Actors’ Equity Association has repeatedly expressed concern that the Los Angeles 99-Seat Plan has impeded paid opportunities for actors in the region. Equity President Kate Shindle made remarks along these lines in March of this year:
…the idea that a mid-sized theater could open at this point, or even a smallish theater, could open at this point in Los Angeles when they had to compete with the 99-seat business model (which is much more cost-effective) is kind of preposterous.
On June 30 Equity Executive Director Mary McColl sent out an email to Equity membership that implied this message again. This email stated, in part:
Incredibly, in the most recent period where data is available (2014-2015), LA County (with 7,000 members) had 6,500 paid work weeks for Equity members; whereas, Baltimore/DC (with 854 members) had more than 8,700; Boston (with 845 members) had over 7,900; Chicago (with 1,589 members) had more than 15,800 paid work weeks; and Minneapolis/St. Paul (with 437 members) had more than 6,700.
The fact that these far smaller markets eclipsed LA in paid work weeks confirms the fact that a theatrical community can thrive and still pay the performers.
Numbers by themselves don’t tell us much about size or scale. Separately comparing work weeks and actors from city to city will not provide any real insight. Let us therefore put these numbers in context by taking their ratio. This figure, the yearly work weeks per actor, gives us a measure of how much support the average actor can expect from a given city.
The email from Mary McColl referenced five of the 10 cities with the largest Equity membership. The email’s numbers, including the claim that most cities except Los Angeles have negligible unpaid theater, yield this graph:
For three of the cities (Chicago, Washington DC/Baltimore, and Boston), an average actor can expect paid work for about 10 weeks per year. The Twin Cities are 50% better. By citing these numbers, Mary McColl argues that the theater culture in the typical major city should be able to support each of its actors at the region-independent rate of 10 work weeks per year.
Los Angeles is obviously the outlier in this graph. The sum total (paid and unpaid) amount of work weeks per Los Angeles actor is a paltry 2-½. With her data, Mary McColl certainly demonstrates that Los Angeles does not support its actor community to the same level as in smaller markets.
However, Mary McColl’s data also undermine Equity’s argument that 99-seat theater is somehow the cause of having little paid support. The graph shows that the average L.A. actor doesn’t have even 2 unpaid work weeks per year! If Equity’s argument were supported by its data, Los Angeles actors would have a total of 10 work weeks per year with 9 of those work weeks unpaid. Only under such a scenario can one argue the hypothetical that unpaid work in L.A. is somehow preventing paid work from expanding.
Instead, the reality is that Equity could be helping the average L.A. actor find an additional 7-½ paid work weeks (bringing the total to the expected 10) before 99-seat theater work even becomes a factor. Obviously, eliminating the 1-½ work weeks generated by 99-seat theater will not create 7-½ additional paid work weeks.
Equity’s data remind us that Los Angeles is a place of very few stage opportunities and that 99-seat theater is not a limiting factor in finding paid theater work. There are far more stage actors in Los Angeles than productions to support them – even when those productions don’t have to pay the actors an hourly wage. Rather than increase Los Angeles’s bar in the graph to 10 by helping create more paid work weeks for L.A. actors, Equity chooses, instead, to decrease Los Angeles’s bar by eliminating the 99-Seat Plan and making it even harder for actors to find any type of stage opportunity. That’s why most Los Angeles Equity members rejected, and continue to reject, Equity’s desire to eliminate the 99-Seat Plan.
Originally published July 7, 2016 in Footlights.