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Pro/Con: Professionals Speak Out -- Part A

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PRO

Without the Code, Our Kind of Theater

Wouldn't Exist

By Sam Bellinger, Producer

I came to work with the Showcase Code in a kind of reverse order, having worked first with Off-Broadway contracts as a business manager, then with the Letter of Agreement as a general manager. The Showcase Code is my most recent experience, having produced over 25 plays in various stages of the Code. I encountered it, like so many, out of a desire to produce plays along with my friends and colleagues. Without the Code, our kind of theatre wouldn't exist. Actors have greater opportunities to work without exclusively relying on larger, more commercial institutions. Writers get a hearing they might not otherwise have had. Great work gets done and people who wouldn't otherwise know each other come together and form lasting personal and professional relationships.

What's incredible is that individuals who initially set out to produce a play on a one-time-only basis have often gone on to form their own theatre companies. Now the needs that the Code must meet for these new theatres have become almost as varied as the individuals who founded those theatres. I think at this point a more comprehensive structure is needed -- one that takes into account a theatre's growth and helps ease it into the world of collective bargaining.

Currently, trying to make the transition from Showcase Code to Letter of Agreement is too abrupt. It's a bit like a 12-year-old being thrown into the adult world and being expected to function. As it stands, there are only two options: You either stop your growth and stay at your current level of producing, or you move off the Code to the Letter of Agreement before your financial resources permit it, thus threatening the theatre's existence. Neither situation is healthy for anyone.

Limitation can sometimes be great -- we artists, and even we managers, can come up with some pretty great and inspiring work under pressure. But I do think that new tier structures are called for. More realistic formulas should be incorporated to determine how and what artists should be paid. As a theatre company's resources grow and artists' salaries rightly increase, the theatre should be given the opportunity to expand how it does business. Consideration might be given to extending the number of performances and/or allowing the creation of a ticket-pricing structure -- anything to make the transition off the Showcase Code smoother.

The thing about change is that everybody has to accept it. That's the greatest challenge and opportunity we face. Change breeds success. The system as it is has been quite successful. Let's build on it.

Sam Bellinger is director of finance and membership for the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers and managing director for the Abingdon Theatre Company.


CON

We Have Deconstructed the Code

By Ben Hodges, Producer

The thought of a producer, for many of us, conjures up visions of the Nederlanders or the Weisslers sitting in on high-powered negotiations with AEA, like the ones that took place last season surrounding the musicians' strike. But on the Off-Off-Broadway Showcase level, producers are very often actors, directors, and writers who have become de facto producers in an effort to give themselves, and the people whose work they believe in, an opportunity to be seen.

We are, however, similar to the Weisslers in that we are subject to the same rent increases, rising production costs, and inflationary considerations as they are. Unlike Broadway and Off-Broadway venues, which have seen ticket prices rise steadily to cover these unfortunate economic realities, the Showcase Code -- the only viable option for most Off-Off-Broadway artists to produce under -- has not allowed ticket-price increases in tandem. The last ticket-price increase allowed under the Showcase Code was in 1999, from $12 to $15. This was four years ago, and two years before Sept. 11, which saw the price of insurance double or triple, costs passed directly onto producers.

No one wishes to see ticket prices increase, whether on Broadway, Off-Broadway, or especially Off-Off-Broadway, where theatre should be most accessible. However, as it stands now, those wishing to bring new work by new artists to a public forum are limited by the Showcase Code to practically ensure a loss of our investment, odds from which even the Weisslers would recoil, and certainly never tolerate. The great irony, of course, is that those of us who can afford losses the least are precisely the ones who are experiencing them the most.

Having recently formed NOOBA, the New Off-Off-Broadway Association, for the purpose of representing concerns of the Off-Off-Broadway community, our first order of business has been to organize our concerns about the Showcase Code. We have deconstructed the Code over the past several months and found that, at best, it is based on the New York theatrical landscape of 30 years ago. However, there are currently hundreds of artists at the Off-Off-Broadway level who are trying to develop new work without a sufficiently affordable or practical Equity actor-friendly vehicle for doing so. I am optimistic that these essays are the beginning of an important ongoing dialogue and that all the parties involved can and will recognize that it is in our collective best interest to redesign the framework of the Code to make it more attractive to producers and actors. Or better yet, we could aim to create an alternative working agreement with Equity, such as those in place in other regions of the U.S., which allow for more employment opportunities for actors while also providing opportunities for the development of creativity and ultimately new work.

