase agreement, or something like that. All AEA agreements are available on their website, so you should be able to find the one in use in your area. A union actor performing in a nonunion show without permission from AEA– without some kind of waiver agreement in place with the theatre– is in violation of union regulations. I’m not sure what the consequences are (a fine, I think?), but there are consequences. Read the paperwork you signed with AEA and it should tell you. If the theatre is denied the waiver, or if the theatre is in a market without one, they cannot use AEA actors. Of course there are stories about actors working at nonunion companies under assumed names, but I believe that’s unethical, and I don’t personally know anyone who’s done that.

      • ninaccollins says:

        It does happen here in Sacramento. I agree, it is unethical on both sides: both the AEA actor, who auditions for and accepts a non-AEA role with no intention of notifying the union, and the non-AEA theatre, that casts a union actor with no intention of playing them or getting a waiver.

    • How does a theatre knowingly cast an AEA actor with no intention of clearing it with AEA?! I don’t understand that at all. I’ve been in situations where actors have told me they weren’t AEA when they were (and vice versa), and I understand what motivates an actor to lie to a company about that. But I don’t understand at ALL why a company would knowingly subvert union regulations.

      • ninaccollins says:

        Saddest of all, some of it has been at the colleges here, which should be teaching theatre ethics. I went to a photo call and when I asked where the lead actor was, I was told he was AEA and hiding it so he couldn’t be in any publicity photos. This was at a college.

      • Lurie Pfeffer says:

        A certain show in Vegas did just that, and some AEA members rightfully did not audition. Others did, including stage management, THEN AEA came in and negotiated a contract. What did we AEA people learn from that?

    • Corey Klemow says:

      Sorry, Lurie, but you’re repeating a myth. The 99-seat code (not a contract, as Melissa explained) was deliberately set up to make profits minimal. The point of the 99-seat plan is to allow union members to do stipended volunteer work at tiny nonprofits while still receiving union protections, while making the conditions under which that was allowed so financially restrictive that no commercial producer would want to touch it because profits would be low to nonexistent. This idea that the 99-seat plan was only intended to grow small theaters into big theaters had zero to do with it, and is something I’ve only heard over the last year or so, as people try to invent reasons why the plan has to go. A tiny handful of companies did grow into larger companies, and that’s great; kudos to them. But they did it against the odds, and those odds, as this article makes clear, are getting steeper every day.

      This link (Facebook willing) should take you to a more detailed comment I made on AEA’s wall on their post about the lawsuit that breaks down the 99 seat plan’s financial limitations; lots of other good discussion there as well:

    • Nina, that’s mind-boggling. I wouldn’t have any reason to write about AEA or advocate for change if I were willing to flout its rules. For all my issues with their policies– which I maintain protect their stars at the expense of their rank-and-file– I would never knowingly break a union regulation. It’s a bad idea all around.

  3. Here’s the problem: to defend a business model that relies on unpaid labor relies on the same argument as those who would argue that raising the minimum wage will force them to close their doors. In the 19th-century South, those same arguments were made in defense of slavery — the agricultural business model couldn’t support paid labor. At what point do theater actors finally realize that thinking of themselves as employees who are willing to be exploited is not the way to help the theater? What is? Own the means of production. Don’t audition, create an ensemble of your own.

    • That’s what indie theatre is. Those of us producing indie theatre are all artists who started our own companies. Most of us producing and directing indie theatre are paid the same as the actors. It’s hardly exploitative to be in a group of artists producing art together.

      Actors, directors, and designers volunteer their time because they love an art they can’t do alone, and because they’re not able or willing to do it as a full-time job (many are people working to break in to the big money stages; many are there because they love the artistic freedom of the indie scene). We don’t yell at painters, sculptors, or musicians about “exploitation” when they’re in their own studios, making art. That’s what the indie scene is– we can’t make art alone as theatremakers, so we’ve banded together to make it on our own terms.

      Often AEA actors want to produce work with indie companies that will allow them to participate in controlling the means of production in ways that large theatre cannot, or allow them the artistic freedom that large theatre cannot, and increasingly they are not allowed to. There are many, many AEA actors who can’t work with the companies they’ve founded.

      If what you’re saying is actually: “Don’t form a company; just self-produce whenever you want to act,” the problem, as I keep saying, is financial.

      Setting aside the obvious– theatre requires a production team, so the person who is self-producing becomes no different than any other indie producer when putting together a cast and crew– theatre is expensive in both time and money, and a one-off show unsupported by the 501c3 is ineligible for grants, and can’t offer a tax deduction for donations, leaving self-producing largely an avenue for the privileged.

