Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Union vs. Non-Union Tours and Equity's Image Problem

Well, Actors' Equity just significantly raised the game in its crusade to combat non-equity tours. The union has begun the "Ask If It's Equity" campaign via social media, encouraging all potential audience members to inquire if a touring production is Equity before purchasing a ticket. And unsurprisingly, there are strong feelings about whether this is a good idea on both sides.

First, some background for those who aren't well-versed in the ins and outs of performer contracts. Actors' Equity Association is the performers' union that represents all Broadway actors, along with the actors in many Off-Broadway, regional, and touring productions. After joining the union by jumping through a convoluted and/or highly unlikely series of hoops (most performers become an Equity Membership Candidate and accrue a certain number of points before being allowed to buy into the union, although if an Equity theatre really wants someone they can pay the actor's dues for them), Equity actors gain access to a litany of special privileges including better pay, healthcare, strict limits on the amount of hours they can be worked, and perhaps most appealing of all, priority access to auditions. In return, members pay union dues every year and are forbidden from taking any non-union work; if they get caught performing without a union contract, they can be barred from the union for life, which effectively kills any Broadway or other high profile aspirations a performer might have.

Now, the way touring productions work is that touring houses will guarantee a certain level of ticket sales before booking a show at their particular venue. This allows tour producers to make informed decisions about how much money they should budget for actor salaries, costumes, sets, etc. If the theatres cannot guarantee a large amount of ticket sales, then producers are left with the option of either cancelling the show or casting it with non-union talent, which costs significantly less (there are no minimum salaries for non-union actors, and the producers don't have to pay into Equity's expensive healthcare system on behalf of each performer). Since non-union tours are cheaper to mount, more and more productions are going the non-Equity route to cut costs. As most audience members wouldn't be able to spot the difference between union and non-union talent - there is sometimes little to no difference in skill level and professionalism - the tour producers still advertise these shows as if they are direct from Broadway, even if it involves smaller sets, fewer actors, and less polish than you typically (but not always) find in Equity productions.

Unfortunately, there has been tension between union and non-union actors for almost as long as there has been a union. Equity's job is to protect its members and ensure them as many well-paying jobs as possible, which means Equity auditions are notoriously hard to get seen at if you aren't already in the union. However, the only way to actually join the union is to be cast in an Equity production, which is a huge catch-22 that is understandably frustrating to the many hardworking and talented non-union performers who wake up at the crack of dawn and wait around all day in the hopes of being seen. Also, because Broadway and all of the most respected theatre companies are Equity, many union members have developed a nasty habit of acting like they're better than their non-union counterparts. Keep in mind, every performer was non-union at some point, and we've all seen professional, Equity productions that are just as painful (if not more so) as those at the local community theatre.

To me, the biggest problem with the "Ask If It's Equity" campaign is it plays directly into that tradition of smugness when it comes to the merits of non-union performers. The question heavily implies that if the touring company is non-Equity it is automatically of a lower quality. That is by no means an accurate assumption; last winter I saw the non-union tour of Memphis and found it compared quite favorably to the original Broadway incarnation. No, it was not better or necessarily equal, but the differences were negligible to all but the most experienced theatregoers; if I had not known the production was non-Equity, I would not have been able to tell with any certainty, and I see a lot of theatre. Furthermore, the production was not on Broadway and no one was paying Broadway prices to go see it, which does make a difference as far as perceived value.

That said, I also see Equity's side of the situation and understand the concerns that are causing them to act like dicks. The non-union tours are certainly advertised as if they are straight from Broadway, which is misleading and probably allows them to charge more money for tickets than if the distinction was made clearer. As I have many friends who can verify that this extra money is not going to the performers, that trend is at best concerning and at worst exploitation. And more importantly from Equity's end, these non-union tours could theoretically be union and thereby provide work for their membership, the vast majority of whom are unemployed during any given year. If Equity can use the campaign to prove that the union status of a tour does make a difference to ticket buyers, then they will be in a better position to demand union contracts for future tours.

So what can be done about this situation? There are no easy answers, although I think the majority of the burden lies with Equity and its large member base. The reason tours go non-union is because the touring houses cannot guarantee enough money to finance an Equity production, so a show goes out non-Equity (and still makes the creators and producers money, while also giving future union members a chance to hone their craft) or it doesn't go out at all. Touring shows either need to figure out a way to make more money, or they need to use the money they already make more effectively.

The first option (make more money) can pretty much be ruled out, as most regional audiences are already spending the maximum they're willing to pay for live theatre. Raise prices any further and attendance will likely decline. A decrease in ticket prices could theoretically increase the number of tickets sold and potentially lead to more actual income, but it's a gamble I don't see any sane producing team taking. Which means the tours need to be able to make their current income go further, which may involve lowering wages (something I would not personally advocate) or alternatively relaxing some of the union's stipulations. Broadway and Equity theatres are rife with tales of frivolous personnel due to union mandated quotas, and the strict time limits on rehearsals and performances can cause overtime pay to add up in a hurry. Furthermore, I know of at least a couple of former Equity theatres who are now non-union solely because they can't afford the Equity healthcare premiums (their actors still receive a salary equivalent to the Equity minimums). Since the vast majority of Equity actors can't actually take advantage of the union's healthcare - you must be employed more weeks out of the year than not to qualify - perhaps these premiums could be lowered to help cut costs.

Even more importantly, I think Equity needs to make itself more accessible to new members. I'm sure the current Equity membership is already bristling at this idea, as there already aren't enough jobs to go around and no one wants extra competition. However, as theatre is primarily a merit based profession, if Equity performers are as good as they believe they have nothing to worry about; they will still be cast instead of the less experienced newcomers. And if more of the talented non-union performers were to join Equity, it would get much harder for producers to piece together a non-union tour audiences would be willing to pay good money for and thus force producers to offer more union work.

There are no easy solutions to this problem, but the "Ask If It's Equity" campaign still leaves plenty to be desired. There will always be more people who dream of being an actor than the profession can actually support, so no matter what Equity does to increase job opportunities for its members a large percentage of them will be unemployed at any given time. As theatre becomes more and more expensive there will be fewer audience members and fewer jobs, which only highlights the need for the industry's leaders to prioritize cost saving measures that still provide for the safety and financial viability of acting as profession. And Equity really needs to reexamine the way it behaves towards non-members; it is often despicable and elitist, especially considering everyone in the union was non-union at some point. Perhaps if they honestly asked themselves how their 22-year-old self would feel about a given policy, they wouldn't be so hasty to put their feet in their mouths and angry large swaths of the theatrical community.

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