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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.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

A conversation about Equity

I believe Actor's Equity has a long way to go before it recognizes the modern realities of producing small theater in New York City. For example, I recently heard a story about a company (that I will not name) that was told they could not use live video feed of the actor's on stage (not recording the actors, live video feed) for a Showcase Code production. This included, oddly enough, Non-Equity Actors. In other words, according to this story, the union not only told the producer of this Showcase Code show that they could not use the now-not-terribly-new device of live video; but that this ruling applied to actors that were not actually members of their union.

This was a head-scratcher for me. And so, I posted this question on Facebook and got several interesting responses from producers on the Indie Theater scene.

I'm going to copy the conversation thread in its entirety, with names removed, so that no one will go on record as criticizing the union. I think, though, that it's a conversation worth reading, and considering.

Two caveats:

1. I asked permission from the Facebook contributors before posting this to my blog.
2. In case you're wondering, I'm not anti-union. I'm a big pro-union guy. I think unions do important work. In this case, though, in an effort to protect the interests of a few, AEA stifling the very industry that could and should be growing in New York City.

And so...the conversation...

Matthew Freeman Hey Producers -

Have you ever received instruction from AEA on how you are to treat non-Equity actors?


What do you mean by 'treat"? I've worked with generally mixed Equity/Non-Equity casts.


I guess I mean have you ever received, from Equity, instruction on rules governing non-Equity actors. For anything: breaks, rehearsal time, pay, filming, whatever. I'm curious.


No. I just treat them the same (including pay) as the Equity actors, otherwise chaos ensues. I mean, if i was doing a big show where there were ten roles from a nonec apprentice company, it'd be a different story.


Makes sense. But that's self-selecting good behavior. It's my understanding that Equity will occasionally include directions to companies about the use of non-union members. I was looking for someone to confirm or deny that.


Hm. Not on a showcase level as far as I know. I bet once you're on a seasonal showcase or above code it starts to happen.


Matt- let me ask down at Long Wharf today- we have a Christmas show that hires both.


Hey Matthew, still not real clear what you are asking. Are you asking about Showcase codes specifically? The production itself falls under the domain of AEA so filming, rehearsals etc would be privy to the same treatment. As far as paying non-AEA, no need according to the contract but as producer 1 says, it is good practice to pay non-AEA something in an AEA showcase. http://actorsequity.org/docs/codes/Showcase_Producer_Kit.pdf


No, no, I'm more trying to get into a specific point, one that you just sort of illuminated. The production itself falls under the code as opposed to the actors within the production? Which means that all actors in the production (even those who are not union members) cannot be filmed? Have the same restrictions in terms of hours of rehearsal? The only thing it doesn't apply to is pay?


To the best of my knowledge, Equity doesn't give a crap about non-Equity actors. The rules of the code or contract only apply to Equity actors. Non-Equity actors would only be affected indirectly - for example, under the Showcase code you can't pay a non-Equity actor more than you're paying any Equity actor. You can film as much as you like of a show as long as no Equity actors appear on-screen.


Correct, the production itself falls under the code, no filming of any part. People get around this by doing interviews or slideshows with voice-overs. The pay only applies to AEA actors because it can be enforced. As for having a rehearsal where you may not call Equity Actors in for a night; I honestly don't know. AEA can be feisty so great idea to seek input. I wouldn't advise contacting AEA directly about these questions, they will watch you like a hawk. :)


From Equity: "No taping, filming or recording may be made, in whole
or in part, of any code production or rehearsal."


Hmmm...looking at the Code again, I suppose I'm technically wrong. But I've never had an issue violating the code where non-Equity actors are concerned.


The Showcase code is unclear on a lot of points, and if you contact Equity you're likely to just get the opinion of whoever you happen to be talking to. I had an actor demand his ten minute break during a tech run through of a [company name removed] show - nothing in the code about not getting their breaks, whether it's tech, dress or performance, which would mean no act could go longer than eighty minutes. I called Equity and they had to get back to me. They called me back the next day to say that I could do run-throughs within one week of opening as long as I provided breaks immediately before and after.


It just strikes me as odd that Equity's code asserts any control at all over actors that are not Equity, by claiming jurisdiction over the production as a whole, so to speak.


As a producer under the showcase code I've never had anything from AEA about non-AEA actors, but based on some stories I've heard from non-AEA actors working under showcase on productions other than my own, it wouldn't behoove AEA to include... info to certain producers... Some people can be just plain rude to their non-union actors and staff.

I did make inquiries some time ago about filming, and yes, what [name removed] and others have written above is true, if the production is under code you may not film even non-aea actors doing any part of the actual script on set in costume. That's why so many people do interviews or slide shows instead. If you want to write dialogue that compliments the play but is not in the script, you can shoot that, as long as it is not on the set or in the actual costumes.


I have never thought of it that way until you brought this up but I guess it becomes "An Equity approved production" which follows basic guidelines and minimal "good" working conditions for the union actors. Several colleges follow the Equity rules even though they are non equity, simply because they are safe and fair practice, minus paying anyone, of course. They are saying if you want to use our actors, your entire production has to follow these rules. Sometimes it helps but inevitably it can get in the way. Remember every time you take a rehearsal break, the clock resets and you have another 55 or 80 minute stretch.


It does seem odd to me that you can't record non-AEA actors, since the point is to protect the likenesses of their members. For our last show, the author wrote a special scene, a sort of prologue, that was not in the actual script, and we recorded that as a teaser.

