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"Producer's Corner"
by Bruce Lazarus

What You Need To Know About the Unions On and Off Broadway

Every time you produce a Broadway show or a tour of a Broadway show,
you will have to comply with the collective bargaining agreements that
have been negotiated by the League of American Theatres and Producers,
Inc. (“The League,”) and the 17 unions that represent the labor resources
of the commercial theatre in New York.  Most second or third companies
of Broadway shows in cities outside New York use the members of these
unions as well.  They range from the actors union, Actor’s Equity
Association (“Equity”); to the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers
(“SSDC”); to the American Federation of Musicians (Local 802 in New York City);
to Local 1, which represents stage hands; to the Association of
Theatrical Press Agents and Managers (“ATPAM”); to the unions that represent
wardrobe workers, hair stylists, box office treasurers and ushers.  When you
produce off-Broadway, you will have to work with the collective bargaining
agreements between the League of Off-Broadway Theatres and Producers, Inc. and
Equity, SSDC, ATPAM, and Local 802 if you are producing a musical or play
with live music using union musicians.  On Broadway, the Dramatists Guild
contracts will set the standards for your agreement with your authors of a
musical if your authors are members.  If you are serious about producing for
the commercial theatre, it will be enormously helpful to familiarize
yourself with the rules and regulations of these unions as early as possible,
as they will impact your schedule and your budget not just as you begin
to put together your production, but as you march towards opening night
and beyond.

Currently, the collective bargaining agreements for these unions
expire in different years and are renegotiated as they come up for renewal.
In my opinion, it would be beneficial to producers and theatre owners if
these contracts all came up at the same time, so that the producers and
theatre owners only faced the threat of a strike at one expiration date,
rather than continually.  There would be one negotiation period, albeit a
longer one, and no one union would be able to set the standard for the other
unions’ new demands.  At the present time, Local 1’s collective bargaining
agreement expires before those of the other unions.  Therefore, when it’s their
turn, the other unions demand whatever increases or concessions Local 1
received in their negotiations.

As an example of how a union contract works, let us take a look at
the Equity agreement, which will become your constant companion whenever
you work with professional actors in the commercial theatre.  There is an
Equity standard minimum contract, the pay scale for which is different on
Broadway, off Broadway, and under an Equity “letter of agreement” for even
smaller productions.  Under this standard minimum agreement, an actor must
give the producer 2 weeks notice before leaving the production, or you can
add a rider to the contract requiring 4 weeks notice. Once the actor has
performed for 5 weeks after the first public performance, he or she can only be
fired for good cause, and after being given notice.  Keep in mind that this
collective bargaining agreement only sets the minimum terms and conditions under
which a member of Actor’s Equity will work, and when you work with well
known and regarded actors your individual agreements with them will give
them better terms and conditions, usually in terms of increased salary and
personal perks.

Using a rider known as the “run of the play” contract, the producer
can commit to have an actor in a Broadway show for a period of a year,
which can be extended to 2 years.  The off-Broadway Equity agreement allows
for smaller time periods of commitment.  If a Broadway show closes within
6 weeks and goes on the road, you must offer any actor under a “run of
the play” contract the same role at the same or better terms and
conditions.  Often a director and playwright will convince a producer that a
certain actor is exactly what they are looking for and the producer will sign
that actor to such a contract, only to be told later that the actor is not
working out.  In such a case, the actor who is replaced must still be paid
his or her salary until the contract is up.  So, while it is often a good
idea to “lock in” an actor you must have to a “run of the play” contract,
you should protect your budget by making sure your creative team is
committed to the actor.  A standard contract with a rider stating that the
actor must give 4 weeks notice may or may not be a safer proposition.  One
popular actor was replaced in rehearsals for a Broadway show, and collected a
healthy weekly salary while he was actually out in Los Angeles doing
television work and stand-up comedy.  Every time the actors actually performing
in the show got a pay increase, so did he.

Equity rules also provide that if you take your Broadway show on the
road, you may not cut the number of actors in the cast.  However, if the
show is not performed for 6 weeks in between the closing on Broadway and
rehearsals for the tour, you may renegotiate all of your contracts with your
actors.

When it is time to renegotiate the collective bargaining agreements,
the unions other than Equity, such as those representing the musicians
and carpenters, are less willing to make concessions on behalf of their
members, because those members have other forms of income, from playing at
weddings to building and fixing cabinets, and are therefore less afraid of a
strike.

Some theatre industry professionals blame the unions, and their
demands, for the high price of theatre tickets.  I believe that the tradition
of discounting and the half price TKTS booth in Manhattan are just as
much to blame.  Note that if the price of tickets to a Broadway show rose
at the same rate over the years as production and advertising costs, it
would cost as much as $300.00 to see a Broadway show.

In addition to representing the theatre owners and producers in
negotiations with the unions, the League also sponsors many educational programs
and seminars for theatre industry professionals throughout the year, and
is behind a campaign to brand “Broadway,” to keep the profile of
Broadway theatre high.  The League is currently becoming involved in
negotiating with the unions to allow footage of Broadway shows on the internet
and on CD-ROM, so that more people across the country can become
knowledgeable about Broadway and excited about seeing a Broadway show when they
visit New York.

The League is more representative of theatre owners, who need to keep
their theatres full, than of producers, whose interests are in keeping
their one show alive.  At times, it appears as though, in the interest of
avoiding a strike, the League makes concessions that independent producers
would not want them to make but theater owners prefer.  The League might
argue that a strike does not benefit anybody, and concessions from both
sides keep Broadway, “the fabulous invalid,” out of intensive care.

That’s show biz.
 


Bruce Lazarus the former Director of Business and Legal Affairs for Walt Disney Theatrical Productions and producer of the current off-Broadway show Shakespeare's "R&J."

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