For theater-lovers in Minneapolis or St. Louis, touring productions of
Broadway shows can be lifelines. But they are also lifelines for the many
New York actors and stage managers who depend on their relatively high
salaries and generous benefits, and for the New York producers who look to
the road to reap profits or recoup their losses. Last month, the Actors'
Equity Association mounted a campaign to fight the
proliferation of non-Equity touring productions, which they see as a threat
to the job security of their 45,000 union members and a strain on commercial
theater's wage and benefit standards. The issue will come to a head in June,
when Equity's $100 million production contract with the League of American
Theatres and Producers is up for renewal.
According to Equity figures, 90 percent
of all touring productions of
Broadway-originated shows used union performers a decade ago, but this year
only 60 percent of touring shows do so. Just five years ago, union actors
worked 44,000 weeks on road, while last year they worked only 21,000 weeks.
The union launched its "Fair Wages All Stages" campaign with a rally
Duffy Square focused on a non-union tour of Miss Saigon. At the rally,
Equity members performed The Jobless Chronicles, a musical built around the
stories of an actual unemployed steel worker, a restaurant worker from
Windows on the World who remains out of work, and a fictionalized cast
member who runs away from the Miss Saigon production.
Producers that belong
to the league are not allowed to make non-union
contracts, but many are finding ways to circumvent this rule. Flora
Stamatiades, the union's national director of organizing and special projects,
explains that the Broadway producer of Miss Saigon entered into a licensing
agreement with a non-Equity producer, who was then free to hire non-union
casts and crews for the tour. (League members declined to comment on this
issue, citing their desire to focus on the forthcoming negotiations.)
past, hierarchies of size and quality governed the road; major cities
like Boston, Chicago, and Los Angeles would play host to the more elaborate
productions, mainly of recent Broadway hits, while smaller cities would
present non-union shows, often well after they had opened on Broadway. In
recent years, however, non-union tours have begun to compete with Equity
productions in major markets.
What's more, audiences are now paying top-dollar
for touring shows. While
once road shows cost about 50 to 60 percent less than in New York, tickets
out of town can now cost 80 percent or more of Broadway prices. "Non-union
productions often charge ticket prices as high as Broadway, even though
their expenses are half to two-thirds what Equity tours costs, with actors
being paid a third to half less than Equity performers," Stamatiades says.
"This allows producers to maximize profits."
But do audiences know,
or care, whether they see a union or non-union
production? Stamatiades argues that "the difference between an Equity
and non-Equity is experience, rather than talent," but notes that it is
misleading for producers to market their shows as "straight from Broadway"
when, in fact, they could never have played on the Great White Way. She also
notes that some productions have had trouble casting age-appropriate
performers, since most actors who are well into their careers are union
members. In 2001, reviewers dubbed the non-Equity touring Music Man "Music
Boy" because of the lead, who was clearly younger than the part demands.
much of the entertainment industry, the Broadway landscape has been
transformed by consolidation. Three production companies, Troika, NETworks,
and Big League, have been filling more and more prime markets with non-union
productions. When Disney got into commercial theater a decade ago, it began
negotiating its own contracts for touring shows, and some observers say this
convinced other producers to demand changes to the Equity contracts. And
radio giant Clear Channel has become the world's largest producer of live
entertainment, owning or operating more than 100 venues in the U.S. and 35
abroad. "When a tour needs to play for 40 to 50 weeks, and the majority
market is dominated by one presenter," Stamatiades notes, "you can't
successful tour without them."
To keep its members working, Equity has
made some concessions to producers
on a case-by-case basis. The union has signaled that it would be willing
negotiate in June, but they clearly won't accept any arrangement that
sacrifices jobs. And, with a $16 million deficit in their health insurance
plan, shoring up members' benefits will be a major issue. For their part,
producers have said they have two choices: either not do Broadway tours at
all, or go to unions and try to create a new model of production.
the Boston Globe reported that Boston's Wang Arts Center, a
long-time presenter of touring shows, is suffering because of competition
by the for-profit Broadway in Boston enterprise, which is run by Clear
Channel under non-union contracts. Ironically, the Wang Center played host
to the non-union production of Miss Saigon that provoked Equity's current
Fair Wages All Stages" campaign. In the future, it seems,
independent producers and presenters may have to work with Equity just to
keep afloat in a commercial theater landscape dominated by Clear Channel.
FOR NEW YORK'S TALENTED YOUTH
Last month, Governor Pataki signed the Child
Performers Education and Trust
Act, which passed in the state Senate and Assembly in June after lobbying
Actor's Equity Association, the American Federation of Television and
Artists, and the Screen Actor's Guild. Modeled after California's Coogan
law, the New York law codifies protections for young performing artists,
television actors, and athletes by mandating that 15 percent of their
earnings be placed in a trust fund until they reach 18. (California's
named after Jackie Coogan, who starred at age 7 in Charlie Chaplin's
and was one of the most highly paid film actors of his day. Coogan's
successfully denied him access to his $4 million in earnings when he
18.) The law also requires that child performers have access to qualified
educators for tutoring.
Martha Hostetter has written about the arts for the Village Voice, American Theater and Empire New York.
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