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Matthew Freeman is a Brooklyn based playwright with a BFA from Emerson College. His plays include THE DEATH OF KING ARTHUR, REASONS FOR MOVING, THE GREAT ESCAPE, THE AMERICANS, THE WHITE SWALLOW, AN INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHOR, THE MOST WONDERFUL LOVE, WHEN IS A CLOCK, GLEE CLUB, THAT OLD SOFT SHOE and BRANDYWINE DISTILLERY FIRE. He served as Assistant Producer and Senior Writer for the live webcast from Times Square on New Year's Eve 2010-2012. As a freelance writer, he has contributed to Gamespy, Premiere, Complex Magazine, Maxim Online, and MTV Magazine. His plays have been published by Playscripts, Inc., New York Theatre Experience, and Samuel French.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Actor's Equity Reform

One of the unspoken things about the majority of hard-working American actors and producers that I see, is that they have a love-hate relationship with AEA. It's a long-standing problem of a union that is intended to protect actors, filter out the casual from the professional, and to provide union members with benefits.

It also, unfortunately, creates a series of barriers between producers on a smaller scale and the actors that work on that scale.

I know of many producers that aren't able to rehearse their plays at length or develop the audience for a play because Equity imposes a rehearsal limit and performance limit on "Showcases." Showcases are the standard production agreement for most Off-Off Broadway shows...it allows actors to still be working within the union rules but not have to be paid far more than most companies can afford.

So... does Equity need to take another look at how it approaches the rules for smaller scale and independent theaters?

Talk to me about your experiences with Actor's Equity and what you love about it and what you think could be improved.

9 comments:

devore said...

All I know is this: the only 100% way to sell anything is word of mouth.

And I think it's impossible to build word of mouth with 16 shows.

There are scant angel producers out there. People with money want to give money to something that can prove it can draw an audience.

Equity needs a new contract that gives it's actors more wiggle room to invest their talents in a show they believe in.

Josh Costello said...

In LA there is the 99-seat rule; I don't know the details but the result is that as a director I can cast Equity actors willing to work under scale at small theaters in LA. Which is sweet. Orange County, which is right outside LA, isn't covered under that rule, so when I direct there I can't cast Equity actors. The San Francisco Bay Area has its own version of this, and it often varies from show to show and company to company (or it did when I last lived there).

Equity should have a national standard that allows Equity actors to work under scale for low-budget theaters. It's not complicated. The resistance to this seems to be Equity's concern that theaters are avoiding paying Equity actors in order to make bigger profits, but I have never seen anything like that. Tie it to the theater's budget. There is no theater in the world that would purposefully keep their budget low or purposefully raise less money so that they don't have to pay their actors.

John said...

The eco-system of New York theater has changed entirely since the creation of the Showcase Code. It was created, in part, as a way of strengthening the initial Off-Off environment, allowing union actors to work in the lofts, coffee houses and storefronts downtown. The Code is now the single largest threat to the health of the Off-Off or indie environment in New York.

16 shows. It's like a band being able to play in public 16 times and if they don't get a major record deal they have to disband. And it's not even 16, really, since the show is not going to be humming until after the second night, once the crowd reaction has been incorporated, so you're down to 14. And if you're wildly lucky, the reviews will come out, at the earliest, the second week of your run, which means once anyone off your mailing list has even heard of your show, you've got 12 nights to get them down there.

Paul Bargetto of East River Commedia turned me on to this LA 99 seat rule that Josh is talking about. Simple, elegant, fair all around. Paul and I and some other malcontents are starting to talk about getting organized on this, I wrote something about it on my blog, www.clancyproductions.blogspot.com. Would love to have more people join the conversation.

Paul Bargetto said...

Hello,

John Clancy and I are starting to agitate about this. The current reality is that the showcase contract is the highest wall in the off off/independent theater ghetto. The limit of sixteen performances is a recipe for stillbirth. We need to get organized and re-negotiate a new contract with equity on the lines of the LA 99 seat plan. You can find it here in pdf format along with the showcase code:

http://www.actorsequity.org/library/library.asp?cat=5

John and I are putting together a loose organizational structure, call it a trade association/ confederacy/ what have you. Right now we are calling it the NY League of Independent Theater Producers. We will be drafting a mission statement in the next couple of weeks and would love feedback and participation.

Paul

paul@eastriver.org www.eastriver.org

david d. said...

