The Actors Equity Association has made a polarizing decision to impose a $9-an-hour minimum wage for actors of the small to mid-sized Los Angeles Theatres like those located on Santa Monica Blvd’s Theatre Row just north of Larchmont Village. The new policies will take hold in June of 2016, affecting somewhere around 200 companies including Circle X in the Atwater Theatre Complex in Glendale pictured above on their closing night of Trevor.
Some of these newly proposed “stepping stones” include a showcase code which allows for members to work without an Equity contract only if the house will seat less than 50 audience members, where the show’s budget cannot exceed $20,000 and the run will not exceed 16 performances. Additionally, there are the Small Professional Theatre agreement and the Hollywood Area Theatre agreement requiring certain rights, including pension and health contributions, depending on the producer’s future involvement with the production.
These changes (and more) were made despite an overwhelming opposition from the Los Angeles branch of union members who voted to reject the proposed 99 seat referendum. Equity executive director Mary Mcoll says the decision acts in “a manner consistent with Equity’s long standing history of advocating for wages, working conditions, collaboration, fairness and respect for professional actors.” Many local theatre practitioners fervently disagree, claiming that the new plan will only endanger intimate theatre in Los Angeles by taking away stipends and AEA protections or by enforcing rules that most small professional theatres cannot afford.
Theatre artists worry that the amendments will smother a population that has been thriving for over 25 years. The Los Angeles theatre community has provided actors a workshop for growth and creativity, even if it is as the expense of making a profit. The new amendments challenge this culture. For example, under the plan, new membership companies can form but will be unable to use AEA talent without existing under a union agreement which prevents beginning or non-union actors from working alongside more seasoned union actors thus compromising the artistic education of passionate performers.
Many actors who make their living in film and television turn to the theatre to satisfy their creative hunger pangs. Jimmi Simpson (House of Cards) passed up on this most recent pilot season in order to play a chimpanzee in the title role of Circle X’s production of Trevor.
Simpson told the LA Times, “Pilot season might have been lucrative, but the chance to unpack this play might save my actor’s soul.” For many actors, the paycheck has little to do with the appeal of participating in great theatre. In fact, both Jimmi Simpson and Lauire Metcalf, who made $25 per show, donated the entirety of their earnings back to Circle X. The production is now in the tail end of a wildly successful run (read more here.) Productions such as Trevor exist because of companies like Circle X who preach “imagination over budget.”
Equity’s original proposal stated a goal “to advance, promote, foster, and benefit all those connected with the art of theater.” But while the community’s idea of advancement lies in the growth of the artists and the soul of the art, it seems Equity is only monetizing the benefits of intimate theatre. With the AEA and LA’s small theatre artists dealing in entirely different currencies, we’ll have to wait and see how, or if, the new amendments pay off.