Ask if it’s Equity—Maybe
This September, Actors’ Equity Association unveiled a new social media campaign that puts non-union touring productions squarely in the crosshairs (read about it here). “Ask if it’s Equity” is a message aimed directly at audiences, asking them to ensure that when they see a touring play that it is an Equity production rather than a non-union tour. The website for this campaign says this: “Performers and stage managers on Broadway work under Actors’ Equity contracts; which means they receive fair pay with benefits and enjoy quality working conditions. Unless you are seeing an Equity production, you’re not seeing Broadway.”
The problem is, with the advent of the tiered contract touring system (a system under which certain tours can lower minimum wages for actors based on projected producer’s revenue, among other factors; there are B, C, and D tiers), these days Equity contracts do not guarantee fair pay or benefits. There’s been a longstanding battle between Equity and tour producers who take their shows non-union. It’s a battle that Equity has not consistently been winning. To compete and keep producers on board, Equity has been slicing touring wages in an attempt to cut overall costs.
And so I take issue with the sentence “Unless you are seeing an Equity production, you’re not seeing Broadway.” Was there a time that this was true? Probably. There was a time that touring contracts matched Broadway production contracts from a financial standpoint (before per-diem). Today very few of them do. You’d be hard-pressed to find another sector that’s had wages drop so dramatically over the past decade. Specifically, many Equity tours have become what are known as “Short Engagement Touring Agreements” with salaries that can be as low as $550 a week (read more here). Broadway’s minimum wage is $1,861 per week, more than triple the minimum on some of today’s currently running Equity tours. These tours aren’t Broadway and marketing them as such is frankly disingenuous, especially as the campaign attempts to draw distinctions between Equity and non-union productions when it comes to actor treatment and fair pay. There are actors on the non-union tour of Camelot making $1,050 a week. Are Equity tours of a higher quality than non-union productions? Very possibly. There’s a larger talent pool to work with and performers tend to be more experienced. That said, whether or not a tour is a union production has never been shown to have a demonstrable effect on ticket sales that I’ve been able to uncover.
Of course, one could argue that all of these facts are why a campaign like this is so necessary. The more the union can bolster its image and drive audiences to Equity productions, the stronger the union will be when it comes to salary negotiations. And this is important. Equity does need to be a strong union, and it’s a difficult proposition when there’s such a vast supply of talent—which is constantly swelling as more and more young artists graduate from their university theater programs and move to the cities. Regardless, I can’t help but wonder if this is really the best way to go about it. Trying to appeal to audiences as a method by which to influence presenters certainly does make sense on the face of things. Mary McCall, the Executive Director of Actors’ Equity, has been quoted as saying that this campaign is "intended to thank local presenters for booking union shows," but I’m not so sure that’s how it comes off.
All of the Equity touring productions playing in Chicago are listed on the website for this campaign. This is reasonable, sensible—aimed at informing audiences of their Equity options. All well and good. Then, below a stark, heavy, white line there’s a list of all the non-union touring productions playing in Chicago. Not even just tours of a comparable nature to the Equity productions playing (think along the lines of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella), but those such as Evil Dead The Musical, which never appeared on Broadway and seems hardly comparable in terms of demographic draw. This all may seem at first glance to be just an incidental detail, but it strikes me as a pretty direct attack. Rather than simply touting the merits of Equity tours (which, as I’ve noted, can’t be taken entirely for granted), the fact that the site goes on to list and point a finger at the non-union productions seems to be a way of criticizing not only the presenters and producers of these tours, but also the performers themselves.
It seems necessary to clarify here that non-union actors aren’t scabs. They aren’t trying to bust the union. This isn’t a scene out of history textbooks or Newsies (union disputes, scabs, musical theater—it seems relevant). Most of them want to eventually join the union. Also, young artists who have gone Equity early on as a result of booking a tour often return home only to find that the majority of opportunities for young actors are in the non-union world. Non-union tours have their issues, undoubtedly, but they provide employment and opportunities for young actors not yet ready to go Equity—they allow for necessary flexibility. It seems strange for a union that represents actors to lash out at those who may well end up joining their ranks.
In a perfect world, Equity would be strong, every tour would be union, and more actors would be able to make a living doing what they love. I do think it’s possible for this to happen. But that simply isn’t the world we live in yet. It’s difficult for many actors to go union in the first place, and as a non-union performer, auditioning can often become just sitting around for twelve hours at an Equity Principal Audition before being told to go home. Non-union tours provide an avenue for younger, newer actors to make a living working and gaining experience that will help them on in the future. I’m certainly not advocating that Equity simply give up on tours, nor am I suggesting the union not advocate on behalf of its constituency. Should Equity be trying to protect itself and bolster the image of Equity productions? Of course—just not at the expense of actors who simply want to make a living doing what they love.