Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Second Base on Your Wedding Night

Contributed by Shaun Bennet Fauntleroy

If someone gave me the power to change two things about Equity’s Basic Showcase Code, I’d increase the maximum amount of performances from 16 to 20 (five weeks of shows instead of four) and next, I’d increase the ticket price to $25. This format already exist in Equity’s Seasonal Showcase Code for the most part, but the annual gross income required for the Seasonal Code is $25K, and that alone makes this nearly impossible for most Off-Off-Broadway producers to use. So, now that we’ve established that the Basic Code is what most Indie Theatre producers are likely to qualify for, let’s examine why these specific changes would be an improvement.

As an actor, I find the restriction of 16 performances, or the four-week limit, to be tortuous. The first week, preview week, you’re getting used to the costumes, the lights, having an audience, and the theatre you were only allowed access to a couple of days ago. This is when you’re working out the technical and artistic kinks, which is why press is asked to wait after previews to review the show. Then, the work of discovery continues and that third week of the run is usually the honey spot for me. That’s when things are just starting to gel, the mysteries of the world you’ve created become exposed, and it all gets into your marrow. You’re finally ready to just “live it,” and then a week later...you close. It’s like having to stop at second base on your wedding night. (Something you’ll often hear backstage after the last performance of an Off-Off-Broadway show is, “Well...now we’re ready to open.”)

So, what’s the big deal about having a few extra performances? Would it really make that much of a difference? Let’s look at this example. Some of the most incredible performances I’ve seen recently on Broadway have been Arian Moayed in Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, Mark Rylance in Jerusalem, and Cristin Milotti in Once...(all Tony nominated, by the way). These beautiful actors had been cultivating these performances elsewhere for months and by the time they got to Broadway these roles had been well lived in and, dare I say, perfected. There’s also the rehearsal time issue. A Broadway or Off-Broadway contract gives you the option of rehearsing at least 5-7 hours every day. In Off-Off Broadway, people are rehearsing a few hours after work, and usually not everyday due to costs and scheduling. Now, I’m not saying that you can’t give an incredible performance if you haven’t been working on it for a year, or that these actors were only wonderful because of having worked on those roles for so long, but time, to an actor working hard on a role, is delicious (ask the Moscow Art Theatre!). Having that extra week to perform can be hugely helpful, especially considering that Off-Off-Broadway is where most NY theatre actors are consistently plying their trade and sharpening their skills.

Now, despite all this, I know Equity has put these restrictions in place to protect their actors, and I’m incredibly grateful that very necessary protection exists. But, is raising the ticket price to $25 so producers have a bit less money to lose too much to ask? Adding $7 extra dollars to the ticket price (which, in a perfect world could add about $200-$500 dollars to the nightly receipts) could help producers afford that fifth week of rental and transportation costs. To deny this because of concern for the actors not getting their fare share of the sales is illogical. I know several people who worked in a hugely successful, multi-award winning Off-Broadway show for over a year. Despite all its success, they still had to keep their side jobs, because although the $300 or $400 they made in that show wasn’t nothing, it definitely wasn’t something to live on. Let’s be honest, few of us make any money in theatre unless we’re a star or we’re on Broadway. We do this because we can’t help ourselves, and because we feel more at home at the theatre than anywhere else in the world.

So... Dearest Equity, we’re asking you to recognize that actors don’t flock to Off-Off Broadway just because we’re “showcasing ourselves for industry professionals” as your code description puts it, but because exciting things are happening there and contract jobs are scarce. When this code came about in the 1960’s it was necessary and served it’s purpose, but it’s over 50 years later. Off-Off Broadway has evolved into something new and we need a new code for that sweet something new. Now, dear Equity, I’m off to the New York Innovative Theatre Awards to celebrate the exciting, groundbreaking art being forged in Off-Off-Broadway. You should come.

*Correction: There was a mistake regarding the annual gross income required for the Seasonal Code. After further clarification from Equity, the figure has been corrected within the piece; the annual gross income required for the Seasonal Code is $25K.

