LOS ANGELES—Actors in this city’s small-theater scene got a raise this month—to the minimum wage. But some performers aren’t happy about it.
The rift started last year, when a new Actors’ Equity Association contract required members be paid minimum wage, currently $10 an hour in California, for work in small venues, commonly referred to as “99-seat” theaters. Until then, actors in Los Angeles had typically received daily stipends for such work—sometimes as little as $7 a day.
But a group of vocal supporters or veterans of 99-seat theaters, including area theater owners and actors Ed Asner and Ed Harris, sued Actors’ Equity this year, saying the minimum-wage requirement would force small theaters to close. ......
Actors, or anyone, suing for the right to be paid less can seem counterintuitive. But opponents of the minimum-wage requirement say it puts pressure on an ecosystem that already operates on a shoestring budget and “let’s put on a show” mentality. The city’s theater community lacks the kind of philanthropic support that New York has, they say, and actors often support themselves in day jobs and accept shows at measly pay in lieu of costly acting classes. Several theaters said they will trim shows from their schedules to save costs and begin working exclusively with non-Equity actors.
Los Angeles is covered with 99-seat theaters, often featuring actors looking for work in film and television.
“You can go play Hamlet and have a day job working in television or doing voiceover,” said Veronica Brady, a Malibu-based producer who directed a documentary in support of the “I Love 99” movement against the contract change. “If you want to do a new play, you can do it and see if it has legs for a tenth of what it costs in New York.”
A wage waiver for 99-seat theaters dates to the 1970s, when a large number of actors from New York moved to the Los Angeles area in search of film and television work, said Ms. McColl.
Some actors started their own theaters, and to help the burgeoning scene the union agreed to allow members at so-called intimate theaters with 99 seats or fewer to perform as unpaid “volunteers.” The practice didn’t apply at theaters anywhere else in the country.
When the union moved to scrap the waiver last year, the actors, led by Mr. Asner, sued, arguing that the union had violated a 1989 settlement agreement that set strict rules for altering the waiver policy.
Ms. McColl said the decision to end the waiver began in 2014 when a chorus of actors complained to union leadership that they weren’t able to live on the minimal stipends. [emphasis added] Earlier this year, union members voted on eliminating the 99-seat-theater waiver, and roughly two thirds of about 3,000 votes opposed the union’s plan. The vote was advisory, and the union leaders chose to move forward with the change anyway.
“Now we want to have a conversation with the Los Angeles theater community about how we can partner with them to pay our members and to help to make Los Angeles theater scene vibrant,” said Ms. McColl.
The increase in costs hit the production of “Gardel’s Tango,” a new play about Argentine tango singer Carlos Gardel that recently premiered at the Zephyr Theatre. The contract change went into effect during the show’s run, said John Lacey, who wrote, produced and directed the show. He invested about $10,000 in mounting the production and expects to recoup about half of it.
The cost of paying four Equity actors to do a weekend of “Gardel’s Tango” performances went from $132 a show to $429. Mr. Lacey said he couldn’t have afforded to pay his cast minimum wage for the 150 hours they rehearsed.
Going forward, he’s going to weigh the rule change when deciding what to produce next.
“You’re probably going to see a lot more one-person shows,” he said.
Ah, that pesky ol' "living wage" - every job, no matter that it might be considered a step towards a better one, must pay enough to support a family of four. And if it doesn't? Well just raise it until it can: the Left has assured us all that wages have no affect on hiring.