      Most shows can’t pay their expenses by ticket sales alone, especially experimental shows or shows by unknown companies and/or writers. In most areas of the country, rent is wickedly expensive. Both traditional theatre spaces and nontraditional spaces (like warehouses, storefronts, or parking garages) are expensive to rent, and the nontraditional spaces have the added burden of having to rent and install your own tech. Indie shows can’t charge much for tickets. Self-produced shows lose money most of the time. In addition to being shut out of grants and donations, they can’t,like an indie, rely on the success of a previous show to carry the loss. Additionally, if you’re self-producing a show without creating a company as a separate legal entity, the income you make– even if you have a net loss– is taxable personal income.

      After rent, rights, production, marketing, and (presumably) something for personnel, most one-off shows lose money– sometimes a lot of money. Sure, there are hits every now and then that make money, but there’s no way to predict in advance what will sell and what will not, and if your art is experimental in any way, that increases the chances that it won’t find an audience as a one-off, especially if you can only afford, say, 6 performances in the space.

      This means that, in most areas of the country, self-producing is generally only accessible to the privileged– people who have money or people who have access to people who have money.

      Crowdfunding isn’t a reliable substitute for financial privilege.We all have enormous crowdfunding exhaustion. A huge number of projects don’t get funded due to oversaturation as it is.

      But of course, the main issue with the idea of self-production as less “exploitative” is that in practice, it’s no different at all from indie theatre when it comes to finding personnel. An actor is no less likely to “control the means of production” at an indie theatre as they are when cast in a self-produced show. In fact, much MORE likely at an indie theatre, as indie theatres are always looking for people to help with administrative work, to become part of the company, and therefore be empowered to impact the artistic choices the indie makes long-term.

      Theatre is both an art and a business. There will always be artists who don’t have access to high-paying professional gigs. In the US, those artists are more often than not women and people of color, who dominate the indie scene and are enormously underrepresented in large theatres. We have started indie companies because we want to make art, and we will not be silenced by the fact that high-paid professional jobs largely go to white men. We’re not just going to sit quietly and wait for our turn at the mic, because it may never come.

      Sure, we could shutter every indie theatre, and create a scene that’s nothing but big money theatres and self-produced shows, which would create a scene even more dominated by white men than we have now. Women and people of color are largely shut out of big money gigs *and* the financial means to self-produce, and there’s no reason to believe that would change if we closed down every indie theatre because artists banding together to make art is an “exploitative business model.”

      OR.

      WE COULD CHANGE THE FUNDING LANDSCAPE, as I continue to say, over and over, to give these small theatres the financial means to pay people. Or we could continue to give all the money to a sector of the industry that’s dominated by white men, and tell the women and people of color shut out of those jobs and lacking the financial means to self-produce that they better not band together to make art with each other, because that would be an “exploitative business model.”

      If you want to discuss “exploitation,” you should probably head over to the hundreds of big money theatres currently using unpaid nonunion understudies and unpaid interns. It’s exploitation when you have the means to pay and you refuse. It’s the opposite of “exploitation” when people who are shut out of the upper echelons of our industry band together to make art.

      Indie companies are constantly, constantly told we are not worthy of consideration, we’re not “real,” we’re not “important,” we’re not worthy even of existence, because we don’t have financial privilege. We’re women, people of color, people who don’t come from financial privilege, people who don’t want to make mainstream art, people shut out of mainstream art. Yet we dare to believe our art matters. We’re not going anywhere. Sling all the mud you have– we’ll catch it and use it.

  4. Karen says:

    I keep waiting for someone, anyone, to acknowledge that most or perhaps even all of the above-referenced “big money stages” have been barely holding it together for a long time now. If truth were told — and they’re the ones who’d have to tell it — many or most of them have been quietly robbing-Peter-to-pay-Paul for years, running unsustainable lines of credit to make payroll each month, operating under the pressure of debt-loads that grow larger with each passing season, and scrambling to keep existing deep-pocket board members invested, engaged and contributing the dollars needed to bridge the ever-widening chasm between earned income and total budget.

    I’m not defending any of these “big money” theatres or the lousy choices they often make, just saying that the entire non-profit theatre, as an industry and a business model, is in deep-shit trouble — and that securing adequate funding is an ongoing nightmare for any producing theatre company no matter where it happens to land in the food chain.

