99-SEAT THEATRE: Think Big Picture

99-Seat-Theatre

I have been known to take a dump on Actors’ Equity Association from time to time, but I am proud as fuck to be a member, whether I’ve paid my dues or not.

I’ve stayed relatively silent in regards to the controversy regarding the 99-Seat Agreement, primarily because I am a New York based personality and this debate seems mainly LA-centric.

Many people have published pieces in favor or against the proposed changes to the 99-Seat Agreement, and they go into great detail with first-hand knowledge of the subject. As you all know, I am only ever on Broadway, so I will not disrespect the actors or producers who are passionate about 99-Seat theatre by speaking about the culture of that environment without adequate experience within it.

However, I will say this: THINK BIG PICTURE.

We spent a lot of time and energy last year rallying the union into changing the state of national touring contracts. We will go into negotiations later this year to evoke that change. The union heard our plea and listened to what was most important to us as a community when it comes to tiered tours. I realize 99-Seat Theatre and Tiered Tours are two completely different animals, but they fall under the banner of the same union — and I don’t think the union will look as strong or be as successful in getting us the higher pay we’ve worked so hard to get on the road, if half our union is denying pay altogether in another area of the field.

How can we be taken seriously asking for more money on one contract, when we’ve eschewed MINIMUM WAGE on another? We are members of Actors’ Equity Association whether we’re nominated for a Tony, in a bus for twelve hours on a Monday, or performing in a new work for a small paying audience with the intention of improving our craft or getting seen.

The less we respect ourselves as actors, the more others will take advantage of us.

Or, we could just pay back all the wages that Equity is trying to enforce to the producer, and write them off as a charitable donation. Or… I don’t know, because I failed math. I’m an actor.

24 comments

  1. @MsSocialMedia

    Christopher Carothers, First let me correct you, I listed stage hands not designers. Designers often do get paid (not enough to live on) and since they keep lights and sets from falling on actors, paying them is a good thing. As for your request, I would be happy to substantiate my claims though I am not exactly sure how to do that. I certainly don’t have access to the budgets of all the 99 seat shows to submit for your personal review. I do have first hand knowledge that most of the people I knew who were working on 99 shows in LA were not being paid or if they were being paid, it was minimal stipends. If you need more, ask some of the 99 seat companies to explain how they operate.

  2. A Literate

    You write: “…because I failed math. I’m an actor.”

    While I suspect you were trying to be cute, it’s really not funny. Would you be proud to say “…I’m illiterate. I’m an actor”? It’s pretty much the same thing.

    Statements like that, not your wages, are what devalues you.

    Math is not about numbers or calculations. It’s about highly disciplined thought. I think you would better understand why the extreme pushback is coming from the LA actors against their own Union if you had passed math and had the ability to follow their logic. In truth, their logic is more rigorous and makes more sense than the program you set forth here.

  3. Christopher Carothers

    @Ms Social Media – If you can substantiate your claim that directors, designers, and playwrights aren’t getting paid, that would be an argument worth making. In my experience, they do. And Margaret – of course A-list actors quotes aren’t affected by their working for free. But how about the actor coming in for a little guest-starring role on a TV show. You can’t tell me that he won’t have trouble getting more than his ‘scale+10%.’ And Elizabeth – there are indeed 55,000 AEA members in the country. Should the concerns of the only 1,000-1,500 working in 99-seat theater supersede everyone else’s?

  4. LATheaterGirl

    I’m sorry–I love your tweets–but this is kind of a thing that unless you live and work in Los Angeles, you don’t really get it. You are entitled to your opinion, of course, but it’s not really fair to try and convince people in a market you are not familiar with or work in.

  5. @MsSocialMedia

    Actually, I think you have things backwards. If Equity pushes forward with their new plan –despite a huge pool of their membership saying it’s a bad idea– it clearly shows they aren’t interested in negotiating reasonable or realistic terms, it weakens their legitimacy. Since you don’t know much about 99 seat theater, a quick education… most people are not getting paid anything to do it: this includes the playwrights, directors, stage hands and in my experience the producers. If this moves forward, it is not going to provide better pay for actors. They are not going to be able to quit their day jobs to work in 99 seat theater. What it will do is decimate their opportunities. There will be very few productions that can afford the change and therefore there will be few roles to be offered. In a city where there are so many actors who love to do theater– and not a giant audience for theater– this plan takes away their choice and opportunity to take part in something they want to. People say, tons of theaters will close because of this. Frankly that’s silly. Companies will just hire the many talented nonunion actors – it’s LA, there are many actors who are talented but haven’t had the break they need to join a union. (And I imagine many union actors will just pretend they aren’t union members and try not to get caught.) So… instead of showing larger money making producers that they need to meet Equity demands, it just shows them that there are other easier alternatives. AND THAT IS THE BIG PICTURE.

