Friday, July 25, 2014

Tear Down This Wall!

Contributed by Patrice Miller

Should you find yourself in Stillwater, Dempsey’s, the Brooklyn Star, or any number of other bars after any number of shows at any number of theaters (that is, those with 99 seats or less) in New York City, and should you bring up the Actors Equity Showcase Code, you are likely to be met with complaints of how lousy it is. What is it about this code, one that many of us frequently agree to, that is so lousy? Take a look at the code. Page one. An entire part of the theater industry, “the arena generally known as ‘Off-Off’ Broadway”, is defined as “limited productions,” existing for the purpose of “enabling members to showcase themselves for industry professionals”. We should really begin putting “the arena generally known as ‘Off-Off’ Broadway” on our LinkedIn and Facebook profiles.

The problems of the code begin with this divisive introductory language, which has helped to create a matryoshka doll of inequality in New York City theater, perpetuated by our internalization of these attitudes and continued use of this code.* From the very beginning of this agreement, Equity narrowly defines Off-Off-Broadway: an arena has walls, and the code provides them with  financial, seating, and run limits. Arguably, no one truly has the ability to define Off-Off-Broadway except the people who make it, including  actors, designers, and directors. Also arguably, Equity is acting on behalf of its members who are frequently working in non-Broadway houses, assuring they be treated as professionals despite their choice to work on projects that cannot pay them professional salaries. The construction of Off-Off-Broadway based on the Showcase Code has created a weird enclave of semi-professionalism that stands in the shadow of million-dollar Off-Broadway budgets, but that is also distinct  from, say, the community theaters many current practitioners grew up participating in. There no one gets paid, but everyone learns box steps.

This whole construction is predicated on the idea that in order to be considered professional theater, a production must be utilizing actors who are Equity members. Years ago, this meant that an actor had done a number of Equity productions and racked up the points to prove that they had learned the ropes of professional theater. Now Equity’s point system is all but extinct, and I think the great majority of us practicing theater would attest that carrying a card does not solely define your professional status. It is this specific construction of professionalism that has encouraged the very inequity that the union was established to abolish, the exploitation of actors--only currently, it is non-union actors. Most of us have been involved at some point in a production that utilized Equity and non-Equity actors, and have witnessed some disparity in treatment be it financial or otherwise (hours in rehearsal, etc.). This exploitation extends to designers, directors, and crew. Producers fiscally prioritize Equity actors often at the expense at the rest of the team, in order to fulfill the bare minimum of a contract that gives a production the rubber stamp of professionalism. So, while playwrights and directors can labor for months on a show, they are often paid less than their Equity actors. ** And while this is often done because the economics of theater are difficult, and little would ever be created if we waited for ideal conditions, it is telling that this is a frequent practice.

This practice of exploitation is in many ways dictated by the walls erected by  the Showcase Code. A limit on profit/income forces us to stretch every dollar, even in the ideal circumstances that a company is pulling in $35,000-$60,000 (showcase versus seasonal showcase limits), especially as New York’s cost of living and producing continues to rise*. A limit on rehearsal time (4 or 5 weeks) means table work or development gets compounded into staging time unless, of course, you can call in nonunion actors to work a little more on script revisions (for free, if you want, no one is making you pay them). This increases the workload and stress on your playwright, director, and possibly non-union actors.  It is hardly professional to pay some actors more than others based only on a card in their wallet, or to ask a non-cardholding actor to work for free. In fact, it is unprofessional to pay less than minimum wage for work performed, and yet, the limits on showcase code income force producers to underpay all actors (not to mention designers and directors) more often than not. We are in effect, contributing to a cycle of poverty faced by underpaid artists. Why do we continue to do this?

It appears to me that we do this because of those very actors. Perhaps some of us believe these actors are more professional than their non-union counterparts. More likely it seems that we know them. We create with and for them. Because theater literally does not happen without actors, because it seems our theater would not happen with these actors, we accept a code that has segregated us from other sectors of the industry, and allowed/forced many of us to shortchange other members of our community. One of the issues with the Equity system is the lack of agency individual actors have to essentially “opt out” of union representation on a theater project. Producers on smaller-budget shows are denied much negotiation with individual actors, as a union-status actor comes with a union-sanctioned production code. So when we fall in art-love with someone from a higher theater class than us, we drain our savings accounts and do everything we can to prove to their people that we are worthy of their presence. Many of us do this often, without thinking twice, because this is the arena we play in. It is what is expected of us as professional theater makers.

This is not sustainable. The bank account will run out quicker than our day jobs can replenish it while also paying our (rising) rents. While we are busy going broke, we are keeping other artists poor by not paying them living wages. And by continuing these practices, we are reinforcing the walls of our arena--we are contributing to the ghettoizing of our art. This segregation does little for the theater culture at large, and certainly fails to serve most Equity actors, given the number of them who primarily work in Off-Off-Broadway productions. With the overwhelming amount of showcases produced on a regular basis in New York City, agents and other industry professionals are no longer coming to shows without a personal investment in them***. An actor is more likely to get an agent or be seen by a casting director by paying money at a studio workshop and attending four weeks of headshot tutorials and acting-for-the-camera classes than they are by being in a showcase code production in the East Village, Brooklyn, or Queens.****

If we are tired of the arena, we need to take a step out of it and revisit our practices. We need to re-imagine what professional, non-commercial theater in New York could look like and begin creating that world.

