The Playgoer: Showcase Footnotes

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Thursday, September 06, 2007

Showcase Footnotes

If you're at all invested in acting, directing, or producing Off Off Broadway and you were on a lovely long Labor Day vacation last week and missed your weekly Village Voice... then you may want to check out my mini-feature there about the calls for reform of the Equity Showcase Code.

As I said last week, there was much I couldn't fit into the word-count constraints that is still very interesting and relevant to the debate. Such as...

Some of the more successful companies I reference who used to put on amazingly good productions under the restrictions of the code--namely Soho Rep and Transport Group--are indeed "graduating" and moving up to the new & improved AEA "transition" contract, which gives a small company three years to upgrade to "Letter of Agreement" status. Or else. (That's right, they can't go back down to Code after that. Hence the risk.) Soho got some ink earlier this summer over this triumphant move to proper "Off Broadway" (not quite) but it was interesting to hear from them directly all the calculations and risks this entails.

I hesitated over whether to use as my two chief examples theatres who were moving off the code. But I'm content to say they're the ol' exception that proves the rule. I also found many other "exceptions" of prominent companies who go on and off the Code depending on their season or the budgets or earning prospects of particular shows. New Georges, for instance, produced the downtown hit Dead City, on their Seasonal Code for '05-'06, when they could handle the required two shows. But last season they put everything into the equally praised God's Ear, and so mounted that one production on an AEA "mini contract", the lowest level of contract that still allows you to return to Code status later.

Another point I heard raised again and again (mostly by actors) was the AEA "insurance weeks" factor. In other words: Equity requires its member to work a certain number of weeks--in paid, professional legit productions--to be eligible for health benefits that year. Currently Showcase productions do not count towards that. (It is at least partially tied to the fact that non-code "contract" productions pay into that insurance fund in addition to salaries.)... How is this relevant to Showcase Code reform? Well it's on the actors' minds. Partially because AEA just raised (I believe, doubled?) the number of weeks required! Some say it could be a bargaining chip in any discussions with Equity. (Not that AEA is interested in "bargaining" right now.) My sense is that many Equity actors would be more willing to work in more Showcase productions for longer, even without salary, if it could add to their insurance weeks.

(I get the feeling for many Equity actors, the thinking is do the "Law & Order" work for the cash, do theatre for the insurance.)

Understanding AEA's thinking on the Code is predicated on grasping their point that any "code" is a basically concession of theirs. Charity. It's not a proper "contract"--formed after years of negotiation between employees and big employers, like League of American Theatres & Producers, League of Resident Theatres, Disney, etc. (AEA spells out the distinction clearly here.) A Showcase producer or company is by their definition not an employer because they don't pay a salary. Paying transportation or a fee doesn't count. Hence the line from the official Seasonal Code rules I quote in the Voice piece:

This Code is based on the premise that Funded Non-Profit Seasonal Showcase Theatres are subsidized by Actors as well as by endowments. At no payment level set forth in this Code does a theatre pay an Actor at a rate approaching what Equity deems to be an appropriate minimum level of compensation. Therefore, all services rendered by any Equity Member under this Code are subsidies to the theatre.
In other words, Showcases exist by the grace of Equity...

As frustrating as that position is, I do feel it's a solid argument, though. And I do agree that most of the fantastic downtown theatre we see is indeed "subsidized" by the actors who effectively volunteer their time and talent. (Obviously producers, playwrights, and directors are volunteering also, but they don't have a union urging them not to.) This acknowledgment and gratitude I feel is due the actors is one of the main purposes that motivated me writing the article in the first place.

I was impressed with how widely it was taken as a given on the producer/director side, though, that of course the actors should be paid. Many companies do manage a fee--anywhere between $50 a week to $1500 for the run. And the "favored nations" strictures of AEA mandate that no one on a Code production can be paid more than the union actors, including directors...A key selling point for reform I hear is that allowing productions to earn more (through longer runs. higher ticket ceilings) will lead to actors being paid more--not to producers pocketing the cash for themselves.

Lastly, there's the argument that since AEA's other Code agreement, the Los Angeles 99-Seat Theatre Plan allows much more latitude with length of run and rehearsal time, such flexibility should be transferable to NYC. But Equity says they're apples and oranges since theatre needs more support in La-La Land due to the eclipse of the film/tv industry. So I don't know if that point will gain traction.