    One other thing to know about 99 Seat theater… and this is the most important… almost everyone involved wants to see a change. Many of the producers are Equity actors. Of course they want to get paid. Many suggestions, including a tiered plan have been suggested, but Equity has rejected it.

  6. Donal Thoms-Cappello

    Respectfully: Think “BIGGER” Picture.

    Actors Equity is about to be the first Union I can think of to set a precedent of “union workers cannot donate their time to a 501 c 3?.

    Think BIGGER Picture.

    This precedent will undeniably be challenged in a court of law, where the Scott Walkers of the world would love nothing more than to find a way to further weaken American unions in their autonomy to limit members working out of contract.

    Think BIGGER Picture.

    When 501 c3’s become off-limits for union workers, what’s the more likely scenario in America: non-profits suffer because they’re cut off from skilled professionals volunteering their expertise on little/no money, or unions suffer because their members do not have enough opportunities to hone said expertise?

    Think. Bigger. Picture.

    • Tom

      I would say Equity is the only union that allows it’s members to work for free. Plumbers, nurses, teachers, doctors, electricians, dock workers, truck drivers… none of these professions have a massive group of members saying, “I really am doing this for the love of it and it’s so hard on my bosses to pay me, don’t make them pay me!” I’m sorry, if your business purports to be a professional one and your business model subsists on the fact that you cannot pay your employees, you have a faulty business model. When you join the union, you’re not working for the sole purpose of “passion” or your “dream role,” you’re committing a political act. If one of our members values their work over as “free” then it harms your fellow members to negotiate when it come to contracts.

      So respectfully, I hear actors complain about how ineffective the union is and then turn around and complain when that union is fighting to get them more remunerative employment. I feel like large swaths of this body is arguing against themselves and devaluing their own work.

      • alex

        Huh? What about Doctors without Borders? The Ebola doctor was working for free. Actors work for free for the opportunity to practice their craft in front of an audience. You get to be Hamlet in a small theater, even if you’re a woman. Of course we can and do take classes and pay for critiques — but I find that when you work with a director and your fellow actors on a show – and everyone has the same goal – making the show better – it’s a great experience. Plus people in LA make contacts that get them paid work. Most of us don’t get to be on Broadway, Most of us will never be on Broadway — but I should think AEA will better spend it’s time and money on policing the touring Broadway shows that go out NON-UNION rather than ACTOR PRODUCED VOLUNTEER FOR THE EXPERIENCE OF MAKING ART FOR FREE shows that are the soul of 99 seat theaters. Doctors and nurses work for free, why shouldn’t we? Esp if we are our own bosses?

      • strangevista

        IATSE allows (but does not encourage) its members to work non-union jobs. It differs from being FiCore in that they will not receive Union benefits on those jobs.

    • Chris Renald

      Donal – AEA has had the ‘no working for free for nonprofit’ rule in place *across the country* for several decades.

      Please review your facts.

      • Donal Thoms-Cappello

        Chris Renald,

        Y’know, just because it’s Saturday, I decided to randomly looked up current productions on three 501 c 3 theaters all *across the country*. Hey check out who they have currently working on their stages?:

        Denver Centerstage of Performing Arts, (Non-Profit): One Night In Miami – Carl Coifed, AEA

        Wilma Theater , (Non-Profit)- Hamlet – Zainab Jah, AEA

        Arizona Theatre Company (Non-Profit) – Romeo and Juliet – Richard Baird, AEA

        You mind telling me where this several decade old rule is? Clearly there’s quite a few theaters to report.

  7. Margaret

    I worked many years in Business Affairs for a major TV network. That’s the department that negotiates everything above-the-line. With all my negotiating experience and knowledge, I can tell you that you have it backwards.

    The biggest A-List stars do charity work and all sorts of passion projects for free. They volunteer their time and expertise in many venues without being paid a penny. This never negatively impacts their quote.

    You say: “How can we be taken seriously asking for more money on one contract, when we’ve eschewed MINIMUM WAGE on another?” The real question is: How can we be taken seriously asking for more money on one contract, when we begged to be paid minimum wage on another?

    I can tell you, you will NOT be taken seriously.

    Volunteering your efforts for free? No problem.

    Accepting minimum wage for your talent? Oh. Okay. Well, if that’s all you are getting… If that’s all you are worth… Then that’s what we’ll pay you.

    If Equity members WANT to work in a show without pay, that should be their choice.

