I'm an avid reader of Back Stage West, and am not easily fooled, or so I think. Over a year ago I decided that I wasn't getting any younger, and I began to focus 150 percent on my acting. I haven't done too badly. I have gotten myself more than 60 auditions and booked seven jobs, mostly student and short films. The latest job is a waiver play at a small theatre here in Los Angeles. It's a one-act, but it will run along with two other plays. My play is great, very dark, and perfect for me. We have started rehearsals, and the director is really cool.
Here is the problem. The theatre wants us to sell 10 tickets each, which, in itself, I have no problem with. I have enough friends who would be willing to come see me in the show to do that. But they want us to pre-purchase the tickets at $20 a pop for a total of $200 upfront. Or we can sign a promissory note that, if we don't sell the 10 tickets, we need to pay the balance ourselves. Plus they want us to do 26 community hours at the theatre.
To me it sounds a little like a trick, like I'm supposed to pay to get a chance to perform on their stage. What do you think?
Your letter certainly speaks to the intense desire many actors have to perform. In what other job—or art, for that matter—can you convince the worker to pay to do the work? Isn't it supposed to be the other way around?
As you suspected, being asked to pay to perform is against Equity rules. If this production were indeed taking place under an Equity waiver contract, the producers would be in violation. I spoke to Michael Van Duzer, the AEA 99-Seat Plan Administrator, who said, "Requiring cast members to sell tickets would certainly be seen as a violation of our rules. Producers are responsible for filling the house. Professional actors are beyond the high-school play/bake-sale mentality and should be treated accordingly."
Go to the Equity Web site to view the 99-Seat (or "waiver") Plan. It is spelled out with this clear-cut language: "The Producer may not, in order to supplement the production budget, request or require financial contributions, loans, tuition fees, assessment, or payments of any kind from cast members or stage managers." This would include any guaranteed pre-sale ticket arrangement such as the one you describe. Additionally there is nothing listed in the "Actor's Duties" section of the plan to indicate that ticket sales or community hours working at the theatre are your responsibility. You can download the complete AEA 99-Seat Plan on the Equity Web site. Go to actorsequity.org and click on "Document Library," then "Codes," and "Los Angeles 99-Seat Plan Rulebook."
On this theatre company's Web site, I found the policies you described in plain view. Actors are required to sell 10 tickets by the sixth week of rehearsal or risk being pulled from the production. You mentioned that the show was double-cast, and perhaps this was to give the producers leeway to drop actors who don't come through with the cash. I also saw that, after the initial 10 tickets, the theatre engages in a sort of profit-sharing scheme with actors. So, if you sell more than the required amount, you begin to receive money back on further ticket sales. I don't know about you, but this seems a bit backwards to me. It's nice to earn a percentage of the sale, sure, but should actors be pushed into the producer's role this way? It's the producer's job to fund the production and sell the tickets. If they farm that work out to the talent, it makes me wonder what their purpose is. Perhaps a better choice for actors willing to hustle for ticket sales would be to ditch producers altogether and create their own opportunities.
You also mentioned being required to put in "community hours" at the theatre. That, too, goes beyond your responsibilities as an actor and beyond what's allowable in an Equity-waiver production. It's the actor's job to act in the play. You are performing for free—or, in the case of the 99-Seat Plan, practically for free—contributing your time and talent. That should be the only contribution required of you.
In looking further into your case, however, I found that the theatre in question is not working under an AEA plan at all. Perhaps it should be. If there are any 4-A (AEA, SAG, AFTRA, AGVA, AGMA) union members in this show and the producers are charging admission, they are required to work under an Equity plan, which would protect actors from this kind of financial and time suck. But policing these smaller, showcase-type productions is difficult, and Equity would probably not take action unless a complaint was filed. No one has yet called in about this company, so that is something for you to consider. You can reach the L.A. branch of AEA at (323) 634-1750.
If the show is entirely non-union, the producers are not bound by any Equity requirements. This frees them from the responsibilities of following the 99-Seat Plan but doesn't diminish the unpleasant aspects of their policies. The producers' Web site describes them as a sort of educational organization, with classes and weekly tuition. They refer to performers in their productions as "actor members." Yet it sounds like they made no mention of this educational and financial component in your audition. That's a bait-and-switch tactic: Cast actors in a play, and then reveal the side work and fees required for participation. With so many actors struggling to make ends meet as they pursue their careers, it seems particularly cruel to hold the opportunity of a role out and then follow up with the price tag. Certainly the producers could encourage actors to sell tickets and ask them to volunteer at the theatre. We know producing theatre is an uphill battle, and most actors want an audience and are willing to help out. It's the requirement of the upfront cash with the threat of being dropped from the show that makes this situation so distasteful.
Justin Yoffe, cultural arts program supervisor for the city of Santa Monica and artistic director of Venice Theatre Works, had this to say about the practice: "It's a real sad comment on the state of arts funding in California and the state of acting in L.A. I know it's hard for producers to operate ethically when there's no real "ethics board" for theatre, and we're just starting to build a theatrical history in this city. It's like the Wild West for theatre out here, and we're faced with a tough economy in a cutthroat industry." He continues: "There are so many people looking to 'make it' in Hollywood that a pocket industry has sprung up servicing these hopefuls. These "pay-for-play" companies fit into that mold. It's hard to blame the producers completely, because the actors are not being forced to sign on—they do it of their own volition—but it is akin to offering a gambler a shot at a billion dollars if they can just raise $100 to get in the door."
Because no one regulates non-union productions, they aren't bound to, as Yoffe puts it, a code of ethics. But this doesn't make their policies any more palatable. If I were in your shoes, I would have to resign my role or respectfully decline to sell the tickets and let them drop me from the show. But of course the choice is yours. You need to decide not only what it's worth to you to perform but how you feel about casting your lot with people who charge you to do so.