Ben Hodges is an actor, director, writer, and producer; he is currently executive director of Fat Chance Productions and the Ground Floor Theatre and associate editor of Theatre World. Recently, he founded NOOBA, the New Off-Off-Broadway Association.


PRO

It Was the Big Time

By John Petrick, Playwright

I'll never forget my first Showcase in New York City. From people who had never been produced before, the reaction was, "Wow! You're getting a production! In New York City? Three whole weeks? 99 seats!" From industry people I invited to the show, it was more like, "Oh. (Silence.) It's just a Showcase?"

Just a Showcase?

For those of us who have toiled in the trenches for years -- getting play readings in the basements of liquor stores on Hudson Street, where "tech" amounted to making sure the Ikea track lighting was plugged in -- this wasn't "just" a Showcase. It was the big time.

Fortunately, many legitimate not-for-profit theatre companies treat it like the big time, too. Maybe it's the only level of production for which they have the resources at the moment. In my experience, they still put every ounce of professionalism into it, not to mention respect for the highly trained artists generous enough to work long hours for little or nothing.

In some cases, these are working actors between gigs who simply believe in my play and want to keep their creative juices flowing. For others, it's a chance to "showcase" their talent in the hope it might lead to something bigger. In all cases, it's a sacrifice -- and sometimes it pays off, sometimes it doesn't.

"Leading to something bigger," of course, is a relative term. My first Showcase production, 10 years ago, introduced me to professional actors and directors who plugged me into a network. These artists introduced me to other theatre companies that in turn provided other great opportunities. Some of the people I've worked with on smaller projects in the past have gone on to work with me on higher-profile, salaried productions later on.

If it weren't for Showcase productions, I never would have gotten my first reviews in The New York Times and Back Stage. In many cases, neither would many of those actors and directors. And if it weren't for those reviews, I wouldn't have gotten my agent. Am I making a living doing this? Not even close. But it's kept me alive, all the same.

Like actors and directors, the struggling, professional New York City playwright cannot live by Showcases alone. That having been said, I couldn't have lived without them.

John Petrick is a playwright and journalist. His next play, "Beyond Recognition," will begin performances Oct. 17 at the Abingdon Theatre Company.


CON

Out of Step with the Current Economic Climate

By Jennie Redling, Playwright

For a playwright, an Equity Showcase is a vital step in the process of improving a dramatic work. It goes without saying that without such work, there is no vehicle for actors, directors, and designers to "showcase" the art that makes them viable. Indeed, as many playwrights find early on, a play proves itself on the stage, not the page. Unlike a novel, the structure of a dramatic work requires that there be little lapse in the attention of the viewer -- it cannot be set down on one's night table and resumed in the morning. New plays are nurtured through public readings and performances, and an Off-Off Broadway Showcase Code production is often an important step in the development process.

With regard to new work, however, the Showcase Code does not seem to recognize this process, and seems out of step with the current economic climate. Severe restrictions on rehearsals, performances, ticket sales, and other aspects of a production adversely affect the point of the Showcase -- to present actors in their best light. As things stand, playwrights must view a new piece "on its feet," perhaps for the first time, and scramble to make revisions and adjustments, while at the same time actors and directors must limit their invaluable exploration period. Additionally, those who attempt to finance these short runs of new work must struggle to recoup expenditures.

It would seem to make more sense for an organization whose purpose is to protect actors to acknowledge the special circumstances that new plays require, especially considering the unique creative opportunities for actors who become part of a team bringing a new story and characters to life. Every one of these small jewels hopes to find a broader venue, providing further work for everyone involved -- so this is the level, then, that really needs the most support. It is in the interest of all concerned -- talent, theatregoers, and sponsors -- for AEA to review the outdated restrictions that, in its efforts to protect its members from exploitation, in fact impede all those devoted to presenting new American theatre via the Off-Off-Broadway Showcase.

