A Question of Equity
Is It Time for Austin Actors To Go Union? And Vice Versa?
Of all the nights in the life of a production, the final dress rehearsal might be the most nerve-racking for all concerned. The company has worked on the play for weeks, and this is the last opportunity to run it before paying audiences arrive. The producer, director, designers, and crew will all have notes to exchange, final adjustments to make. And for the actors, this is their last shot to find their feet, to get the play's rhythm down and meld as an ensemble in time for the public's appreciation. Imagine, then, on the day of final dress, a cast member receives a phone call from the New York office of Actors' Equity Association (AEA) with a legal order demanding that he immediately cease and desist from any further participation in the play. This actor is a member of Equity, the professional theatrical performers' and stage managers' trade union, and they have no record of an official union contract for his employment in this production. The actor knows that the union doesn't permit its members to work without an official Equity contract -- the legal agreement that sets minimum standards to which the producer and actor must adhere -- and he also knows that no such contract was ever drafted for this show. The company producing the show is too small to have the resources to pay an actor Equity scale, but he really wanted this role in this play and to work with this director and this cast, so he took the part without telling the union. He figured that no one would find out he was performing without a contract; after all, this was just a small company far from New York, and he'd performed without a contract before and hadn't been caught. Surely it is up to the actor to decide if he can sacrifice the money for a chance to pursue the art? Well, it is not. At least not when he's an Equity member. So an official from New York demands this actor stop working immediately, until he is under a proper contract. Should he defy this order, punishment could include loss of the actor's Equity card, the cessation of health and pension benefits that union members receive, and even blacklisting.
This really happened not that long ago to a local actor, who was, and still is, a member of Equity. "It was all my fault," admits Jeremy (not his real name). "I knew that it was wrong to be working. I have always been a committed liberal -- that is why I think unions are important. But sometimes they can really get in the way of doing work." Once he got the call from New York, Jeremy had a crisis of conscience: Should he quit the union or confess his wrongdoing and try to make amends? His quandary led to a long day of phone calls involving him and union officials from New York, Los Angeles (the office that oversees theatre contracts for local union members), Fort Worth, and Austin, as well as the play's producer.
Initially, things didn't look good for Jeremy -- but that was because he ignored some sage advice in dealing with the union. "I was a bad actor," admits Jeremy. "I didn't take direction. I was told not to call New York, but to talk to the people in Los Angeles. But I didn't follow instructions." Jeremy made his first call to the union headquarters in New York, only to encounter serious intransigence. Jeremy's producer describes it more bluntly: "The New York office is mean and nasty. Never call New York; always call L.A. The Los Angeles office is much more flexible." When the Los Angeles office was informed of the situation, it calmly averted the crisis. Within the space of a day, Jeremy and the play's producer signed the union's Guest Artist agreement, under which Jeremy was to receive Equity minimum -- just under $200 for each week Jeremy was involved in the production -- including back pay. In addition, the producer put up a bond and made payments to cover federal payroll taxes on Jeremy's wages. The play opened on schedule and to positive reviews, and Jeremy contributed his salary to the theatre company to help defray the sudden, unanticipated increase.
The cease-and-desist order seems like overkill, given the relative obscurity of the participants, somewhat akin to the Internal Revenue Service auditing folks in the lowest tax brackets when there are much bigger and more egregious law-breaking fish to fry. Yes, Jeremy was at fault for his action. Actors who join the union make a good-faith agreement to work as professionals, even if it means losing out on some choice roles, so as to work exclusively under approved Equity contracts. He violated that agreement, and basically just because he wanted to act in a certain play.
Jeremy is quick not only to admit his own culpability for the problem, but to excuse the New York office's reaction. "As it turns out," he says about his close call, "[Equity] had no legal recourse. The person I spoke with was just having a bad day, just being uptight about it." Perhaps, but was Jeremy's "crime" really so heinous that it could have cost him his union membership, not to mention the successful, on-time opening of a play? Was it worth putting the producer in the particularly difficult position of deciding whether to keep Jeremy and pay him substantially more money or find someone to take his place on opening night? One Equity office apparently thought so, but another one thought not.
The contrasting responses of the union's two offices -- the severe directive of New York (bad day or not) vs. the humane, understanding approach of Los Angeles -- exemplifies this union's struggle to redefine the way it deals with a membership of theatre professionals who are spread far beyond Broadway, and sometimes in such growing regions as Central Texas.
