By Isaac Butler
The never-slayable Hydra of Equity Showcase Code Reform is raising its head again over at the Full of IT blog, courtesy of this piece by actor Shaun Fauntleroy. For any non-theatre-insiders reading this blog, this might seem inside baseball, so let me just quickly explain: The actors' union (Equity) has a variety of different codes that producers operate under if they want to use union labor. These vary by market, by theater size, etc. and so forth. In New York, Equity created something called The Showcase Code, which allows Union actors to work essentially for free (it's actually cost of transportation, but in a city with cheap public transit, that's nearly nothing) if the producers follow some rather steep conditions. The most contentious of these are:
(1) The number of performances is limited and if you extend beyond that number you have to pay everyone.
(2) You cannot record the performance.
(3) The budget is capped.
(4) The ticket price is capped at $18.00.
(5) No one can be paid more than the actors.
This all makes sense if you understand that the showcase code was initially intended to help actors produce showcases of their work (hence the name) for the purpose of meeting industry people and being seen by directors, producers, casting agents, etc.
That, however, is not how the code is used. Instead, the code is now used to provide a loophole whereby actors can subsidize full, low-budget productions through free labor. But rather than be grateful for the no-cost access to union talent that this gives producers, for years producers have been trying to increase the budget cap, ticket price, and length of run. From the producer's perspective, this makes sense. Producing theater is far more expensive now than it ever has been, and the strict limits in the showcase code make it even harder.
The problem is, seeking concessions from labor makes no sense in this case because labor is already getting essentially nothing. The actual reason why producing theater in New York is so expensive is because of real estate costs. Weekly rentals at theaters have skyrocketed over the last decade, and many of the low cost venues that operated by taking a chunk of the box office or charging an hourly rental rate have closed. Going after the union and blaming the limits of the showcase code is picking the wrong fight.
It is not in Equity's interest to make it easier to work with their members for free, and I sincerely hope they won't and that they'll continue to resist calls for "reforms" that further gut the code. This would put downward pressure on wages everywhere and further reinforce the idea that you don't have to pay the people who make your art. If we're going to say that Indie Theater is the "innovative" theater sector, prodcuers should get innovative about how they produce their work so as to avoid high real estate costs. Or, as one off-off producer I spoke to put it to me, "it infuriates me that people produce shows about, say, the disenfranchisement of the underclass while not paying their actors and crowdfunding their productions and giving all their rent to a guy who lives in Florida and owns eleven buildings in Manhattan."
This is a long-winded way of saying I disagree almost entirely with Shaun Fauntleroy's piece, but there's one place where we do agree: A lot of this problem stems from the fact that the showcase code is being used in a way no one intended, and thus it is ill suited to the particularities of the indie theater scene that has grown over the last fifteen years.
This is absolutely true, but the solution isn't to further gut the code. So here is my pie-in-the-sky solution to this issue:
(1) Equity should create a new code for the City of New York, an Indie Theatre or Low Budget Theatre code separate from the showcase code. This code would lift many of the restrictions of the showcase code, but also include real pay for actors (and pension and health care) pegged to a percentage of the show's budget. Since Equity would be getting some money from the code, they'd actually have an incentive to enforce its provisions, which also eliminates another problem with the showcase code, which is that producers already disobey many of its rules around budgeting and salaries. This would look basically like the seasonal showcase code (which you can find here).
(2) The showcase code should then be reformed in such a way that it only applied to true actor showcases. In other words, it should be made stricter, with a lower budget cap and fewer allowed performances.
(3) Actors would get candidacy points, but
(4) Equity would make membership more difficult to get.
Now, this will never happen, but it's nice to dream. The truth of the matter is the showcase code as it currently stands is a pretty good compromise and an unbelievably good deal for producers. If they don't like it, there's already a solution in place: just work with non-union actors.