A Glimmer of Hope in the LA Theater Wars

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It's been a rough couple of years both for the Los Angeles theater community and for Actors Equity, the union that represents 7,000 theater actors in LA. Ever since Equity proposed changes to the 99-seat theater plan, there have been protests, raucous meetings and lots of charges, counter-charges and insults from both sides. It's been a sad spectacle all around as the community has been torn apart and the labor union that has been a progressive fighter for actors' rights has become embroiled in a bitter family feud.

Despite the bitterness of the past few years, there are finally a few hopeful signs peeking through the dark clouds. Although a year of private negotiations proved fruitless, the parties will now have their day in court and some kind of reasonable settlement can be hammered out. Neither side is likely to be completely satisfied, but that is the optimal outcome of any dispute.

In fact, a complete victory by either side would be a lose-lose for both. If the Equity proposal is soundly defeated and LA goes back to the previous 99-seat plan, little will have been accomplished. Both sides apparently are eager for reasonable, equitable changes going forward. On the other hand, if the Equity proposal is adopted, there will continue to be fierce resistance from the theater community, which could lead to further splits in the union, as well as the demise of many small theaters.

Fortunately, a proposal was put forth by a group of LA actors recently that would address many of the important concerns that Equity has raised about small theater, but also takes into account the very unique character of the LA theater scene. The proposal only sets forth the broad outlines of a settlement, but it is nevertheless an important first step in finding a fair and just solution to the dispute.

The proposal is based on two simple premises. The first is that when theaters present shows with production budgets of over $40,000, then actors should be paid at least a minimum wage. The second is that if a theater spends more than 25% on administrative expenses, then actors should also get minimum wage.

The beauty of this proposal is that it addresses Equity's concerns while taking into account the realities of theater production in Los Angeles, where rent and production costs account for 75% of theater expenses, and ticket sales provide only a third of operating revenues. The other important leg of the proposal addresses concerns about compensation for administrative staff (usually a sole fund-raiser or a managing director). The proposal puts a cap on administrative expenses so if a theater goes over the cap, actors must also be compensated.

While there are other provisions in the plan for rehearsals, safe and sanitary conditions and other guarantees of the rights of actors, many of the details can be hammered out in the future. However, the basic outlines of the plan meet the Equity concerns about payment for actors, while assuring the viability of the LA theater scene.

What has become increasingly clear about both the existing 99-seat plan and the Equity proposal is that neither is workable in the current climate. The existing 99-seat plan was long overdue for changes to address actors' concerns, while the Equity plan is punitive in its provisions. The attempts by Equity to modify the plan in face of stiff opposition has backfired. By creating "carve-outs" for selected theaters, the union has left most theaters out in the cold, especially those most vulnerable theaters that serve minority, female-centered and LGBT communities.

But rather than fixating on the battles of the past and marching towards a showdown that will likely be a lose-lose for both sides, it is time to come up with a reasonable plan that addresses both the legitimate concerns of Equity and the reality of the vibrant LA theater scene. The looming deadlines of court rulings and a deadline of mid-December for implementation of the Equity plan should stimulate both parties to come together.

The latest reasonable and responsible proposal by a group of leaders of the LA acting community should be a starting point for a settlement that will be a win-win for both sides. The hope is that, with a reasonable plan in place, Equity and its LA members can become partners in working together toward a bright future for theater in Los Angeles.