    That said, I have never understood why the AEA membership has allowed its leaders to offer special 99-seat and waiver contracts in some so-called “markets” but not others. Union members pay the exact same dues no matter where they happen to live, even though they are not afforded the same opportunities to work because of where they live. I’ve heard all of AEA’s rationales and arguments for this outrageous practice, and accept none of them as being valid, reasonable or, perhaps, legal. For me, it has always smacked of some form of unfair representation that should have been challenged by the membership and done way with a long, long time ago. If a contract is available to members in one market, it should be available in all members in all markets, or not be available to any members at all.

    There was an all too brief time in history when live theatre, everything from the fine art versions to low-brow burlesque, existed at, or at least near, the center of our town squares. Our theatres were where we gathered as communities to be entertained, challenged and engaged. But this is not true anymore. There are simply too many other stimulating and seductive and more affordable options where our former, current and future audiences can (and do) choose to spend their time and money. For the most part, those who do still attend theatre enter our lobbies as strangers and depart a short time later still strangers. Rather than a place to go for a vibrant and provocative exchange of ideas, live theatre more and more exists as a sleepy boutique entertainment for a well-healed and ever-aging, and therefore diminishing, elite.

    Furthermore, when I look across our mostly white-haired audiences, I often see polite but bewildered smiles plastered on too many of their faces. In our eagerness to produce the next hot young playwright, we are putting out work that does not speak to, or resonate with, or have much of anything at all to say about the concerns and realities of the very audience members who are actually sitting in our theatre seats. Instead, the plays we produce have been written about and for an audience that doesn’t exist. That “audience” is off doing a whole host of other things and couldn’t care less.

    Our conversations and debates, our programming, our business models, our ticket prices and, in this case, our union contracts, need to reflect these realities. Anything less is blowing fantasyland smoke at each other, Something we theatre-types do enough of already.

    • There’s so much great stuff here. Many big theatres are having rough times, although funding has actually increased for them over the past couple of years, according to the TCG report. Some people have been writing for awhile about the lack of sustainability of large, nonprofit theatres, and offered increased diversity as a longterm strategy toward financial health, which I strongly question. I am 100% in favor of increased diversity for artistic and social justice reasons, but I don’t believe increased diversity will magically create a better funding landscape than we have now. Some people have written about massive building costs as the center of the problem. Some people blame bloated admin, but they’re dead wrong– it takes that many people to raise that much money, either directly or through PR. It’s not something four people can do, and I always laugh when people get angry because theatres aren’t supporting artists– when I look at the staffs of our local LORTs, they’re almost all young artists using the LORT as a day job. So that’s what people are saying, but I don’t run a big theatre, so I can’t tell you what I see on the ground there.

      There actually *is* a huge audience of young people out there. The indie scene is filled with them. I’ve been to shows where I’m one of the oldest people in the audience. I’ve written about how to get them to larger theatres. Also, the indie scene has a significant percentage of older fans. We have a bunch of retirees who comes regularly to our funky little basement theatre to see new plays, and some of these elderly people did the kind of experimental theatre that would get you arrested today– haha. Someone who was 25 at Dionysus in 69 would be 72 today. I agree that the elderly audience at large theatres are likely as conservative as the theatres believe they are, but there’s a massive surge of elderly Boomers coming up the pike who are up for anything.

  5. Chris Renald says:

    So what I don’t see here, and haven’t seen from the Pro99 writers or the lawsuit, is why an ‘indie theater’ that experiments with new work has to have 99 seats and run for months and months, and be a nonprofit, and be able to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars – just to experiment with new works and plays.

    Equity has put several options out there in LA (and elsewhere) for people to be able to use union actors and not pay them – they’re just different than the no-holds-barred do-whatever-you-want way LA has had it for a long time.

    Equity actors can get together and put up a show without paying themselves with almost no restrictions under the self-produced member code. All over the country. They do it all the time. They just can’t formalize into a business and be an ongoing concern as a formal company. And if you’re going to be a nonprofit, etc then you’re doing that so you can raise money – and at that point if people really do that, they should start talking about minimum wage and following employer rules.

    Or Equity is offering more restricted 50 seat showcase code with 16 performances – why is it that a group of actors and playwrights who want to develop new work can’t do it in that structure? What is so crucial about having 99 seats instead of 50, or 80 performances instead of 16? More seats and more performances seems to be more about trying to earn more money for the theatre than it does about giving actors the opportunity to perform or a playwright the opportunity to develop a play.

