Off-Broadway actors will finally get their #FairWageOnstage, as they have been campaigning for the past several weeks.
Actors’ Equity Association and Off-Broadway producers reached agreement on a new five-year contract November 18 that would grant substantial salary increases to many actors and stage managers.
The agreement came nearly two weeks after the old contract expired November 6. The two sides had agreed to a new deadline of November 20. Contractually, “Off-Broadway” refers to New York theatres with 100-499 seats.
In a statement released to Playbill.com, Actors’ Equity President Kate Shindle said, “This is historic in so many ways. The wage increases will allow actors and stage managers to continue to do the work that we love Off-Broadway, while being able to support ourselves financially. We are thrilled at the result and overjoyed to be able to continue creating some of the most dynamic, exciting and creative theatre in the world, in partnership with our friends and producers Off-Broadway.”
Off-Broadway League President Adam Hess said, “Off-Broadway has always been a fair and progressive leader in the theater community. We champion new voices, we have been at the forefront of diversity on our stages, and we are proud to also support our actors and stage managers with a fair wage.”
Details of the contract were not released, but Equity president Shindle told the New York Times that the new contract calls for “hefty wage increases” of 32 to 81 percent over the life of the contract.
Significantly, the deal covers actors in both commercial Off-Broadway theatres and not-for-profits. Both sides described the new contract as “historic” because it reunites the smaller Off-Broadway theatres, previously known as ANTC, with the commercial and not-for-profit theatres represented by the Off-Broadway League. Now, all Off-Broadway houses will be represented under a single contract.
“Equity and the Off-Broadway League worked together to change the paradigm of Off-Broadway, and this new contract recognizes that,” the two sides said in a joint statement.
For the past several months, the stakes of the Off-Broadway contract were detailed in the press, thanks to the grassroots social media campaign #FairWageOnStage.
Launched earlier this year by members of Actors’ Equity Association, the campaign included nearly 200 individual video testimonials from actors, directors, playwrights, and other theatre professionals, encouraging Off-Broadway theatres and producers to reach an equitable agreement that would properly compensate actors for their work.
Among those who shared videos were Eve Ensler, Tracee Chimo, David Cromer, Dana Ivey, Brandon Dirden, Judy Kuhn, Maddie Corman, Tonya Pinkins, and Jessica Hecht, along with playwrights including Tony Kushner, Dominique Morriseau, Bathsheba Doran, David Henry Hwang, David Ives, and Christopher Shinn.
It is likely that theatre unions will look to the success of #FairWageOnStage and its leverage of social media as a watershed moment in the collective bargaining process. With so much at stake artistically and financially for both sides, and in an arena where closed-door negotiations can swiftly grow contentious, #FairWageOnStage maintained a firm, but diplomatic campaign that brought to light the personal stories (and financial hardships) of actors who make their livings in the Off-Broadway sphere.
With #FairWageOnStage, the collective bargaining process had faces and names. At the forefront were campaign spokespeople (and noted New York stage actors) Nick Westrate, Diane Davis, Kellie Overbey, and Robert Stanton.
“There’s this idea that actors will work for nothing because of competition, or this idea that we’re interchangeable, or because there are so many actors,” Westrate told Playbill in October. “I think that my contribution to a play or a production has always been honored by artistic directors, and writers and colleagues, but it’s a hard pill to swallow. We are asked very frequently to come in and do readings for free, to perform at benefits for free, or come to a donor meet the cast for free. It’s difficult to help the theatres year after year raise money and to not feel like you’re a part of shared growth.”
He added, “There are certain plays that don’t get made without these actors because they’re who the writers are writing for. The theatres love them, and we love these theatres, we have relationships with these theatres, and we have long-standing artistic partnerships. We’re not dispensable.”
The campaign issued a statement applauding news of the new Off-Broadway contract. It reads: “#FairWageOnstage applauds the League of Off-Broadway Theatres and Producers for taking this bold step in agreeing to a historic increase in wages for actors and stage managers. We are deeply grateful to Actors’ Equity Association for fighting to better the lives of its members. And we are proud of our brothers and sisters who spoke up for the cause with signatures on our letter to management, in video testimonials, on social media, and in other actions that demonstrated our commitment both to the Off-Broadway movement and to each other. We look forward to making more important work with our employers Off-Broadway, and to further helping to improve the lives of Equity actors and stage managers in New York City and across the country.”
Westrate added, “I am incredibly humbled by and grateful to the New York theatrical community. We gave voice to a problem that we had, all of us, long ignored, and as a community we did the hard work of addressing it. It is so inspiring to see what we can do when we refuse to give up, roll up our sleeves, and work together. I hope that every theatre learns from the example set by the Off-Broadway League. They have shown extraordinary leadership in our field. I hope every union learns from Actors’ Equity Association. They listened to their members and took decisive action.
“We have a long way to go before we can say that we have achieved fair wages for stage managers and actors in this country. I have confidence that we have begun that conversation with all the care and rigor that we bring to our work on stage. Let us continue building a community that nourishes workers from all backgrounds and builds a future for them in the theatre.”
Stanton said that now “my peers working Off-Broadway will see a difference in their paychecks, and that’s really moving to me. Two Equity members kicked off the movement, and I’m indebted to them for having the vision that we could attain this goal. I’m honored to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the 21 other Equity members who are the campaign’s central organizers, and with all my other Equity brothers and sisters who stood for and on their worth. I’m grateful to Actors’ Equity Association for hearing us and fighting for us, and to our negotiating committee for their heroic, tenacious, nuanced approach. And I’m thankful to the League of Off-Broadway Theatres and Producers for hearing us, too, and for making this step. A live voice in a room is harder to control than mass media. Together, we and our employers have important work to do, and I’m glad our artists and stage managers can do it with greater security.”