Ed Asner Sues to Keep Small Theaters Alive

     LOS ANGELES (CN) – Ed Asner, Amy Madigan and 16 colleagues sued the Actors’ Equity Association in Federal Court, claiming its elimination of an “equity waiver system” will decimate small Southern California theaters that operate on “shoestring budgets.”
     Asner, a two-term past president of the Screen Actors Guild, says the equity waiver system preserves Los Angeles’ “thriving unionized nonprofit theatre community,” which allows thousands of actors to hone their skills and develop the art by performing in theaters with fewer than 100 seats.
     The equity waiver system began in the early 1970s and was formalized in a 1989 settlement agreement because Actors Equity and union members. It allows actors, and theaters with 99 seats or less, to perform and stage shows outside of normal union rules.
     Asner calls Los Angeles’ “vibrant theatre culture” of 150 to 200 small theaters unique in the nation, and made possible by the equity waiver.
     Because the union agreed to waive its rules, “Thousands of Los Angeles actors are able to perform before live audiences in these small theatres, collaborate with other members of the creative theatrical community, hone and display their artistic skills, and contribute to an incubation process for new and experimental theatre,” Asner says in the Oct. 17 complaint.
     But early this year Actors Equity, which like its co-defendant president Mary McColl is based in New York, “decided it wanted to end the Equity Waiver system and force intimate theatres to pay minimum wages to volunteer actors.”
     Asner et al. claims this violates the 1989 settlement and procedural protections within it. Those protections ensure that before substantial changes are made to the waiver system, “meaningful discussions would take place within the small theatre community,” including a review committee of union delegates and small theatre actors and representatives.
     However, the lawsuit says, “Disdaining the principle of democracy on which it was founded, the union disregarded an advisory referendum in which members rejected Equity’s plan by a 2-1 margin in one of the highest membership turnouts in the organization’s history, and ruled that the new system would go into effect June 1, 2016.”
     Asner says the new wage requirement “threatens to destroy the exciting and essential small theatre culture in Los Angeles” by imposing burdensome costs that will make it impossible for many small theatres to survive. Many will have to close, the actors say.
     Faced with the new rule, some theatres have decided to present fewer productions with smaller casts beginning in 2016, and many will rely on nonunion actors, Asner says.
     Asner, known as a strong union man, also claims that McColl breached her fiduciary duties “by expending union funds in initiating and executing the scheme to breach the settlement agreement.
     Actors Equity in New York on Tuesday called the lawsuit “disappointing.”
     “After dedicating months of staff time, conducting surveys and membership meetings – and considering the results of the advisory referendum, which prompted AEA’s Council to carve out even more exemptions to its original proposals – the governing body created a system that would allow for some members to be paid minimum wage for rehearsals and performances, while those who chose to would still be able to volunteer their time to a) self-produce, b) perform with membership companies under the new internal membership rules, and c) appear in 50-seat showcases,” the union said.
     “Only nonmember-driven producing organizations are subject to the new minimum wage requirements, which are certainly not a radical concept in any case.” Actors’ Equity is “fully prepared to defend both the process and the substance of council’s actions.”
     Asner won seven Emmy Awards and is known for his involvement in social issues. When CBS canceled his show “Lou Grant” in 1982, despite its high ratings, Asner and others attributed it to his criticism of President Reagan’s policies in Central America.
     Co-plaintiff Ed Harris has appeared in films including “A Beautiful Mind” and “Gone Baby Gone.”
     Their attorneys Steven Kaplan and Martha Doty with Alston & Bird did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
     They plaintiffs seek an injunction and punitive damages for breach of contract, bad faith, fiduciary duty and duty of fair representation, and violation of the equal rights guarantee of the Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act.

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