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Equity actors vote overwhelmingly against minimum wage proposal for 99-seat theaters

Elected leaders of the Actors Equity Association, a union that represents theater actors, will meet Tuesday to decide if their actors should get a pay bump for performing in small theaters in Los Angeles.

Currently Equity actors who perform in so-called "99-seat theaters" (theaters with 99 seats or less) only receive a small stipend for their work - usually $7 per performance. The union wants their actors to be paid minimum wage for the time spent in both rehearsals and performances.

Actors in the union were asked to weigh-in on the idea through a non-binding vote, which was tabulated Friday. Roughly two-thirds of voters cast ballots against the pay increase. Nearly half of the eligible members voted.

Actors who are against their union's proposal say it would put many small theaters out of business, because producers wouldn't be able to afford the additional costs. Many actors pursuing commercial success in film and television say they have come to rely on the more intimate theaters as a place to practice their craft, create new and more daring work, with a chance of being spotted by someone looking for talent. 

For actor Chuma Gault, the smaller theaters have offered a sense of community, and a safe place to create.

"I get to do stuff on stage that only if you are at a certain place in your TV or film career you get to do otherwise," Gault told KPCC.  "I get to play characters that I get to play on stage but that would go to Terrence Howard if we were up for a movie together." 

Gault moved to Los Angeles from New York about 20 years ago and says his first acting opportunity came in a smaller theater - The Actors Gang.  He's now a working actor, who hasn't had to wait tables or take a "day job" for 13 years, with television credits that include regular appearances on "Girlfriends" and "Without a Trace" and some commercials under his belt. He drives the Los Angeles freeways constantly for auditions, which he says is a recently-added luxury.  

"I spent four and a half years on my bicycle and on the train getting to this audition or that audition and if I had a fitting, I would stuff a bunch of clothes in a duffel bag, throw it on my back and ride my bicycle with that," Gault said while behind the wheel. "So my hustle is real."

At the end of the day, Gault often retreats to The Moving Arts Theater in Silverlake, where he practices a one-man play, "The Gun Show." Moving Arts is a tiny theater, with just 28 seats. Gault, a member of the Equity union, wouldn't say what he is being paid for the work - just that it's a little more than the customary $7 per-performance  stipend. He calls it "gas and grocery money," but says he’s done a lot of work in small theaters for next to nothing, and he is fine with it. It’s a lot cheaper than acting class, which he says can add up to $400 dollars a month. "I can’t afford that," he says.  

Gault is worried that if Equity mandates all of its members be paid minimum wage for their work in smaller theaters, the creative outlets many LA-based actors have depended on will fold…or start producing less daring work featuring better-known actors to draw in more audiences.

"I think that when you do start to tread on how the majority of the people in this city feel about theater, you’re wading into dangerous territory, because they will fight back," Gault said. 

'Justice to actors'

Many Equity actors who've worked in the 99-seat theaters believe they should be paid more, and in crafting its latest proposal, the union says it is responding to their pleas.

"This is not about talking away anybody’s creativity. This about doing justice to actors," says Gail Gabler, the western regional director for the union.  "Actors should be first on a theater’s budget, not an afterthought that doesn’t even happen."

Gabler says the proposal on the table still gives Equity members an opening to produce their own shows for no pay without oversight of the union. 

"But when you’re working for a production where...the artistic directors are getting paid, the playwright’s getting paid, the set designer, everybody else is getting paid, the actor should get paid as well," Gabler said. 

“I do the same work for the Mark Taper Forum as I do for a 99-seat show," says actor Ann Colby-Stocking, an Equity member who supports the union's proposal. "The process is no different.  It’s a craft."  

Colby-Stocking takes issue with an argument opponents of the proposal have made that the union is interfering with their right to "volunteer" in smaller theaters. "The fact is, there are actors who cannot afford to participate in the 99-seat plan," Colby-Stocking told KPCC. "It's for people who don't need to paid." 

The proposal has caused a rift within the union, and created an ironic scene: actors marching through North Hollywood to the union's west coast headquarters to protest the union's push to get them more pay.  

'A scalpel...not a sledgehammer'

"I believe that there is an inequality inside L.A. theater and I think it should be fixed," says actor Ramon De Ocampo. "But I don’t think it should be fixed with a sledgehammer. We need to scalpel it away to get that payment." 

Like Chuma Gault, De Ocampo is earning a living as an actor.  He guest-starred last week on "NCIS New Orleans" and has narrated more than a hundred titles in audiobooks. He is also playing Prince Hal in the Antaeus Theater Company’s production of  Shakespeare's "Henry IV, Part I". Antaeus is an ensemble that produces plays in a 99-seat theater in North Hollywood.

Twelve actors perform "Henry IV, Part I"on different nights, but the roles are double cast, to accommodate actors who get called away to work in film or television. That's 24 actors. The last show the non-profit company produced involved 50 actors.  De Ocampo, who's been with the company for the past eight years, said he can't imagine the financial hit that would come with having to pay them all minimum wage for every hour of rehearsal and performance.

"It would crush us," he said. "We would never be able to do a show like that. Here there is this opportunity for us to work in these big companies, in these big casts and to tell these  large stories by essentially subsidizing our craft …ourselves. And we do that voluntarily because we believe in this part of our work." 

Ahead of its National Council's meeting, Equity released a statement that read, "Equity’s leadership has received important information from its members over the last several months.  The National Council, Equity’s governing body, will take all of the information into account before making any decision."