Actors' Equity Association on 99-Seat Plan Proposal in LA: 'Time for a Positive and Progressive Change'

Following today's (March 23, 2015) protest march by members of Actors' Equity Association against a proposal recently announced by their own union to end the 99-Seat Theater Plan in Los Angeles, AEA has released the following statement:

"Actors' Equity Association believes that, after more than 30 years in which theaters have built their models on the fact that actors won't need to be paid, it is time for a positive and progressive change in LA's intimate theater scene.

Equity's proposal, which resulted from six months of intensive listening to all sides of the issue has been created to answer three distinct messages from our membership- they want to be able to collaborate with like-minded artists, continue to participate in membership companies, and be paid for their work. Equity believes that actors should be respected and compensated fairly for their work, just like directors, musicians, set designers, and other professionals who are compensated in 99 seat productions.

Equity has repeatedly stated that these are proposals and should not be considered the final decision of the union. The union's National Council is and has been sensitive to all sides of the issue and will use that information in making its decision in April. Equity is strictly following the procedures in the Settlement Agreement that determines how changes are made.

We understand this is an emotional debate on all sides. Equity's proposal responds to the hundreds of members who made it clear they want to see real change in 99-Seat intimate theater and who want to be paid for their work."

AEA's new contract would guarantee actors and stage managers a salary no less than minimum wage. But many actors (including Tim Robbins, who recently wrote an essay on his views) and others in the LA-area theatre industry have pushed back, arguing that due to larger costs associated with paying actors under the new proposal, small companies might struggle to put on productions.

Several Equity members have also made statements in support of the AEA's stance on the issue:

"My name is Obba Babatunde, and I have been a proud member of AEA for approximately 38 years. I boast of my membership because this is the union that opened its arms to me and supports the idea of honor and fairness and maintains a high standard when it comes to our profession.

"I, like other members of this union, have worked hard at our profession and endured the challenges that come with being an actor in the theater. We bring our hearts and souls and leave our blood, sweat and tears on the boards - many never receiving the benefit of awards, big pay days or great celebrity. We give to the masses what can only be gotten inside those theater walls, and the time is long overdue that we are shown the respect that any professional deserves.

"We are not slaves; we are professionals and must be treated as such. How long must we continue to turn ourselves inside-out without the common respect that the law provides for all American citizens? A fair wage should not even be a discussion, but a given. We will stand together and we will no longer take this abuse and be crushed under the weight of those that think we are less intelligent than the characters we portray.

"We are strong and united. We ask not for the moon, but what is fair and just - and we will achieve it in spite of the lies and propaganda of those who belly ache, but bask in the sun because of our labor. NO MORE!" - Obba Babatunde, Los Angeles AEA Member

"This is a labor dispute, pure & simple. The producers of intimate theater in Los Angeles want us to believe that our 'thriving theater community' is dependent upon volunteer, unpaid labor. Actors volunteer their time & talent for free while staff, directors and others get paid. It is merely a matter of priorities: If you charge admission, you must pay the actors. Even 'ultra-low budget' films under SAG-AFTRA pay $100 a day for filming and provide for basic safe & sanitary working conditions. Actors' Equity Association is merely asking for fair labor practices. It is a matter of fairness and a matter of law." - Perry Ojeda, Los Angeles AEA Member, veteran of THE BLANK THEATER COMPANY and other 99-seat theaters

"I am a working actor. A working theater actor and I make my living as a working theater actor. I have spent the last decade working in many different places - but not in Los Angeles. Since I joined the union in 1996, opportunities to find an Equity contract in the Los Angeles area have diminished. Is 99-seat the reason? No, not exclusively. But it's not blameless. When you create a system where it is so cheap to 'produce' theater, why would anyone pay more? Any smart producer worth his or her salt will say, 'Why produce this new show and pay a whole cast of actors if I don't have to?" That will only change when - together - we demand more.

"If you want to volunteer your services as an actor, that is fine. You can do so by either self-producing with other members, where by you can create your own rules (Equity will not oversee it), or if you are a member of one of the many established membership companies (once again without Equity oversight to create your own theatrical experience). Any other member should be on contract and be paid at least minimum wage - the bottom floor of any employment.

"I don't have much desire to work in TV or film. People sometimes say, 'Then why are you here in L.A.?' Because, just like the person that chooses to make a life in Tucson, Washington D.C., Denver or Minneapolis, I have chosen to make a life in L.A.; I shouldn't have to move to New York or anywhere else to make a living. There are enough actors here to help create a vibrant theater scene that pays if we don't undercut each other!" - Michael Dotson, Los Angeles AEA Member

"To be clear, I am a lover of 99-seat theatre. It has hosted great opportunities for union actors to exercise their chops and to showcase their talents. But how our union has allowed the practice of not paying actors their worth for this long is amazing to me. I am actually surprised at performers' opposition to the proposed change to the plan. Where is our self-respect? Not every 99-seat show produced turns a profit - but many do. Many of these shows go on to have lives beyond L.A., with healthy New York runs and tours - all on the backs of the actors that brought them there with little recompense but a gas stipend. How is it possible that every other department involved with these productions are paid their worth? I am not saying they don't deserve to be paid. They do. All departments are important. But you simply cannot do a show without the actors. You can eliminate any of the other departments and still have a show; but, without the actors, there is silence. We are the centerpiece of theatre and what the audiences are coming to see. The rest is adornment. Yet producers pay everyone else involved in a production for their work because they can't get around it. They don't pay actors their due because they are not required to.

"To ask for minimum wage is simply asking to be respected for our time, not even our skills. It is an insult for anyone to imply that we aren't worth being paid for our time at the very least. Yes, I love intimate theatre, and I don't believe for a second that this change will put an end to intimate theatre. It will survive and, if anything, thrive. I stopped doing theatre for 'fun' when I earned my Equity card 35 years ago. I am blessed and lucky to be in a profession where I get to do my passion, and I do indeed love it. That does not mean that I should be taken advantage of just because I am hungry to feed my creative self. I need to feed myself now, and feed my pension and have health coverage. We are professionals. Let's be treated as such and respect ourselves and demand the respect from those who need what we provide." - David Engel, Los Angeles AEA Member

"The new proposal that our union has issued is significant in that it is now a contract - a contract that can be negotiated from a position of strength. A labor union has the responsibility to protect its membership, for the greater good. It's not Equity for producers; it's Equity for actors! For too many years we've allowed and created the perception that actors work for free! It's time to realize your self-worth as an artist. When you've done work under the 99-Seat Plan, you are not compensated properly for your rehearsal time and performances. That was the whole reason the union was created in 1913: to get paid for rehearsals. 100 years of the same fight!" - Perry Lambert, Los Angeles AEA Member

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