“There’s power in a factory, power in the land, power in the hand of the worker.
But it all amounts to nothing, if together we don’t stand,
There is power in a union.”- Billy Bragg
“You’re easily replaceable. There are ten people waiting behind you to do your job.” No….and…NO. This sinister myth has been carved into our collective actor/stage manager consciousness from the beginning of our professional lives. Producers, managers, laypeople, and even our fellow actors reinforce this myth that what we do is “easy,” actors are a bunch of back-stabbing narcissists, audiences have no ability to discern quality in acting, and that we are a dime a dozen. All of those things are demonstrably false and believing any of them actively contributes to a culture that keeps stage managers and actors exploited, dispirited, and broke.
First of all, it’s important to note that we are not discussing individual replaceability when we are talking about replaceability in the context of labor negotiations. Any one actor’s or stage manager’s ability to be replaced when offered a job is a completely different set of given circumstances than whether or not an actor or stage manager can be replaced in the event of a job action during a labor negotiation. We’re in a union. Our ability to collectively bargain is our superpower and every few years, during negotiations, it’s surprising to see our Equity negotiators underestimate just how powerful our inability to be easily replaced can be used as leverage to negotiate a #FairWageOnstage for stage managers and actors.
Second, often actors and stage managers fear that we are replaceable much more than we actually are replaceable. Have you ever negotiated a contract above bare minimum? (We hope that you have!) If you have, what implicitly happened was that your employer thought that you’re worth what you negotiated, because you bring something special to the job and are, unfortunately for them, not easily replaceable. If actors and stage managers were just cogs in a machine, then the director or producer would never negotiate. Why would they? But they negotiate both with the union and individuals all of the time. Why? Because each and every stage manager and actor brings a wealth of expertise, experience, and a unique contribution to any and every theatrical production.
Many of us involved with #FairWageOnstage have shared countless stories of the seemingly “impossible” things that miraculously became possible when we said to a theatre or producer, “Look, I need X or I can’t take the job,” and meant it. Recently, someone shared a story with us of being offered a big gig, asking for what he needed, and remaining a hard “No” until finally, after a few tense days, the producers came back with his demands met. There was no guarantee it would go his way. This is a risky business and of course the least risky move is to take whatever the first offer is. But often, an actor or stage manager has demonstrated a unique ability to perform their role in the production or they wouldn’t have gotten the offer. It’s in some ways comical that we are so afraid of being replaced given the fact that our employers tip their hands towards us the second that they hire us. They have said with the offer, “It’s YOU who we need for this thing to work.” Our job insecurity and fear of being replaced is so acute that it often hamstrings our ability to participate confidently in the reality of our industry. The reality is, it’s difficult to find the “right” person for a role or a “good stage manager” for a project. And when a director and creative team have decided on their first choices, they WANT their first choices and are often willing to negotiate to get them. Remember, our employers’ reputations are on the line every time they put together a production. If they can’t consistently deliver a high quality artistic product, people will not buy tickets and they will fail at their mission to produce valuable artistic work.
Third, there seems to be an erroneous belief in our community that theatre professionals are somehow unique in the disparity between the supply of jobs and the demand to do them. That’s simply not the case. The imbalance between the number of jobs available and the number of people to do them has been a “fact of life” for hundreds of years in countless industries in countless localities. The job market, especially in a capitalist society, is cruel to many, not just theatre people. Remember, “markets” are amoral. Markets are about supply and demand and the economic power dynamic between the two. If there are ten jobs and eight people available to do them, then labor has the power to command pretty nice wages as employers compete to attract (generally with money and high quality working conditions) the skills and labor of those eight coveted people.
But if there are only ten jobs and a hundred people, the employer can exploit the competition of the workers’ demand for those scarce jobs. If everyone acts from a place of individual ambition and fear, the market spontaneously creates a “race to the bottom” where everyone is scrambling for scarce jobs and underbidding each other until they reach, well…where professional actors have been for the last thirty years: exploited and broke. This is where a union is supposed to intervene. If all one hundred people that want jobs form a union and bargain collectively, then they can say, “There is a wage below which NONE of us will work.” If the hundred workers have the bravery, integrity, self-worth, and intelligence to do that, they have instantly flipped the leverage back to labor and now the employer must pay a #FairWage or they will have no one to do the jobs. Unions are supposed to act as a defensive bulwark against the exploitation built into amoral market behavior. Unions are an agent of humanity, conscience, principle, and morality to correct the negative impacts of an inherently amoral economic system.
