LOS ANGELES (July 27, 2016) — Members of Los Angeles’ “Pro99” movement, including actors Frances Fisher and Alfred Molina, spoke out today about recent attacks leveled by Actors’ Equity Association, the union of professional stage actors and stage managers, against its own Los Angeles members who are part of the movement. After ending talks to forestall a lawsuit brought by Los Angeles actors and producers against AEA. the union recently sent emails to its national membership that accused Pro99 of “misinformation and propaganda,” “threats” and “blacklisting.”
“This is a stunning assault by Equity on its own membership,” said Fisher, star of Titanic and the upcoming Barbecue at the Geffen Playhouse. “It’s really too bad my union has chosen this scorched-earth approach. Publicly discrediting your own membership because they have a legitimate disagreement with you is just poor leadership, in my book.”
“The fact that AEA would send out an email like that is shocking and distressing,” said film, television and Broadway star Molina. “AEA has provided no concrete examples to back up the claims, and when questioned by its own membership, it has refused to clarify.”
Fisher and Molina are part of Pro99, a group seeking to protect and advance intimate theater in Los Angeles. The group formed in opposition to a new set of rules Actors’ Equity put forth to govern small theaters in L.A. Pro99 activists argue that the new rules will severely damage L.A.’s theater scene, stripping theater artists of vital opportunities and protections.
Pro99 currently has over 6,800 members, comprised of actors, stage managers, playwrights, designers, directors and producers as well as audience members, small business owners and affected community members who want to preserve L.A.’s intimate theater cultural landscape.
“Most of our concerns center on AEA’s new 99-Seat Agreement, which we strongly believe would destroy a vibrant and developmental theater scene, and force many theaters to close,” says Lisa Glass, an AEA actor and Pro99 member.
The dispute between Pro99 and Actors’ Equity began when AEA’s council proposed a series of resolutions in February of 2015 that would drastically alter the way its members have participated in Los Angeles theater productions in small venues over the past 48 years. The new AEA agreement eliminates the old 99-Seat Plan, which reimbursed actors for expenses. The new agreement calls for actors to receive a minimum wage, but L.A. members protest that higher wages are extremely unlikely to materialize and say they expect instead to lose opportunities to perform on L.A.’s intimate stages – stages that, they argue, will likely either shut down or “go non union,” meaning that they will no longer use union actors and stage managers in their productions.
In an advisory referendum that saw historically high participation, Los Angeles members voted against AEA’s proposals by a 2-to-1 margin. Despite that decisive defeat, National Council adopted versions of the proposals in April, and plans to implement them on December 14th of this year.
Pro99 points out that Los Angeles is the second largest membership city for AEA, with approximately 7,000 members, yet it is home to only a small number of full-size contract theaters. Consequently, it has one of the lowest numbers of contract jobs per capita for Equity members in the nation. Additionally, many local regional theaters tend to hire actors from New York rather than casting locally.
“There are very few jobs for AEA actors in Los Angeles,” explains AEA member/producer of Loft Ensemble and Pro99 member Kevin Meaok. “That’s why 99-seat venues are critical to us as artists. They provide an opportunity for us to work, and also to be seen and hired for contract work elsewhere.”
Molina offered this perspective: “If you’re an L.A. stage actor, and you don’t happen to be a celebrity, where are you supposed to actually get on stage and act, if not in 99-seat theaters? Equity says they’re looking out for their members, but after a year-and-a-half of fighting this destructive new plan, no one can answer that basic question.”
Pro99 members also point to workplace protections that are lost under AEA’s new internal codes, thereby damaging the union by incentivizing potential new L.A. members to remain non-union. They say this will create a large pool of experienced, non-union actors and stage managers for producers to tap if they wish to avoid the restrictions associated with using union members.
On July 14th, a group of Equity members and producers filed a lawsuit in Federal Court against Equity. Plaintiffs include notable actors such as French Stewart from “3rd Rock From the Sun”, Ed Harris, Amy Madigan and former SAG President Ed Asner.
Equity has asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit. In addition to the lawsuit, a claim has been filed against Equity with the National Labor Relations Board.
Los Angeles AEA members have developed several alternative proposals designed to more comprehensively prevent exploitation and create more contracts, while allowing small L.A. theater to continue.
“If Equity wants to help its L.A. members, how about listening to our ideas for a way forward? We’ve developed a plan, in counsel with L.A. producers, that prevents exploitation, leads to more contract work, and preserves the theatrical ecosystem L.A. actors and stage managers value,” said AEA actor and Pro99 member Larry Poindexter. Poindexter helped spearhead the creation of one of several counter-proposals brought forward by L.A. AEA members, each of which AEA has rejected outright.
Pro99 members want AEA to halt its new 99-Seat Agreement from going into effect in December, and are proposing Equity hold another referendum to allow Los Angeles AEA members to vote on a Pro99 plan for theaters with 99-seats or less. Pro99 members, in council with L.A. producers, will unveil this plan at a town hall meeting hosted by the LA Stage Alliance in August.
“Pro99 is not an anti-union group. We are pro-union. We are just asking our leaders to listen to us and to let Los Angeles AEA members vote and decide our own future,” said AEA actor and Pro99 member Margaret McCarley.
Pro99 believes that AEA’s actions will be detrimental to the AEA membership of Los Angeles, the membership at large, and to all 99-seat or less theaters in LA.
“Rather than attempting to bring the union together to resolve this, AEA ignores its membership? I couldn’t be any more disappointed. I really hope for the good of our union, a compromise can be reached,” said Mel England, an AEA actor and Pro99 member.