It’s not surprising that actors in small theaters (99 seats or fewer) in Los Angeles earn far less than the movie and TV mega-salaries we’re so familiar with. But it is shocking that these hardworking actors are paid as little as $7 to $15 a performance—and nothing for rehearsal—for shows that can run as long as 80 performances with as many as 36 hours a week of rehearsal.
Actors’ Equity (AEA) has a new proposal that would pay actors the California minimum wage of $9 an hour for their time on stage and in rehearsal. But producers and theater owners—many of them highly successful actors and entertainment industry professionals—have mounted a massive scare campaign against the fair-wage proposal, claiming it will destroy small theater in Los Angeles.
One of those leading the charge against the fair pay plan is long-time star Tim Robbins who is the artistic director of the small Actors’ Gang Theater. He defiantly told the LA Weekly “We're not going to let any government or any labor union determine the way we create art.” Or, as the paper paraphrased it in its headline, "Screw the Union, We Can't Afford Minimum Wage."
Many of the theaters now making these dire predictions made the same arguments almost 30 years ago when the plan for 99-seat theaters was first implemented. But small theater is booming in Los Angeles today. Says actor Charlayne Woodard:
Actors’ Equity members are professionals, and it’s time we started being treated as such. We are not hobbyists. Producers in LA have been creating theater on the backs of actors working for $11 per show for decades. It’s time for a change. Vote ‘yes’ for change.
Ann Colby Stocking told The Hollywood Reporter:
It’s always bothered me. Everyone else gets paid. And actors get nothing except maybe a review and a pat on the back. It makes me feel that I’m not valued. And I’m not.
In fact, most other people involved in these productions do get paid. Along with revenue from ticket sales, many theaters receive grant money and donations and have sizable budgets that enable them to pay other personnel—but not the actors.
Far from destroying the Los Angeles 99-seat theater scene, empowered and valued actors will strengthen the system.