By Isaac Butler
(For my non-theater readers, this post is gonna get into the weeds on a union contract issue in California. This might not be the post for you.)
Last week, my old friend and editor Rob Weinert-Kendt asked me to be a guest on TCG's "Offstage" podcast to talk about the upcoming fight over LA's 99-seat plan. You can listen to the full episode here. The episode uses as a jumping off point Rob's excellent meditation contrasting the abundance of riches of 99-seat plan theater in LA with the knowledge that the system isn't sustainable in its current form, as it relies on grossly underpaying union labor.
Like many New Yorkers (and non-LA people) following this issue, I had assumed going into my conversation with Rob that this fight was between small, scrappy theater companies and Equity, that these companies were similar to the kinds of companies that produced under the showcase code in New York. After all, pro-99 seat articles go to great lengths to portray the scene that way.
But it turns out, this isn't the whole story. Many of these companies are neither small nor scrappy. Many of them have been around for decades. Some have their own dedicated spaces. And at least one has an annual gross income of over a million dollars.
It's vitally important that those engaging in the 99-seat Plan debates accurately understand how big some of these theaters are.
Let's take this article in the Huffington Post. It centers around the various pro-99-seat-plan groups that have sprouted up over the past couple of weeks, including the Facebook group "Pro99" created by the Executive Director of the 24th Street Theater in LA.
I went through the various companies named as big players in the Pro99 efforts and took a look at their 990s to see what their annual gross income was. Gross income is an important measure, because it's how Equity sets the tiers for the Tiered Showcase Code in the New York.
Keep in mind:
Equity's top tier for a tiered showcase is a company with under $200K in gross income from *all sources* If you're in the top tier, you must pay 20% of your budget to Equity actors and can only do 24 performances of a show within a six week period. (I'll put a link to the seasonal showcase rules in the comments). Under the 99-seat plan on the other hand, you can run a show for months and the most you have to pay an actor is $25 a performance.
In New York, once you have income over $200K you're transitioning to an off-broadway contract and are considered a small off broadway theater. (Also keep in mind that I couldn't find information on all of the groups listed in the article):
24th Street has an annual income of over $500K
Skylight is over $250K
Victory Theatre is at $150K
Odyssey Theatre is at $865K
Anteus is $550K
Fountain Theatre: $638,406
Blank Theatre Company: $277,458
Actors' Gang: $671,196
Theatre at Boston Court: $1,035,635
Celebration Theatre: $280,466
Sacred Fools: $197,369
Rogue Machine: $355,380
Yes, there many producers within the 99-seat plan who have very little money and look a lot like the indie theatre companies of New York, but there is a concerted effort to portray the entire scene like it's the Brick. And it's not. There are off-broadway sized theaters paying actors next to nothing for their work, and my guess is that's why Equity is clamping down so harshly.
Now, I want to make this clear: I remain conflicted about the actual remedies that Equity has proposed. Given a strict binary choice between what Equity is proposing and the status quo, I think I side with Equity.
It's absurd that theater is so undervalued in this country that we have to have a big fight over paying highly trained professionals minimum wage, the facts are the facts. At the same time, Equity may be asking too much too quickly, when some kind of transition that included a tiered system would get broader buy-in from the community and engender more good will. And I think they are underplaying the consequences of this decision.
But the 99-seat plan advocates who come from genuinely small, scrappy companies may have also made a tactical blunder by throwing in their lot with what are actually well established small regional theaters who have been given a sweetheart deal for decades on wages. And they're defending that system with rhetoric that is frequently anti-actor, anti-artist and anti-worker. As Ron Van Lieu, the former head of Yale's acting program and by many people's measure the greatest living teach of acting, put it, "I have read all the rationalizations put forward by the producers of these theaters, and I can't see that they show any real respect for actors."
Meanwhile, Jeff Marlow has proposed a tiered remedy to the existing system, for example, that's worth considering. His three different models for how it might work are here. The first two are obvious nonstarters, because they're based on box office, which is usually the smallest portion of a theater's real income. The third tier at least in theory has merit, although it's unclear to me why LA shouldn't simply be put on the Seasonal Showcase Code if what they want is tiers, and then let the companies with more than $200,000 a year in gross income graduate onto contracts. The model already exists and would be easy to port.