The Demise of L.A. Theatre and the NoHo Arts District?
“If Equity makes these changes to the 99 Seat Theatre Agreement, it will have succeeded in destroying the NoHo Arts District which has become a cultural tourist destination and entertainment center for Greater Los Ange-les.” – Nancy Bianconi, President nohoartsdistrict.com
Actors Equity Association wants to create a new 99 Seat Theater Agreement to guarantee actors and stage managers are paid “a sal-ary no less than the legally mandated minimum wage and ensure members are paid for rehearsals as well as performance hours,” according to a recent release from the union.
They would, however, “allow members to work without benefit of an Equity contract when they self produce in theaters of 99 seats or fewer in Los Angeles County,” the union said.
Obviously this mandate is well beyond the budgets of most 99-seat theaters, all operating on a shoestring, mostly co-ops and self produced. While this might seem like the right thing to do, everybody wants to get paid after all, these productions at smaller venues could never make enough money through ticket sales to pay anyone, let alone minimum wage, although most do give what they can to their cast and crew, even if its just five dollars a performance. The purpose of their existence is to try out new plays, to give jobs to actors who are not perhaps experienced enough to work at bigger theaters, or who are non-equity, so they couldn’t.
So basically if you self-produce a play at a theatre of under 99 seats, and can’t afford to pay minimum wage for all performances, and rehearsals, you will not be under the protection of the union in any way. In other words, you are on your own, even if you are an Equity member. So what would be the point, for most actors in L.A. to actually join Actors Equity at all? And why oh why is Equity penalizing and or abandoning their existing members? That is the question.
NoHo Arts District has always been full of theaters, almost all under 99 seats, many with closer to 50 seats. These smaller venues are the life blood of the NoHo Arts District, as indeed they are to the whole of the L.A. theatre scene. The under 99 seat theaters are L.A.’s answer to “off, off Broad-way.”
Without the existence of these theaters, patronized by other actors, artists, friends, family and neighborhood regulars, L.A. would return to the days of “There’s no theatre industry in L.A.,” a reputation that has taken decades of hard, hard work, fundraising, and the tireless efforts of actors, producers, playwrights and directors, all Equity members, to diminish. Last year sev-eral productions that premiered in 99-seat theaters in L.A. went on to Lon-don’s West End, and to Broadway.
During my research for this article I visited the L.A. TIMES “collections,” which is basically an easily searchable database of L.A. Times articles over the past 40 years or so, thank you L.A. TIMES. There I found page upon page of articles dated as far back as the eighties detailing endless debates over the 99 Seat Theater Agreement. It seems this issue has always been a point of contention between actors, producers and the Equity Union management. They clearly stand on either side of this, the members want to be able to create without restriction and still maintain their allegiance to Equity and benefit from the protection that union membership bestows. The Equity management wants as much income as possible to cover the costs of the union and frown upon union members benefiting from union support while not working for productions that pay back into the union, which is understandable I suppose. But if they are concerned about costs and finding money for their pension fund, vital for their ever-aging membership, shouldn’t they be making it easier for new members to join, not harder? Shouldn’t they be asking their membership for help, not alienating the vast majority of them? This proposal, and this is according to pretty much every response on every forum that I have found online, including the Equity Union’s own Facebook page, will not only alienate the union from its members, and quite quickly lead to an enormous reduction in union membership, it could actually decimate the L.A. theatre scene.
What will this mean for the NoHo Arts District?
Well we have already lost a couple of theaters recently to higher rents and resourced buildings. What makes NoHo an arts district is the arts, and that is represented substantially by our 99-seat and under theaters. Each of them supplement their income through classes and leasing their spaces for events etc., but they exist to create theatre. Actors move to NoHo from all over the country and the all over the globe to the largest concentration of theaters outside of New York. The constant influx of new and creative people support all the local businesses, not just theaters but restaurants, grocery stores, apartment buildings, liquor stores, bars, printing stores, furniture stores, you name it! We are not the only community under threat, but surely we are the most threatened, our entire community revolves around these precious theaters. You only have to walk down Lankershim at 8 o’clock at night and see the hundreds of actors standing outside the theaters on the sidewalk, going over their lines, rehearsing in groups or hurrying off to another class in order to understand that.
NoHo cannot afford to lose its theaters, and it surely will if this terrible proposal is accepted by the union. Without the theaters, NoHo will lose its distinction as an arts district altogether and everyone will suffer.
Everyone I have spoken to, actors, producers, writers, all appear to be vehemently against the proposal. But we cannot rely on rhetoric, we must act, as a community in support of our theaters and as union members in support of our craft. The proposal must be approved by a referendum of Equity’s L.A. County based membership. Ballots for the vote are set to be mailed March 25. The ballots will need to be returned by April 17, with the union’s council set to make a final decision on the new plan on April 21.
