The Playgoer: Avenue Q gets AEA Dispensation

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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Avenue Q gets AEA Dispensation

Well those clever Avenue Q bastards...

NYT's Dave Itzkoff today reveals that the producers will indeed be able to lower actor salaries for their unusual reverse-transfer of the show from Broadway to "Off":

Salaries for the performers could come down too. Mr. McCollum said the minimum weekly salary for an Off Broadway performer was about $1,100, compared with $1,600 for a Broadway performer. A spokeswoman for Actors’ Equity Association said that the producers had been given permission to close the show and reopen it under a new contract. Mr. McCollum said offers had gone out for the Off Broadway production, but no casting was ready to be announced.
I imagine one reason announcement of casting info is delayed might be that current Broadway cast members would be pretty torn about taking the same gig at what effectively is a pay cut.

To get the actors' union to consider the new Off Broadway "Q" basically a revival (just like a revival of an old classic like, say, South Pacific), as opposed to an extension (which is what it is), is a big, big break for those producers.

There's a reason for that clause in the AEA contract. It's meant to prevent just this kind of thing from happening, to prevent a producer (or even nonprofit theatre company) to cut actor salaries during an ongoing run by moving to a smaller venue and lower contract status. The rule is basically that during the course of a run, actor salaries can only go up, not down. Even if moving to a smaller venue allows the production to operate at a lower contract level in all other areas, actors are supposed to maintain their previous salaries. The reason for this is obvious: without that protection, productions might routinely "transfer down" as a way to cut actors' pay.

As regional theatre veterans know, this often comes up in co-productions when one of the partners is smaller (budget-wise) than the other. Such co-productions usually try to run at the smaller theatre first so that salaries can start lower and then increase only for the 2nd staging--rather than paying actors at the higher rate even in the smaller theatre. (Make sense?)

But Avenue Q has cleverly just redefined the concept of the "revival" to include something that's basically an extension. The scenario the rule was meant to prevent, just happened. I guess AEA figures work is hard to get at all these days, so might as well. But let's hope this doesn't set a dangerous precedent for an already suffering profession.


Thomas Garvey said...

So you'd rather the show closed? Just wondering. And I'm curious as to why a producer should pay actors a Broadway wage when producing at a smaller house, with some 1/3 fewer seats. Again, just wondering.

The Playgoer said...

Thomas, the question of why a producer SHOULD pay B'way wages in the smaller house in this case is not a matter of opinion. My point is there is an agreed upon industry standard enforced by Actors Equity. It is "Settled Law" as they say. Others have already had that debate and resolved it on the side of actors, even producers had to agree.

Again, the reason AEA needs to enforce this is to prevent producers from pressuring actors to effectively take a salary cut to keep a show running.

In this case the Actors Union agreed to an exception, as actors have in many other cases to help keep a show running. But the point of this--indeed the point of unions--is to give the leverage ultimately to the actors so they are not forced to take cuts.

Thomas Garvey said...

So in a nutshell: you'd rather the show closed.

The Playgoer said...

Well in this case sure--since I didn't think Avenue Q was all that. But that's beside the point.

Seriously though, I would rather one show closed so that others will NOT cut actors' salaries.

I also think the choice you offer is a false one.

The disagreement you have, Thomas, is not with me so much as with the entire concept of collective bargaining and labor rights. Yours is the exact argument always made by "management" when seeking to cut wages or the labor force itself. Back in the Stagehands Strike, for instance, the Broadway League warned, "You better lower the minimum number of stagehands to hire or else Broadway will shut down and none of you will work!" Well look what happened--compromises were made, sure, but the minimum is still higher than the producers would like. Have they stopped producing Broadway shows? No. The good news is, more laborers get to have jobs when they do.

Also, remember the rule at issue here is a relatively minor provision that is RARELY relevant--since productions rarely transfer to a SMALLER venue. So, no, I don't think the sky will fall if on those rare occasions it happens, the actors don't have to accept a pay cut.