But reading the rulebook, it doesn't look as if you need to abide by the rules regarding breaks and restrictions on rehearsal amounts for non-members (they apply to "Actors", which is defined at the start of the booklet as AEA-members only). I always treat non-members and members the same as far as breaks and fees and bios and all that, but I confess I did once start rehearsals a few days earlier than we were supposed to, using only the non-Equity actors.


Keep in mind that one of the reasons for not allowing filming of any kind also has something to do with AEA actors not getting paid more. If you use non AEA to do "some filming" you have in a sense found the loophole that takes money out of an Equity actor's hand. Theoretically ,all people should be paid to promote a piece. When you see regional theatres filming scenes for promotion, those actors have been paid extra and their contact has been tweaked. Again, with the fair practice thing.


It does strike me, though, as a sort of way for the union to assert control over non-union membership, over which it honestly should have no jurisdiction. That is to say: does Equity have the right to assert that non-Equity actors can't be filmed? Regardless of why they might want to assert that right?


True, but theoretically all people should be paid to appear in a piece too, and that doesn't happen under the Showcase code. As far as AEA is concerned, Showcase productions only exist to, er, showcase the actors with the goal of getting them future paid work. Nowadays web videos are such an important part of promoting a production it kind of sucks that you're not allowed to do it. I would think, rather than banning it outright, they could include provisions ensuring that nobody involved gets paid more than the AEA members for it.


Worst thing that can happen, I think, is they will not approve an Equity Showcase, or if they have already approved it, they can shut it down. They have and they do.


@ PRODUCER 3, you are absolutely correct and 85 percent of Equity Actors agree.

Many of our AEA meetings are about just that. Actor unions get in the way as much as they help. AEA members try to allow our union to see the flaws and the provisions change but other unions hold other jurisdictions and well "it sucks."


It does indeed suck. I'm a member myself, as an actor and a stage manager, but since I'm also a producer I've got those annoying asterisks on my card and can't attend membership meetings.

The code seems almost like it was designed specifically to hinder the development of original work. We're trying to produce a workshop production of our next show, but Equity doesn't really provide for any steps between a basic staged reading and a full production. I would love to use Equity actors, but that just may not be possible. Which means when it does go to a full production, we may very well keep the non-Equity actors and not bother with the Code. AEA actors have then missed out on, at the very least, the fee we pay actors and an opportunity to market themselves to agents and casting directors.


One other thing, the union is watching out for the dues paying members. They are responsible to them. As far as everyone in a production being paid, I totally agree. I think that lies on the producer to "do the right thing." The union is not saying you shouldn't pay them. They are implying you should by saying you can't pay them more than an equity actor. Those producers that somehow muscle up cash for the entire team are the ones that keep everyone coming back not just the Equity actors. Low budget theatre is difficult but if ever possible all parties should be paid (something) even if it means splitting ticket sales. This is good practice, one that most would agree with.


Entirely agree, I would never pay actors differently because of their union status. In fact, the code demands that nobody involved in the production gets paid more than AEA members - not designers, not directors, nobody. I hold to this, and lost a director because of it. She was shocked and offended that I wouldn't violate the Code to pay her more.

UPDATED: I was recently told that a company was informed by Equity that under the Showcase Code, the Press Agent couldn't be paid more than the actors. I'm sorry, but is it even possible to hire a press agent at that cost>

What is the purpose of that rule? To discourage producers from using the Showcase Code. It is, in effect, punitive.

So...I would like to invite a member of Actor's Equity in good standing, someone on the Showcase Code Committee, to actually explain these policies. I would be happy to give them this space to do so. Does anyone out there know who it is I need to contact to get someone on the record?


Lacy said...

Super interesting. It's a whole different ball of wax here in Chicago, where we don't have the Showcase contract available.

I do see the issue from both sides - Producer 3 makes a very good point. However, it seems that AEA in general suffers from an overall rigidity that, as you stated, does not seem to recognize the realities of producing ANYWHERE - certainly not in Chicago. My current show will put me over 3x the weeks I'd need to join, and I have zero plans to do so. In fact, within the past month, three friends have dropped their status because going Equity means you just. don't. work.

SAG and AFTRA, on the other hand, have worked with me to make sure I can do every project I want to, from friends' projects to feature films.

Brian said...

As a producer of a theater company developing original work, I am more and more considering just going completely non-Equity. There just doesn't seem to be any way to use them for the work we need to do.

(And Matt, you swap Producers 3 and 4 towards the end there.)

Freeman said...

Whoops. Man, I don't know. I'm just this guy, you know?

RLewis said...

My understanding is that aea clarified their position on the live-feed issue that you began this post with, and that the company was able to do exactly what they wanted. I would've thought that you'd want to cover that point, but then this post might lost some of it's steam.

As an aea member and former committee member, I can explain their position in regard to many of the issues you raise, but it'd take more than a blog-post to do so. I doubt you'd agree, but it can be explained.

Freeman said...

I actually don't know how it was resolved, but I'm happy to hear the clarification. If you want to send me a note about clarification, I'd love to post it. E-mail me at mattfr - at - gmail dot com.

MStew said...

here's my annoyance and question: how the hell do we get around right of first refusal? why should i have to offer or buy out from a showcase code to a LORT or Off-broadway run when it could be 3 years after wards? and is there a loop hole or way around right of first refusal when producing under Showcase Code?