In Los Angeles right now there is a heated debate going on surrounding something called the “99-seat plan.” Basically, it’s an agreement with the Actors’ Equity Association allowing theaters in LA with fewer than 100 seats to pay their actors a stipend smaller than the usual Equity scale. The incentive was intended to help kickstart an essentially non-existent theater scene in the film-&-TV town, and give the thousands of artists in the city a creative outlet, as well as a place to hone and showcase their talents as they build their careers. Actor Tim Robbins, in a recent op-ed in the LA Times, talked about how his own theater company, the Actors Gang, would not have gotten off the ground without the 99-seat plan.
Equity is currently considering doing away with the 99-seat plan, and instead requiring every theater to pay their actors minimum wage. Proponents of this idea argue that actors qualify as skilled workers and deserve to be compensated as such. I cannot disagree with that – as an actor, I’d love to be paid more for my work. The catch here is that if every theater in Chicago were required to pay their actors minimum wage, there would be no work to be had. Ninety-five percent of the companies currently operating here would have to close up shop. I’ve heard it argued that the issues being discussed in LA have little to do with Chicago. Their theater communities exist under very different rules. This is true. While all of the small theaters in LA are Equity signatories under the 99-seat plan (they need to be, since most of the actors in LA are union members), most theaters in Chicago are non-Equity. However, the reasons sited for making this change to Equity rules are not just because Equity wants it. Another op-ed piece, written by Rebecca Smith in response to Tim Robbins, points out that according to California’s labor laws, “nonprofits that charge for goods or services are operating a ‘commercial activity’ and must pay minimum wage to their employees.”
Not being familiar with the ins and outs of Illinois labor law, I don’t know whether or not this argument could be applied to Chicago theater in its current state. Pretty much all of the non-Equity Chicago theaters (and some of the Equity companies) operate as 501(c)(3) non-profit organizations. Non-Equity actors are usually considered volunteers. Most companies make an effort to provide some kind of stipend, but none can afford to pay minimum wage. Rebecca Smith suggests raising ticket prices as a way to cover the cost. This will fail. Attending the theater, even a small non-Equity theater, is already expensive compared to other entertainment options. Keeping ticket prices affordable is crucial to developing new audiences.
Here’s the tricky thing: I believe a minimum wage is a necessary thing for our economy. When I hear the argument that raising the minimum wage could close some small businesses, my thought is, “If your business plan does not include a living wage for your employees, then you need a new plan.” Why then do I, as an actor, think that shouldn’t apply to me?
A couple months ago a friend of mine, author David Blixt, wrote a blog post about what he called “the Myth of Artistic Competition.” Artists, and by extension the organizations that produce art, are not in competition with each other the way, say, restaurant chains or hardware stores compete with each other. Most businesses aim to be the One Place you go for the thing they do. I live in the Albany Park neighborhood on Chicago’s north side. There are six Persian restaurants within a one-block radius of my condo. My wife and I have tried all six, but we only regularly order from one. That place won the competition for our business.
That’s not really how it works for art. Take music, for example. You hear a song and like it very much. You find out who made the song and seek out other work by that artist. Then you start seeking out work by similar artists. The same with books. You read a book you like, you read more of that author’s work. If you still like it, you will then find other authors in the same genre, or who write about similar subject matter. Theater is no different. If someone comes to see a show at my theater this weekend, and enjoys the experience, they will be more inclined to see another show at another theater next weekend. The rising tide lifts all boats. If there is competition, it is in the sense that one artist or company’s good work inspires other artists and companies to up their game. No one wants to be the one to let the ball drop. But in order to sustain that momentum, artists and producing companies need to actually be able to produce art. Good art creates a demand for more good art.
We all want artists to be compensated for their work. Restricting our ability to create that work is not going to make that happen. Instead, help us create an environment where we can produce and promote art on our own terms. Help us make good art. Our audience will let us know how much that art is worth.