    So why?

    • William Salyers says:

      Your premise contains some fallacies, Chris. Let me explain some of them.
      (1) The intimate theatres you mention “have” to have 99 seats or fewer because that was mandated by Equity in the settlement agreement. AEA determined that 99 seats was the point at which it was virtually impossible to turn a profit, and so, to prevent abuse of the agreement, that’s what was mandated. As a result, almost all of the intimate theaters in LA are 99 seats or smaller. Obviously, if a theater doesn’t have the cash to pay minimum wage, they don’t have the funds for a major remodel to allow more seating.
      (2) VERY few shows operating under the 99-seat plan have run for “months and months.” That’s simply not true. The average run of an intimate show here in LA is 4 weeks, with a possible 2 week extension. I say this from experience as a long-time LA stage actor.
      (3) “-be able to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars.” They can’t. They don’t. Don’t know where you’re getting this, but if and when it happens, it is EXTREMELY rare. Most of the theaters I work with would LOVE to have that kind of budget.
      There’s a lot of AEA propaganda out there, especially since the suit was filed. If you want to know how things really work here, I’d suggest talking with some of us who live and act here.
      Best regards.

    • Corey Klemow says:

      Bill covered most of your claims, but here’s a solid reason your “hundreds of thousands of dollars” claim is impossible, and how it’s not a “no-holds-barred do-whatever-you-want way” – the holds are very smartly barred. (This is a very slightly re-edited version of my Facebook comment on AEA’s response regarding the lawsuit, since the link I had placed in my comment above didn’t appear.)

      ——–

      Some easily confirmable facts about the 99-seat plan as it existed from 2006-2015 (if you want to read it for yourself, just Google “99 seat PDF”; several iterations will come up, but the one you want is the one that was just made defunct, effective as of August 15, 2006; you can also look at an earlier version to see that it was very similar):

      * The 99-seat plan limited the number of seats to, of course, 99.

      * The 99-seat plan limited the maximum number of performances before leveling up to a full contract to 80.

      * The 99-seat plan maxed out ticket prices at $34.99 (less than that for smaller theaters).

      This means the total you could gross by using the 99-seat plan was 99 x 80 x 34.99 – $277,120.80, before expenses. Whoa, that looks like a big number! But this is assuming full houses every night for 80 performances with all 99 people paying full price – no comps, no discounts, from day one onwards – which I think you can see is fantasyland. (Funny, though… AEA’s Gail Gabler went on the radio earlier this year and claimed the average 99-seat budget was $500,000… but let’s set that aside for now and assume that maybe she meant overall annual operating budget rather than per production. Which is still not true of all but a tiny handful of 99-seat theaters, but that’s another subject.)

      Now stuff you’ll have to do a bit more research to Google theater websites and their schedules and ticket prices to see I’m not making this up:

      * The average run of a 99-seat show is about 12-18 performances.

      * The average ticket price that the market will bear, with rare exception, is usually $15-25.

      18 performances totally sold out at $25/ticket in a 99-seat house gives a maximum gross of $44,550. But…

      * Many 99-seat theaters (including the aforementioned Boston Court) goose ticket sales via comps and use of half-price ticket vendors like Goldstar and L.A. Stagetix and Stubdog.

      Factor all this in with expenses for rent and stipends and other expenses. And then explain to me how and why any well-funded commercial producer would ever think they could make a substantial profit off of the 99-seat plan, given its smart limitations, or use its existence as any sort of excuse to keep wages down in contract negotiations across the country. And please give SPECIFIC examples of when and how this happened; I mean, the 99-seat plan has been around for 25 years – if it really suppresses wages, there must be tons of examples, though nobody’s been able to give me a single one since this whole kerfuffle started.

  6. William Salyers says:

    Your points are so smart, so cogent, and so right-on. I am one of the LA actors fighting to keep 99 – or some version of it – alive.
    By most measures, I am a lucky actor. I make my living doing VO, some of it for high-profile projects. I consider that an art, an honor, and a skill. That said, I’ve been acting on stage since I was 15, and I refuse to give it up. I’ve created many roles in small, experimental theatres doing new works, some of which went on to Equity contracts.
    After a decade on the boards in Seattle, I accepted my card; only because I knew I’d be moving to LA, where the 99-seat plan guaranteed that a union actor could continue to act. I’ve been a member for nearly 20 years.
    Equity has behaved disgracefully during this battle, employing lies and subtrefuge to promote an outcome the vast majority of us reject. Should the worst happen, and they somehow prevail (which anyone who has read the complaint must very much doubt), I will shred my card before I quit the theater I love for the safe, bland, tepid fare that Equity wants to leave as my only option.
    I cannot help observing that many, if not most, of the anti-99 performers here in LA are of the muscial theater/dinner theater/Disney review variety. Just like VO, that work takes skill – but I’d blow my brains out if it was the only material for which I was allowed to read.

