Wendy Worthington is an actor, producer, and founding member of Neo Ensemble Theatre. She joined Actors’ Equity Association only a few years ago. Her motivation was to throw in with fellow Los Angeles actors protesting their union’s termination of the 99-Seat Plan – the vehicle which has fostered the development of intimate theater throughout Los Angeles. Says Wendy: “I had come to Los Angeles to work as a film and television actor. I discovered there was theater here and I was able to work a lot.”
A well-recognized performer, adored by both fans and peers, Wendy is vocal about how the L.A. landscape will look without its present intimate theater model. Though currently starring as Madame Morrible in the National Tour of Wicked, she took some time out to speak with me about being an Equity actor and why the union dialog is a double-edged sword.
How is your tour going?
I’m surprised at how exhausting it’s been mentally doing eight shows per week every week. I’ve spent most of my time in Houston just figuring out housing and transportation. What’s funny is that in the beginning I thought: “This is going to be wonderful. I‘m going to see and do so much on tour.” Now reality has settled in. But the audiences have been amazing. Even after something like six tours they still love it! And I’m having fun, too. Of course, this is the Cadillac of tours. I don’t have to pay my own expenses and there are union protections.
Well, I have a problem with a tooth and I’m in a dilemma now that my insurance has run out. I’m not covered by SAG-AFTRA because, as I’ve been on tour, I missed the minimum pay-in to continue getting benefits this year. I’m also not covered by Actors’ Equity either because I haven’t been working long enough to get vested.
In one more week on tour, I will be able to say that I will have performed live in front of over a million people. And that’s wonderful. But the truth is, I won’t get residuals as I would if I were spending my time working in television or film. The best I can hope for is that I will get a contract in New York and be able to perform for a while longer.
What’s an Equity card going to be worth in L.A. if the present intimate theater model goes away?
Having an Equity card is an important path to professionalism for actors in the business which is needed in theater. However, if there is less theater, there certainly won’t be a lot of benefit because there will be less work to go after. Let’s face it: L.A. is a film and television town where there are approximately 160,000 SAG-AFTRA members. All those actors are free to do what they want when it comes to theater without having to be in a theater union. The theater market will end up being difficult for all actors – especially those who are just starting in the business.
Equity wants theater to come from New York. People often do musical theater regionally so they can have a shot at Broadway. I have a friend who actually moved from Los Angeles to San Francisco in order to build up his musical theater resume. Unless you are performing in one of the larger houses like the Ahmanson or the Geffen, you really don’t have much of a shot.
But you were cast in a major national tour…
Casting directors occasionally come out west for a project. For Wicked, they held a call for people in L.A. which my agents managed to get me into. There wasn’t an opening for [my character] Morrible at that time, but they saw actors for all the roles, knowing they would be looking in the future. They put me on a list and, a year later, saw me again. There were still no openings, but they kept me in mind. Then they asked me to put my audition on tape – which I did – and then they asked for another version, focusing just on the music. They cast me from that. It was a two-year process from the first audition.
Was being a producer and director difficult when you were working under Equity rules?
Yes but it was a good kind of difficult. I mean things were a pain in the ass sometimes but it made me think about how to do things better. Right now, however, Equity has not been clear about the issues and distinctions of actors producing their own work. And that’s a real problem.
What will audiences lose when the current 99-Seat Plan goes away?
Well, there will definitely be less theater. Shows will be more alike and there won’t be the extravaganza of new ideas. General audiences who mostly go to larger houses like the Ahmanson and the Geffen probably won’t miss it. But for the audiences who really love theater and all its variety, they will lose for sure.
Some of the best theater I’ve ever seen in my life has come out of 99-seat theater, produced at places like Boston Court and Sacred Fools Theatre Company. Extraordinary and unique works that were only possible because we’ve had the environment to do it.
It was recently pointed out to me that almost half of the Ovation Awards considerations and winners are Equity 99-Seat Plan productions. So the dissolution of the plan will most likely have a very big negative effect on the Ovation Awards as well.
So why do you think Equity wants to terminate the Plan?
Los Angeles has always been a thorn in Equity’s side. The settlement L.A. had with Equity was not devised by the union. It was devised by the courts. Equity never wanted it. So they are trying to sell us on this one point about [doing away with nominal stipends and] earning minimum wage and saying, “Don’t you want to make money?” But that’s not the only issue. There is so much more involved.
Actors are very savvy. They know what it takes to create their careers. Equity, however, wants to sell us on the idea they know better than we know for ourselves.
They seem unable to work with a different infrastructure. Equity seems to want to step in and organize the whole thing. Because it is foreign for them to have to deal with a structure than does not conform to their cookie-cutter “Mickey and Judy Show” uniformity.
I feel bad for actors who are starting in the business because this new situation is going to make things really difficult for them. Equity’s point of view is really antithetical to making art. I love the spectrum of 99-seat theater. I would hate to see the buffet go away for actors and audiences.
In June 2016, Footlights published Wendy’s passionate open letter to Equity’s National Council in response to Equity’s statements at that time.