BACK STAGE WEST
October 14, 1999
A Simpler Plan
L.A.'s Equity 99-Seat Plan gets a makeover, and the early reviews are mixed.
by Rob Kendt
After 11 years with a union code that guaranteed them small per-performance stipends for working in theatres under 99 seats, Los Angeles actors are getting a new version of the Equity 99-Seat Plan, known more popularly as Equity Waiver.
Viewed as a "pay raise," the new code's payment plan offers a paltry increase-from $5-14 against box-office gross in the old version to a new $7-15 rate at the high end, with the gross only factoring in after the 12th week of the run-but then, the 99-Seat Plan is not a binding union contract but a code under which its members can essentially work without a remunerative contract, and these amounts are not wages but token fees to help defray the cost to actors of doing theatre without pay, in most cases in productions directly or indirectly self-produced.
Clarity about what exactly the plan covers, and doesn't cover, is among the more salutary features of the new version, which is the product of several years of heated meetings and which will be introduced to L.A. members at a meeting this Friday, Oct. 15, before going into effect Jan. 15, 2000.
"This is not a contract. This is a code," it states on its first page, and later, in a section spelling out an actor's responsibility to give notice if he needs to leave a show, the plan gives this stunning disclaimer: "Notwithstanding the above, this Plan is not a contract and either party has the right to terminate at any time for any reason."
Said Michael Van Duzer, who administrates the 99-Seat Plan for Equity and who was instrumental in brokering the deal between Equity's member committee and local producers, "If a performer leaves a show at intermission, or a producer comes up and says, "I'm replacing you with my boyfiend,' there is nothing we can do. It's not a contract-it's an understanding in writing-and this plan is something we allow our members to do."
What was wrong with the old plan, brokered in 1988 after 16 years under an Equity Waiver agreement (which stipulated no limit on the number of performances and no requirement to pay any money to actors)? A lot of things that became quickly apparent at the time, said Van Duzer.
"Problems presented themselves after the plan went into effect," said Van Duzer, "but because of the pain of birth the first time around, nobody really wanted to go through that again right away."
Problems included a pesky understudy issue: It was never spelled out in the old plan how to handle the understudy situation in a non-remunerative contract, which meant that producers would occasionally renege on performances they promised to understudies or would fail to inform the original actor that such performances were promised at all; under the new plan, all this must be in writing and signed by the original actor, the understudy, and the producer.
Another happy change which will affect Back Stage West and its readers directly is a proviso that states that any 99-Seat production which uses Breakdown Services, Ltd. to find actors through agents and managers must also "submit an identical breakdown to be run in all local casting newspapers."
Other changes are already proving more contentious: A new section requires producers to provide parking to actors during rehearsals and performance, and another requires producers to give free tickets to Equity members (though they have options on how to approach this requirement). Another expanded section spells out in numbing detail the sort of costume cleaning a producer must do-or rather, must not expect the actors to do.
By far the most contentious issue thus far, natch, is the payment schedule. Under the old plan, actors were due between $5 and $14 per performance, depending on a percentage of box-office gross: Up to the 60th performance, the percentage was six, and for performances 61-80, it was 10 percent, after which the producer had to move to an "appropriate Equity contract." Monitoring the box-office take and reimbursements were cast-appointed Equity deputies-typically cast members themselves called upon to police their own shows.
"It was an uncomfortable position for them," said Van Duzer. "Instead of preparing for the show, they're counting heads, who got what seats, at what price, who got comps."
The new plan still mandates a cast-elected deputy, but has reduced his oversight significantly-unless a show becomes a hit and enters its 13th week of business. Up till then, the payment schedule doesn't bother with the box office percentage. Instead, it requires simple minimums, in two "tiers," until the 13th week, at which point a $15 minimum is weighed against 15 percent of the gross (see chart). The rule that after 80 performances a production must move to an Equity contract remains. Van Duzer said this strategy promises both to streamline the deputy's paperwork earlier in the run and also to recognize that actors have every right to want a fair cut of a money-making hit once it's been running for three months.
But while most local producers can only pray for such long-running hits, the increases after the fourth week and the ticket-price cap are what concern some who produce theatre for its own sake rather than to make money-which constitutes a startlingly large portion of some of the best theatre in L.A.