  7. gregm91436 says:

    This is a fantastic essay, Melissa, and your comments are even better. As a playwright, I was fortunate to have a workshop of my play “Keith Haring: Pieces of a Life” produced last year by the theatre I’m a writing member of (Skypilot), and we were lucky enough to have Equity actors in the cast. Unions need to listen to their membership, and while there are certainly things in the 99-seat-waiver which need addressing, the strong, strong support of L.A. Equity actors for the 99-seat-waiver should have been the guiding force in determining Equity’s actions.

    Its arrogant refusal to listen to the members *directly affected* by the waiver is a serious misstep by an otherwise sensible union.

  8. Michael Shipley says:

    Melissa – I hesitate to wade in here, but I have a question. In your opinion what are the circumstances under which an actor should join the union? In following the LA 99-seat situation (and, lest anyone feel the need to question my education on the subject, I have done a lot of reading and talked to a lot of people who live and work in LA., both pro and con on the new plan), it seems that most people who are against the changes that were made are actors who don’t need income from doing plays. They generally seem to have an income stream from other areas and do plays for art, for practice, for growth, for experimentation, or myriad other reasons…just not income. If live theatre is not one’s livelihood, what are the benefits for joining a union focused on that? I’m curious why one would join a union if one mainly wants to work for low or no pay. And I’m specifically curious about your thoughts on why/if/when actors should/should not join AEA. Thanks.

    • I would never presume to decide for someone else when they should or should not join a union. All I can say is that it’s a huge leap to assume that most actors who want to do small theatre always, or even primarily, want to do small theatre. Generally what I see are AEA actors who occasionally want to do a show at a small theatre for a specific reason– they’re interested in the playwright or director, or, as one told me once, “I’ll never be cast in this role anywhere else.” My company is very committed to diversity– people here know we cast actors of color and/or women in roles they’d likely never get to play at a larger theatre, so that will often attract interest from AEA actors who know they’ll never get a whack at a dream role elsewhere. Another aspect of this issue is that the lion’s share of AEA contracts go to white men. There are so, so, SO many AEA women and people of color starved for stage time. Right now we’re telling them they are required to sit at home when they don’t get one of the handful of “ethnic,” “ingenue,” or “mom” roles in their area in order to “protect AEA wages” primarily going to white men. While everyone would rather get paid for doing what they love (and many of us are advocating strongly for wider diversity on larger stages, myself included), sometimes people just want the chance to do what they love at all.

      The other aspect of this issue I see all the time is AEA actors who want to start their own companies, or who start a company and then become AEA. They’re currently prevented from working for themselves, since AEA actors can only self-produce if they don’t form a separate, legal entity. This is essentially telling an AEA actor, “You want to produce? The only way you can do it as a union member will get you screwed on your taxes. But see how generous we are for letting you do it at all?” I haven’t even touched on liability or insurance. It’s the kind of deal that only looks good to people who don’t know the legal end of producing, or for people who have money to burn. Or, I suppose, for people who believe they won’t get caught.

      You should take a look at the Bay Area’s BAPP agreement. It’s a very solid, useful waiver agreement. The only problem with it is that it was changed several years ago to time out– once your company uses one, it has a handful of years before it can never use one again. Otherwise, it’s great. Excellent protections for the actor, very reasonable, strict limitations for the theatre, strict financial qualifications that confine its use to very small companies. I have a quibble here and there– once upon a time, an AEA actor with whom I was working was a single father with a tiny child, and was hoping we could give him a rehearsal schedule that was 3ish days a week for 8 weeks instead of 5ish days a week for 5 to ease childcare for him. But AEA was completely inflexible about that. I understand in principle– you can’t have your union members running around negotiating their own contracts– but I was disappointed in the union’s inflexibility around granting us one exception, considering his circumstances. Otherwise, the BAPP is a great model, and should be available to AEA members nationwide. It’s hard to understand why an actor in San Francisco gets a perk an actor in Salt Lake City does not.

      I hope that answers your question!

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