Contributed by Sean Williams
So! That was fun!
I’d like to begin with some givens. These, I believe, are truths, and if you can’t get behind me on the following then we might not have anywhere to go in this ongoing conversation. And yes, for the most part, I consider hot-headed social media posting “conversation”.
1. People with power will do what they can to take advantage of those with less power.
2. People with power often don’t recognize they’re the ones with power.
3. People without power can and should get power through collective bargaining.
4. Things are tough all over.
Because the blogs I curated have been used as proof that the IT Awards is cultivating a “hotbed of anti-union activism”, let me begin by saying I firmly believe in the power of collective bargaining, and I believe it is a useful tool to prevent an unfair advantage for those in power. Unions are a moral good, and more than that - Actors Equity serves its members better than most because it’s one industry where the distinction between “labor” and “a call to service” is pretty fuzzy. People don’t generally mine coal because of a passion to have coal mined. Acting is quite different.
When one of our bloggers, an actor, said she wished she had an extra week of performances in order to finish the work she’d been hired to do, or that producers could charge more for tickets in order to keep up with the cost of business, she wasn’t attacking the union. And when another blogger, also an actor, said she wished she could record her performances for posterity and grant-applications, she was also not attacking the union.
So why did people think we were attacking the union?
Because we were.
As one poster diplomatically put it, “The OOB Community is arguing to be on a mini-contract without having to pay the actors for it.” Okay, maybe not an outright attack on the union, but it is an attack on the system currently in place. The union has said, if you want the extra weeks, or the higher ticket prices or video rights, then pay for it.
Well? Why don’t we?
Okay. Deep breaths. I am not going to write out all the math here because it’s a blog and I want you to read it and studies show that we’re all too dumb to read a bunch of math. Or… okay, not studies, but ME. I totally stop reading when there’s too much math.
Let me use a fictional showcase code production to explain why, and I’m going to use the universal “me” to represent “random producer”. I’ve got twelve actors and eight of them are union, plus a SM –
(WAIT! WAIT! Don’t poo-poo this yet! If you’ve got two actors then sure, the numbers aren’t as dire. Which is why off-Broadway is loaded with two-character, ancient comedy crap. I’m using twelve actors because it’s not outrageous, but it does illustrate the problem. I’ve produced at least six shows with casts roughly this size. Two-actor shows aren’t really the problem.)
So. Eight union actors, four non-union actors and a union Stage Manager. Basic showcase code, my budget for actors is $1,800. Seasonal showcase, it’s more like $6,000. Mini-contract, the new number is $32,856. And these numbers are only if I’m willing to set up a caste system, where non-union actors aren’t paid. I’m not willing to do that.
Producers want a better option. Without it… well, you see what we do. We grouse about not videotaping, we wish we had longer runs and then we just DON’T use the mini-contract. If producers got what they wanted at double or triple the cost… well, okay, I was gonna say, “they’d do it” but maybe they wouldn’t, I don’t speak for everyone. But switching to a mini-contract from seasonal showcase is five times the money. Tickets aren’t gonna go from $18 to $90 and donations won’t quintuple.
Here’s the problem. This exact argument is used by conservatives to deride the minimum wage. They say that the industry won’t handle paying people, and we’re saying the same thing. The OOB community simply won’t exist if the mini-contract is our only option.
But there is another way of looking at it.
The problem is that producers look at their expenses and say, “our rent is often 4-5 thousand dollars a week, and all of the federal grant money is being taken up by The Met and the middle class has been decimated so there’s less money for stuff like ‘theater’ in people’s regular budgets, we have no choice but to ask artists to take less pay…”
We do have a choice. Refuse to pay that rent.
See, we have a system right now where our costs are too high. So we ask our community to crowdfund, and a whole bunch of lower-middle-to-middle-middle-class people give $30 or $40 to a kickstarter. Then we ask the same people to buy an $18 ticket. Then we take almost all of that money and give it to a theater manager who takes almost all of that money and gives it to a landlord.
And that landlord is never – I mean NEVER EVER gonna come see your twelve person, avant-garde, atonal musical about 1930s Kiev.
So, we’re funneling money out of the working class and putting it in the pockets of the 1%. It’s not that we’re anti-union, it’s that our entire community is a money-laundering scheme for the wealthy. Almost everything in politics is the powerful left and the powerful right trying to keep us at each other’s throats, and the “fight” between the actor’s union and “Indie Theater” producers fills them with glee.
Let me state, in no uncertain terms, that I think it is a moral failing on the part of the indie theater producers that we ever ask a single artist to work without compensating them fairly. I also believe, with all my heart, that it is a moral failing on the part of the City of New York that they should allow our community to function as if it were a purely capitalist endeavor.
We are not management. We are all labor. And we’re all working in the company store. We answer phones all day at the front desk of Citibank and then at night we take our salaries and invest in art and take more of our salaries and buy tickets and those dollars get moved up the line into the hands of the wealthy who use it to buy more shares of Citibank.
There are organizations like Actor’s Equity and League of Independent Theater and the New York Innovative Theater Foundation and a dozen others, all of whom are fighting for a chance to continue making theater in New York. We should all be working together. Producers should be fighting to triple the showcase code payments and Equity should be fighting for huge rent subsidies for arts organizations.
Let me go back to my original set of truths.
People in power are taking advantage, and people in power seldom know they’re the ones with the power. So, when producers walk around feeling powerless, we need to recognize that we at least hold the reins of any one production, and actors may walk around feeling powerless, but they do have a union protecting them.
Most importantly, we have a right to collective bargaining. There are about forty five Broadway productions in any year, and maybe a hundred and twenty off-Broadway productions (numbers are sketchy). There are more than NINE HUNDRED showcase code productions every year. And according to extremely old data (compiled by the good folks here at NYIT), we spend well more than THIRTY MILLION DOLLARS. We have a voice, if we choose to use it.
We don’t have to all be on the same side… but we could be. Because if you’re producing a show right now, you’re probably acting in the next one. And you wrote the last one, and you’re directing the one next year. In order to see this as an argument between “labor” and “management”, you have to be completely removed from the culture and the community. When every single person is a hyphenate, it’s impossible for there to be an “us” and “them”. We’re all in this together, we’re powerful if we choose to be, and we should make New York Theater a thing that can thrive.