Union or Non-Union: To Be or Not To Be

This blog series is aimed at helping those who might be thinking of starting their own theater company in New York, and who may have to negotiate the same hurdles we have faced….

So, union or non-union? We flip-flopped on this one like flounder fish. Union! Definitely union for our first production we thought. We needed to look professional right? And the only good actors are union right? Looking back from a few months in we realize how green we were.

But back then we gathered all the union agreements and read them like Johnnie Cochran. A quick glance at the bank balance and an Equity show quickly became an Equity Showcase, which we would use as a ‘teaser’ for a full Equity production later in the year. We could hire Equity actors and test out our controversial play without paying full salaries, or pension and health contributions. It seemed a perfect solution.

However, as all those in the industry know, but newbies like us might not, American Equity is not that daft, and the restrictions for Equity Showcases by one-off producers are designed to guarantee a Showcase is a loss-making venture,  by limiting the number of seats (under 100); the price of the seats ($18 or less) and the number of performances (12, or 16 with extra compensation). With the best will in the world, if we wanted a nice theatre in Manhattan, and we felt that was essential for our high-profile debut,  we couldn’t break even on ticket revenue alone, even with a full-house every show, BEFORE we had even taken the cost of scenery, props and costumes into account.

We went back through all the theaters available to rent again, but whether they were quoting $3000 a week or $7000 a week they actually all cost the same when provision of lighting, sound equipment, house and facilities manager, and the number of seats were taken into account. We even had to pay the theatre more money to reduce the number of seats! I had scoffed when people told me that Equity Showcases could not make money. They hadn’t seen my ability to shave production budgets, I reasoned. Well budgetary prowess didn’t make me a magician!

Just as I was trying to convince myself that losing money on one’s first venture was de rigeur we hit another snag. One, and potentially two, of our cast were English and therefore non-resident aliens in the eyes of immigration, even if they were classed as residents by the IRS. A big flashing sentence in the showcase agreement read: Non-resident aliens shall not appear in any code production. 

We were stymied! It appeared that Whistleblower’s co-artistic director, Jack Gilliat, who had spent six years in the US training to be an actor, could not perform in a production that he himself was funding. We were deflated and defeated but not vanquished. Not yet. There were always options until there were none. We would go to Equity and beg. We didn’t hold out much hope. But to our utter astonishment Equity said yes. We don’t know what swayed them – probably the self-investment – but we were too thrilled to ask. We were back on, though still facing a major financial loss.

We went browsing for other cast members and it was then we realized the sheer number, and quality of training, of many non-union actors. They were highly-experienced professionals, with impressive showreels and a long list of credits. We began to think again. Again!

We have the financing in place for a film of the play, as well as a longer run off-Broadway. Producing the show under a Showcase agreement meant that even if we did need to change the cast later on, we might not be able to do so without penalty, and we would have to pay film royalties too, even if the same actors didn’t appear in the film. We also couldn’t entertain a live-stream of the show. And so we made our decision.  ‘Echoes of Ebola’ became a non-union production with the potential – and I stress ‘potential’ – to double our money; with more seats, a higher ticket price and a more flexible performance schedule.

We auditioned for the five remaining roles and ‘Echoes of Ebola’ has an amazingly talented cast, all of them just perfect for their roles. The journey to finding them is a story for another day…….

We have yet to go cap-in-hand to the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society (SDC) to secure a dispensation for the director. The SDC has a strict tier agreement system with a clear table of minimum compensation payments, health and pension contributions for non-union productions employing a union director. We thought we were sorted. BUT it appears, at closer inspection, that it does not apply to theaters with more than 100 seats in New York City!!!

Well, no one said a start-up theater producer’s job was easy! Watch this space…….

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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