(Beat). Okay. So, what does that world (or those worlds) look like? And perhaps more importantly, how do we go about building them? If we would like to be treated as professional theater makers by Equity (and maybe even all those other unions, many with arguably more power in the theater world here in NYC, such as Local 1, 802, SDC, or even AGMA), we need to start acting like it. We do not pay our people enough money. This is a fact of the majority of independent theater. We are desperate to continuously produce, to get our work out there. What if we slowed down, what if we looked at all of the possibilities of funding? All those grants you keep meaning to write? Do them. All those donors you keep hoping will walk into your after-party/fundraiser? Find them, invite them. That board you keep talking about really forming or properly growing? Do it. Not sure how? Read some books. Every other industry expects its companies to be accountable to the people that work for them. Why are we asking anything less of ourselves? What if we treated our theater companies the way our day-job CEOs, Executive Directors, and boards treat their companies? It’s a lot of work, no doubt. And it probably means fewer full-scale productions. If more of us over time surpass the $60,000 operating budget mark for the Seasonal, and continue to grow, the Showcase Code won’t even matter. It will be a relic. It will be a thing that young actors out of conservatory or new to the city use exactly for its intended purpose - putting up a beloved play and hoping to get an agent.

This may sound like I’m asking a lot of fish to get bigger in an already small pond, or that I’m ignoring the fact that competition for resources is already kind of killing us, or that it’s just not doable with 24 hours in a day, and a mere seven of those in week. I want to point my finger at the guy who asked me to write this piece. Well, not just him (sorry, Sean), but to his company, Gideon Productions, and the two other companies, Flux Theatre Company and Boomerang Theatre Company, who ran a collective season at the Secret Theater way back in 2012. This model seems to have worked out for all the companies involved, as far I can tell. Collective seasons take some of the benefits of large organization seasons (space, potentially built-in audience) and combine them with decidedly independent programming - the decision is in the hands of a theater company, not a central executive director or artistic director. This means a company retains its artistic control, but can be relieved of some of its producing burdens. Not a bad start. Another company I feel I must point out is Untitled Theater Company #61. And yes, as a usual suspect and board member of UTC61, I am biased in my presentation of this company, but also well-versed in its operations. I would be hard pressed to find an artistic director who is as dedicated to properly funding a company’s projects as UTC61’s. Artistic Director Edward Einhorn writes, schmoozes, Kickstarts, and learns other languages to assure that UTC61’s projects are getting the attention and funds they need to be properly produced. Perhaps most importantly, UTC61 experiments with different contracts and fundraising tools, always looking for the right fit for each project. In many ways, these companies are already out of the “arena” and breaking ground for what could be. We are witnessing the building of an alternative Off-Broadway world.

I know some of you don’t like the sound of this. I can hear you groaning. Grants are soul-crushing. Schmoozing with donors requires a social skill set that many of us behind-the-sceners seriously lack thanks to years of socializing only with each other. You don’t want to raise money because it’s the root of all evil. Okay, fine. Stop using Equity actors. Or have them use their Non-Equity names. Produce theater on your own terms. There are plenty of different kinds of artists who will work under different circumstances in this city. The only permission you really need is the informed consent of your collaborators. Please, do not exploit your actors and remind us why Equity was founded in the first place. And bear in mind that most of the time, we can’t have it all. The Times may not come. The regional houses and Sam French may not acknowledge you. But you’ll be creating on your own terms.

A final alternative I offer, simply because I think passive-aggressiveness is an incredible coping mechanism: sit down with your collaborators, especially the actors. Draw up the ideal contract/code with Equity for your specific project. Link every clause to a necessary part of your production. Press for agreements that puts your actors first - they are called Special Contracts. They are usually used for cabarets or multi-media productions. I’ll send out a Facebook event, we can all do this at the same time. Equity may get the message that we want to work with them, but we need them to work with us.

The take away I get from writing all this is - it’s going to be work. It is work. Theater is hard. But hey, at least it’s not dead.

*“ the arena generally known as ‘Off-Off’ Broadway’”
** It should be noted that in the majority of Equity agreements, directors are not allowed to be paid much more than actors during a rehearsal period. However, directors and choreographers, covered by SDC, are offered a percentage of the gross of future box offices. These are issues for another piece.
*** Living Expenses Rising Far Faster than Wages, Study Finds by Emily B. Hager
*** No hard data exists on this. So maybe they are just not coming to my shows, not even the ones I have worked on with very well-respected companies with decades of history. I have made more and stronger connections with producers, agents, and casting directors, drinking at theater bars than by blindly asking members of the theater community who I do not know to come see my shows.
**** I don’t have hard data on this either. This is strictly from personal observation, including being related to an incredibly talented, hard-working, SAG-eligible, unrepresented actor.

Patrice Miller is a director, choreographer, and amateur social scientist. She is particularly interested in multidisciplinary work, and is frequently sought out to work on the absurd, the musical, and the strange and unusual. Patrice's work has been in seen at La MaMa, 3-Legged Dog, The Brooklyn Museum, CUNY Graduate Center (as part of Prelude), FashionWeekNYC, The Brick, and a bunch of downtown theater spaces. Her collaborations include work with Edward Einhorn (including work on Vaclav Havel's The Pig ...), the Institute for Psychogeographic Adventure, illustrator Marion Fayolle, The Renaldo The Ensemble, Justin Maxwell, and the Bowery Poetry Club. As a reluctant producer, she has produced at the Bowery Poetry Club, the New York Musical Theater Festival, and with composer/lyricist team Carner & Gregor on various projects including Buzzed: The Company of Hair sings Carner & Gregor. She continues to reluctantly dabble in this arena. Patrice was the director of performance at 571 Projects where she devised poetry-driven dramas in collaboration with the visual artists being shown each quarter, and is a board member of Untitled Theater Company #61, a Brick Master Mason, and one half of Tux and Tom Productions. She also does weddings.

Sean Williams is curating the blog this week in honor of Indie Theatre Week.

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