Said Maria Gobetti, co-artistic director of the Victory Theatre in Burbank, who sat on the producers' side of the 99-Seat committee, "It's a big jump, and it will make it harder, when a show is actually starting to make a profit, to actually break even. The popular assumption is that producers are making money; the investors may be breaking even. Theatre is not a money maker; we do this for the love of it. If it goes up much further, it will be real hard."
Agreed James Harper, a founding member of North Hollywood's Interact Theatre Company and a member of the 99-Seat producers' committee, "This makes a huge difference in cumulative amounts. We're a membership company; we're doing shows to act, for the love of it, and while we don't want to diminish the actors' pay, we don't want to be penalized for doing our art. One of strongest arguments for keeping actor costs down is that the rare show that does run for 80 performances funds your next three shows. The money is not going back into anyone's pocket."
Harper continued that "what might be needed is a separate agreement altogether for membership companies-another part of the 99-seat plan."
Voicing another concern was Elizabeth Reilly, artistic director of the Hudson Mainstage and the Hudson Guild theatres on Santa Monica Blvd. in Hollywood. "I'm worried that this will have an effect on large-cast shows," she said. "Potentially actors could cost me $200 a night, and with the theatre rental at $500, I'm already $700 in the hole before I open the door.
"I'm also a little fearful that this may lead to the demise of actual producers who want to put up money to put people onstage, and instead encourage the proliferation of showcase theatre. Showcase productions are put on with money borrowed from aunts and uncles, and they do it one time. Whereas producers who do one show after another-I don't know."
In a way, Reilly typifies one dilemma of L.A. theatre: She is both a performer and a producer. "I'm an actress before anything," she said, "but I have a deeper understanding as a producer of what it means for someone else to put up their money to put me onstage. I'm surprised there are such people."
For her part, Leigh Fortier, who produces at the Hudson Avenue behind Reilly's space as well as at other theatres, doesn't mind the plan, though she shares Reilly's concern about parking in a neighborhood crammed with theatre spaces and a serious valet scrimmage on performance nights.
"I have no problems with the new plan whatsoever," said Fortier. "First of all, I already pay my actors on average $15 a show. I'm not one of those producers who has a problem paying actors."
Jeff Murray, who's producing his Theatre/Theater shows in a new space in the Pacific Theatres building around the corner from his now-razed Hollywood venue, said the plan "seems to be moving in the right direction. I like the idea that there's more money for actors who stay in a show that's a hit." And he believes that parking is a reasonable concession: "Actors should get their parking money. We're asking them to work for almost nothing, so it's the least we can do to provide them with a place to put their car." Above all, said Murray, the plan seemed to be "based on the realities of doing work at this level."
Murray's guess is right: The new plan largely reflects the efforts of 99-seat producers to hold the line against Equity "hardliners" who wanted to decrease the 80-show performance maximum and increase the actor compensation.
Joe Stern, producer at the Matrix Theatre in Hollywood and a key member on the producers' side of the 99-seat committee, called the process of the meetings "a strange odyssey-a lot to go through for very little." The reason he, along with the Colony Studio Theatre's Barbara Beckley, the Victory's Gobetti, and the Interact's Harper, stuck with it was to battle the "mentality at Equity that doesn't believe in the Waiver, or the 99-Seat Plan. We could tell the Equity members wanted to turn this into the New York showcase code, which limits it to 24 performances-that they wanted to eat away at the 80 performances. That's why we kept meeting."
Though Stern believes the process "changed some hearts and minds" at Equity, Gobetti remains skeptical.
"I kept getting the feeling from the Equity committee that they think we're profiting off the actor," Gobetti lamented, "and that if we were smart enough or good enough, we'd have a mid-sized house."
Daniel Henning, artistic director of the Hollywood-based Blank Theatre Company, went further. "The board at Equity doesn't understand what its members are doing in the field," Henning said. "Ninety-nine-seat theatre exists because actors want to work, and now their own union wants to make it harder for them to work."
Will these sort of concerns be aired at this week's Equity meeting? Said Van Duzer, "I'll be very curious to see."