A new coalition of Off-Off-Broadway organizations is seeking changes in the Actors' Equity Association Showcase Code in an effort to give small-scale shows and the companies that produce them a greater chance for success in a notoriously competitive marketplace.
Faced with high rental costs and what it perceives as outdated and sometimes constricting provisions, the group is suggesting, among other things, an increase in the amount of money producers may spend on a show; greater flexibility in rehearsal and performance schedules; and a more liberal policy regarding videotaping.
The group, known as the Coalition for Code Reform, consists of the Alliance of Resident Theatres/New York, the League of Independent Theater, the New York Innovative Theatre Awards, and representatives of the Community Dish. A document called the ART/NY Equity White Paper, outlining what the group wants, will be released at a convocation on July 8. Back Stage was given a summary.
The coalition is hoping that actors will sign a petition, posted on its website (www.nyc99.org), calling for changes to the code.
In the summary, the coalition states, "An Off-Off-Broadway that gains the flexibility to operate at its full potential will be the foundation of a theatre community at large that is artistically and economically healthy."
The coalition has not yet officially presented its proposal to Equity. Union spokesperson Maria Somma said she was unaware of this latest effort to revise the code, adding that it has been working well enough as it is. "There were over a thousand showcases this season, so it doesn't seem as if anybody is hurting," Somma said. "I do not understand why this is being played out in the press."
Back Stage was first made aware of the coalition and its efforts in mid-May, when Shay Gines, executive director of the New York Innovative Theatre Awards, contacted the newspaper. (In the past, Back Stage has been a sponsor of the IT Awards.) Gines said the group was formed to begin a new type of conversation with the union: "The culture of complaint is over. We're trying to enter into a new partnership with them."
"The sense is that approaches [to Equity] have been made before and not much has happened," said Susan Bernfield, artistic director of the theatre company New Georges and a vice president of ART/NY. "Things are happening more quickly than we expected."
The coalition was started about a year ago in the spirit of "changing the conversation," Bernfield said. She added that the Showcase Code has not been adapted to a changing environment as quickly as many Off-Off-Broadway producers would like, citing the $20,000 maximum budget that Equity allows. "That doesn't take into account the $3,000 a week it takes to rent a theatre," she said. The coalition wants the amount doubled to $40,000.
The group also wants producers to have the option of an alternative rehearsal structure. Currently, rehearsals cannot exceed four consecutive weeks. The coalition's proposal would allow a producer to spread the allotted rehearsal hours over a longer period—to accommodate actors' often-haphazard work schedules, for example—with more hours given to tech rehearsals as opening night approaches.
The current Showcase Code prohibits video or audio recording of any kind, but the coalition would like exceptions made for promotional excerpts distributed online and given to actors to promote themselves.
Other items on the coalition's wish list include:
> A provision allowing a Showcase production to be remounted under the Showcase Code within one year.
> The option to extend a run twice, with an escalating pay scale for actors.
> A group of producers, similar to the Extended Rehearsals and Performance Group in Los Angeles, that "would reward companies with strong track records by enabling them to petition for longer rehearsal and performance periods and other benefits."
Somma said that what applies to Los Angeles theatre companies does not apply in New York, as L.A. is dominated by film and television and its theatre community needs more assistance to remain vital.
What the coalition seems to be saying in asking for these changes is that the size and scope of Off-Off-Broadway has matured beyond its producers' ability to pay actors regular salaries. According to Gines, coalition research shows that some 500 Off-Off-Broadway companies produce about 2,000 showcases a year.
Bernfield noted that in a given year a company may have the money to graduate from the Showcase Code to an Equity Letter of Agreement—a formal contract providing actors with a weekly salary and health and pension contributions, rather than the code's meager transportation stipend—but that once a company produces under an LOA, it cannot go back to producing under the Showcase Code. Bernfield, whose theatre operates under the Seasonal Showcase Code, would like the ability to present Showcase productions after producing under an LOA.
Bernfield said the Showcase Code is good, by and large, because it provides a framework under which smaller New York companies can operate. "The structure is so necessary, because it's the only structure that we have to do this work," she said. "The actors love their union, and they understand why their union needs to be there. But sometimes…there are intractable rules that keep their art from coming forward."