When labor organizes, especially actors and stage managers, remarkable accomplishments can be made. Unfortunately, for a long time, our union and its membership have been largely uneducated, disorganized, insecure, dispirited, and fearful. There’s been a series of failures that have had a detrimental impact on all of us. We’ve failed to educate ourselves. We’ve failed to read our contracts. We’ve failed to know the difference between our contracts. We’ve failed to behave like union members. We’ve failed to engage with our union leadership. We’ve failed to run for council. We’ve failed to go to Equity meetings. We’ve failed to learn labor history, the origin of unions, how they work, and the inspiring accomplishments of those who came before us. There has also been a failure of Equity to effectively organize, educate, and engage with members to help them understand and celebrate their status and power as organized labor.
Consequently, until very recently we’ve been weak in our ability to negotiate for a #FairWageOnstage. A lack of communication and engagement on the part of Equity and an internalized set of myths and apathy on the part of membership have (UNTIL NOW), rendered us fairly impotent negotiating partners for our employers. It’s been depressing both psychologically and economically for our community. But it’s important to note that a negative spiral begins to happen if the union and membership don’t live up to their responsibilities. If Equity doesn’t effectively reach out to educate people get them all fired up, then no one’s fired up. A dispirited and uninformed membership feels helpless and disengaged. But then, if Equity leadership feels that membership is apathetic and disengaged, then they don’t have the necessary leverage to negotiate good contracts on our behalf. Our employers see that membership is fractured, disorganized, resigned, and disengaged. Our union then goes in half-heartedly and fearful and says, “Hey, our members need you to improve wages and working conditions.” The employers say, “We don’t hear anyone complaining. Take the offer.” Equity shrugs and signs on the line. Negotiation over. Cue the sad trombone. It’s as if two teams enter an arena to play a basketball game and one team has no fans or cheerleaders. It’s not exactly a situation engineered for success for that poor fan-less team.
Conversely, if membership is engaged, informed, organized, and ready to demand a #FairWageOnstage, then the union literally has all the power in the world to negotiate aggressively on our behalf. Union negotiators are able to say, “See all of these people behind us? They’re not going to let us walk out of this room until we get them what they need. So if you want your theatre to stay open and producing shows, let’s get to work.” Will that work? Glad you asked. It just did last fall with the historic Off Broadway negotiations where an informed, educated, and mobilized membership made labor history with unprecedented wage increases.
#FairWageOnstage educated and mobilized members, engaged the union, and got union leadership to understand that our community was in crisis and needed immediate help. By enthusiastically supporting the union (while holding it accountable during the negotiation process like the fans supporting their team do), #FairWageOnstage exponentially enhanced the power and leverage of the negotiating team. Hell, the union put members of #FairWageOnstage ON the negotiating team. The community stood strong, openly, visibly, vocally, and bravely together. With #FairWageOnstage, Equity members demonstrated solidarity, need, and a demand for action and IT WORKED. A union achieving up to 82% increases on a single contract without a strike is an incredible achievement. The radical success of the Off-Broadway negotiation demonstrates the efficacy of solidarity and engagement. When an engaged and empowered workforce is ready to do anything necessary to make sure that wages go up, it means that wages go up. It’s that simple.
So what are we really talking about when we talk about actors being replaceable? During the course of a contract if one actor or stage manager won’t take minimum, can an actor or stage manager who will take minimum replace them? Sure, and that happens. As noted above, it probably doesn’t happen that often because most of the time we just take the shitty contract and don’t even risk being replaced by asking for more. (We’re often not even brave enough to challenge this myth by daring to negotiate, especially with our Not-For-Profit employers.) But yes, there is a risk that if an actor or stage manager said, “I have to have $1000 a week or I can’t do it” that a theatre will move down to choice B for the job. But what is important to understand is that if the union stands strong and together in solidarity when the contracts are negotiated, then no individual actor or stage manager needs to be in a position where they have to take that risk when negotiating for a wage that will pay their most basic bills.
This is very important. Because many of us in the union believe that it is our desperation and replaceability that short-circuits our ability to negotiate good contracts every few years with our employers. I recently heard a very powerful and “theatre-famous” actor say, “I think there’s enough desperate Equity members out there looking for a break that they would break ranks and cross the picket line and take the work from those that might strike.” In other words, “Equity actors looking for a shot would take it by violating a ‘Do Not Work’ order from the union”. Well, that is bananas. I’m going to tell you exactly why it’s bananas, but it demonstrates why we’ve been bad at negotiating for ourselves. It’s a major problem that even some of our most powerful and reputable actors haven’t been properly organized and educated about the basic fundamentals of how unions work. But this actor isn’t alone. The thought is clearly more pervasive than we’d like it to be or we wouldn’t be releasing this essay about it. It’s part of the psychological infrastructure that keeps our negotiating teams from making meaningful demands for our members.
