Actors' Equity Minimum Wage Proposal Could Threaten LA's Small Theaters

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Actors' Equity Theater members are set to vote on whether to require small theaters in Los Angeles to pay equity minimum wage. But some actors say this could force cash-strapped theaters to close.

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Stage actors in Los Angeles today voted against getting paid. Many work for free or for next-to-nothing just for the chance to perform. Now, Actors' Equity - the national union for stage actors - says small theaters should pay performers minimum wage. NPR's Mandalit del Barco tells us that's created drama.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: LA is known as a film and TV town, but actors want to act. So, you'll find them performing in hundreds of small theaters - intimate spaces with 99 seats or less. Here, you might see a one-woman show in a storefront with folding chairs or a well-reviewed musical like "The Behavior Of Broadus" at the 80-seat Sacred Fools Theater Company.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "THE BEHAVIOR OF BROADUS")

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Why did I give my love to you with my paper and pen?

(APPLAUSE)

DEL BARCO: Union actors at these small theaters can quit anytime for paying gigs. In exchange, they may rehearse for free and perform for car fare.

CHARLAYNE WOODARD: So each night they would get, like, seven, nine or $11 a night for their performances.

DEL BARCO: Actress and playwright Charlayne Woodard supports the Actors' Equity proposal requiring small theaters to pay union actors at least $9 an hour, California's minimum wage.

WOODARD: These are union professionals. They give everything.

DEL BARCO: Actors' Equity is now considering an end to the 30-year exemption for LA's small theaters. Mary McColl is the union's executive director.

MARY MCCOLL: There's a whole new generation of actors in Los Angeles who are wondering why the union allows for that plan to continue. And they came to us and said, we need to get paid if we're going to work, and we want our union to back us up on that.

DEL BARCO: Earlier this month, hundreds of actors took to the streets to protest their own union's plan and they've now voted against it 2-1. Their side has support from some big-name actors who say they got their start at small theaters - Helen Mirren, Tim Robbins, Jason Alexander and Ed Asner. Actor Leo Marks says the 99-seat theaters in LA are where he's able to experiment and hone his craft.

LEO MARKS: An actor getting a chance to play King Lear when otherwise all they're doing is soap operas and commercials isn't exploiting anyone. It's creating a wonderful opportunity for an artist.

DEL BARCO: Actor Rebecca Metz was in the cast of "The Behavior Of Broadus," the dark musical comedy that's now going on to a bigger theater.

REBECCA METZ: I like weird, dark, risky stuff. And this 99-seat theater scene is where that stuff happens. You know, I played a rat with its brain peeled open singing, farm animals - mother.

MARKS: (Laughter). It was a lot funnier than it sounds.

METZ: It did - yes, it's hard to explain.

DEL BARCO: The union's proposal is perplexing to those who run small theaters on shoestring budgets. The Sacred Fools theater for example, is a membership company run by volunteers. Managing Director Padraic Duffy says the union plan would cost them 20 or $25,000 more for each show. He says most small theaters couldn't survive.

PADRAIC DUFFY: There might be a few - one or two or three theaters that could struggle to make that happen right now. But the vast, vast majority would just have to shut their doors to union actors.

DEL BARCO: Today's advisory vote against the minimum wage proposal will be taken up next week by the National Council of Actors' Equity. Mandalit del Barco, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.