Actorsí Equity Imposes New Rules for LA Small Theatres

Actors’ Equity Association Challenges and Changes the Rules for LA theatre actors, telling producers "It's Time To Pay Up ..."


First it was SAG-AFTRA that changed the landscape for film and television actors when the two separate, often rival organizations, join together in March 2012 in a merger voted in by an overwhelming majority of the members of both unions.

Now, it’s Actors’ Equity Association (AEA), the New York-based union that represents American stage actors, that has stepped into the forefront of the next landscape change in the business of acting, with an controversial decision in spring 2014 that alters what it means to be a stage actor (and what it means to be a small theatre producer) in Los Angeles.

Opposition to the proposed change began early on in the process, spearheaded by a group of local Los Angeles theatre professionals, who came together to launch a campaign and its companion website,

“Work in small theatre, build your resume, hone your craft and do it for little to no money.” That was the rule of thumb for thousands of LA-based (stage) actors who sought out great opportunities to work in one of the hundreds of intimate theatres and performance venues that together comprise the culture that is live performance in Los Angeles.

Working for free, particularly in the business of acting, is, in most cases, the only way a new-to-the-business actor (and, often, even long-established “working” actors) can have their turns at bat, gaining experience and exposure in the process. To say that this scenario is wrong, broken or outdated is to undervalue the opportunity. It’s the same as knowing the cost of everything and the value of nothing.

This is a story about the death of the 99-seat plan, which previously had been the law of the land in LA for small theatres – and it was Equity’s plan. It allowed Equity union actors to work in an Equity (99-seat plan)-sanctioned production for essentially pennies, provided that the theatre or performance venue had an audience seating capacity of no more than 99 seats.

There are a lot of parallels here to the SAG-AFTRA Ultra Low Budget contract that allows those union members to work in a union-sanctioned film for just $100 a day. Given the production schedules of these low budget projects, days can be very long – and wages often dip to below the legal minimum hourly wage, if calculated out. And that was on the pre-existing pay requirements.

With those minimums beginning to rise in both the public and private sectors (and with, so far, no word from SAG-AFTRA on whether its union minimums will rise to the new government-endorsed minimums, thus changing the concept of “$100 a-day-pay” for these productions), AEA moved forward with a plan to -- and have now imposed -- that a $9 hourly minimum wage be paid to actors when they secure work in small LA-area theatres, commencing in June 2016.

Incidentally, SAG-AFTRA loves the concept of the $100-a-day-pay for these Ultra Low Budget films. They would rather have their members work in union-sanction projects (apparently even at below market wages), then to risk the union member seeking out forbidden non-union opportunities to earn new resume credits. SAG-AFTRA also sees the Ultra Low Budget contract as a way in for new, often young, filmmakers. The union wants to encourage budding producers, directors and others to, essentially, get in the habit of creating union projects. Thus the Low Budget agreement makes it a cheap and easy process for them to do so – and, as a result, have access to the tremendous roster of union talent for their projects.

The death of the former 99-seat plan has the entire LA theatre community abuzz about what this bodes for the future of both local LA theatres and LA-based actors who have traditionally and typically seen an opportunity to work in the 99-seat-or-less arena as an opportunity to 1) take on a role that might be counter to their “brand,” 2) to have an opportunity to refresh their resumes with a new work credit, 3) to have an opportunity to be seen and, perhaps most importantly, 4) for the opportunity, simply, to work at their craft.

My process and my perspective on guiding, developing and maintaining a client’s career has never be influenced by what a client would get paid for doing any one job. Rather it’s always been rooted in the answer to the question “Is this the right job for this client at this time in his or her career?”

My series regular clients have always returned to the 99-seat arena whenever time and opportunity allowed; my young and newer-to-the-business clients have always embraced any opportunity to (continue to) do live, local and small theatre, replicating in many ways some of their best experiences from college.

Actors need to work – and there isn’t, I venture to guess, a single agent or manager out there who doesn’t believe that a great opportunity for a client is worth far more than what they get paid for the job, if they’re paid for it at all.

I also venture to guess that there aren’t any (or many) agents or managers who would take their 10 or 15 percent commission from an actor’s $9 an hour stage work pay check (or from their work in a $100 a day Ultra Low Budget film, for that matter). I know I wouldn’t. Again, the “added value” of the right opportunity is worth, potentially, far more than that to all of us.

When you impose a minimum must-pay structure on a local, nearly-no-budget small theatre, you impose a process of strangulation that, if it doesn’t put them out of business entirely, it will surely curtail the amount of work they can potentially produce.

The result will be less work for actors and less opportunity for some of the greatest theatre audiences anywhere to see some of the greatest performances presented in wonderfully intimate spaces.

I want my clients to continue to work anywhere and everywhere a great opportunity presents itself. Would I rather they make their livings completely and fully in their chosen profession and get to give up those second and often third jobs they have come to need for the sake of their fiscal fitness? Of course.

The new law of the land requiring these small theatres to begin to pay actors at this new rate, will also, most assuredly, cut into the number of opportunities that will exist for everyone: actors, producers, directors, writers and audiences alike.

This isn’t an issue of the actors wanting more money for their work in these venues. A large majority of LA-based actors who are AEA members voted down this proposal. But AEA moved forward with it anyway.

This is the greatest shift in the business of acting landscape since the spring 2012 merger of SAG and AFTRA. While much good has come from that marriage, it remains unclear what the “up” side of this new, small theatre business model will be.

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For additional information and perspective, visit and or read sampling of media coverage of this story by visiting:

American Theatre:


Deadline Hollywood:

The Hollywood Reporter:

Los Angeles Times:

The New York Times:

Southern California Public Radio/89.3 KPCC: