Nov 2, 2023

L.A. Theater History: The Waiver Wars

The seats of the Elysian Theatre on Riverside Dr., which in my time in L.A. was the home of the Colony Studio Theatre (later Knightsbridge). It was also the theater closest to my home in Echo Park, and I sometimes walked to it.

I often tell people that at least one ventricle of my heart is still in L.A., where I lived from the late 1980s until 2005, and in particular in L.A. theater, which was my main beat there. I had occasion yesterday to meet and chat with Michaela Bulkley, a young theater producer and consultant who worked for a time at the now-defunct L.A. Stage Alliance and has a keen interest not only in promoting L.A. theater in the present and future, but in its history, interests I share.

Of course, not a lot of L.A. theater history is documented, at least not in easily available form. Indeed, when Bulkley told me she'd read some pieces I wrote for L.A. Stage Alliance's old magazine, L.A. Stage, in 2009, about the history of L.A.'s 99-seat, a.k.a. "Equity Waiver," theater scene, I went to look for the stories online and couldn't find them except with reference to the Wayback Machine.

Obviously there's been a lot of water under the L.A. 99-seat theater bridge since then, much of it documented in the pages of American Theatre, but I thought, as a service to the world, and to other current and future L.A. theater lovers like Bulkley with an interest in how we got where we are (and the ways our current moment rhymes with the past), I should repost the articles on this blog. They were released in two parts, so there are few details in the second piece that seem a bit redundant when you read it all back to back. But it's all here. A little background on the assignment itself is here.

Without further ado...

LA StageMay 2, 2009

Part I: Waging the Waiver Wars

By Rob Kendt

If you’re a loyal Los Angeles theatergoer, we might preface the following story by saying: Pay no attention to that plan behind the curtain. After all, if you’re one of those lucky people in the know—those who have seen enough Southland theater to know that the work onstage here is as healthy and vital, and occasionally as disappointing, as anywhere else you might care to name—then you already know firsthand that there’s no qualitative difference between a good show in a 60-seat former tire showroom and good show at the Ahmanson. The alchemy of live performers, and the unique bond they create with and among live audiences, thrives without regard to venue.

It even thrives without regard to the compensation or material conditions of its practitioners—and there’s, as Hamlet might say, the rub. If the stormy 37-year history of Equity Waiver (now known as the Equity 99-Seat Plan) proves anything, it is that when theater artists want to get in front of audiences, however small, they won’t take no for an answer—even from their union. What’s also clear is that the artistic richness, abundance, and diversity of L.A.’s small theater scene, which we’re fortunate enough to take for granted today, simply wouldn’t exist without the stubborn insistence of L.A.’s theater artists on their right to strut and fret their hours upon the stage.

Of course, you don’t need to know any of this to enjoy the next show you see at a small theater in L.A. But if you appreciate a theatrical tale of outsized passions and raging conflicts, the history of the Equity 99-Seat Plan offers plenty of drama.

The Explosion Before the Storm

In the early 1970s, L.A.’s theater landscape was hardly booming. The Pantages was still a movie house; the Pasadena Playhouse, once the home of a prestigious theater school, had had its doors padlocked in a federal tax case; the future Geffen Playhouse was a furniture store. The Music Center’s two new theaters, the mid-sized Mark Taper Forum and the cavernous Ahmanson Theatre, formed a lonely beachhead in Downtown L.A.

“As best as I can remember, my impression as a New York actor coming to L.A. was that the only game in town was the Taper,” says Barbara Beckley, who would go on to become the founding artistic director of Burbank’s Colony Theatre. “I wasn’t aware of much theater going on in town. I do remember being at that meeting where the members voted in Equity Waiver.”

Beckley refers to the historic meeting of July, 1972, at which West Coast members of the actors’ stage union voted to “reconsider” a proposal by the union’s Western Advisory Board to eliminate all Equity rules in theaters with fewer than 100 seats—in other words, to effectively waive Equity’s work and wage rules and allow its members to perform in small theaters without union protections. There were already several dozen such small theaters, mostly in the Hollywood area, at which actors not otherwise occupied with film or television work were getting onstage in unofficial, under-the-radar productions.

As Tom Ormeny, now artistic director of Burbank’s Victory Theatre, recalls: “A group of actors went to Equity and said, ‘We all know this is happening. We think it’s time for you to create a waiver for LA.’ There were so many actors here, and because there was no other theater going on, they wanted to create stuff, and what was between an actor and a producer was none of Equity’s business. They decided work was more important than the money.”

That’s hardly a line of argument to warm the hearts of union leaders, Ormeny concedes, but he says, “It became apparent that there was going to be a major rebellion against Equity if they didn’t change the rules. They’d lose a lot of members.”

Equity bowed to the pressure, issuing a Waiver on an “experimental” basis. But if this sounds like a tentative resolution containing the seeds of further conflict, it was. Take a look back at that verb “reconsider.” What rank-and-file members like Beckley may not have realized when they voted to waive Equity rules in that July meeting was that the proposal had originated in March—and had been soundly rejected by the union’s New York council. This division, between the union’s East Coast theater trade capital and the upstart actor-producers of L.A., would come to haunt L.A.’s small theaters in the decades to come.

In the meantime, though, as Ormeny put it, “There was an explosion of theater.”

Concurs Beckley: “Overnight, 99-seat theaters started springing up all over town.” Soon enough, with some actor friends, Beckley herself caught the self-producing bug, and before long they were running a 99-seat theater in Silverlake, where the Colony Studio Theatre would remain for 25 years.

“What drove it was that there was just nobody in town who had the wherewithal and the passion and the drive to make theatre work on any kind of large scale,” Beckley says, pondering the origins of what could justly be called a Waiver movement. “I don’t know if that was to some degree audience-driven, or culturally driven. I do know that a broad theater community happened in L.A. because Equity Waiver happened in L.A. Looking at it now, it’s clear that its effects were tremendous and far-reaching.”

Indeed, by 1980, according to a study by Scott Henderson, the number of small theaters had increased to 124 theaters and 41 independent production companies from a mere 45 in 1970. Many ensembles and artists that are fixtures on today’s L.A. theater scene trace their beginnings to this first decade, from the Matrix to Colony to the Victory. And a few that had already existed in non-Equity form, such as East West Players, Company of Angels, and the Odyssey, were given new life and legitimacy by the Waiver.

Curiously, L.A.’s midsized theaters—hence theaters offering paying Equity contracts—also began to thrive in the ensuing decades, as the Taper achieved national fame in mid-1970s, the Westwood Playhouse opened in 1975, and the Pasadena Playhouse made a second entrance in 1986.

This concurrent midsize-theatre health is another important fact to keep in mind as one traces the history of Equity Waiver, since the anti-Waiver argument is often made with the zero-sum logic that says that more non-paying theater somehow undercuts or drives away paying theater.

His Least Favorite Year

Though Michael Van Duzer didn’t work at Equity when the Waiver was first ratified, he was on hand when the underlying tensions behind the Waiver erupted, in what would soon be called the “Waiver Wars.”

And he’s lived to tell: Van Duzer is still Equity’s representative to L.A.’s small theaters, and though tempers have cooled, he recalls the 20-year-old battles well.

“It was certainly the worst year of my life,” says Van Duzer of 1988, the year that the Waiver Wars broke out in earnest. They had begun quietly enough in 1985, when Equity took another look at the Waiver and its discontents.

“We had a meeting where we basically had a two-page document that says actors will be paid $5 a performance,” Van Duzer recalls placidly. “That proposal was taken to a membership meeting. At that meeting there was a lot of hysteria, with people saying, ‘The theaters will go out of business,’ ‘We won’t have any place to showcase ourselves.’ And the other side either wanted to curb Waiver or just had a distaste for professional actors getting paid nothing. There were a lot of eloquent speeches and a lot of hysterical screaming, so we went back to the drawing board.”

Though the Colony was among the majority of small theaters with respectful work practices, Beckley concedes that some restrictions on the Waiver were probably in order.

“There was a show, Bleacher Bums at Century City Playhouse, that ran for years, and the actors didn’t make a dime,” Beckley recalls. “Under the Waiver, as long as you could make the rent, there were no rules regarding nudity, rehearsal time—you could do whatever you wanted. On the other hand, the actor owed nothing; he could walk away without penalty at any time if he felt unsafe.”

Of course, without being exploited, an actor may develop strong loyalty to a production he’s invested time in, making such a no-fault bargain less simple in practice. “You can always say, ‘No, dear, you can walk out at any time,’ ” as Beckley puts it, “but who’s going to do that?”

So, while L.A.’s small theater producers reluctantly entered informal talks with Equity to discuss amendments to the Waiver—talks complicated by the fact that many of these producers were also actors and Equity members, creating what the union saw as a conflict of interest—an enterprising young producer named Paula Holt was renovating a West Hollywood movie house called the Tiffany. She wasn’t aware of the brewing Waiver Wars—and had no idea what she was venturing into.

“My original intention was to try to build a midsized house, but my architect told me I didn’t have the footprint or the ceiling height,” says Holt, now an independent producer. “He said, ‘I can’t build a decent 350-seat house, but I can make you the best Equity Waiver theater complex in town.’ ”

By 1987, the new Tiffany was ready to open one of its 99-seat stages with a play about Fatty Arbuckle starring Equity actors Kelly Bishop and Art Metrano. Equity, however, was troubled by the prospect of a state-of-the-art theater, not run by actor-producers, operating under the Waiver.

“I think the union, with directions from New York, was concerned that Off-Broadway shows would transfer from New York to a Waiver space,” says Holt now. So Equity filed an injunction against the actors, on the grounds that Holt had downgraded a midsized house to make her Waiver complex. (The old movie theater had indeed hosted intermittent performances by a satirical troupe, the Committee, but without a glance at Equity.)

“It was a strange climate because of the Waiver Wars,” Holt recalls. “I assumed it was a cooperative environment, but it became very personal.” She says that Equity’s regional director, Edward Weston, told her, “I’m going to make sure nothing ever comes into your theater.” As Holt says, “That’s when I knew I needed a lawyer.”

Holt won her case after six months of wrangling and sleepless nights (and the Tiffany would go on to enjoy an extraordinary 15-year run as one of L.A. preeminent theaters, big or small).

But the battle over L.A.’s small theaters had just begun: In the spring of 1988, a referendum on the Waiver was sent out to West Coast Equity members about the plan. The actor/producers who had been in talks with Equity had not been notified and felt blindsided by the move.

“I remember we were on a plane, and we got the notice that the referendum had gone out,” recalls Maria Gobetti, veteran Waiver warrior and co-founder, with her husband Tom Ormeny, of the Victory Theater. “And I said to Tom, ‘I guess this is war.’ It was very painful.”

LA Stage, June 29, 2009

Part II: Waiver War Weapons

by Rob Kendt

As anyone who follows international relations might tell you, a key weapon in a powerful player’s arsenal is simple recognition, or more importantly, the strategic withholding of same. By deciding which parties, organizations or even small countries it considers legitimate bargaining partners, a nation or bloc of nations can define the acceptable parameters of discourse and in many cases determine the course of a conflict—if indeed it admits there is a conflict at all.

Union organizers know this tactic well from the other side of the barricades, for very often the first obstacle they encounter, and the first battle they must win, is simply to be recognized by management as labor’s legitimate negotiating representative. So perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that Actors’ Equity Association employed a similar hardball approach in the late 1980s when it faced a virtual insurgency of members opposed to the union’s tightening of small-theater rules in Los Angeles. By most accounts, the venerable stage union kept the upper hand over actor/producers by simply ignoring their demands and refusing, until cornered by a lawsuit, to hammer out a deal.

“The huge frustration was that Equity refused to negotiate with us,” recalls Laura Zucker, now executive director of LA County Arts Commission. In the ’80s, Zucker served as producing director of Back Alley Theatre in Sherman Oaks. As such, she co-chaired an ad hoc alliance of 99-seat theater producers, formed in response to Equity’s plan to rein in an unregulated—and very active—small theater scene.

“That was their primary tactic: not to meet, not to talk,” Zucker relates. “That’s why we brought the lawsuit alleging breach of covenant. And the lawsuit worked in the sense that it forced them to talk to us.”

That lawsuit was among the key battlegrounds in the infamous Equity Waiver wars, which raged from 1986 through 1988 and changed LA theater forever. Actors who were once guaranteed nothing for working in theaters under 100 seats would ever after have some basic protections, some limits on work hours, and a small monetary reimbursement for their hard work. Was the fight worth it? And what brought the contenders to the brink?

As we saw in Part One of this two-part history of LA’s 99-Seat Plan, in 1972 Equity had granted its members a “waiver” to work without union protection or remuneration in theaters with fewer than 100 seats. As a result, the quantity of theater productions and companies exploded, with the roster of venues and independent companies roughly tripling within a decade.

This startling growth—glut, some said—of live theater in LA had a dangerous flip side. Equity’s East Coast leadership had been skeptical of the Waiver from the start, allowing it only on the grounds, as 99-Seat Plan administrator Michael Van Duzer puts it, that it provided “a way for our membership to showcase themselves and get other paying work in film, TV or stage.” That actors-showcase rationale happens to be contrary to the impulse that has given rise to some of LA’s best theater. Contrary to its intention, however, the waiver sets up expectations of career advancement that a thousand tiny theaters in a spread-out industry town can meet only sporadically.

Indeed, as Van Duzer notes, the 1980s saw a plethora of alternative showcase opportunities spring up, from casting director workshops to “industry nights,” where agents and casting directors could watch a series of short scenes and enjoy a catered reception, all without having to endure “three hours of bad Shakespeare and then go out to find their cars had been broken into.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, anecdotal evidence also surfaced to suggest the Waiver had opened the door to abuse—including one notorious long-running comedy at a Westside venue where the roaches made out better than the actors. “The Waiver had no rules at all,” Van Duzer points out. “So if somebody had a complaint, like, ‘They made us work for 14 hours,’ we had to say, ‘It’s not a contract—you can leave the show.’ ”

According to Van Duzer, actors who asked to waive union wages and protections started to wonder, “I’m not being seen by the people I want to be seen by, and this set costs how much?”

It was probably inevitable, then, that the Waiver’s no-rules regime would change. In 1985, a two-page document outlining a new plan for LA’s small theaters was presented at an Equity staff meeting, with basic limits on rehearsal and performance times, working conditions and the actor’s tiny honorarium of $5 a performance. When the proposal made it to a member’s meeting in 1986, Van Duzer got a glimpse of the battle royale to come.

“There was a lot of hysteria—people saying theaters would go out of business and actors wouldn’t have any place to showcase themselves,” Van Duzer recounts. “On the other side, people either wanted to curb Waiver or just had distaste for professional actors getting paid nothing, saying this took us right back to the actor/managers that created the need for Equity in the first place. There were a lot of eloquent speeches and a lot of hysterical screaming. This clearly went to an emotional core.” Needless to say, Van Duzer sums up, “We went back to the drawing board.”

It’s On

Clamoring for a place at that drawing board was a large group of theater producers who called themselves the Equity Waiver Theatre Operators Committee (ETWOC). These were the leaders of LA’s large, unruly, oft-acclaimed theater scene, including the Colony Theatre‘s Barbara Beckley, the Victory Theatre‘s Maria Gobetti and Tom Ormeny, the Matrix Theatre‘s Joe Stern, the Odyssey Theatre‘s Ron Sossi, and Back Alley’s Laura Zucker. Many of them, such as Zucker’s husband, actor/director/teacher Allan Miller, also happened to be Equity members-a technical conflict of interest that meant, although Equity was willing to hold non-binding meetings with EWTOC to hear their concerns, the union saw no reason to formally negotiate a new small theater plan with them.

While EWTOC did this wooing dance with Equity, the union had another Waiver fire to put out. In 1987, a producer named Paula Holt opened the Tiffany, a new theater complex on Sunset Blvd., containing two state-of-the-art 99-seat spaces. Equity viewed this as an illegal division of one larger midsized—and hence potentially full-contract—theater in its jurisdiction. More privately, the actors’ union fretted that two sleek, professional-looking theaters operating under the Waiver would set a terrible precedent. Would producers with deeper pockets just exploit the Waiver as a cheap way to open their pet projects or import Off-Broadway hits?

At the time, Holt wasn’t part of EWTOC’s struggle for union recognition and had no stake in the gathering Waiver wars. But when she sued the union successfully and won the right to keep the Tiffany’s doors open, the defeat only seemed to solidify the union’s resolve against the Waiver’s advocates.

At least, that’s one way to explain what happened next. Tom Ormeny recalls a last-ditch attempt to make EWTOC’s case directly to the union’s East Coast brass.

“I flew to New York and went in front of the national committee and said, ‘I don’t want to sue my own union,’ ” Ormeny says. “We left the meeting and we felt pretty strongly they were listening to us.”

Listening or not, Equity unilaterally decided in late March of 1988 to send a referendum directly to West Coast members, who handily voted to instate the new 99-Seat Actors’ Theatre Plan in place of the Waiver. To the folks at EWTOC, this was the last straw.

“We said, ‘OK, this is war,’ and we got a pro bono lawyer,” recalls Gobetti. The lawyer took the case, Ormeny says, because “he thought he could win it on breach of covenant. Without any attempt to negotiate, Equity had shut down the talks.”

In the ensuing volley of threats and counter-threats, newspaper op-ed pieces and contentious overflow meetings, both sides hardened their positions. EWTOC rechristened itself ATLAS (ostensibly an acronym for Associated Theatres of Los Angeles, though where that final “S” comes from is anyone’s guess), which later joined the Producers League of Greater Los Angeles to form Theatre League Alliance, a.k.a. Theatre LA (now LA Stage Alliance, the publisher of this blog). Some of this was mere positioning but most of it was sincere anger.

“When push came to shove, we started ATLAS. We said, ‘Equity is outdated, it’s a rhinoceros,’ ” recalls Odyssey founder Ron Sossi. “We even started doing auditions for our own actor members and we picketed the union.”

By the fall, though, the battles ended with a whimper. A grace period passed and the new 99-Seat Plan went into effect. The Waiver was history and most members of the erstwhile ATLAS, however grudgingly, signed onto the new system.

Not that they lost everything: that restraint-of-trade lawsuit ended in a settlement that included an important concession, as Van Duzer points out.

“The major change was that another committee would be set up with members of the 99-Seat community, which would meet a couple of times a year to discuss the Plan,” says Van Duzer. “And if the 99-Seat committee disagreed with any proposed changes, they would have the option of taking the case to our board. There was now an open path for a dissenting opinion that hadn’t been there before.”

It would be 12 years before the 99-Seat Plan was revisited or revised. “That tells you how deep the hurt was,” says Van Duzer.

L.A. Exceptionalism

There’s been enough healing, however, that most veterans of the Waiver wars now speak of that time philosophically.

“As much as we fought the coming of the Plan in the ’80s, I believe that was the logical next step and evolution,” says the Colony’s Barbara Beckley.

The unanswered question is how the Plan might evolve. Around the turn of the century, the Colony and a handful of other LA area theaters—East West Players, International City Theatre—made the leap to midsized spaces and hence to Equity contracts. It’s been quite a nail-biter, Beckley says, “The chasm between running a theater at a 99-seat level and with a contract—I don’t see how it’s possible now.”

Though Zucker agrees the 99-Seat Plan has been a net benefit for area theater, she doesn’t think it was the best the producers and Equity could have done—or could still do.

“The irony of this whole situation is that both Equity and the producers wanted midsized theaters,” Zucker says. “We were all frustrated by the limitations of Waiver. Part of the dialogue we wanted to have with Equity was; how can we get from here to there without impediment? The leap from a Waiver situation to a full contract is so huge and so many people get lost in there. So part of the proposal we put forward was a way to allow people to tier up from 99 seats. Equity tossed that out and said, ‘We’re not going to create a tiered plan; you each have to talk to us individually.’ That was the greatest mistake they ever made.”

Zucker still sounds frustrated as she recalls the old battles but she’s quick to add, “It’s really not too late. One could sit down with theater operators and come up with a way they could grow, that will incentivize theaters to start adding seats-it would be a progressive, creative plan and it won’t look like any other contract Equity has anywhere else.”

This is a recurring refrain in the story of the Southland’s small theater scene—what might be called Los Angeles Exceptionalism. The litany goes something like this: This sprawling urban mega region has, by some estimates, a few hundred thousand actors vying for a TV walk-on; it’s notoriously stingy with foundation or government support for theater; and though it’s among the top three theatergoing cities in the US, measured in ticket receipts, it is not by any stretch of the imagination a commercial theater capital.

Given the lay of the land, then, is the non-remunerative 99-Seat Plan a clever workaround that allows thousands of talented theater artists to ply their craft with minimal restrictions? Or is it yet another item in that list of reasons for LA theater’s second-class status?

Says Paula Holt, “You can’t understand the plan unless you consider it was established by actors, not by producers or theater owners. There was no need for union protection because there wasn’t anything at stake—you didn’t have the usual split between producer and actor because a lot of the producers were actors.”

Sossi agrees. Like Holt, he’s heard the zero-sum argument that a glut of Waiver has somehow stifled the development of midsized theater—an argument that would have to ignore the relative health of the Taper, the Geffen, and the Pasadena Playhouse—but he’s not persuaded that LA’s actors would want it any other way.

“The alternative might be half a dozen midsize theaters where you still would only make a meager salary,” Sossi speculates. “The actors would rather have 130 theaters where they make gas money than six theaters where they can make crappy money.”

For Joe Stern at the Matrix, the real victory in the Waiver wars has been changing the minds of his foes.

“Their whole thesis for 35 years was that if you don’t get paid, you have no dignity and you’re an amateur,” Stern says of Equity’s East Coast leadership. “But they’ve begun to get it—part of it is just attrition, and part of it is seeing our viewpoint. It’s now better than it ever was; consciousness has been elevated.”

As Equity’s Van Duzer puts it: “Even the most rabidly anti-waiver and anti-99-Seat-Plan people have realized that the way Los Angeles is, some form of this will always have to exist.”

LA theatergoers may not realize what struggles have transpired behind the scenes to keep the shows going on. But the next time you’re in an audience of 60 enjoying a great night of theater for around $25 a ticket, you might think to offer a silent tribute of gratitude (maybe even a spoken one, or a cashable one) to the fighters who’ve helped to keep Los Angeles theater as abundant as it is intimate.

No comments: