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Howard Sherman: In the US, actors fight for pay increases – and against them

Actors' Equity's new Western region headquarters in North Hollywood
Howard Sherman
Howard Sherman is a New York based arts administrator and advocate. He is director of the Arts Integrity Initiative at The New School for Performing Arts.
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There are two quite different scenarios playing out in the US right now surrounding issues of actor compensation, important to anyone who cares about the economics of theatre and the ability of actors to find work and sustain themselves economically. Neither is necessarily simple.

In New York, the focus is on actors’ salaries for Off-Broadway productions, which generally means shows in theatres between 100 and 499 seats. There are actually multiple Actors' Equity contracts covering this ground, but the two most prevalent are presently under negotiation, with the term of the agreements officially up this week.

In addition to covering a range of theatre sizes, the contracts cover both commercial and subsidised companies, with budgets ranging from $41 million down to $1 million or so. The weekly actor salary minimums in this arena and under these agreements can range from $593 to $1,057, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal, which cites Equity as saying that 63% of all contracts are at $593, the lowest possible.

While Equity is running the negotiations, a group of actors have organised behind the theme of Fair Wage Onstage, in an effort to bring greater attention to their concerns. They make the case that at $593 weekly, once taxes, agents’ commissions and union dues are deducted, the take-home pay is closer to $400 weekly, a low wage on which to subsist even if one managed to secure a long-running role, which is rare Off-Broadway as most shows are limited runs.

The president emeritus of the Off-Broadway League, one of the bargaining partners with the League, told the Journal: “The biggest value of Off-Broadway is that the actor is exposed to potential future employment.”

That suggests that a significant segment of theatrical activity, where many new works are birthed, is nothing but a showcase for actors, a stepping stone to Broadway, national tours, film or television. Given the longevity of some of the Broadway companies and the many artists who work in them, none of whom necessarily see Off-Broadway work as simply transitional, that strikes me as an unfortunate dismissal.

Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, there’s also a segment of the acting community addressing compensation issues – except that they’re in conflict with Equity itself, not producers or organisations.

Going back decades, several agreements have afforded Equity actors the opportunity to work in LA theatres that seat 99 people or fewer for minimal compensation, amounting to little more than transportation reimbursement. These special terms are premised on the belief that beyond a small group of big companies, theatre in Los Angeles is a sideline to film and television work, and that actors should be allowed to, in essence, volunteer to perform on stage in small venues when they’re not engaged in more remunerative work, in order to maintain their craft.

LA actors have sued the union in the past for this right and similar suits have been filed again, but after a transitional year now drawing to a close, the new Equity minimums for 99-seat-and-under theatres are set to go into effect next month. At that point, some of the many small companies affected have said they’ll shift to using only non-Equity actors, while others say they’ll defy the union and continue to use the current transitional terms. The fullest picture will emerge in the new year.

While the disputes couldn’t be more different – on the east coast actors are arguing for more pay, while on the west coast actors are arguing against increased salaries – both are indicative of the fragility and interconnectedness of the theatrical ecosystem, since changes in both of these cases will have ramifications beyond just the actors (and stage managers) represented by Equity.

Depending upon what prevails, decisions in these scenarios potentially will ripple through both subsidised organisations and commercial productions, in some cases resulting in a new set of calculations as to what’s feasible to produce in these venues, or whether it makes sense to produce in them at all.

If the 99-seat plan in LA is changed from essentially what it has been for years, will it diminish overall theatrical activity in the city, or will it cause Los Angeles theatre to function as small or storefront Equity theatre operates in other US cities? If Off-Broadway compensation grows only incrementally, will that ultimately reduce the talent pool willing to or able to work in those venues over time, and will even a significant one-time jump in the pay scale make enough of a difference to sustain careers?

As a former theatre manager who believes deeply in honouring the artists who are central to the field, and has also grappled with unwieldy budgets and the challenges of generating new revenues, I respect everyone involved in these conversations.

As difficult as the issues are, I hope the participants can look beyond the often adversarial nature of collective bargaining conversations (both internally and externally) to collaboratively reach solutions that ultimately benefit everyone who has a role in making theatre and those who go to see it.

This week in US theatre

Athol Fugard’s seminal Master Harold… and the Boys returns to New York in a new production directed by the playwright, opening on November 7 at Signature Theatre. I have a particular affinity for the play, having seen the original US production at the Yale Repertory Theatre before it went on to Broadway success (with one key cast change) and I’m eager to see Fugard revisit it after more than 30 years.

Rent’s original Mimi, Daphne Rubin-Vega, leads the cast of the new musical Miss You Like Hell, opening on November 6 at California’s La Jolla Playhouse. Directed by Lear deBessonet, this story of a teen girl’s road trip with her mother features music and lyrics by Erin McKeown, and book and lyrics by Quiara Alegria Hudes, book writer of In the Heights and a Pulitzer Prize-winner for Water by the Spoonful.

Women of a Certain Age, the final play in Richard Nelson’s trilogy The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family, opens on November 8 at New York’s Public Theater, appropriately coinciding with the night on which it is set, Election Day. Though the family portrayed won’t know the election results, I’m seeing it a few days later, so I’ll have the benefit of hindsight.

Daniel Kitson returns to his US home this week, St Ann’s Warehouse, with the US premiere of his newest monologue, Mouse – The Persistence of an Unlikely Thought. Performances begin on November 9 for a run of slightly less than three weeks.

Playing only a one-week run beginning on November 9 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, A Star Has Burnt My Eye is a play with music created by Howard Fishman, better known as an indie musician and leader of his eponymously named band. But Fishman is also a dedicated theatre researcher and his new piece, directed by Paul Lazar, draws on the life and music of outsider folk composer Connie Converse, all but unknown during her lifetime but now brought back into the spotlight by Fishman.

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