Letter: 99-Seat Plan to Equity Contract – The Data

[The database discussed in this letter has since been updated.  Details may be found here.]

I just spent about a year of researching 99-Seat productions that moved to contracts. And here’s what I found (with help from the Los Angeles Theater Community):

  • At least 127 productions that began in 99-Seat theaters graduated to a level where the actors received Equity contracts.
  • 917 Equity contracts were generated from these shows.

And since the year 2000, exactly 100 of these shows have moved. That’s an average of more than 6 shows moving to contract per year!  As our reputation has grown, our community seems to have picked up some steam.

In a recent study, I found the average cast size in a LORT house stood at around 4 parts per show. But under the 99-Seat Plan, there is far more artistic flexibility in incubating new works.   When our shows move on, there are on average 7 roles for actors – nearly twice the average LORT cast size.

data pro99 footlightsAnother assumption commonly heard is that the majority of actors that originated those roles did not move on with the show. This assertion felt wrong to me, as it hasn’t been my experience. So after lots more research over the last couple of weeks, I uncovered a beautiful fact. Of the shows I was able to track down (90% of the list), a total of 605 originating actors moved on with the show they helped create. This represents 2/3 of the total contracts given, a clear majority. In LA, we sometimes get the feeling that our friends in New York somehow think our work isn’t worthy. However:

  • 53 of our shows went straight from the 99 seat community to a contract in New York
  • 7 of these became Broadway shows.

It is true. The 99-Seat Plan creates jobs. More than that, it creates careers.

Instead of spending money on doing much needed research to build a workable plan, my union is now spending money to defend itself from an outraged community that feels that it has been disregarded and misunderstood. I realized that our union needed to understand the cold hard facts about the theater scene here if we were going to come to the much wanted workable agreement. And if they’re not going to do the research, I’ll do it for them with the help of my friends – because I owe it to my community.

sacred fools footlightsI have a career because of a theater called Sacred Fools based out of Hollywood. When I was in my 20s, I joined the union after being lucky enough to get a TYA contract with Kingsmen Shakespeare Festival when I was 24. After that, I had a card, but not much of a resume – so I was happy to find the 99-Seat community in Los Angeles where I could work with fellow professionals while doing shows like Cloud 9  and A Clockwork Orange  where I happily received a little attention, an agent and gained more life skills. And after a certain point, I found my theatrical home – Sacred Fools Theater Company. I proposed what I thought was a risky show based on Louis Prima and Keely Smith. And they took a chance on me. They invested in me because I invested in them. I volunteered to throw fundraisers for other actors in the company and now they invested in me by producing my show. Suddenly, a show from an unknown actor/writer became a phenomenon. It extended and extended and made the theater lots of money so our motley crew could finally buy an air conditioner. Many LA “luminaries” heard about the show including Taylor Hackford who took over as director and brought us to the Geffen – where Hershey Felder saw it and took us to Chicago, back to the Geffen, to Laguna Playhouse and beyond.

While all this was happening a year ago, my union, that I had at one time been so excited to join, suddenly decided to threaten my community by dismantling the 99-Seat Plan completely. So I felt compelled to combat their proposal with facts, as I’m a pragmatist and I feel like I can change people’s minds with statistics. With the help of Monica Greene, I began this spreadsheet to find shows like mine that had gone from 99 seat theater to a venue that created work/contracts for Equity actors. And I was amazed by the results.

louis keely vanessa stewart sacred fools geffen footlights posterSo many journeys are similar to mine. I learned about John Pollono who, like me, wrote himself a part in the amazing Small Engine Repair and got to go to New York because of it.  And under the 99-Seat Plan, huge casts are possible! Plays like Odyssey Theatre’s The Chicago Conspiracy Trial  (cast of 36), Actors’ Gang Embedded  (cast of 13), Sacred Fools’ Absolutely Filthy  (cast of 15), or Pacific Resident Theater’s My Antonia  (cast of 17) may not have been possible any other way. Many people actually get their Equity card because of this path! In my shows alone, I know of 6 people that joined the union after we moved. And in Deaf West’s Spring Awakening, actors got their first union job on Broadway!

I’ve learned that theater companies like The Actors’ Gang and The Fountain Theatre regularly bring their actors forward to paying jobs. That many people try out their one man shows and wind up Off-Broadway. Risky weird musicals like Reefer Madness, Lovelace, and Re-Animator  had a place to incubate and become successful – while Broadway is currently planning 15 shows based on movies!

Some people in New York who don’t understand our fragile artistic ecosystem like to say that producers created plays “off the backs of actors” who worked for a stipend as low as nine dollars a show. What the NYC faction fails to realize is that the “producers” are people like me.  They are fellow Equity members and members of other theatrical unions.  They are people that spend their own money so that their work, and the work of others, can be seen.

I paid for the arrangements of Louis & Keely  from money that I received from my Godmother after she passed. Nobody here is “working off the backs of actors.” If anything our community does quite the opposite.

We lift actors up.  We create opportunities.  We add to the art form.  And, yes, we create contracts.

Vanessa Stewart
Los Angeles, CA

About Kevin Delin

Kevin Delin is a Los Angeles-based writer and scientist. He has 4 degrees from MIT, including a PhD in physics, and co-authored Foundations of Applied Superconductivity, a popular internationally-used textbook on superconductivity. While at MIT, he also took writing courses from author Frank Conroy, poet Stephen Tapscott, and playwright A.R. Gurney, the latter becoming a life-long mentor. After a post-graduate stretch in Silicon Valley, he worked at NASA where he invented and patented the Sensor Web, a unique wireless sensor system suitable for Mars (and Earth). Kevin is also a member of the Antaeus Theatre Company Playwrights Lab. His numerous pieces on art and society have bylines in American Theatre, LA Weekly, Script Magazine, Footlights, and Stage Raw. His adventures include deploying his technology with firefighters in first response operations, inventing the future with venture capitalists in Silicon Valley, and solving national security issues with generals inside the Pentagon. He’s the recipient of the prestigious NASA Exceptional Achievement Medal and, drawing from his extensive tech background, professionally advises storytellers who want to ground their work in science. He tweets at @kdelin and his stage plays can be found on the New Play Exchange. His other writings are at kevindelin.com.

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  1. The union’s actions make no sense if you assume it exists for the betterment of its members. After following this battle for many months, I’ve concluded that the union must have a hidden agenda. I wish I knew what it is.

  2. Wendy Worthington

    Vanessa Stewart has been a tireless advocate of the 99-seat system. We owe her so much, including the knowledge of the power and importance of this vibrant community. She documents why we are fighting to keep it in place. Bravo, Vanessa!

  3. Maybe you should use some more data on top of your data:
    “The union’s most recent data, for the years 2014-2015, shows that LA County, with 7,000 members, had 6,500 paid work weeks for Equity members. By contrast, Baltimore/DC, with 854 members, had more than 8,700 paid work weeks for its members; Boston, with 845 members, had more than 7,900 paid work weeks; Chicago, with 1,589 members, 15,800 paid work weeks; and Minneapolis/St. Paul, with only 437 members, had more than 6,700 work weeks – 200 more work weeks than Los Angeles, which has 16 times more members.”

    I’ve NEVER having worked in the L.A. before, heard of careers being made from 99 seat waiver on any significant scale. Where do you get this data from exactly?

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