They rehearse for weeks, often in run down theaters that were once garages or retail stores; perform challenging premieres of new works and imaginative reinterpretations of old ones; and sometimes clean the bathrooms, sell the tickets, or sew the costumes, too.
But hundreds of union actors working in Los Angeles' distinctive and thriving small theater scene are barely paid for their work. And, in an unusual twist to America’s economic fairness debates, many of them say they are O.K. with that.
“None of us is here to make money,” Lynn Odell said recently as she rehearsed a science-fiction comedy at Theater of Note, a 42-seat theater that operates in a former auto-glass repair shop in Hollywood. “We are here for the experience.”
The willingness of Los Angeles actors to perform for a pittance, hoping to hone their craft and, maybe, to catch the eye of an agent or manager, is now at the heart of an extraordinary rift in the union representing theater actors, and has opened a new front in the nation’s battle over the minimum wage.
Actors’ Equity, the national union that represents Ms. Odell and about 6,500 other stage performers in Los Angeles, says its members are selling themselves short. The union, seizing a moment when organized labor is having some success pressuring low-wage employers to pay higher salaries, says many of this city’s small theaters — which currently pay actors nothing for rehearsals, and stipends as low as $7 per performance — should start paying California’s minimum wage of $9 an hour.
“It’s so weird to be doing the work and not get paid, and it’s totally unsustainable,” said Christian Barillas, an actor who has worked in small theaters and supports the change.
But the union’s effort to help boost actors’ pay has prompted a vociferous backlash from its members, many of whom fear that higher pay will cause many theaters to disappear. In a nonbinding referendum conducted over the last several weeks, 66 percent of Equity members in Los Angeles who cast ballots voted against a mandatory minimum wage for small theaters. (About 45 percent of the 6,990 ballots sent out were returned.)
The actors who seem to be campaigning against their own financial self-interest argue that the small theater scene is effectively not a place of employment, but a form of continuing education, and that it feeds their souls in a town where many earn their living with television and film jobs, and where many larger theaters cast roles using actors from New York.
“You want to be up onstage, you want to work out the acting muscles, not sitting on your couch waiting for an audition,” said Tim Robbins, the Academy Award winning actor who, despite a high-profile Hollywood career, continues to run a small theater here called The Actors’ Gang, and is a prominent advocate for small theaters less fortunate than his. “The only reason I was able to move into writing and directing movies and remain sane in this business has been my access to doing challenging work and testing myself in small theater.”
Actors have picketed the union’s North Hollywood offices, swamped a town-hall meeting, held fierce debates online, and some have threatened to resign their membership. At a recent curtain call for “A Dog’s House,” a world premiere IAMA Theater production here, the four-member cast emerged wearing T-shirts signaling their opposition to the minimum wage proposal.
Although compensation is a chronic concern in the theater world, the issue in Los Angeles is unique. For the last three decades, under a settlement of litigation brought by local actors against the union, theaters with fewer than 99 seats in Los Angeles County have been allowed to pay actors just a small stipend so long as ticket prices remain low and production runs remain short.
The result — to the delight of actors and playwrights, and the dismay of the union — has been the flourishing of the county’s so-called 99-seat theaters. Many are actually smaller than that, but 99 is the agreed-upon cap on their size; the companies are also often called intimate theaters. There are about 200 such theaters, some doing provocative work that occasionally has transferred to larger theaters in New York and elsewhere — recently, “Small Engine Repair” premiered at Rogue Machine Theater here before its Off Broadway run at MCC Theater, and “Bakersfield Mist,” developed by the Fountain Theater, transferred to London’s West End, starring Kathleen Turner.
Such plays are often produced in Los Angeles at a cost of between $5,000 and $20,000 — compare that to the $10 million to $15 million often spent to produce a Broadway musical — and the actors are generally paid enough to reimburse them for gasoline, but no more.
“Everyone thinks actors should be paid more — it’s a matter of how,” said Padraic Duffy, the managing director of Sacred Fools, a theater company in East Hollywood with under 99 seats and an annual budget of $200,000. Mr. Duffy said that if his theater were required to pay minimum wage, it would have to stop working with Equity actors, other than those who are already members of the company (current members of small theater companies would be allowed to continue working for a stipend under the Equity proposal).
The actors defend the minimal payment for small theater work by saying that Los Angeles is not like the rest of the country: There is a huge population of performers looking for exposure, relatively low levels of philanthropic and governmental support for theater, and a consensus that the place to make money in acting here is in film and television. One indication of how distinctive the Los Angeles theater scene is: the highly regarded Antaeus Theater Company has for years formed two full casts for each of its productions, knowing that at any point an actor might have to skip a performance to tape a television episode or audition for a film.
Equity’s national council is scheduled to decide on Tuesday whether to require the theaters to start paying union actors the minimum wage. As the debate has raged, Equity has suggested it might carve out exceptions for some theaters; some actors have come up with compromise proposals, suggesting that wage requirements should be tiered, depending on a theater’s budget.
Gail Gabler, Equity’s Western regional director, said the union decided to act in response to complaints from members who were tired of working without compensation. She said the small theaters were “crowding out most other theater in L.A.” and had become a problem for actors who aspire to earn a full-time living from stage work in the region.
The union points out that there are small theaters in other parts of the country that pay union actors more than a stipend. And, the union says, even in Los Angeles some of the small theaters pay musicians, publicists, box office workers — just not actors.
Armina LaManna, an actor and director who spent years working in 99-seat theaters, said she was shocked when she relocated briefly to Philadelphia, where, she said, actors in small theaters were paid. “If Communism didn’t destroy theater, how is a minimum wage going to decimate theater?” asked Ms. LaManna, who was born in the Soviet Union.
The actors who oppose the union’s efforts say that Equity misunderstands what is happening nationally and locally. They argue that in many other cities, small theaters are dying out, and that Los Angeles has a large and innovative scene unlike other cities; they also say that, although a handful of small theaters have large budgets, most struggle to stay afloat and find audiences.
“This is the craft, and if I can’t practice my craft, I’m going to be less creative,” said Jimmi Simpson, an actor who earns his living in film and television, but spent the last several weeks portraying a chimpanzee in a $34,000 Circle X Theater Co. production of “Trevor.” The much-praised production, in which Mr. Simpson co-starred with Laurie Metcalf, an Emmy-winning TV actress, ran for seven weeks. Mr. Simpson and Ms. Metcalf were paid $800 each for the entire run, which they donated back.
“I do television and film so I can take months off and contribute to culture,” Mr. Simpson said. “If this goes through, I will be doing plays in my friends’ living rooms.”
Are you pro- or against minimum wage for equity actors? Leave us a comment with your opinion.
Don’t miss the best posts! – subscribe to receive the latest posts via email.
Give us feedback – tell us what you think of our site and what additional topics you’d like to see covered.
(Information in this article sourced from The New York Times).