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Actors Equity eliminates 99-seat theater plan against membership vote

The national Actors Equity Association has modified its rules for theater actors in Los Angeles County.

In many cases, actors no longer will be allowed to volunteer their time rehearsing and performing a play in a theater with 99 or fewer seats. They will have to be paid the county's $9 minimum wage.

In a statement released through industry website Bitter Lemons, executive director Mary McColl writes that the union has adopted new, internal membership rules modifying the original proposal. In addition to eliminating the 99-seat plan, the changes include allowing for the use of the small professional theater agreement in L.A. and providing for a 13-month implementation period so that theaters have time to adjust.

"This broad set of options is a nuanced, tiered approach in response to the serious concerns expressed by members about the particular needs of the L.A. theater community," McColl writes.

On Friday, Equity actors voted two to one against a pay increase for actors working at 99-seat theaters

The union had always called the election an advisory referendum.

"I’m hurt and disturbed that the union didn’t listen to its members," said Gary Grossman, an Equity member and the producing artistic director of the Skylight Theater in Los Feliz.

He’s worried that paying actors who have willingly volunteered in the past will bust the budgets of his theater and others like it.

"You can't just say, 'Hey. Pay minimum wage. That's all.'  That’s not all. How?”

Grossman was one of fifteen Equity members who sued the union in 1987 over its last attempts to change the rules governing L.A.'s 99-seat theaters. A settlement two years later essentially created the current 99-seat plan as well as a "Review Committee" that monitors and tweaks it when necessary.  

Grossman serves on the committee, which met at the Rogue Machine Theater to discuss the union’s decision and how to respond to it. Imposing a minimum wage for actors is clearly more than a tweak.

Equity's plan does create exceptions to the minimum wage rule for theaters with 50 seats or fewer and budgets below $20,000 and for already-established membership companies.  It also allows groups of Equity actors to collaborate and produce shows on their own without paying minimum wage.

This story has been updated.