in Theatre

Alas for poor MacBeth, he found a shallow grave

The Los Angeles branch of Actors’ Equity is currently promoting several new plans to replace the current 99-seat theater code.

The road to unemployment is paved with good intentions.  Well intentioned though the plans may be, they break the business model of 99-seat companies in Los Angeles, and make it impossible to produce new works.

In place of the current code, they are proposing three new items:

The Los Angeles Self Produced Project Code.  This is for actors who “are part of a collaborating group and are not employed by any producing entity.”  If you’re any kind of company, profit or non-profit, you can’t use the SPPC.  In other words, if you use the SPPC, you are completely uninsured.  Make sure not to trip on anything backstage when working under the SPPC.  Expect that a lot of producers will tell actors “you’re a producer now!” and use the SPPC to get Equity actors to perform, for free, without the protections of any kind of employment agreement.

The Los Angeles Membership Company Rule.  This rule grandfathers in all the repertory companies that existed as of yesterday, February 6, 2015.  Since existing repertory companies are exempt from the new 99 seat rule, it creates a secondary market for existing money-losing membership companies in LA.  So now any producer can buy up a dead theater company that exists only on paper, and use it to bypass all the worst elements of the new 99 seat plan.  Because grandfathering.  This rule exists because the repertory companies lobbied for it; it doesn’t benefit anyone except the owners of these companies.  New membership companies, of whatever sort, will never qualify for the Membership Company rule, and new blood will not enter those existing companies.

And finally, we have the new 99 seat code.  Most of the new code is the same as the old code, with one major exception: all performers get paid minimum wage for all rehearsal as well as performance time.  Currently this is $9 per hour.  While this sounds superficially reasonable, in practical terms this increases the total cost of shoestring theater by between 25% and 50%.  Shows with small casts go from breaking even to losing money, and shows with large casts, like musicals or Shakespeare, suddenly become guaranteed financial sinkholes.

I created the following spreadsheet to try to understand the financial impact that the proposed plan would have on a new production of a new work in LA.  I have three theoretical shows of three different sizes.  In every case, with reasonable financial assumptions, every show I budget loses money under the proposed Equity plan.  Here’s the spreadsheet; feel free to download and experiment with it yourself.

In show A, by my math, a show with four Equity actors that rehearses for 40 hours and plays a total of twelve shows, needs $2,736 to pay actors.  If the entire rest of the show (that’s theater rental, staff, costumes, tech, insurance AND publicity) costs $10,000, and if the show earns $15 revenue per ticket and sells the house to 70% of capacity for each show, the show still loses money.

Actors Equity can set payment minimums, but they can’t make a show profitable. If the proposed Equity plan goes through, a great deal of experimental theater in Los Angeles will vanish.

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  1. This is great, but I want to add some thoughts. Who wants to only rehearse for 40 hours or 60 hours? I do this to work on my craft and do a play well and deeply. Also, once you go to salary, there are payroll taxes and other expenses. And finally, every small theater knows that it takes the first 12 shows to get the word of mouth out so you can begin to draw an audience.

  2. Kitty: yes, you’re absolutely correct. Feel free to adjust the numbers in the spreadsheet accordingly, and of course you will see that projects under the proposed changes will lose even more money.