A Brief History of
99-Seat Theatre in Los Angeles

Actors' Equity Association, which dragged my ass out of retirement on an undisclosed sun-baked tropical beach in order to chew them out for their facacta scheme to gut Los Angeles' 99-seat theatre plan. For those of you who don't have their finger on the pulse of the entertainment industry like I do, Equity is the professional stage actors' union whose primary focus is on the New York theatre. Its second-largest collection of members reside in the Los Angeles area, a city with a population of 3,862,839 (my pug Winston put these numbers together for me when he was drunk so I can't vouch for their accuracy, although they're about as valid as the statistics Equity has crapped out to support their zany antics). Of those 3,862,839 people, 3,645,857 are actors who came to LA to become superstars in movies and TV. Show business being the cruel bitch that it is, precisely .0000000000001% of those actors have the careers that they fantasized about before coming here. A slightly larger percentage make their incomes making commercials, doing cameo roles in TV shows, and appearing as dead bodies in sequels to The Fast and Furious. The rest wait tables, serve as part-time accountants and write inane blogs about their enemies as they toil and sacrifice to try and make their acting dreams come true.

The Equity Council
Of the 3,645,857 actors in Los Angeles, 2,857,253 have their roots in the legitimate stage (Winston swears that he double-checked these figures and I always take him at his word) and feed the core of their souls by performing in front of a live audience. The problem is that a total of 24 people in L.A. attend live theatre as audience members. So in 1972, a group of Los Angeles actors asked the Equity Council if they could get a union waiver to act in front of an intimate audience, feeling it was better to act on a stage for no money as they pursued their paying TV and film work than it was to sit at home and feel their immortal souls slowly die away because there were only three Equity theatres in Tinsel Town and they all cast out of New York. To get the annoying Angelinos out of their faces, the Council grudgingly agreed to create the Equity Waiver which waived union jurisdiction over theatres that had an arbitrarily-assigned capacity of 99 audience members, although most had far fewer seats than that (I once did a performance of Twelfth Night for a single person, which was great for the actors because our audience was so intimidated by our superior numbers that she had no choice but to enjoy the show). Nobody made any money from the situation, but good work was done for the meager audiences who came to see it and lives were given meaning as a result of it. But some actors became bitter working for free and in 1988 Equity stepped in and abolished the Equity Waiver, replacing it with the 99-Seat Theatre Plan which mandated things like limited rehearsal periods and production runs, and required union actors to be paid a small stipend for their participation. It made producing intimate theatre even harder (being a dicey financial proposition to begin with, with most productions failing to make back at the box office the massive theatre rental that the unforgiving Los Angeles real estate market devours) but since most of the people who produced small theatre in the city were union actors themselves, they found a way to make it work (your humble author was literally the first person to produce a play under the plan and he lost over eight grand on that show, which in 2015 dollars is about a quarter of a million smackers)

But there is an axiom in the theatrical vocabulary which states that the one sure way to get an actor to complain is to give him a job. A small group of performers became resentful that they weren't making a living wage doing small theatre in Los Angeles and grumbled to Equity about it. The Council had always regretted granting the waiver to begin with because it meant more work for them without putting any money in the union's pocket, so they convinced themselves that this miniscule band of complainers represented a silent majority of actors who were being victimized by greedy producers who were making vast fortunes staging plays for small audiences and paying everyone connected with the shows huge sums, from the director and the playwright to the designers, house managers, and men's rooms attendants (conveniently overlooking that most of these theatres' men's room were located in the Chevron station across the street). Everyone except the actors, who were slaving away for the same small stipend which was mandated in 1988

It all came to a head this year, when Equity introduced a new 99-seat proposal which mandated that union actors get a 1000% pay increase for doing small theatre. They insisted that they were only asking for minimum wage for performance and rehearsals, and aren't actors worth minimum wage? Sure they are, but then again if I could find a bikini model willing to give me a full body massage using chunky peanut butter, she'd be worth at least $75,000 per half-hour. That doesn't mean that it's reasonably realistic for me to pay it, just as it's not realistic for these theatres to shell out money that was never there to pay actors to do work that was intended from its offset to be a labor of love. My advice to actors who are so anxious to make minimum wage is to get a job at Burger King. The hours are steadier and you're far less likely to have nightmares about coming to work without knowing your lines. Equity doesn't see it that way and has been bombarding its members with propaganda filled with fictional arithmetic and fanciful anecdotal tales of actor exploitation (at one point a union executive told of actors collapsing into hysterics and passing out from exhaustion while doing 99-seat shows, something I have never seen anything remotely like in 30 years of working in intimate theatre) in order to get its members to support its plan to finally kill intimate theatre in Los Angeles. That's ironic to me, since the plan was created in the first place to help some of its members try to keep their souls alive in a town that's legendary for chewing up artistic spirits and spitting them out like tobacco juice. But what's the loss of an immortal soul or two when there's money at stake? There's a reason they call it show business, right? Indeed there is. And it's usually called that by people who have no business taking part in it.