Your question, for me sums up the reason why such rules are necessary. Because if you're right, management would always have the upper hand. THey could always say, "Either I pay you less or not at all, since we'll just fold and not hire." What would it be like to make a living as a laborer then?

Or, think of it this way--you could say the very concept of a "minimum wage" at all discourages hiring, right? Indeed that argument is made by conservatives ALL THE TIME. They always say, basically, "let the employer decide what to pay and you'll have more jobs."

So, that position takes the side of quantity while labor advocates for quality AND quantity.

But enough from me. The key test to your question Thomas will be: how many actors from the Broadway Avenue Q will remain with the show for less money? Will THEY decide they'd rather not have the gig at all than accept a pay cut? Casting still TBA...

Thomas Garvey said...

I'm sorry, Playgoer, but I think you're fundamentally misrepresenting this situation. I know you're very passionate about collective bargaining. You might be surprised to discover how close our positions on that actually are.

But what happened here is that essentially all the rules of the union were followed - there was collective bargaining. And your argument that actors' salaries were "cut" would only be true if the houses in question had the same number of seats. But they don't. There is a new, lower limit on how much the producers can make at the new, smaller house. So surely you can see that if the actors retained the same wage as before, this would, from the producers' perspective, constitute a substantial "raise" of about 30%.

Sure, the actors deserve all that and more. But that's not the principle of collective bargaining. The union fights for a wage that matches a percentage of the potential profits, essentially. If the potential profits go down, it follows that the wages should go down, too, as here. And I fail to see how this threatens other jobs, or other wage rates - the whole system is essentially still in place, and your comparison to the stagehands strike is simply mistaken.

The Playgoer said...

Well, Thomas, now that I see you've called my position "dopey" on your own blog I suppose I should give up any chance of a civil debate.

But let me say one more time for the benefit of others--since you seem to keep ignoring this point--
the idea that actors in a show moving to a smaller venue cannot have their pay cut is NOT just my idea! You say on your blog that I "seem to imagine" this. What part of "settled law" and "standard AEA contracts" don't you understand.

Your fight is with Equity and the producers who agreed to this rule long, long ago. Not me, pal.

(And, just to keep our facts straight--and yes some bloggers do care about facts--please, PLEASE remember that this rule is for the rare case of an ongoing production transferring to a smaller venue. That's all it is. And all I'm arguing is that this already agreed upon rule should simply, enforced. Turns out AEA did Avenue Q a favor by ruling the Off B'way run a "new" production. So even they are still saying the rule is valid--that it just doesn't apply here.)

As to your claim that my case is typical of the cultural blogosphere "at its dumbest", I'm curious how you so comfortably step outside said sphere when you yourself ARE, it seems, a blogger, too. Would you mind informing the rest of us what places you in a higher category?

Look, let's agree to disagree. But at least acknowledge that what I'm arguing is not just my kooky idea and not a symptom of "the blogs" but actually something already decided upon by theatre professionals, offline.

In the words of Mr. O'Reilly, I'll let you have the final word.

Thomas Garvey said...

Equity should obviously adjust the rule, or at least provide guidelines for when producers could apply for exemptions. As it stands, particularly in a recession, it almost certainly reduces the jobs available for actors, which I really don't think is a union's proper function. But my "fight" is hardly with Equity anyway, as they clearly understood the issues at hand.

But I'm surprised you can't see that. Or perhaps I'm not surprised, come to think of it. On this blog, as on so many, I'm dismayed by the way knee-jerk political posturing replaces the kind of flexible thought that could improve things for actors. That is what was dopey about your post, which was clearly designed to criticize Equity's action, as well as the producers who sought it - indeed, you called them "those clever Avenue Q bastards." And then you bristle at your insults being called "dopey"? Get real.

Lucy said...

This back and forth has been useful to me, as someone interested in theatre - both for the discussion of the issue and for making it clear which is the better blog to read in the future (Playgoer).

Thomas Garvey said...

Lucy, I doubt I'll miss you.

The Playgoer said...

Now, now. Manners...

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