Theatrical Union Ignores Membership Vote to End Volunteering Exemption
If a vote goes against you, ignore it.
That is what a theatrical union did this week, when it announced it would ditch a longstanding plan that allowed actors to volunteer at small theaters.
Actors’ Equity Association, which represents 50,000 actors and stage managers, recently held a non-binding referendum on whether to abandon a minimum wage exemption for theaters with less than 100 seats. Members voted against ending the exemption, known as the 99 Seat Theater Plan, by about a two-to-one margin. Granted, the referendum was non-binding, but it does show a union’s leadership going blatantly against the wishes of an overwhelming majority of its membership.
Some actors working in small theaters had asked for greater pay, reports Southern California Public Radio (SCPR), but Actors’ Equity’s proposed solution is about as heavy-handed a way to address the issue as could be. “I believe that there is an inequality inside L.A. theater and I think it should be fixed,” actor Ramon De Ocampo told SCPR. “But I don’t think it should be fixed with a sledgehammer. We need to scalpel it away to get that payment.”
The sledgehammer metaphor is especially apt considering that many actors approach performing in small theaters as a job, but as a means to gain experience and sharpen their skills. As The New York Times reports:
[H]undreds of union actors working in this city’s distinctive and thriving small theater scene are barely paid for their work. And, in an unusual twist to America’s economic fairness debates, many of them say they are O.K. with that.
“None of us is here to make money,” Lynn Odell said recently as she rehearsed a science-fiction comedy at Theater of Note, a 42-seat theater that operates in a former auto-glass repair shop in Hollywood. “We are here for the experience.”
The willingness of Los Angeles actors to perform for a pittance, hoping to hone their craft and, maybe, to catch the eye of an agent or manager, is now at the heart of an extraordinary rift in the union representing theater actors, and has opened a new front in the nation’s battle over the minimum wage.
Ironically, a prominent defender the 99 Seat Theater Plan is Tim Robbins, an avowedly liberal Hollywood actor who happens to run a small theater.