So, if this idea is keeping our negotiating teams from being powerful advocates on our behalf, what can we do? Well, we have to blow these myths up. The fact is, once we as an organized labor force blow them up inside of ourselves, then our union is empowered to completely retool how they approach negotiations.
So, let’s dismantle this bomb, shall we? OK, let’s return to this actor’s belief in the myth of replaceability. In the event of a job action, you will not be replaced if you strike by other Equity actors. You won’t. Why not? Well, now is a great time to talk about how an official union strike or job action works. By being part of a union, you are compelled to adhere to the rules of membership. Actors’ Equity, like all unions, has a constitution and by-laws to which all members must adhere to maintain their membership. One of those rules, perhaps the most important, is that in the event of a job action, union members stand in solidarity with their brothers and sisters and adhere to a “Do Not Work” order. Should the union call a job action, there would potentially be a “Do Not Work” or “strike” for the contract being negotiated. (Here’s an important thing to remember too: If Equity goes on strike about a particular contract, it is ONLY for that contract. All actors and stage managers nationally do not have to go on strike just because there is a strike. For example, only Off-Broadway theatres would have been affected during the Off-Broadway negotiations. Broadway and regional theatres weren’t going to shut down had there been an Off-Broadway strike. Got it? Good.)
OK, so, any union actor or stage manager who lacked the solidarity and integrity and good sense to adhere to union rules by working after the union had issued a “Do Not Work” order would be subject to severe discipline by the union, up to and including being kicked out of the union forever and ever amen. It’s explicitly against our rules to do so. That’s how unions work. So, if one of your fellow Equity members crossed a picket line to replace you…Byeeeee.
Additionally, such a person would earn the ignoble monikers of “scab,” “traitor,” “douche-bag,” “asshole,” “fuckstick,” “wannabe,” and essentially be a professional and social pariah for the rest of their lives by having fucked over their fellow union members. Becoming a scab means that you are willing to undermine the foundational bedrock principal power of a union: solidarity in a job action. The short-term gain of crossing a picket line to work would be met with the long-term consequence of having no professional career when the strike was over. “Bye-bye Broadway. Bye-bye Obies and Tony’s and any hope at being a respected actor or stage manager anywhere.” In the event of a job action, you cannot be replaced if no one will replace you. That is the power of a union.
That said, I think it is important to keep pulling the thread on this sweater. Let’s continue to explore how replaceable a professional actor or stage manager is. “Are we replaceable if we go on strike?” I’ll come back to that, but let me first explore our leverage if we were to be put in a position where we would be compelled to strike. In the case of Actors’ Equity Association, a strike would be devastating for our employers. Our industry is unlike any other in this country that employs union members. Imagine a situation in which the United Auto Workers and Ford cannot reach an agreement. There are things that could happen. Ford could lock the workers out until a deal is made or the UAW could strike. Either way, there are still Fords to be sold in car lots all over the country. Ford can still do business during a strike. Additionally Ford could open a factory overseas where they don’t have to deal with the inconvenience of by paying people a living wage. But when it comes to the professional theatre, employer threats of a lock out are empty. Our employers have no reason to exist and absolutely cannot do business without us. We are highly skilled artisans who can’t be outsourced and what we do requires weeks of preparation before it can be done. If we organize in solidarity, we have tremendous power. No one walks into a $37 million theatre except to sit in it and watch us work. What’s surprising is how few actors and stage managers understand just how MUCH leverage we have if we cared to exercise it. (But we usually don’t because we believe these myths. So the first battle to be won in this fight is the battle being waged in our own minds. When we stop believing we are replaceable and worthy of nothing, then we will find the strength to demand that our skills, time, and talent be properly compensated.)
Additionally, a strike would hurt our employers much more than it ever would hurt us. Most stage managers and actors have to have multiple survival jobs to make ends meet. A strike, while devastating to our employers, on many of our contracts would have relatively little negative financial impact on us. While we all hope to achieve our health insurance weeks, many actors, by virtue of the inconsistency and terrible pay for our work, are forced to have other sources of income to survive. In many cases, an actor doing her “day job” or being available for more film and television work would ironically be more able to pay her bills and survive than that actor doing her theatre job.