HERE’S WHAT YOU CAN DO
But we can all use our voices. Please go to the Actors Equity Facebook page and make yourself heard.
Get informed and get active on social media at ILove99.org
Sign the petition at Wake Up Actors Equity LA
SUPPORT FROM OUR NOHO THEATRES
Sam Anderson – Actor and Co-Artistic Director of The Road Theatre Company
I think we all understand some changes may be necessary, but these proposals stagnate membership of the membership companies in LA, and the new “minimum wage” plans stifle production of anything but small-cast plays. see more compress the rest I think what’s missing from it is a real sense of how Los Angeles small theatre works. In a 44-seat theatre, for example, you rarely make enough to break even as it is, even if a show is a “hit.” So much rhetoric is thrown around but not a lot of true understanding. I am a proud union member, but when I hear things reduced down to, “well, they can pay minimum wage, they get grants and donations,” the lack of understanding is profound indeed.
Lukas Behnken – an Actor and the Executive Managing Director of The Sherry Theater – Center for the Arts. A 36-seat theater in the NoHo Arts District.
We built our theater. We found an old computer store in a then run down arts district and created a space to perform our art. We are working actors, directors, writers, playwrights, technicians, costumers, producers, and designers. We work in many business endeavors, including studio films, cable networks, and Equity theaters. In addition to this, we choose to have an added element to our lives that of even more theater in our lives with self- produced shows. This does not take away from any of us doing Equity shows at Equity protected theaters; we can do this too. But we also choose to have our playgrounds where we may not want to be paid, in fact, we may want to pay to go to our playgrounds. We are not a threat to our own unions by continuing our craft in small theaters when we are not working on a large Equity show, or if we are doing so simultaneously. This is our choice. We would be thrilled for more theaters to be able to provide higher pay so that we can earn more of a living from our craft; though I don’t believe this will happen by the force of a union. Not in a force of this nature. In my opinion this would happen by the influx of audiences in our spaces, due to the/us artists creating art that is undeniably important, that draws the spirit of man to spend their hard earned dollars for a ticket to have their soul inspired. In my experience thus far, in managing our beautiful 36 seat theater, we have yet to take advantage of the actor, especially in financial terms. To be denied the ability to freely offer my space to actors and other artists alike because I cannot pay them, which they did not ask for, would be a remorseful situation. To tell an actor that is a part of our theater company that they can not put up their work here any longer (solely because they joined Equity) until I can work harder at my other jobs to make enough money so that I can pay them to do their art, which they are asking if they can give to me and others as a gift, is not my idea of protecting actors and their art. It sounds like something else. Maria, your fight is a worthy fight, one that has a goal to protect Equity’s children. While we hope to grow as a theater and company, and possibly acquire a mid sized theater that has more seats and fits the current Equity requirements, that would not mean we would want to be rid of the smaller creative theater space that got us there. This would not be so that we could choose not to pay actors, rather that we could have even more space to create live theater and provide for actors at all levels of their craft. I would encourage your attention to be directed to the audience, to the people. Find a way as AEA to overflow the seats of all productions involving Equity members, thereby extending shows and causing a need for more large theaters to hold them, because they caught your vision of the importance of live theater in their lives and spirits. Then we will be there more often; on your wel-lprotected, well-paid stage; having kept our craft strong in our playgrounds of small theaters and self-produced shows while still under your protection, because you saw the value in our unpaid work and time.
Bert Emmett – The Group Rep Board President
In the Los Angeles theatre scene, irony and paradox are now in the limelight. AEA seems to want to ignore not only the wishes of their members out here in southern California, but also to dissuade any eligible fence-sitters to join a union that would take away the chance to practice their craft in viable settings whilst continuing to seek the more lucrative acting jobs. SAG/AFTRA understands it has a minimum payment for an actor for even a few hours work that is substantial, knowing full well that the gigs are so few and far between for actors who live in a city of competitors. And film and television can and should pay. But SAG/AFTRA also has agreements for waiver shoots and shoestring budgets that they not only sanction but encourage, understanding that the actor must act, paid or not.
What Equity does not seem to grant to its members is the intelligence and dignity in the fact that each one can choose. No one is forcing the Equity actor to take a role that does not pay the Equity houses are still there. If there are a few bad apples abusing members, they can not only be targeted but made known to AEA members who can certainly eschew the place in favor of spaces that are more fair.
It is quite possible, too, that the union is merely holding a grand dog-and-pony show for its members simply to show that the union is trying to do something (however misguided) to beef up revenues for its members. The National Council might not move to pass what is, in my opinion, sure to fail this April. But they can then say they sure gave it a go.