The Equity Web site, www.actorsequity.org, holds aloft its membership card as "the symbol of a commitment to a career in theatre." That card has also been a ball and chain for actors whose careers have had to encompass unglamorous alternative employment opportunities in offices, schools, and restaurants, because, no matter how committed an actor is, the fact is that there just aren't enough jobs to go around, professional or otherwise. While a coal miner's union may struggle to ensure that he has a job, the actor's union starts looking out for its members only after the member has secured a job, ensuring fair pay and safe and sanitary working conditions, among other things. It is up to the actor to land that part. (See "Actors of the World Unite," for the history of AEA.) Of course, the job of monitoring and mobilizing a membership of 42,000 individuals who are spread across the country and not all employed simultaneously is a hard one. Unlike the miners, there are not thousands of actors working a single production for years on end (unless, of course, you include the touring cast of Cats).
For many years, the diversity of the Equity membership was not much of a concern for union leadership; it tended to focus on professional work in New York City, the longtime center of theatre in the U.S., and to ignore the rest of the country. But the explosive growth of regional theatre in the Seventies and Eighties led to an increasingly active union membership outside New York and a movement within AEA to make the union truly "national." That movement gained momentum in the early Nineties during one of Equity's darkest hours: Union finances were a shambles, and it had been forced to raise the minimum number of weeks a member had to work to qualify for health benefits from 12 weeks to 20, leaving many members without any health coverage and threatening the health of the union itself. Shortly thereafter, the iron grip of the New York Equity bosses was loosened.
"National representation came into being in 1994," says John Holly, the western regional director of AEA, headquartered in Los Angeles. "Before that, the Western Board was the Western Advisory Board. The New York Council had the final say on everything. A lot of New York actors that had moved to Los Angeles were looking for representation, but found out that they had no voice in L.A." After some agitation within union ranks, Equity offices in Chicago and Los Angeles won equal standing with the New York headquarters. "Now all the board members [across the country] are councilors -- and they all have a vote."
Victory for the forces of national representation signaled a shift in the health of the union -- AEA has developed a surplus of cash in its pension and health trust funds and lowered the minimum number of weeks that a member has to work to qualify for health coverage to only 10 in a given year -- and in the way that the union is perceived by its membership. The sense that Equity is as much of an adversary for the working actor, one with little sympathy for the struggles he faces and no desire to cooperate with the producers he is employed by, has given way to a sense that Equity is striving to represent its large, diverse membership with some sensitivity to the working conditions in their various home cities. In an effort to allow for some regional autonomy, the union has created numerous subregions, called liaison areas. Austin and San Antonio boast around 120 union members in good standing, and that was enough for Equity to create a liaison area in Central Texas. It's one of three such areas in Texas -- the others are Dallas/Fort Worth and Houston/ Galveston -- and they're all overseen by John Holly and his West Coast union staff.
John Holly is a dapper man with bright eyes, a showman's smile, and a warm, laughing manner. A former performer and stage manager who joined Actors' Equity in 1968, Holly is also an astute theatre businessman with 22 years' experience as a producer. I met him at Houston's Theatre Under the Stars while I was interning and he was executive producer. In charge of the nitty gritty of producing million-dollar musicals for one of America's biggest theatre companies, Holly was always on the phone, negotiating, casting, placating, wooing, and ensuring that all the artists had to deal with once they arrived in Houston was the art. In the one week I assisted in his office, he and I had time to speak at length perhaps once before he was back in a meeting or on the phone. After leaving Theatre Under the Stars in 1994 for a job as executive producer of Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C., Holly spent a couple of years attempting to establish a professional musical theatre company in Phoenix. In 1997, he moved to L.A. and took on the job of Equity's Western Regional Director.
Holly came to AEA with his own Equity baggage. "I heard horror stories," Holly says, recounting some of his own travails with the union when he was producing musicals. "Sometimes I had problems with certain Equity staff." But that just made him more determined to shift the way producers think of the union. "It is my personal mission," he says, "to do away with the adversarial approach that everyone thinks Equity has and let the producers know that we are their partners in producing excellent quality theatre."
Holly has been working to fulfill that mission by familiarizing himself with the liaison areas that the Western Regional office oversees and the various climates in which its members work. Holly and his staff recently visited all three Texas liaison areas to gain a clearer picture of each of their different characters. "Austin is unique," says Holly. "There is more theatre per capita than any other city I have [in the region I oversee], maybe even more than Seattle." Holly was impressed with Austin as "a very artistic city. We were pleasantly surprised by the turnout, attitude, and support" when he and his party toured the city. "There are over 40 smaller start-up theatres that have great potential to be [under an Equity] contract."
With a few of the city's large theatre companies looking to expand their Equity connections and so many enterprising small groups, most of which have little to no resources for hiring Equity actors and little incentive to do so, Austin presents a challenge for the Western Regional office as it embarks on its plan to grant more autonomy to the region's liaison areas while broadening the kinds of available contracts under which different-sized theatres may hire Equity actors. "We want to entice producers to hire our members, to find ways to get members onstage," says Holly. "If you can pay something even approaching minimum wage, then we can make a deal." Simply put: More gradations of contracts give the union's local membership more opportunities to work because small producers now have more options for hiring union actors, or so the theory goes. Where there is no established relationship with Equity, a producer may still hire a union actor, although he'll have to consider the abilities of that actor against what it will cost in terms of payroll. It may be easier to hire an Equity actor, but it still is not cheap.
Liaison committee chair Bill McMillin has seen Equity grow up in Austin. Educated at St. Edward's University with other local theatre notables, such as David Jones, Joe York, and Michael Stuart, McMillin turned to stage management (and selling cars) to make a living following graduation. In the early Nineties, when the Zachary Scott Theatre Center and Capitol City Playhouse joined Live Oak Theatre (now the State Theater Company) in expanding Equity opportunities in Austin, McMillin got his Equity card stage managing at Capitol City. Since then, he has assumed a leadership role among local union members. It was McMillin who ran point between all the disparate parties when Jeremy had his crisis of conscience, and it is McMillin who chairs a committee made up of local Equity actors and stage managers entrusted by the regional headquarters to help raise awareness among union members and producers. "In the last five to eight years, Equity has really, really listened to its membership," says McMillin. "It went national [with its] representation, where before it was mainly New York that represented the entire country. Now it has national representation where we have people on the National Equity Council from Texas, from Austin, from Denver, that sort of thing -- it's all around the country now.
"We're a new liaison area, [so] we're stumbling," admits McMillin. "It's taking us awhile to get going to educate our members and educate producers. We had a very, very positive meeting with John Holly, and the membership came away from that very, very upbeat. [Holly] made it clear that [Equity is] trying to bend over backward as much as possible to create the opportunity for work in this area and to let the producers know that Equity will work with them as much as they conceivably, possibly can."
If you had to name one person most responsible for Austin's current presence on the national professional theatre map with its own Equity liaison area, it would probably be Don Toner. The tenacity and long-term vision of the State Theater Company's veteran producing artistic director was instrumental in building Equity presence in town. Says McMillin: "There really wasn't too much Equity until Don Toner. Don came in to take over Live Oak [Theatre]. He got the ball rolling." Toner is matter-of-fact about his influence: "Twelve years ago, there were no opportunities for Actors' Equity Association actors [in Austin] except as guest artists at St. Edward's or now and then at other theatres," he says. "As far as resident companies, there were none." Toner's experience with regional theatres elsewhere in the country made him believe that if Austin theatre was to prosper, a strong representation by Actors' Equity was essential. "There is no reason that Austin artists shouldn't be part of the national theatre scene," he says. "I signed the first Equity contract, a guest artist contract, in my first full season."
The following season, Toner negotiated a Small Professional Theatre (SPT) contract with the union, setting targets for the number of union actors Live Oak was to employ in a season, and ever since Toner has ensured that union actors are part of the State Theater's extended family of company members. The State now operates under an SPT level 5 contract (as does Zach), which requires a theatre to hire at least 10 union actors and five union stage managers each season. And Toner doesn't plan to stop there. "Each year we have plans to get bigger," he says. "If the budget stands up, we can jump up a category or two. Our ultimate goal is to be a LORT (League of Resident Theatres) theatre" and rub shoulders in the heady domain of major resident theatres across the United States.
Almost all of the union members currently working in Austin have spent some time onstage at Live Oak/the State, and many of them, such as Barry Miller, Boni Hester, and Janelle Buchanan, credit Toner with getting them their Equity cards. All praise the director's sustained commitment to hiring union actors. Ev Lunning Jr., who arrived in Austin with an Equity card in hand, looking for opportunities, says, "From the beginning, [Toner] has been committed to association with Equity, committed to creating opportunities for Equity members to work, committed to helping actors to become members of Equity." Buchanan echoes this sentiment: "He has been absolutely adamant about making Live Oak/the State a union theatre. He has never done only a 'two/one' show -- two Equity actors and an Equity stage manager, the minimum required for an SPT contract -- in order to get by. He usually casts far above the minimum requirement." This year, for example, Toner will hire at least 32 actors and nine stage managers under Equity contracts.
Toner believes that producers are responsible for creating a climate in which professionals can work. "Producers have an obligation to provide something of a living to the workers, to the people who are creating the art," he says. "If you really want the best people, you want Equity." But he admits that such a task is not easy. "It's a great gamble on the part of the actors who make a commitment to become professionals. It's going to be a sacrifice."
The biggest sacrifice for the union actor is artistic: performing in plays of one's choosing. Add up all the union jobs in Austin in a season, and you find the local contingent battling for about 50 roles. McMillin assesses the scenario bluntly: "Well, you have 112 people in Austin/San Antonio who are all scrambling for what, four theatres? It's tough." And not everyone sees the roles available in union jobs as opportunities to stretch their creative muscles. The economics of theatre commonly push professional companies toward more popular, less challenging work, and since Equity actors cost much more than nonunion talent, the plays a producer chooses have to satisfy more patrons (who are also asked to pay a higher ticket price). Consequently, bigger theatres become more and more budget-driven as payrolls increase and relatively daring works of theatre become the exception in their seasons.
That said, local Equity companies appear to be trying to up the artistic ante even as they develop professionally. They are tackling plays of greater sophistication: The State is adding more classics to its repertoire, and Zach Scott is staging difficult newer work such as The America Play and Closer. Yet even with an increase in roles that might truly be described as risk-taking, such coveted roles are being fought for by not only the area's union contingent, but by a very talented group of actors who have opted to give union membership a pass. (See "Nonunion Actors: Raising It a Notch," on nonunion actors.) Then there is the loss of opportunities to work where some of the most groundbreaking theatrical work occurs, with smaller companies whose budgets cannot afford an Equity cast member. As Barry Miller puts it, "The largest obvious detriment, and it's mondo-big, is that you aren't a free agent anymore. Gone are the halcyon days of flitting from indie group to group."
The biggest drawback to being union in a city where so much theatre gets produced but only a handful of it can be described as fiscally professional is the "lack of constant opportunities to work," says union actor Paul Norton. Norton, artistic director of the Austin Shakespeare Festival, is a longtime member of both American and British Equity: "I made the commitment to become a union actor many years ago, and I do not take that commitment lightly. In Austin, that means my choices as an actor are limited by the financial solvency of each individual theatre company in town to be able to afford my talents. I think my belief in the union and its purpose usually -- not always -- outweighs my need to perform."
So why be an Equity actor? Most local actors who have their Equity card cite the guaranteed working conditions and salary as the prime reasons to be in the union. "The great thing about Equity," offers Guy Roberts, "is that I can go do a show in any strange theatre and any strange town and know that the rehearsal and performance process will be for the most part exactly what I am familiar with. Equity strictly regulates all activity in the theatre, so, because of Equity, wherever I am, I know I will get breaks, I know I will be paid every week on a certain day, I know I will not be taken advantage of. Really, that is why the union sprang into existence -- to take care of performers -- and I feel like Equity does a great job of that." Adds Boni Hester, "The biggest benefit to being Equity is that a minimum salary is already set -- everyone is free to negotiate for more, but you know you won't be making $200 for the entire run. Also, I have my health insurance through Equity." Many actors depend on the union for their health coverage and pension plans, too, and though dependent care is not available yet via the union, the Equity health plan is the envy of many a corporation.
In interviews for this story, all the local members seemed to hold the union in some degree of deference. This, remember, is a union whose members are often in direct competition with each other. Politic opinions are the norm, and when one theatre in Austin holds sway over so much of the local membership, it doesn't do any good to sound off when it might cost an actor a job. And it is unlikely these days that an Equity actor could find work scabbing.
Amidst the gossip and chat at parties come tales of the not-so-distant past when anonymous sources outed union scabs. Janelle Buchanan worked "under the table" on a production not so long ago and has a typical story of being "outed" anonymously: "About a week into the run, I got a letter from Equity saying my participation in The Birthday Party had come to their attention and threatening me with expulsion from the union at worst and a fine at best." Buchanan wrote the union in her own defense, and "never heard from them again. Not a word. I still don't know who turned me in. Or why -- I mean, who would care enough to make it their business? I guess this has happened to several people in Austin, although surely it's much less frequent that anyone works 'illegally.' We have more chances to work above-board and with a liaison office we're certainly more visible." These days, concurs Don Toner, "there's peer pressure. We've arrived at a situation where there are so many Equity members that they won't work without a [proper] contract."
Deferent or not, all local members understand that the union is not there to get them their acting gigs. That job is up to them, so being part of the union spurs them to keep working on their craft. Says Ev Lunning, "I need to keep my skills sharp, keep appearing at auditions, keep in contact with producers. When I'm cast, it's up to me to give the director, my colleagues, the audience my very best effort. It's not the union's job to get me work. It is the union's job to see that I'm fairly treated at work." Or, as Guy Roberts says, "It is up to the individual actor to promote his or her own career. What [Equity] can do, and I think they do very well, is help facilitate the possibility of any work, set standards of conduct and conditions in terms of rehearsals and performances, and resolve disputes with producing entities or individuals."
The union goes to work for the actor once the actor gets work. "Having the weight of the union behind you and therefore not having to negotiate your own contract or feel uncomfortable about asking for reasonable treatment," is a relief for Janelle Buchanan. "I don't think Austin theatres -- with some exceptions -- abuse or take advantage of their actors, but it's good to know going in to a show that your welfare is going to be protected."
The dose of reality in Austin is that even with the union in ascendance, money is still scant. And no matter how comforting it is that the union's presence ensures fair treatment of its members, there is no guarantee of employment for those same members. Every one of the actors interviewed for this piece holds down a day job, or jobs, of various sorts. The lucky ones work their entire day in close contact to the theatre. Lunning, for example, teaches at St. Edward's University, acts, and does voice work for the growing interactive game market. But his only guaranteed income comes from St. Edward's. "The salaries from my theatre jobs are part of my 'living,' and my work in the theatre is a very important part of my life," he says. "I love being paid to play. Of course, [this income] varies. I usually work in about three productions a year. This means I might make as little as $2,500 from theatre work and I have made as much as $10,000." Many work 9-to-5 gigs at offices, others wait tables, and some lucky few are in situations where they don't need to hold down a job to keep their household solvent.
"Every year at every city, we get the same complaints: There aren't enough jobs, and local producers aren't using enough local talent," says John Holly. "This profession is so nutty anyway. [We have] 42,000 members and there are never more than 5,500 working. Ever. In any given week. So why should they be in this business?" Holly still sounds enthusiastic when chiding his membership to stop griping and "go get the work!" And he sympathizes with producers who balk at hiring his members: "The horror stories," as Holly calls tales of the union threatening a small producer to put a certain number of actors under contract, or else; or producers that worry that once they hire an Equity actor they'd be "hooked forever. That's bullshit. We don't do that anymore."
"I'm sure Austin can live without Equity." McMillin smiles as he considers the diversity and artistic strength of the local theatre scene. But, he continues, "The way things are going now, if we want to meet the challenge of the new millennium, I think this decade is the key. I think these next 10 years are really going to show whether or not Don's going to be able to make [the State] into LORT, whether Zach's going to [become] a LORT Theatre. This is all a ball that's really starting to roll. We've been trying to push the ball for quite some time -- over the last 10 years -- that's why I feel that this next 10 years are going to be really important. Three years ago, we got liaison status. We worked on that for five years. It's been eight years in the making. We started in the early Nineties to get that going. What that does is, it brings national prominence to Austin. We're one of 26 theatrical cities in the country. We get national representation. We get national visits. We now have people looking at our theatre industry stronger around the country and that will give more opportunities for people to go out of town [and work]. It will also show the work that is being done in town. I think that some of the companies that are not Equity need to experience real professional people. Not that they're not doing good work, because they're all doing some really great work. But I think there's always the opportunity to raise it a notch. And I think Equity actors do that."