Last year, one of my favorite actors in New York turned down two Off-Broadway jobs because her serving job in a restaurant paid her rent while professional acting didn’t. Consequently, compared to our employers, actors are in a much less precarious position to weather the effects of a strike. Ironically, if the theatre provided better pay, safe working conditions, and some sort of consistency to actors and stage managers, we would have much more to lose and consequently be more reluctant to strike. But since we have allowed ourselves to hit rock bottom and have accepted the bottom of the barrel for so long, we have found ways to survive and as of now, are much better positioned to survive and thrive when not engaged with theatre work. On the other hand, our employers exclusively produce theatre. Theatres don’t have a “survival job” to fall back on in the case of a strike. We do.
OK, so let’s return to the question of whether or not we are easily replaced in the case of a strike. We often say to each other, “The reason we don’t go on strike is that there are ten people waiting behind us who would take our jobs.” No; no there are not. Stop thinking that. That is not true. As I said, in the event of a job action or strike, no union actor would be allowed to take your place without suffering the wrath of the union and their fellow union members. No matter what the nightmare scenario is, there are certainly not ten talented union actors with integrity willing to risk their entire professional careers to earn the label of “Scab” by replacing you. Now that you know what you know, that you could be kicked out of the union and barred for life, would YOU replace one of your brothers and sisters if there were a strike? You’d be committing career suicide if you did. You’d probably also never sleep again from the guilt of participating in the wage destruction of your fellow artists. Long story short, I don’t think you would replace someone in a strike and no one would replace you either.
So, if there isn’t an Equity pool willing to replace you, it’s also important to remember that there isn’t some vast pool of non-equity actors across the country prepared or able to jump into Equity members’ jobs in the case of a job action. With no offense meant towards our brothers and sisters who act non-professionally, the idea that in the event of a job action, theatres would be able to quickly assemble, rehearse, and put up a production featuring an entirely non-Equity replacement cast is just laughable. In fact, in many localities, for plays that feature older characters, there simply aren’t any non-union actors who have the time and inclination to perform eight shows a week for poverty wages. Let’s game some hypothetical scenarios out here. Let’s say that there is a strike that effects a theatre in Kansas City. The show is in the middle of performances and so the theatre wants to replace the full Equity cast and keep the show running during a strike. So, this theatre in Kansas City has to find a fully non-Equity cast and stage manager, rehearse them, and put up the show THE DAY OF the strike. Hilarious, and also, you know, impossible.
But, even if it were possible to scramble up this fantasy team as soon as a job action began, for an Equity actor and stage manager to be replaced, the non-Equity actor and stage manager would have to be willing to do the following things.
- Cross a picket line made up of professional actors. They would have to be willing to earn the undying disdain, disrespect, and hatred of professional actors on strike. It’s not super fun to go to work with a bunch of pros yelling, “FUCK YOU SCAB!!”
- Make themselves available six days a week, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. to rehearse. Because, again, there’s just no world in which a new stage manager and cast would be able to “do the show” on the first day of a job action. But, given that these are non-pros, they might not be able to work 10-6 because of day jobs. So, if the theatre worked around the scab casts’ day jobs, then just how long would it take to rehearse this non-Equity cast to get them ready to do the show?
- Be available to perform eight times a week. For non-professionals with day jobs, that time commitment would likely mean a grueling personal schedule with no days or time off at all. Would that level of commitment be fun or worth it to cross a picket line and undermine a strike?
- Perhaps leave a job that likely pays more than a professional acting job.
When you actually explain to a non-Equity actor what will be required of them and how little they will be paid to replace the pros….well…those non-Equity actors may quickly end up outside on the picket line with the professional actors and asking the professional actors why it took them so long to strike. Remember that there are many non-Equity actors who never become Equity because they enjoy acting at the amateur level for fun. Community theatre actors are lawyers and doctors and schoolteachers, etc. Most simply don’t have the time or desire to do what we do.
But let’s keep gaming this out. Let’s say I’m wrong. Let’s imagine that there IS a huge pool of independently wealthy non-Equity actors out there doing nothing else with their lives but waiting for Equity actors to go on strike so that they can finally have their shot at the big time fame and fortune and glory of working in the American theatre. (If you can find me one such person, I’ll buy you a pizza.) With all due respect to non-Equity actors, there is a difference between seasoned, experienced, skilled, and expert performers who have spent eight shows a week for years honing their skills and actors who have not had the opportunity or inclination to develop in that way. Acting is a subjective art form, but it is clear to the majority of audience members that there is a difference in quality between a cast full of people who have spent years training and practice their craft daily and people who don’t. If a theatre could find the non-Equity cast willing to replace the Equity cast, would that theatre risk their brand identity and reputation as a purveyor of professional arts excellence by putting a non-professional cast on during a strike? Maybe? Maybe NOT.