As for 99-seat theaters like the Group Rep at the Lonny Chapman Theatre, our Equity members know full well of our situation (the artistic directors, those who produce, and board members receive no financial remuneration), and they rehearse, act, pay dues, clean bathrooms, and take turns hosting because they WANT to. They cherish the space and creative opportunities we offer. They labor lovingly to protect it and its opportunities not only for themselves but for their brother and sister actors. Will not AEA recognize and honor the commitment they are choosing to make?
Edmund Gaynes – Owner of Whitmore-Lindley Theatre Center, The BrickHouse Theatre and Avery Schreiber Playhouse
There has always been an element in Equity that has been determined to kill first the Waiver and now the 99 seat Plan. There is some kind of wild-eyed fantasy that, were it not for the Plan, these shows would all be produced un-der full contracts. What they also fail to grasp is just how many of these Plan productions developed later into Equity produc-tions throughout the country, as well as feature films. None of these would have happened without the 99 seat Plan. I personally have taken over a dozen Plan productions from L.A. to New York. This has been great for actors, writers and directors. To mention just a few I have personally transferred to Off-Broadway and on to tour: ZERO HOUR, PICON PIE, TROLLS, CHAIM’S LOVE SONG, THE BIG VOICE, GOD OR MERMAN?, PANACHE, MATTY: AN EVENING WITH CHRISTY MATHEWSON, LANSKY, BEIN’ WITH BEHAN, DIETRICH AND CHEVALIER, etc. Transfers done by others include JEWTOPIA, THE MARVELOUS WONDERETTES, A BRONX TALE, etc. etc., etc.
Rick Shaw – Secret Rose Theater / NoHo Playhouse
I think it’s well established that ‘no one is making any money in theater’, much less small theater. The vast majority give their time and creativity to it for the love and honesty of the craft and with the hopes of having their hard work and talent recognized. This means the entire company from Production Assistant to Producer not just Actors.
If Equity requires their actors get paid up to $10-$12 per hour for rehearing and appearing in small plays, the plays will simply not be produced with Equity actors. Revision of the 99-Seat Plan is a petty, short-sighted and ill-conceived money-grab that will, undoubtedly, backfire as it will prohibit many small plays from being produced and, so, prevent legions of their actors from being given an opportunity to showcase their talents.
But my greater concern, in opposing the new Plan, is not just the higher-minded principle of putting small theater out of business which this plan for sure will; it’s the practical issue of depriving so many others who work, get paid and gain invaluable experience and credits from it. I mean the Stage Managers, Lighting, Set, Costume and Sound Designers, Props and Stage Hands, Set Builders, Painters, Production Assistants, Theater Students, Publicists, Publications, Reviewers, Graphic Artists, Casting, Social Media, local bars and restaurants, print & copy shops, on and on, not the mention the theater owners and renters the long, long list of people and services required to put on a show and that are supported by them.
In typically greedy and myopic fashion, Equity could not care less about anything but finding new ways to extract a few more dollars even when it puts everyone else out of work. It is especially upsetting when it is the Actors who benefit the most from these productions. They get the most acclaim. They are given the greatest opportunity to showcase their talents. That’s their pay. That should be why they do it to be seen. No one else on a production gets that singular opportunity. For Equity to require their actors be paid the most money AND have the most to gain, when they risk nothing and work no harder than anybody else, is unfair and monopolistic. Producers are not here to simply support actors. There’s an entire theater community out there that needs support, too. I am ready to stand with anyone to oppose Equity’s proposed changes to the 99-Seat Plan.
Paul Storiale – Director/Producer
There has always been negative myths across the world regarding Los Angeles theatre. Los Angeles theatre community leaders have worked tirelessly for years to crush these myths. As we approach our goal, they do this to us. It is treachery!
We will keep you all updated over the coming weeks, let’s hope this is all a load of ‘dramatics’ on the part of the Actors Equity Association meant to prove to their members that they are looking out for their interests. However, these kind of antics do nothing to reassure anyone, especially in the current, and regrettable climate of weak unions and backroom deals. Check out Fran Montano’s “the Business of Being an Actor” blog on the Equity 99 Seat Plan – “Equity & Small Theatre in L.A – Actors Need to get Informed.”
**** For information on Los Angeles theatre, tickets to theatre in North Hollywood’s NoHo Arts District, theatre reviews, the NoHo Event Calendar, restaurants, news and local businesses in NoHo, or anything and everything about the NoHo Arts Community, bookmark nohoartsdistrict.com. Follow us on Twitter @OfficialNoHo.