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Unions' Guard Up on Casting Classes

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The American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) has voiced its support of the California Labor Commission's recent guidelines on casting workshops. It's the latest in performers unions' efforts to protect members from exploitation--being forced to pay fees to meet with professionals who might help their careers, most notably, casting directors. The actions also include increased concentration on protection for New York performers.

AFTRA, in a statement released last week, said the union "wholeheartedly supports" the [California] state labor commissioner's workshop guidelines.

"For AFTRA, the most important elements of these guidelines are that (1) a minimum of 50% of any workshop time must be devoted to instruction; (2) performers must be allowed to monitor these workshops prior to paying for enrollment; and (3) performers must be able to receive a refund if they are not fully satisfied with a workshop," AFTRA's statement read.

The California commission has released tentative guidelines designed not to immediately kill the workshops, but to ban actors' payments in exchange for applying for employment. The commission's 24 proposals not only ban payment, but also state, "Casting directors are not to use workshops to conduct auditions or job interviews."

AFTRA suggested that the guidelines be changed to allow actors a free workshop for every paid workshop they attend. The guidelines currently propose a free class for every five paid 'shops.

Earlier this year, the California Labor Commissioner decreed the "pay to audition" workshop in violation of state law, and ordered two dozen such workshops to cease. That led to a July public hearing on the California Labor Code and the casting workshop issue. At the hearing, spokespersons for both AFTRA and the Screen Actors Guild stated that their unions concurred with the labor commissioner's ruling.

SAG stated, "SAG is in complete agreement with the conclusion of the DLSE that requiring fees by these workshop operators is in violation of California Labor Code, and the guild will take whatever reasonable action is available to support the action of California officials to eliminate this conduct."

The Labor Commission followed the public hearing by preparing the proposed guidelines, now under public review.

SAG has also looked to place protections from illicit casting director activity in its major contracts, including the feature film-TV pact and the commercial contract. Among other things, the SAG commercial agreement's Article 15 states that casting directors cannot attend or lend their names to workshops that guarantee employment to actors, nor accept a fee from a performer for attending a showcase.

Before the public hearings, in Back Stage West's May 2 issue, Editor/Associate Publisher Rob Kendt stated, "I think it's flat-out wrong--yes, even illegal--for casting directors to accept any money for showing up at events whose express (if not sole) purpose is to showcase/read actors. If casting directors are scouting for talent, which is a job they're paid to do by studios and production companies, they shouldn't get a dime, either directly or indirectly, from prospective employees, i.e. actors."

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AFTRA's national headquarters is in New York City. Back Stage checked with Jayne Wallace, AFTRA's national communications director, who said Tuesday, "Our position is the same in New York or anywhere. We are aware that certain companies have been [holding] 'cold reading workshops,' where artists are charged a fee for access to casting directors, here in New York City. AFTRA believes that this practice violates Article 37.07 of the New York Arts and Cultural Affairs Law, and we have notified the Department of Consumer Affairs about this."

AFTRA wrote Consumer Affairs in May, telling the state department of the California Labor Commissioner's ruling on the "pay to audition" workshops, and noting the California code's similarity to the New York state law. AFTRA also told the New York agency it was alerting AFTRA members that the workshops may violate the New York code.

Dick Moore, the press representative for AFTRA/New York, told Back Stage on Tuesday, "The problems do not seem as pervasive in New York as they've obviously been in Los Angeles. We are encouraging in the next issue of Stand By that, if any members encounter problems with workshops, please report it to us." Stand By is AFTRA's membership newsletter.

Moore also noted that AFTRA's most lucrative contract, the network code, for years has included a side letter prohibiting network employees from receiving pay for "cold reading workshops" or similar "for pay" activities.

DoNotPay

For actors seeking Internet information on the workshop issue, perhaps the most thorough source is DoNotPay.org. The website calls itself "a non-commercial, not-for-profit organization dedicated to creating an overall awareness in the entertainment industry of the current 'Pay-for-Access' casting director cold reading workshop system in Hollywood."

The website opens its aggression on the workshop issue by saying:

"Today, there are hundreds of working Hollywood casting directors, associates, and assistants, representing some 100 network, cable, and syndicated television shows (nearly every one produced), who are paid a fee to meet actors and watch them perform in so-called 'casting director cold reading workshops.' These casting professionals are paid hundreds of thousands of dollars each year for providing a 'service' which gives actors little more than exposure to their offices, and the chance to showcase their talent--which by Hollywood standards is an actor's job interview--for consideration for potential acting work. This is a function for which casting directors are already paid by their employers to do."

While DoNotPay's attention primarily focuses on Hollywood, Roggie Cale, the organization's executive coordinator, told Back Stage in February, "The conflicted feelings of the acting community toward CD workshops and 'paying to audition' are the same everywhere, whether it's L.A., N.Y., or the various other cities where these things show up. As actors have become aware of DNP [DoNotPay], we have been getting letters and emails from around the country (overwhelmingly pro, a few con). Increasingly, we have received messages of support from New York actors and requests to do something in that state."

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