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We Got 99 Problems and Here’s Another One

Recently, the Actors Equity Association has proposed a change to the current 99 seat theatre contract which stipulates that 99 seat theaters are required to pay their actors minimum wage. Currently the plan states that actors can work for as little as seven dollars and the California state minimum wage is about to raise to ten dollars.

This issue is causing huge debate and uproar in not only the LA theatre scene, but theater artists around the country. The issue as I understand it is being pushed to one side arguing for that actors should be paid for their work regardless the cost and the other saying that this contract will hit small, creative theaters who do not have a budget to pay their actors subsequently killing off the small but strong hearted LA theatre scene. Obviously this issue is far more complex but these seem to be the two big factors at play.

As I young artist I feel confused about where I fall on this issue. Because Art! Integrity! Experimentation! But also… a paycheck? I could see both sides.

In Isaac Butler’s article “Who Benefits from the 99 Seat Plan?” he quotes Ron Van Lieu, the former head of Yale’s acting program, “I have read all the rationalizations put forward by the producers of these theaters (about why the new plan is unjust), and I can’t see that they show any real respect for actors.”

It is absurd to me that paying actors is such an unbelievable struggle in this country. Making a living off of purely acting in theatre still seems like a huge pipe dream. For a recent class project I uncovered the statistics that the arts funding for just the city of Berlin is almost double the entire National Endowment for the Arts, clocking in a budget of around $158 million for all of America.

It’s shocking to me how undervalued and more to the point, underfunded, the arts are in America. Especially how we treat our actors.

The way the AEA introduced this new plan most certainly will result in a radical shift in the LA theatre scene. I strongly support a platform for new work to get its feet and it looks like this plan will take opportunities away from that. But as Butler points out – there are theaters under the 99 seat plan with budgets that have them working at a level equivalent to successful off broadway houses. I think a more specific and slow transition phase is necessary. Because actors should be paid. We need to create a culture where artists are being supported for the work they do. Valued for the work they do. But a cut and dry approach is lumping a huge range theatre companies together because of their number of seats. There needs to be a closer examination of what types of companies exactly this new contract is focusing on and then take steps in a more focused direction.

AEA is making, I feel, an attempt in the right direction, just going about it the wrong way. However, perhaps some pruning will lead to more fruitful growth.

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