I will say that if there is something that I would like to see changed about the showcase code, it would be the potential of expanding the 16 performance rule, even if it were to expand it only another 8 shows or two weeks, as it is always disappointing when a show has found its feet and an audience demand and then it is time to close. Just when it becomes the kind of thing that you feel is showcasing the play and everyone involved well.

But, on the positive side, there are many protections in the Showcase Code that are important to allow actors in a professional union to collaborate with producers in productions smaller than commercial or major non-profit ventures, but without it getting to the point of depending on these actors to be the revenue source of these productions. I would imagine, without showcase code, that things might become much more of a 'pay to play', as is seen in so many other enterprises involving actors (such as the several businesses that charge to set up encounters with casting professionals).

So I would love to see the number of performances expanded but I am happy the rest of the code exists and is what it is. Because for every two great, committed companies that will create a great opportunity for those involved, there is one that would accidentally or wantonly waste the time or resources of those involved.

k8 said...

There's a delicate balancing act between the showcase code and production companies in the city. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think the showcase code limits the number of productions a company can produce without stepping up a tier and offering actors more money -- other than the ways in which it protects Equty members, it seems designed to force off-off companies to eventually become off-broadway companies, but I think it ends up shutting down those companies instead.

I'm with David -- there are benefits to the showcase code which, as actors, you occasionally have to invoke (limits on rehearsal hours, for example) which you can personally choose to ignore if it suits you. And I've done that repeatedly -- but rarely, if ever, does that have to do with the number of performances.

I'd rather there be more showcase companies, but if I have to choose between showcase companies and paying off-broadway companies, well, there's no choice there really.

John said...

David, you're absolutely right about the protections afforded by the union and their importance.

To be clear, this is in no way an anti-union position, it's a way for union actors to work on a show for as long as they would like, with their wage, and the chance of them getting some media and industry exposure, gradually increasing. The strength of this proposed reform is that nobody loses, not the actor, the producer, the playwright or the union. The actor can give 24 hour notice for a better paying gig or for any other reason. The producer's expenses rise week by week, but not dramatically.

There are a myriad of types of producers and companies working in this indie world, but one broad distinction is between those trying to get the hell out and those very happy to stay. This reform works for both camps.

The artists who are auditioning for higher-paying work have more time and opportunity to audition for an uptown bidder. Those who are content where they are get to settle into a longer run. The press has more opportunity to see the show, audience has more opportunity, etc.

But the protections are always there, so the actor can always leave. I've worked almost exclusively with union actors over the last 15 years and seen some horrendous abuses in the non-union world. I think something like this makes the union stronger and allows it to better serve the union members
working in the Off-Off or indie zone.

Paul Bargetto said...

What needs to be changed is the number of weeks the play can run. A sliding scale of pay tied to the box office that would increase the longer the play ran would allow the actors a stake in the show and its success. No one is suggestiong stripping the actors of any of their protections in the contract. The problem is that as written, no off off show can succeed as it must close its doors before it can gain enough momentum to take flight. No independent producer that I know of can afford to move a showcase production up a level. Paying the entire cast scale and hiring an equity stage manager is impossible in a 99 seat venue. By extending the time limit on it's run a good show could become a great show and could have a real chance to get picked up by an off broadway producer or tour producer who could afford to pay the equity scale that the original producer could not.

This current contract is ultimately killing jobs for equity actors by starving a major source of new work. And anyone who has waited in an equity audition line at 6 in the morning with five hundred other unemployed actors can tell you there is hardly enough work of any kind to go around.

Mark said...

From a director's point of view, the main thing I would like to see Equity negotiate with us on is taping rights. Currently, we are not able to document our work in production when we work under the Showcase code--even though directors who work under the showcase code are the ones who NEED documentation of their work the most. Ditto for small theater companies looking to document their work for funding purposes--under the code, we cannot tape a performance even if EVERY actor agrees, under threat of financial penalty and blacklisting.

SSDC attempted to address this for director members through a deal with AEA (where we agreed to sign on to the boycott of Big League Theatricals non-AEA tours), but all we got was this laughable deal where we can record a rehearsal and have it kept under lock and key at the SSDC office--fine for big time directors who might need copyright protection, but completely useless for the emerging director or theater company seeking to document their work for career advancement as well as posterity.

And what is frustrating is, the system rewards people that break the rules. Both funding agencies for small theater companies AND career advancement opportunities for emerging directors request recording of your work--and if you work under the showcase code and play by the rules, you don't have anything to show them. Meanwhile, the TONS of people who are recording shows against the AEA rules have documentation and are presumably benefitting from these opportunities.

(Is David D by any chance David Diamond? If so, would love to hear what he has to say about this.)