Touring Productions of Broadway Musicals Stir Union Debate Over Actor Salaries
By Robert Simonson
Actors' Equity president Nick Wyman talks with Playbill.com about the recent controversy regarding the salaries of touring productions.
The first big challenge for the Actors' Equity Association in 2014, it seems, will be settling the matter of touring production salaries to the satisfaction of both union members and producers.
The issue in question is the use, by producers of touring production of Broadway musicals, of what are called tiered contracts. These pacts offer significantly lower salaries to performers. According to an article the New York Times, pay ranges from $700 to $1,100 a week, whereas a full production contract rewards actors with a far beefier sum of $1,800. Upcoming tours of Kinky Boots and Newsies are seeking to use tiered contracts. A casting notice posted in December 2013 by Kinky Boots advertised a $976 weekly salary.
To address the hot-button issue, Actors' Equity has scheduled a town hall meeting with members for Jan. 27. However, the topic was also discussed at a Jan. 10 membership meeting that attracted more than 350 union members.
According to Equity president Nick Wyman, the current conversation over touring productions was spurred by "some social media outcry in response to auditions for Kinky Boots and Newsies." This led to the above-average attendance of the membership meeting and the scheduling of a town hall meeting, which Wyman noted was "unusual."
Membership meeting are so structured, Wyman explained, that "you can't really get into a full, in-depth discussion on one topic."
How to finance touring productions of Broadway shows has long been a subject of contention. In the early 2000s, Equity offered considerable concessions to a tour of 42nd Street owing to the large cast size. When other shows requested similar consideration, the union leadership declared there would be no further special contracts for national tours. Tiered contract were introduced in 2004, largely in response to the increasing occurrence of non-Equity road productions.
In a letter posted on Equity's website a couple years ago, Wyman, mapping out the issue, said, "Over the years, the economics of split weeks and one-nighters with their near-constant load-ins, load-outs, and travel gradually killed off bus-and-truck tours. Despite all sorts of concessions granted by the Production Contract Committee and special rules for 'Low-Guarantee Tours' and 'One-Night Tours,' more and more shows were going out non-Equity. So in 2004, AEA took the bold step of instituting a tiered system of compensation based upon the level of a producer's guarantee and a few other factors. Health contributions were subsidized and minimum salaries were significantly reduced in exchange for actors' participation in the producer's share of the 'overage' should the show be successful. In 2008, we spun off the lower end of the Production Contract tiers to create a new contract called the Short Engagement Touring Agreement-SETA."
According to Wyman, writing in the same letter, "These measures have been significantly productive. We had lost 40% of the road by 2004, but touring workweeks rose by 25% in the first four years on the tiers and rose by another 20% in the first two years that SETA was available.
"These Tier tours and SETA jobs are not taking the place of full Production Contract jobs;" he wrote, "they are taking the place of non-Equity jobs."
Since Equity's touring contract with producers does not expire until 2015, it's unclear what union members expect can be done about tiered contracts between now and then.
"That's part of what I'm looking to find out on the 27th," said Wyman. "I look forward to it. It's like crowd sourcing negotiation proposals."
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