Monday, April 7, 2008

Open letter to Actors' Equity Association re: New York Music Theater Festival

April 6, 2008

Dear Actors' Equity,

I am in a very unique position as a producer of off-Broadway shows (including the 2005 production of Richard Cory at the New York Musical Theater Festival (NYMF)) and a proud member of AEA (performer in The Scarlet Pimpernel, Grease! and King David under the production contract) and am writing to express my concern regarding the issue of increasing upfront costs to showcase productions specifically done at NYMF.

As a member of the production contract negotiating committee in 1999, I long ago saw the writing on the wall regarding the seemingly endless escalating costs to mount a new show due to salaries, rent, health insurance, advertising - everything. And since all the costs are rising, where is the first place producers go to cut costs? Development. But what is the most crucial part of any new show’s fragile life? Development. As an artist AND a producer, I am tired of seeing the endless stream of singing mermaids, dancing plates, chimney sweeps and tired second rate movies being the only thing considered for Broadway musicals IN NEW YORK. It is time for all of us to grow up, and that includes Actors’ Equity.

I, like many of my fellow AEA members, have an entrepreneurial spirit. Actors usually do as they are running their own micro businesses that include self promotion, advertising, training and the like. Because of that entrepreneurial spirit, back in 1999 I mentioned to Alan Eisenberg, then Executive Director of Equity, a potential plan for Equity to consider to help reduce upfront costs for a new production with exceptional gains on the back end for any member of Equity. This was a plan that only involved the “development” time for a production. I mentioned this plan to him as AN ACTOR not a producer, knowing that as an actor I was willing to help solve the problem. He simply shot the idea down saying, “Equity actors are salaried employees and will never consider lowering any rates even with the potential of higher pay on the back end.”

I believe that type of thinking was short sighted then and continues to be now. In the specific case of NYMF, they have come up with a working solution to help reign in costs for the development of shows. For going on five years now they have been able to successfully help develop over 32 shows PER YEAR that otherwise might not have been done. And they did it in a way that encompassed full solidarity across the unions. Talk about “favored nations,” everyone involved in every production produced at NYMF, including musicians, directors, stagehands, and designers, by contract made no more than any of the actors involved in the show. Everyone has been and is willing to accept minimum upfront stipends for the very short amount of time required for these developmental productions. Let me simply say this: As a producer I was willing to spend my own money to see the dream of Richard Cory be realized on stage for only 8 shows. We nearly sold-out all of our shows and we still lost money. But seeing that show get done was worth it. We even won the audience award for the show, but since it is a thoughtful piece – not a “commercial” piece, it may never be done again. So be it. But if ever I am able to get the show up for a Broadway or even off-Broadway run – I would run to give every actor, our amazing director, everyone involved in the show, the opportunity to be in that version.

I implore the union to stop thinking in the short term and think long term. Raising the stipend from 300 to 500 dollars could very well put the cost of doing the shows at NYMF beyond the threshold of the young producers trying to get these shows up. It is a bit like the almost laughable stimulus package giving the nation $600 dollars per person to go blow on consumer goods. It will not solve the problem. Trying to enforce the possibility of actors getting an extra $200 dollars now versus the very possibility that increase could actually remove the possibility of getting anything due to unattainable budgets is shooting eveyone in the foot, and maybe even in the head. This raise could even eliminate the possibility of these shows moving on to viable, real wage positions that would include contributions to the union, the health and welfare fund and weeks of work.

As actors we have to understand that we don’t get to be the only ones who get to play and participate in this wonderful thing called theater when more than 90% of all shows don’t even recoup their investments. It is a risky business, and investors are not going to continue to risk their money unless they can see the success of their shows up in front of an audience so they can see their reaction. It is time for the union to take responsibility for our portion of the “business” side of show business and understand that we have to be partners with the entrepreneurs risking their money for us to be able to do the play. I am not asking that we work for free. Hardly. I am asking for us to be smart business people and invest our time in the development process to pay off in dollars when the 10% that move on get the chance to pay us back at a more than respectable rate.

NYMF has come up with and employed a solution to the escalating cost issues of developing new works. Do not eliminate this solution for a lousy 200 bucks an actor. Actors are not being taken advantage of when participating in NYMF. They are participating as partners in the development of potential new works with the promise of a successful show down the road. If the union feels more protection is required, then demand a better package on the back end for those that are participating. Believe me, any producer there would be happy to take care of their fellow partners. If we take away this solution, we are not going to rise above singing candlesticks and dancing apes in the jungle. Not that those are bad things, but it shouldn’t be the only option.


Nick Cavarra

No comments: