Equity @ Boston Court
Since December last, when Actors’ Equity Association began quiet overtures regarding its sweeping new plan for the small theaters of Los Angeles to pay their actors minimum wage, the Theatre @ Boston Court has been the elephant in the room. Equity shored up its position in the following months with statements to the effect that LA was a flashpoint for predatory producers who ran roughshod over the rights of actors. Local Equity membership responded that such exploitation largely did not exist in the 99 seat world, dominated as it is by small membership companies on shoestring budgets. Most pro-99 advocates admitted that there does exist, in any market, a small percentage who will abuse their advantage, but pointed to poverty-line non-profit outfits like Rogue Machine, Sacred Fools, Theatre of NOTE, EST/LA, Circle X et al whose ability to produce original works would be crippled by the doubling or tripling of their production budgets under the new agreement. Rarely, and quietly, did the name of Boston Court come up.
This is due in no small part to the fact that shows at Boston Court look very much like miniature versions of shows at the Mark Taper Forum, which look like Broadway shows. Like the Rogues and the Fools, Boston Court pays a per-show stipend to its actors, but it looks so much like a rich theater — state of the art facilities, impressive front-of-house roster, and those amazing designs for sets, costumes, sound, projections, lights — that of all the Southland’s small houses, this place certainly appeared able to pay its actors commensurately with its designers, carpenters, directors…
This appearance of wealth is so strong that when Boston Court went to Equity a month ago to negotiate its transition to the new agreement, AEA’s Western Regional Director Gail Gabler told Boston Court’s Executive Director Michael Seel that she personally knew Boston Court could afford to operate under the new guidelines. The reasons she gave were two, one of which was that Equity members had told her so. She offered no specifics on what had led her to credit these reports, but her second reason was that she had seen Boston Court’s bottom line, presumably from its public non-profit declarations. That Boston Court is an entity presenting music, visual arts, and a host of activities wholly unrelated to its theatrical offerings, all of which are produced from that same bottom line, is a fact that did not alter Gabler’s position.
Michael Seel’s position is that Boston Court’s 2016 season is composed of three plays, instead of the four it has produced every year since 2004, specifically because of the added burdens placed upon it by Equity’s new plans — and that three plays are only possible because two of them are going up before Equity’s new plan takes effect June 1st. One of those productions is in fact scheduled such that its final performances run into the first week of June, but when Seel asked Gabler whether he should administer that week under the old plan or the new one, he was told, “We don’t know yet.” This answer was given on September 11th, 2015, almost six months after Equity had established its new guidelines, and less than a year before it planned to implement them.
This was not the first unsettling statement Equity had made to Boston Court in recent years. Seel says that for most of its history since 2003, his theater has made repeated overtures to Equity in furtherance of transitioning out of the 99 seat plan, but that negotiations were not forthcoming until July of 2014. In that month, the former Western Regional Director, Ralph Remington, told Seel that the only move available to Boston Court above the 99 seat plan was to embrace the Hollywood Area Theatre (HAT) contract.
Seel says, “I explained that we were a 99 seat theatre and that box office income would never allow us to get the kind of earned income to supplement our unearned income to meet our budget. Remington told me that moving to the HAT contract would take off the ticket-price cap of $34.99. When I explained that doing new works doesn’t mean higher box office income, he said the solution was easy. ‘Just cast celebrities,’ he said.”
In December of 2014, Equity Business Representative Alison Harma told Seel that Equity was inflexible on paying actors minimum wage for both rehearsals and performances. This meeting took place prior to Equity’s “promulgated” plan, announced the following February and ratified in substantially the same form in April. When Boston Court offered a long-term vision of three years to transition to the minimum wage goal, Harma answered that this was unreasonable and unacceptable.
On September 11, 2015, Seel and other representatives from Boston Court met with Gail Gabler and other Equity staffers at the Equity offices in North Hollywood. After Gabler’s announcement that she knew Boston Court could afford to operate under the new plan, she offered the services of Equity’s business representative because, Seel says, “they were sure they could help us make the required financial increase work and help us balance our budget by using the 99 Seat Agreement.”
At that meeting, Boston Court asked whether the new 99 Seat Agreement meant they would be paying actors as employees. “They told us yes,” says Seel, “that would be expected. When we shared that we always cast understudies and would continue to do so, they offered a possible financial solution: Pay the understudies as independent contractors to eliminate taxes, etc.” Seel reminded Equity that this advice ran contrary to labor law, as it is illegal to pay different parties to do the same work through different pay methods.
As that September meeting wore on, Boston Court realized that Gabler was flatly refusing to negotiate on all financial terms regarding the agreement beginning June 1st. When asked what could be negotiated, Gabler said, “You tell us.”
Seel says, “We were told that we should come to them with ideas to see if they would be able to negotiate on those suggested points.” But Seel says that Equity was unwilling to negotiate any of the points Boston Court brought up, financial or otherwise. Among the elements of the new plan Equity calls non-negotiable is the More Remunerative Employment clause. Under the MRE, actors receiving minimum wage can still choose to miss a scheduled performance in order to audition for other jobs, effectively making professionalism optional for Equity members while mandating that producers adhere strictly to policy.
When contacted for this article and asked to confirm, deny, or comment on the points Michael Seel enumerates, Gail Gabler referred all questions to Communications Director Maria Somma, who issued a statement presented here in full:
In April 2015, Actors’ Equity Association established new internal membership rules and contracts for use in LA County theaters of 99 seats or less. These newly established rules and contracts were not introduced in December 2014.
Recognizing that change can be difficult to achieve quickly, Actors’ Equity established the Transitional 99-Seat Code. This code is available through May 2016 for theaters such as Boston Court as they transition to one of the contracts now available.
Like every union, Actors’ Equity’s mission is to stand for fair pay for all of its members. It would be at cross-purpose for Actors’ Equity to negotiate a contract that allows a theater to pay less than minimum wage. Actors’ Equity has a long-standing practice of working with theaters as they transition to a contract for the first time or move to a larger contract. Actors’ Equity has already begun discussions about terms and conditions of the new 99- Seat Agreement with theaters in LA County and it is the union’s hope to continue similar discussions with Boston Court. In fact, Actors’ Equity and Boston Court signed an agreement in which Equity members were paid at least minimum wage for Boston Court’s recent production at the Getty Villa’s Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman Theater.
Actors’ Equity advocates on behalf of the greater good of the membership in everything from equitable salary standards and safety issues, to pension benefits and health benefits, to a decades-long battle against discrimination. Actors’ Equity Association’s mandate is to serve all members, including those who wish to make a living from live theater.
After receiving this general policy statement, Bitter Lemons contacted Somma to ask whether we should expect any of the specific points above to be addressed by Equity at any time. We have yet to receive a response.
Boston Court responds to Equity’s claim above, regarding a minimum-wage contract for a recent production staged at the Getty Villa, by reminding Equity that Boston Court was producer-of-record on that production, but that as with all Getty Villa presentations, the show was fully funded by the J. Paul Getty Trust. Therefore, Equity neither negotiated for minimum wage with, nor did the actors receive payment from, Boston Court.
Seel says that his theater’s operating costs have remained static over the 11 years since its first full season in 2004, not because prices haven’t risen but due to long term planning, a smart technical director (currently Jesse Soto; Pete Sauber from 2008 through 2014), and a frugal production manager (Cheryl Rizzo).
Boston Court’s theatrical production budget runs between $200,000 and $230,000 per year. The theater pays union minimum to all its designers, whether members of a collective bargaining organization or not; for a designer in United Scenic Artists Local 829, this amounts to a per-production total of $1500 plus health and pension. And those gorgeous, million-dollar stage pictures, like the one at the top of this article? Materials and labor for set construction consistently remain below $7,000 per production.
Since 2003, Boston Court has paid actors $25 per performance, seven dollars over the 99 seat plan’s mandated acting stipend. Since 2014, the theater has paid a $500 rehearsal stipend to cover the five-week rehearsal process, up from the $200 actors had received for rehearsals since Boston Court’s first production. This means that after five weeks of rehearsal and a theoretical five-week run of 25 performances, a Boston Court actor under the 99 seat plan scheduled to end May 31st will have earned $1125.
$112.50 a week is not what anybody moved to LA to make. But if you ask an actor who has worked at Boston Court, she’ll tell you what every actor fighting Equity on the 99 seat front will tell you: it’s not about the money. Corryn Cummins starred in February’s The Missing Pages of Lewis Carroll and says, “I loved working at Boston Court and I would work there again if they would let me. Not only was it exactly the type of work I wanted to do — a new play, risky subject — they ran an incredibly professional organization. While you’re there, you know you’re all there to do good work.”
“Approximately 30% of our budget, traditionally, is production cost,” says Seel. “70% pays people. After the meeting with Equity this October, we knew we’d have to do a 3-show season next year because of a 200% increase in our actor budget. The new salary requirements for actors increase the total cost of a four-production season by 45%.”
Given that only one of 2016’s productions falls under the new agreement beginning June 1, and since Boston Court adamantly refuses to compromise its production values, does that mean Boston Court will reduce to a two-show season in 2017?
Seel answers, “We hope that we can get back to four full productions by 2017. We have already been planning on ways to increase both earned and unearned income in the next year or so. Fundraising and grant applications are not overnight solutions, but hopefully we can be there in the next year or two.”
A lot rests on that hope, and it is Seel’s job to put on a brave face. But if Equity’s new normal is in fact doable, that raises a lot of questions about the resistance LA theaters are putting up, and whether they are right to do so. Even if this sudden transition is possible for Boston Court, it remains to be seen whether the same is true of several dozen less well-funded, less professionally-run, but no less artistically daring companies all over town.
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