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THEATER NOTES : Changes Afoot With 99-Seat Plan

November 05, 1995|Don Shirley | Don Shirley is a Times staff writer

Most of L.A.'s professional theaters have fewer than 100 seats. So any attempt to change Actors' Equity policies governing L.A.'s sub-100-seat theaters is likely to stir up a storm.

In 1986-88, the L.A. theater community was torn apart by the "Waiver Wars." When the dispute ended, the old Equity Waiver system had been replaced by the current 99-Seat Theater Plan.

Now, changes are afoot in the 99-Seat Plan, and storm clouds are gathering.

Under the 1988 plan, producers were finally required to pay Equity actors in sub-100-seat theaters, but the fees remained on the level of an expense reimbursement--until a show's 80th performance, after which required payments began to rise. Also, if producers presented more than three shows a week after passing 80 performances, they were required to make payments to the union health plan.

Two significant changes in these rules were proposed at an Oct. 13 Equity meeting, attended by only 55 of more than 8,000 Equity members in greater L.A. One is pending, the other passed.

The more controversial of the changes would drastically reduce the number of performances allowed before wages rise and health payments begin--from 80 to 24. Though tentatively endorsed by the membership meeting, this has been referred to a committee of Equity's Western Regional Board for further study.

The other major change, approved by the membership and the Western Regional Board, applies only to those shows that run beyond the limit that's now set at 80 performances. For the extensions of these shows, producers will be required to pay weekly salaries (for each Equity member) starting at $105 and weekly health plan payments starting at $74--regardless of how many performances occur each week.

Since 1988, when the 99-Seat Plan began, only 17 shows affected by it have extended their runs beyond 80 performances--so the increase in wages and health plan payments hasn't affected many producers--but it would if the plan were to begin after the 24th performance instead of the 80th.

When The Times informed Matrix Theatre producer Joe Stern of the changes, he didn't object to the wage increase until he heard that it might kick in after the 24th performance. "That would be the end of me," he said. "I couldn't afford it."

Barbara Beckley of the Colony Studio Theatre said the hike in wages and health plan payments, by itself, is "shortsighted and stupid, but not deeply threatening to the L.A. theater community," because most productions don't run long enough to be affected--and, she predicted, hardly any would in the future. However, if the increase were to take effect after only 24 performances, Beckley said her company "would simply not be able to continue. That would be so Draconian."

V ernon Willett, an Equity member who is among the leaders of the campaign to reduce the 80-performance limit, said he wants to make the number of allowed performances of small, non-contract productions "the same throughout the country." The maximum number in any other city is 24--though opponents of the proposal contend the abundance of anxious-to-perform actors here calls for different rules.

Audiences are frustrated by the quality of many sub-100-seat productions, Willett said, and a rules change might allow actors to "put our energies and our talents into maybe 20" smaller theaters instead of the roughly 120 that now exist. Many actors work in sub-100-seat theaters to be seen by TV or movie casting people, he said, but "the rattraps" don't attract industry talent scouts--or anyone else.

Beckley replied that only "crappy showcases" would survive the proposed changes. "If you can do only 24 performances, you're not going to invest significant resources in a production. This would reduce us to that bare-stage showcase system that existed prior to Equity Waiver. Institutional theaters would close. Armies of actors would change their names so they could work [in violation of Equity rules] in community theater because they want to be seen in well-produced shows."

As a result of a lawsuit settled during the "Waiver Wars," a committee of producers must be consulted about changes in the ceiling on performances. Beckley said no consultation had yet occurred.

However, Doug Carfrae, chairman of Equity's Western Regional Board, said "there is room for compromise." While five or six months "is too long for actors to subsidize a production," the "subsidized" performance limit might be reduced to 60, 45 or 40 performances instead of 24, Carfrae said.*

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