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 in 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.)
In the past, hierarchies of size and quality governed the road; major cities like Boston, Chicago, and Los Angeles would play host to the more elaborate Equity 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 actor 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.
Like 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 the 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 of market is dominated by one presenter," Stamatiades notes, "you can't have a 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 to 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.
Last month, 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.
PROTECTIONS 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 by Actor's Equity Association, the American Federation of Television and Radio 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 law is named after Jackie Coogan, who starred at age 7 in Charlie Chaplin's The Kid and was one of the most highly paid film actors of his day. Coogan's parents successfully denied him access to his $4 million in earnings when he turned 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.