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Actors in hit play 'Bakersfield Mist' are due for rare pay hike

October 11, 2011 | 11:37 am

Jenny O'Hara and Nick Ullett in a scene from `Bakersfield Mist'
Some occupations just don’t pay, and acting in a small Los Angeles theater is one of them.

But every so often, even those folks’ ship comes in -- at least to an extent. It’s about to happen for Jenny O’Hara and Nick Ullett, a wife and husband team who since June 4 have been spending three evenings a week and Sunday afternoons carrying out what Times reviewer F. Kathleen Foley described as “tandem tour-de-forces” performing “Bakersfield Mist” at the Fountain Theatre in Hollywood.

Written and directed by Stephen Sachs, the Fountain’s co-artistic director, the show, based on a true story,  concerns a woman who buys an abstract painting in a thrift store -- then discovers that it might be a Jackson Pollock worth tens of millions.  An art historian arrives from New York to check out her claim.

The show “strikes it rich on every conceivable level,” Foley wrote, and audiences have agreed, bringing it longevity and, in a rarity for the small-theater scene, an impending  pay hike for the two cast members and the production’s stage manager.

On Sunday, O’Hara and Ullett will take their 80th bow in “Bakersfield Mist,” which co-producer Simon Levy said has been a virtual sell-out in the 78-seat house. After that, a new pay-meter will start running as “Bakersfield Mist” graduates from the 99-seat theater plan that allows members of the stage union, Actors' Equity, to play for stipends well below union scale, on the theory that, along with the presumed creative satisfaction, the  exposure will help advance their careers. When a show runs longer than 80 performances (60 at some theaters), producers are obliged to start paying a union wage. 

Levy said “Bakersfield Mist” falls under a variation of the Hollywood Area Theatre Agreement, one of many Equity contracts. The standard agreement posted on the Actors' Equity website calls for minimum salaries of $336 per week for actors and $409 for stage managers, compared to $7 to $25 per performance under the 99-seat plan, depending on the size of the house and length of the run (producers are free to be more generous, and when shows run longer than 12 weeks, casts can choose to begin divvying up 20% of the gross).

The Fountain pays more than the minimum, Levy said, both under the 99-seat plan and the contract that will kick in next week and run until "Bakersfield Mist" closes Dec. 18.  Where the three union members especially stand to gain, he said, is in their benefits: The Fountain will begin paying a contractually mandated 8% of their earnings into their Equity pension accounts, plus $145 weekly for medical insurance. The nine weeks of contract-covered work will bring the recipients close to the 12 weeks that Equity members need to qualify for six months of union health insurance.

Deborah Puette in a scene from `Caught' at the Zephyr Theatre “Bakersfield Mist” will be just the fourth production this year to run long enough to outgrow the 99-seat plan, said Michael Van Duzer, the Actors' Equity business representative who has overseen the plan since 1988, when it went into effect (before that, he said, actors on small stages were pretty much at the mercy of producers; “there were no rules at all” setting minimum stipends and maximum rehearsal lengths). It joins “Bobby & Matt,” a two-actor play Kevin Cochran wrote and directed for GTC-Burbank, where he’s artistic director; “Love Sucks,” a show by Rob Mersola that ran at the Coast Playhouse; and “Caught,” (pictured) by David L. Ray, which was seen at the Zephyr Theatre. Van Duzer said a fifth show, a production of A.R. Gurney’s talking-dog chestnut “Sylvia,” at the Edgemar Center for the Arts, will soon join the list.

“I’m quite surprised there are that many this year … especially in what is obviously a financially a difficult time,” Van Duzer said. Until the early 2000s, he said, it was more common for shows to last long enough to escape the economic protective cocoon (for producers, that is) of the 99-seat plan and start earning the players something more akin to real money. Nowadays, he said, many small theaters have cut back to staging two or three performances weekly, down from four or five, which makes it harder to reach 60 or 80 performances. Van Duzer said about 100 to 120 theaters typically are enrolled in the 99-seat plan at any given time.

At the Fountain, Sachs said that only a handful of productions have gone beyond the plan's limit in the company’s 21 years, including “Central Avenue,” Sachs’ 2001 drama about the 1940s L.A. jazz scene, and Arthur Miller’s “After the Fall” in 2002.

Adding “Bakersfield Mist” to the list means the Fountain is guaranteed to suffer a reduction in its net box office receipts over the last two months of the run -- especially if attendance dwindles during those 30 or so performances. But it’s not money the nonprofit company begrudges.

“We’re always hoping a show will be successful enough to get to this place,” Levy said. “The truth is they are very few and far between, and we’re always happy when they do.”

In January, the Fountain will try again, with the West Coast premiere of “El Nogalar” by Tanya Saracho. Taking  considerable liberties with the original, it relocates Anton Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard” to contemporary northern Mexico, where drug lords aim to usurp the estate of a once-wealthy family.


In the spotlight: Playwright and director Stephen Sachs

Theater review: 'Bakersfield Mist' at the Fountain

Theater review: 'Caught' at the Zephyr Theatre

-- Mike Boehm

Photos: Jenny O'Hara and Nick Ullett in a scene from "Bakersfield Mist" (top); Deborah Puett in "Caught" at the Zephyr Theatre. Credits: Ed Krieger (top); Michael Lamont.