Jennie Redling's plays have been produced nationally and in New York at Buffalo's AlleyWay Theatre, The Mefisto Theatre Company, Ensemble Studio Theater, adobe theatre company, Soho Rep, and The Mint Theater. She is the recipient of the Arlene R. and William P. Lewis Playwriting Award for Women and The Stanley Drama Award, and a member of the Dramatists Guild and AEA.


PRO

A Showcase Can Be Proactive

By Ed Prostak, Actor

Considering the vast number of Showcases produced every year, the limited time agents have to see them, and the small percentage of shows that actually go on to another production, there should be other factors that motivate the decision to work on an Equity Showcase.

Choosing a project in order to work with a writer, director, or a theatre you admire, or to do a piece that stretches your range and creativity, are good reasons.

Just as the idea of being in show business to become rich and famous is a quixotic one, the microcosm of that is doing a Showcase to be seen or to take that "ride" from Showcase to hit. After all, "Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde" and "Urinetown" are exceptions to the general rule that your show will not get picked up.

The most beneficial aspects of doing a Showcase are to make connections with directors, writers, and producers who may cast you in the future (hopefully for paying projects) and to give yourself the chance to work on different characters and/or different theatrical styles than you normally would have the chance to attempt.

Recently, I've had the opportunity to portray characters as diverse as an IRA terrorist, an Alabama segregationist, an English hostage in the Middle East, and Noel Coward in a variety of works ranging from realistic drama to absurdist farce to musical theatre.

I do not intend to diminish the value of class or scene work, but creating a new character with the writer and director and performing it for an audience is an invaluable way to grow as an actor. Indeed, the opportunity to play varied characters has decreased as so many summer stock theatres have closed. Of course, one caveat to the Showcase process is that your career can begin to feel like a hobby. However, if you have enough savings to carry you through the rehearsal and performance period, or have a survival job with a flexible schedule, working on a Showcase can be a proactive way of learning, growing, and possibly advancing your career.

Ed Prostak is an actor and a member of AEA.


CON

It's a Catch-22

By Jason Cicci, Actor

Anyone who is attempting to build an acting career in New York City can attest to how difficult it can be. For an assortment of reasons, the development of a career can go extremely slowly. I've been an Equity actor since 1994. In searching for an agent who would help my career along, I have always been grateful to be included in any Showcase mounted in New York, hoping that either an agent would see my work and subsequent representation would follow, or that a critic would laud me with praise high enough to reference in a cover letter to agents, thus increasing my chances for representation. In dealing with the Showcase Code as an actor, I can say that, at times, the guidelines make either of these possibilities slim to none.

Given the three-week run stipulation and the amount of produced Showcases increasing every year, managing to get an agent or critic to see you in such a limited run is certainly a challenge. It's a catch-22: If the show you're in only runs three weeks, it is often not long enough for a critic to get there in time, if at all. If you are, indeed, favorably reviewed, chances are the review will be posted after the show has closed, making it impossible for anyone who could be made aware of your work, including agents, to see you in the show. The entire purpose of the Showcase -- to showcase talent -- then becomes the antithesis of what it was created to be.

Many actors embark on the venture of producing in order to give them a leg up and to take matters into their own hands. I myself have written, produced, and starred in productions in the hopes of getting some buzz about my work, only to discover that most people didn't know about the show until it closed, and that I had also spent money I'll never see again due to the stipulations included in the Showcase Code.

With so many variables and so much risk, the Showcase Code is sometimes our most promising prospect to get our work seen. However, it seems that the most you can get out of acting in and/or producing Showcases is not usually a step closer to a steady career, but an enormous, sometimes expensive, learning experience.

Jason Cicci is an actor, playwright, and producer. He is currently artistic director of Monday Morning Productions, an independent production company dedicated to producing theatre and film while showcasing the works of authors, actors, writers, and musicians.

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