Despite opposition from the local Actors’ Equity Association and Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle, the national leaders of AE have voted to impose a $9 hourly minimum wage for members who perform in L.A. County theaters with fewer than 99 seats.

For decades, local actors have worked under a plan that required only token payments when they perform in a small theater–and nothing when they rehearse. In effect, the actors were waiving their rights to be paid fully, which is why the plan became known as “Equity waiver.” The vote by AE’s national council means that producers not currently working under the waiver agreement will have to start paying the $9 minimum wage immediately. Theater producers working under the old arrangement will have to switch over to the new plan on June 1, 2016.

On April 21, by a vote of 2,046 to 1,075, the rank and file actors in southern California came out strongly against the change in the small-theatre environment, claiming that it would backfire on actors by shutting down the most economically fragile theatesr and putting the rest under pressure that would drain much of the flavor and adventure from L.A.’s theater scene.

In March, 2015, Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle posted this statement on its website: “We view the impending changes of policy concerning the small theaters of the greater Los Angeles area with alarm. It would lead to a drastic reduction in the amount and quality of local theater...Once the infrastructure that undergirds the best of L.A. small theater is destroyed, it cannot, realistically, be resurrected.” Backers of the wage hike, though, cited a core principle that was at stake: “that acting is professional work that should be dignified with a minimum wage.”

Actors’ Equity’s executive director, Mary McColl, added that many L.A. actors had complained to the national council, saying they couldn’t afford to perform in small theaters, often while juggling unpaid rehearsal schedules with paying jobs. Annual budgets for a few of L.A.’s small theatres range from $500,000 to about $1 million, but typically, they are considerable less. Some non-profit companies get by on less than $100,000 a year, much of which comes from donations, rather than ticket sales.

“Union leaders have fundamentally misread what small theater productions mean to us,” said one actor in a social media post. “The 99-seat stages are venues where actors more or less volunteer their time so they can hone and enjoy their art and get exposure. From that point of view, compensation is either secondary or irrelevant.”

“By passing this new rule, AE is knocking out about 85 percent of the theaters,” said Joseph Stern, a longtime producer and member of the local AE committee that opposed the new wage hike.


Key Subjects: 
Actors' Equity, Equity Waiver, Los Angeles, minimum wage
Willard Manus
April 2015