    But if Equity members establish that their quote is minimum wage in one play, why shouldn’t it be minimum wage in all plays?

  8. Brighid Fleming

    You were right to remain “relatively” silent. But since you’ve decided to break your blessed silence let me say: YOU clearly don’t understand LA 99 seat theatre. I work 99 seat, as well as the Equity houses. I respect myself and I am treated with respect, wherever I work. Hello!? If I were mistreated in 99 seat, I could just leave. Everyone there is there because they want to be there. You’re not there and that’s okay. We don’t mind if you don’t do 99 seat. I am also proud to be an Equity member, but, unlike an annoying actor friend, I do pay my dues. And I expect my Union to care about me and my needs.

  9. Actually Has Skin in the Game

    Well, I guess some people will do anything to get their blog viewed. That is the only possible explanation I could imagine for this post. You admittedly DO NOT KNOW WHAT YOU ARE TALKING ABOUT. Please. It is so frustrating to hear this nonsense from markets which COULDN’T be more different from the LA market. Watch out, NY- your showcase agreement is probably next!

  10. Elizabeth Sampson

    Actors should absolutely demand the money they can get in markets like NYC, and the regional circuit. There is audience there to pay those salaries because the supply and demand of actors/shows to paying audience will support it. Los Angeles is the mecca (less so than in the past, but still) of the Film and Television Industry. There are 512 Equity Members in Minneapolis and maybe what, 20-50 SAG members. Supply and Demand. Same for DC, SF, Seattle, Chicago etc. In LA, there are 6500 Equity Members (there are only 55000 in the whole country) and over 70,000 yes, 70,000 Members of SAG. Our infrastructure here is based on those thousands and thousands of Union actors wanting to do theatre. That’s all. We would rather work for a stipend, in houses of less than 99 seats, many of them 44 seats, with no shows turning a profit, than not work at all. It is our choice to do this. Otherwise – you have 81,000 actors showing up for the open call at The Taper, The Ahmonson, the Geffen and The Pasadena Playhouse where they are going to hire a movie or tv star because they can. There are 70,000 SAG actors here – who have all made money in Film and TV. Most of the 6500 Equity actors have all worked in Film and TV. It’s just a completely different market than anywhere else in the country. Alfred Molina, Ed Harris, Amy Madigan, French Stewart, Tim Robbins, Laurie Metcalf, Megan Mullally, Nick Offerman, the list goes on and on – of actors who all work in this stipend theatre environment. Because we like to do stage work and this is the only way we all can.
    Is this helpful?

  11. Jon Mullich

    With respect, the picture you paint is very small. I agree with you that the union is looking smaller and and less successful because it DIDN’T listen to its members who are impacted by the plan. Merely pricing an institution out of existence isn’t the answer. Most 99 seat theatre is produced by actors and actor co-ops and is done on such a meager budget and low return on its investment that the proposal AEA is jamming down the throat of its membership is financially impossible. Without 99 seat theatre, there will be no means for union actors in Los Angeles to even attempt self-created project; they would simply be hired hands for existing commercial producing organizations, most of whom don’t even cast out of LA.

    Your argument seems to be that respect=money. The vast number of us who oppose the AEA plan went into acting for reasons other than money. We need our union membership to pursue our careers, but since many of us find theatre jobs few and far between and make our real money in TV and film, 99-seat theatre is our only means of flexing the muscles that we built to become actors.

    Ralph Richardson once said that “you sell to the movies what you learn in the theatre.” Today, you sell to the movies, TV and, yes, commercial theatre, what you learn in 99-seat theatre. I suggest you find yourself and larger canvas and start your picture over.

  12. Julia Fletcher

    Well, you ARE annoying, I’ll give you that!
    You say, “I will not disrespect the actors or producers who are passionate about 99-Seat theatre by speaking about the culture of that environment without adequate experience within it.” And then, you go right ahead and do just that! Wow.

    • Donal Thoms-Cappello

      Respectfully: Think “BIGGER” Picture.

      Actors Equity is about to be the first Union I can think of to set a precedent of “union workers cannot donate their time to a 501 c 3”.

      Think BIGGER Picture.

      This precedent will undeniably be challenged in a court of law, where the Scott Walkers of the world would love nothing more than to find a way to further weaken American unions in their autonomy to limit members working out of contract.

      Think BIGGER Picture.

      When 501 c3’s become off-limits for union workers, what’s the more likely scenario in America: non-profits suffer because they’re cut off from skilled professionals volunteering their expertise on little/no money, or unions suffer because their members do not have enough opportunities to hone said expertise?

      Think. Bigger. Picture.

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