One more factor I just don't have time to get into--but is interesting and important--is the increasing prominence of fringe-type festivals as basically a separate category of production. And also the increased need of ensembles for extended rehearsal and development processes that technically the current code does not allow for beyond a few compressed weeks.

I want to acknowledge, finally, my debt to the two previous print articles on this subject--one in Backstage back in May (link expired) and the Brooklyn Rail this summer.

And one last outtake: AEA's statement to me that not only was the code not a contract and therefore literally non-negotiable but “Nor will we negotiate in the media.”

6 comments:

Rob Kendt said...

Interesting topic. The LA Showcase "Code," or 99-seat plan, allows for 80 performances. Having covered that code and controversies around changing it, I think the reason it exists isn't so much that theatre needs more "support" due to film/tv eclipsing it, but that there are way, way, WAY more actors in L.A. willing (indeed itching) to get up onstage without regard to compensation--they do it as a showcase, as exercise, as unfettered expression (usually a mix of all three). Not unrelated is the fact that most of them aren't Equity, so the code operates on a sort-of understanding among the sister unions SAG and AFTRA. I'd say a change toward this kind of code won't happen in NY because Equity is too strong to let it, and not enough actors (particularly non-Equity actors) really, really want to get onstage here without compensation.

Edward Einhorn said...

I have long been a proponent of the idea that showcases could pay into the health care fund and thus make health insurance an actual possibility for the many Equity actors working Off-Off-Broadway

I think the code, as is, is as harmful to most Equity actors working in New York as it is for producers. I have seen some great actors working downtown year after year for nothing, and it is not because they lack talent. It is because the current system severely limits mobility.

By limiting length of run, length of rehearsal, ability to revive, etc, Equity limits the ability of a play to a) be seen by reviewers, who then might draw agents or even producers who might be willing to take it to the next level or b) gather funders, etc, who might help that company move to a bigger contract on their own.

But honestly, and this is my cynic self saying this, I am not sometimes sure Equity is there to serve the actors who are working in Showcases. I think the limiting if mobility may not be a byproduct, but a hidden intent of the rules as they stand. But this is my cynicism that comes from the idea of a union, any union, limiting membership to those who jump through certain hoops. It seems designed more to protect those who are already making some money by limiting the ability of those not making money to progress. It subsitutes beaurocracy for meritocracy.

This is not just about Equity, but a problem I have with many arts related unions.

So, in that cynical vein, I would say that many in Equity would not want to make it easier for those who only have a few weeks of eligible weeks for health insurance increase their weeks and get health insurance, because now that money is used to help subsidize health insurance for those who steadily work in the regionals.

But I do think the key to change was in your article. As the spokeperson said, the change needs to come from within Equity itself. A huge number of actors are working in Showcases or like situations, and their voices should be heard.

Let me say that I think that a voice for actors is important, and I think it is very important to try to make sure people aren't exploited. Equity can be a force for good, and it has been, in some cases. I hope it can be one in this case as well.

Anonymous said...

My company produces under the Seasonal Showcase (this is our 2nd year doing so) and we pay P&H for designers, directors and musicians even though they're receiving the same fees as the actors. Meaning, the designer receiving $1000 on the Project Only Agreement gets $170 into their pension/health fund. I'd happily do so for the actors too, but can't under the showcase.
The whole "can't go back" thing is irksome too...especially when one is considering doing a bigger project for one season but doesn't have the resources to make that commitment yet in the long run.

Zack said...

I am a member of AEA, and the truth is the Union doesn't have to and doesn't want to do anything. There is nothing in it for them. They don't collect dues from Showcases, so we don't count to them. AEA doesn't get health insurance from them. I have actually spoken with fellow members of SAG who believe that if you didn't make money in a certain year, than you vote should count in union elections. They are there to protect people working on Production contracts.

The argument about the LA code is a load of bovine scatology. This has to do with Broadway and Off Broadway producers. They don't want to compete shows that are run on cheaper budgets that could take away their audiences.

I pray they change their minds so that more of our actors can truly have a shot at really getting our work seen.

The Playgoer said...

Speaking of LA, by the way, I meant to link tangentially to this interesting analysis by McNulty in the LAT about how the Angelino showcase scene is hardly a haven for genius directors exploiting actors. It's still totally actor-driven--to its detriment, McNulty argues...

The Playgoer said...

Sorry, forgot the link--
http://www.calendarlive.com/stage/cl-ca-directors19aug19,0,232190.story?coll=cl-nav-theater