by Steven Leigh Morris
The National Stage Union is Sued (Yet Again) by Its Own Members
If the showdown between the New York-based actors/stage managers union, Actors’ Equity Association (AEA, or Equity), and the L.A. theater community were a soap opera, I’d have changed the channel long ago. This show has been on the air since 1986, and these guys really need to come up with some fresh storylines.
For the uninitiated, last year, AEA announced that it was terminating the 99-Seat Theater Plan, an agreement between the union and its L.A. County membership that’s been in place since 1989, though it’s been regularly modified since then.
The Plan governed the way most of L.A. theater was performed for almost 30 years. It permitted its 7,000-8,000 union actors to volunteer in L.A. County theaters of no more than 99-seats, should they wish to do so, for reasons of artistic fulfillment and/or professional advancement. Examples of the latter include multiple examples of shows produced under the 99-Seat Plan transferring — often with the actors who created those roles — to larger theaters under contract within Los Angeles as well as to other cities, including Chicago and New York.
The Plan also presented a boon of opportunity to playwrights, whose new works wouldn’t stand a chance in theaters with higher production budgets. But that’s another story.
As volunteers under the Plan, union actors had the right to leave at any time. The actors were guaranteed minimal expense stipends per performance from the producers along with union health and safety protections. The 99-seat cap was designed to ensure that producers wouldn’t exploit the actors financially. A ticket price cap was also built in, for exactly the same reason, along with a cap on the number of performances for all such productions. This was all agreed to in the 1989 out-of-court settlement of a contentious lawsuit filed by a number of actors against their union in September, 1988. Those plaintiffs, led by actress Salome Jens and including some of the same plaintiffs who returned for another round in 2015 (Tom Ormeny, Maria Gobetti, Joseph Stern and Gary Grossman), believed that in a field (the theater) with such pervasive unemployment, the union had been unreasonably restricting their right to work under conditions and for reasons that they (the actors) found useful.
Among the litany of complaints in the current lawsuit is that Equity refused to meet for an entire year with the L.A.-based “Review Committee” that was created in the 1989 out-of-court settlement. Among the purposes of the Review Committee was to advise the union on its proposed changes to the Plan. On learning in November, 2013, that the union intended to end the Plan, the Review Committee requested a meeting with Equity to discuss these rumblings. Equity’s 99-Seat Plan Administrator, Michael Van Duzer, granted that meeting eight months later, in July, 2014. But shortly before that meeting, Equity’s Executive Director Mary McColl fired Van Duzer, cancelled the meeting, and never scheduled another.
Now let’s flash back for a moment, to the mid 1980s. You’ll find the complaints on both sides to be almost identical to today’s. This failure of the union to meet with representatives of L.A.’s small theaters, for example, was a pattern that had unfolded about 30 years prior. Continue reading