Thursday, August 28, 2008

calling all union actors

So it was announced a little while ago that Actors' Equity Association is putting a new and largely unchanged Basic Showcase Code into effect on September 1st. You can see it at

This despite the conversation that's been taking place for over a year and a half now, the concerns expressed by ART/NY, the League of Independent Theater and other organizations, companies and individuals working in 99-seat theater in New York City.

I was a little stunned when I got the news.

For those not up on the issue, the central reality of the Basic Showcase Code is that it's an anachronistic document, built for a much earlier time when the primary desire of people working Off-Off Broadway was to "showcase" themselves to an agent so they could get a TV gig.

Every actor I know and work with would love that TV gig, but it's not why they're accepting work in a small theater in New York. It's not why they agree to say the words of Brian Parks or C.J. Hopkins or Kirk Bromley or Susan Bernfeld or Will Eno or Don Nigro or Thomas Bradshaw or Young Jean Lee.

Saying these words, working with artists they've worked with for years in intimate theaters in Manhattan and Brooklyn and Queens and the Bronx and even in Staten Island is not a means to get somewhere else for these actors. It's where they work, it's where they practice and perfect their craft, it's where they celebrate their community and deepen their artistic integrity, it's home.

And the Showcase Code is the single most destructive and disruptive thing in that home. It's making a grown man wear short pants. It's a symphony played on a kazoo. It's horse and buggy rules for the automotive age.

I'm a big union supporter. Hell, my grandfather was a Democratic state Senator from Queens and he's responsible for getting teachers a pension fund. I used to be a member of the Teamsters, of all things. They controlled the supermarket workers in St. Louis and I was a proud union bagboy back in the day. It is vital that we have a strong union protecting actors from unscrupulous and uncaring producers. They used to leave people out on the road when a show failed, you used to have to buy your own costumes.

But it's the 21st century and some things have changed.

Bottom line, no one can change the Code or have a legitimate voice inside the union except for union actors. And that's how it should be. Every union actor has the right, if not the obligation, to attend the union's committee meetings and after a time, join the committee and move the union towards a sensible and healthier understanding of how Off-Off works.

Here's the League's official response to this news:

The League of Independent Theater is disappointed in the decision made by Actors' Equity Association to put a new, largely unchanged Basic Showcase Code into effect on Sept 1. We strongly urge all union actors working in venues of 99 seats or less in New York City to contact their union representatives and become actively involved in efforts to persuade Equity that the Code (see is in need of pro-actor, pro-practitioner reforms.

Despite Equity's decision, the League will continue to advocate for Code reform, including the creation of new codes. We again suggest that all concerned parties examine the L.A. 99-Seat Theater Plan as a useful and sensible model.

Our position was mischaracterized by AEA spokesperson Maria Somma in a recent Backstage article. Ms. Somma voiced concern that Code reform could result in “...allowing showcase producers to have much longer runs without compensating actors."

The League has never, and does not, advocate leaving actors uncompensated. Indeed, if Equity were to join the League and consider the 99-Seat Theater Plan as a model for New York City, actors would earn greater compensation in direct proportion to the weeks of an extended run.

The League looks forward to an open, spirited and long-needed discussion with all concerned parties about the urgent need for Basic Showcase Code reform. We remain confident Actors’ Equity will heed the concerns of its members, resulting in a healthier Off-Off Broadway for all.

This is not about fighting. It's not about shaking our fists and rolling our eyes and trudging forward, grumbling, for another year.

This is something that the union actors and only the union actors can change, if they wish.

I think it's something that has to be changed if we're going to honor and revitalize Off-Off Broadway. And I think a strong and revitalized Off-Off leads to a stronger Off-Broadway, which leads to a stronger American theater.

This is a simple thing, at the end of the day.

So I'm calling all involved union actors who work in and care about the Off-Off territory to call your union and get involved.

It's up to you now.


RLewis said...

So, I attended the aea/oob committee meeting today. Only saw one other person who might have been an indie type... might - pretty much just the same folks who i knew from when i used to attend regularly. they are starting a whole new process from square one to make the codes work better, but they have many and varied concerns that are not all unrealistic. At the litny kickoff Tim in the audience mentioned their plans, which may have been true at the time, but were nowhere in this meeting today... good meeting though, not for litny, but good meeting. just fyi.

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