Equity, League 'experiment' on the road

Actors’ Equity and the League of American Theaters and Producers have released an outline of their new four-year contract covering touring productions and Broadway shows. Averting a strike, the two orgs announced the tentative agreement July 12.

According to a joint statement, the new production contract provides an annual wage increase of 3% for actors. There are also bumps in benefits, new safety protocol, and greater flexibility for producers in show marketing.

Most controversial is the new tier system for road productions. Tellingly, the joint statement referred to it as an “experimental touring program.” The statement described it in general terms:

“A new, tiered salary system provides an innovative approach to meet the economic needs of the road. The appropriate tier is utilized based on a set of criteria which includes guarantees from presenters to producers, size of company and other variables. The agreement also includes a provision that provides additional compensation for Equity members for successful engagements before a show recoups, and still more compensation once a show is profitable.”

Sources close to the negotiations tell Variety that the tier system has been deemed “experimental” because Equity has the option to back out of the provision in the contract’s fourth and final year.

Under the new contract, a blockbuster like “Wicked” would go out on the road under Tier 1, with actors receiving the top minimum salary and per diems. Other shows could possibly qualify for a reduction in actor salaries of between approximately 35% and 50%, depending on their tier. Per diems at the top tier have been increased, but adjusted downward for Tiers 2-6.

A show’s tier will be determined by its weekly average guarantee from a venue. A weekly guarantee of above $295,000 would land a show in Tier 1. To qualify for a lower tier, a production would need not only a lower guarantee but a traveling company of more than 40 employees, which would include actors as well as crew.

Full details of the contract will not be made public until after Equity’s governing council reviews the agreement on July 22. It will then be sent to its membership for ratification.

Crisis on the road

In recent years, Equity had been under pressure from its membership to take a hard line and not make concessions to road producers. Many union members were unhappy when, two years ago, Equity let the “42nd Street” tour reduce salaries in view of the show’s large 50-plus cast. Chorus members on that show receive $600 a week, as opposed to the minimum $1,302. In exchange for a lower weekly salary, a backend deal was introduced that gave performers participation in the show’s profits.

Other producers asked for similar concessions on their shows, but Equity refused such requests after receiving strong objections from its membership. For example, the original Broadway cast of “Thoroughly Modern Millie” sent petitions (“No More Deals”) to Equity, insisting that it not allow the show to tour with drastically reduced salaries. Reportedly, 350 signatures were received, many of them from stars. As Equity’s exec director Alan Eisenberg put it at the time, “The general tenor of the remarks is that these members would rather the show went out non-union than at a pittance of a salary.”

Producers believed they were overpaying actors due to misused per diems. In addition to their salary, actors on the road receive a per diem (at least $763 per week), then double up on hotel rooms to save money and not spend their regular salary.

Equity refusal to make any post-“42nd Street” concessions resulted in non-union tours of “Oklahoma!” and “Oliver,” which have employed many just-out-of-college thesps. “Millie” bit the Equity bullet and employed union actors but cut costs with a drastically pared-down physical production. The tour has done middling biz.

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