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


  1. Preach.

    That $7/ticket could be the difference between my company being in the red and actually paying myself a stipend (so far I'm the only one in my company, aside from a few members who make the very lovely choice to donate theirs back, who doesn't get paid). That $7/ticket could be an extra week of theater rental, as you state - which may take my shows from 2 weeks (which let's face it - they currently are) to 3 or even 4. That $7/ticket could be the difference between beg-borrowing-stealing costumes and a designer actually getting to build a key piece. That $7/ticket could be the special for that final moment that a lighting designer is dreaming of. That $7/ticket could be hiring a choreographer so the director doesn't have to try to be one when they are not, or a stage combat specialist so everyone is safe, or an extra table backstage so that actors can have dressing tables instead of leaning over prop tables to use mirrors. That $7/ticket can be a lot of things, and here's how I know - when Retro first started out we were non-AEA and we charged $25 a ticket and we were NEVER in the red (we'd close each show with about $300-500 in the bank - enough to put down a deposit on a theater for our next show. No more - trust me. And rents are higher now so I am not foolish enough to believe that the extra $7/ticket would actually solve all of Retro's financial problems, but those dollars would go a long way towards helping.

    Also - and let's not forget this - everyone wants a deal. So if the top price is $18 you have to discount down to $9 to get people to buy sometimes. If it's $25 you need not go below $12 for people to feel like they are getting a deal.

    And some people are just foolish enough to think if it costs more it's better. So there's that too.

  2. Oh, Heather...I love every word of this. That's an excellent point about discounted tickets. I'm confident that if Equity conceded to raise the ticket prices to $25, people would still feel that a $12 TDF or discounted producer ticket is a steal.

    I'd happily pay an extra $7 a ticket to see one of your shows, and I'm sure many others would too. So much of the work done on Off-Off Broadway is definitely worth an (affordable) price bump.

  3. The discount ticket is also a really big deal. Nobody wants to pay retail. Flux's average paid ticket price (not counting comps) hovers around the $14 mark. That's not exactly a lot of money.

    The point about longer runs is also important for reviewers and industry, which is the entire original purpose of the Showcase Code. Good luck getting paying strangers to your show when the reviews don't come out until closing weekend; good luck getting Industry to your show without a review to wave in their face and at least two weeks' notice.

  4. Thank you Shaun - and Isaiah makes an EXCELLENT point as well - long runs mean more reviews. Many reviewers don't review my shows for this exact reason - if they can't come to opening they can't get a review out before we close, let alone in enough advance to foster more audiences.

  5. http://theatrehab.blogspot.com/2014/03/on-not-being-beholden-to-great-whites.html

  6. Another thing, obvious as it should be, but for some reason I failed to mention in my comments above is this: Cost of Living Increase. AEA needs to at least acknowledge that the cost of producing even a showcase code production has gone up more times then they have changed the code. In the 5 or 6 years that I've been producing showcase code productions rent has more than doubled but the ceiling on tickets has remained the same. The cost of a metrocard has gone up and therefore the cost of stipends has risen - but the maximum I can charge for tickets has stayed the same. The cost of printing and postage has gone up - but the price of a ticket has stayed the same.

    Yes, we try to supplement these costs with additional fundraising (and slashing things like snail mailing from our standard practices) - but here me out - donor fatigue is a real thing. There are more companies vying for less grant money. The current economic landscape is such that most people I know, even people making good livings, can no longer afford to donate additional money on top of what they pay for the ticket. However, out of loyalty, they will still come see the show - although most will take advantage of discounts to do so. See my comment above on discounts.

    We have every right to expect AEA to keep up with the times.

    Actors have every right to get paid.

    I don't think anyone is arguing showcase code reform so that we DON'T have to pay actors. But showcase code reform is necessary (or perhaps, instead, an entirely NEW contract should be created) if off-off-Broadway and Indie Theater are to survive.