Historical Overview of the Equity Showcase Code

It is also important to have an historical perspective on the Showcase Code. For this, Back Stage turned to David Lotz, AEA's press representative, who furnished an extensive collection of Equity News clips pertaining to the Code's creation, implementation, and changes over the years. While some industry folk with good memories may remember the contentious "Showcase Wars" that erupted in the late-'70s, the clips actually dated back to the issue of Equity News from December of 1965 when an article reported on what happened when Barbara Colton, speaking for the Subcommittee on Showcases and Workshops, delivered a report to the quarterly membership meeting.

Colton recalled that her committee had been created "out of a need for a consistent policy in the area of Showcases and workshops" as well as "to examine the existing conditions and to recommend ways and means to strengthen Equity's position in these areas." Her committee, she told the gathering, concluded that AEA not only needed to ensure that its "membership will no longer be exploited by so-called Showcases or workshops," but that Equity's Council was proposing to adopt "a Code of Ethics, which outlines the only conditions under which our members are permitted to appear in Showcase or workshop productions." The Code would take effect "when a means of administering it is devised."

The Code caused considerable criticism. AEA member Eugene Francis felt it denied "the existence of [a] union shop," creating a situation in which actors might "refuse paid employment in order to fulfill" the Code's obligations.

Then Colton returned to the floor. The basis for the Code, she said, comes "directly from the National Experimental Theatre contract, which was adopted in 1940." She then read the text of the Code, which actually sheds a good deal of light in terms of how far things have come since late in 1965. A Showcase, she said, is: "organized for, conducted for, and participated in by Equity members in good standing for the purpose of presenting scenes and/or plays (non-musical) for the benefit of participating actors in limited, semi-public performances where no member of the audience pays an admission fee of any form." On top of that, a limit of three performances within three consecutive weeks was established, advertising was banned, and many of the strictures that remain intact today -- AEA deputy elections, actors able to leave on short notice, actors having the right of first refusal in the event of transfers -- were also established.

The May-June 1967 Equity News reported 140 Showcases produced to date. Two years later, a longer version of the Code occupied two full pages of the publication. A "semi-public performance," it said, shall not "exceed 100 audience members without Equity's approval." The maximum number of performances rose from three to six. And the question of how actors should be compensated for Showcases moving on to bigger productions -- or to film or TV -- was spelled out in exacting detail.

As the Showcase Code closed in on its first decade, its very success had begun fostering discontent within the AEA rank-and-file as well as the nonprofit theatres working under it. In its August-September issue, Code changes made the front page of Equity News. Among the modifications: a "bookkeeping fee of $15 per production" and a demand that box office receipts "shall be divided equally?to defray expenses."

It was, however, AEA's demand that members "become owners?of 2%, present and future, of a production on an equal ownership basis?after recoupment" that caused the dam to swell and burst. On and off for the next five years, a fire would rage between the union, its membership, and producers -- then represented by the Off-Off-Broadway Association, called OOBA -- over the Code's viability and fairness. Confusion reigned as some OOBA groups agreed to the Code, while others vehemently resisted. Some actors railed against the rule; others vigorous supported it. A seemingly endless series of meetings, debates, and public and private negotiations and truces were the norm. Just consider the events of Aug. 25, 1975, when Equity's Council voted unanimously to approve a resolution (passed overwhelmingly by a special membership meeting held earlier that day at a packed Majestic Theatre on Broadway) suspending the Code's new provisions, which had already been attacked in The New York Times and by producer Joseph Papp.

In an op-ed, then-Executive Secretary Donald Grody said the provisions had "created hysteria" among a "certain group of Showcase Code producers and some members of the Dramatists' Guild because of the unseemly demand by actors that they be compensated with something more than applause for their participation in a Showcase production."

But again, that was the iceberg's tip. In the March 1978 issue of Equity News -- in response to a "mandate from membership, and after discussion with the Off-Off-Broadway Alliance" -- the establishment of Showcase and Developmental Theatre Codes was discussed, but the antagonism between the parties still intensified. In a February 1980 op-ed, Grody said OOBA had "gone bananas," and he especially lambasted the organization's hiring of Howard Rubinstein, the publicist, to get its story into the public eye.

By the end of the five-year "Showcase Wars," many of the contemporary Code guidelines were formulated: Up to 12 performances within four weeks; admission charges (then a $3 maximum); advertising permissable; transportation reimbursement for rehearsals and performances; and budgetary limits (then $2,000) on productions. Then came the "Tier" contracts, which offered nonprofits the ability to spend more (and pay more) as their budgets increased. And some extraordinary statistics continued to emerge. In the 1978-79 season, Equity News reported 2,875 AEA members participating in over 575 Showcases.

Today, nearly 25 years later, it would seem that many of the questions, concerns, outrages, and grievances remain on the table. Indeed, Off-Off-Broadway today is not unlike the composition of that Aug. 25 meeting, "divided into two groups: those working in Showcases only and those who work under Equity contracts." Now, as then, artists across every discipline find the Code full of extraordinary opportunities yet riddled with rules, cowed by constraints, drenches with difficulties. AEA quite naturally feels an obligation to protect its membership and to advocate strenuously on its behalf. Yet artists, including actors, demand their union be responsive to the age. So could changes be coming to the Showcase Code? History suggests it might well be possible -- even a boon for Off-Off-Broadway. The question is how, when, and why.