What about stage managers? Is there a huge pool of non-Equity stage managers just sitting around waiting for the opportunity to stage manage non-professionally? I haven’t heard of this pool if it exists. Stage managing is demanding and hard and requires an extensive professional skill set. There aren’t that many people willing to do it eight times a week for free. So finding a non-union SM to cross picket lines, scab during a strike, and run this imaginary production will also be a challenge.
As previously noted, in the case of a job action—theatres, there is no show to go on. In the hypothetical scenario we’re gaming out here, and hell, even add in the possibility of a bunch of asshole Equity actors deciding to destroy their careers to cross the picket line… we now have to also take into consideration that theatres will have to have a casting process, hire replacement actors and stage managers, and rehearse this hypothetical production for at least a few weeks before being able to put up a production an audience might purchase tickets for. (But also might NOT purchase tickets for if it means walking into the theatre with dozens of professional actors and stage managers on a picket line in front of the theatre imploring them not to go in.)
In any event, to put on this replacement production the theatre would have to rehearse and get the show up and running. They would be doing all this during the time that the show should already be up! So they would have a dark theatre, have to issue press releases to explain to their patrons why the show’s been cancelled, operate in the red, suffer professional actors outside shaming the theatre while non-Equity actors are paid (meagerly) to rehearse inside the empty theatre. By the time they rehearsed the non-Equity company and got them ready to perform, in many regional or Off-Broadway houses, the scheduled run of the show would be over anyway. It would cost the theatre a lot more to do this than to just sit empty taking a loss, which is the more likely outcome of a job action. Let that sink in: it’s much more likely a theatre would sit empty and take a loss rather than engage in the logistical, artistic, and financial shitshow of replacing the cast, re-rehearsing, and re-opening the show with replacements during a strike.
But let’s keep gaming this out. Because there are so many other reasons you won’t be replaced during a strike. Think about the directors involved. Theatre directors are our natural allies and they want to work with us, the most talented and skilled professionals working in the theatre. Also, remember that most directors are also union members themselves and won’t want to direct a cast of amateur scabs out of pure union solidarity and personal ethics. Additionally, as fellow union members, it would behoove them to have our backs in a job action to ensure that we would have theirs if they needed our solidarity and help in the future. It’s worth noting here that Equity members have consistently stood in solidarity with our sister unions when they have performed job actions—we should assume solidarity from them. Furthermore, directors don’t want to risk their professional reputations crossing a picket line to direct a play full actors that aren’t their first, second, or even third choices. Subpar execution of a director’s vision could ruin a production and hurt a director’s professional reputation. A director doesn’t want to risk their artistic reputation on a cast they don’t want. Also, many professional directors are in high demand and are busy. Would the original director even be available to return to the theatre, go through a casting process, get into the rehearsal room, and rehearse a new cast into their production? Not likely. Finally, if a director did direct a scab cast while Equity was on strike, it would jeopardize personal and professional relationships that a director relies on for their entire career. Think of how Elia Kazan was stained for life for naming names to Joe McCarthy. Think of how you’d feel about a director who agreed to direct scabs during a job action. Would you be eager to work with them? I wouldn’t.
Take into account too, the purview and rights of the author of any given play. If the writer is still alive, they might pull the rights of a theatre to produce their play if a theatre chose to use a non-professional cast. (During the Off-Broadway negotiations we heard from at least one playwright who pulled their play from an Off Broadway theatre because all of their first choice casting picks declined offers because the salary was too meager. The playwright chose not to have their play produced rather than have it produced without the quality of actor they wanted.) Playwrights license their work to theatres with specific conditions. If those conditions change, say, the cast suddenly becomes non-professional; the playwright has every right to pull the play from production. If a playwright were unable to prevent or block a theatre from producing their play with a scab cast, the playwright may make a public statement that would shame or negatively impact a theatre or a production that went on against his or her will. Look at how many directors and playwrights jumped at the chance to participate in the #FairWageOnstage video campaign last fall. Directors and playwrights respect us, need us, and have our backs. No theatre wants David Ives, Tony Kushner, Theresa Rebeck, or David Henry Hwang to make a public statement condemning the theatre for union-busting and putting on an amateur production of their play in a “professional” theatre.
Consider also, if there were to be a strike, the public relations nightmare for the theatre if they were to hire a scab cast while a professional cast is on strike. To try to improve their image, maybe the theatre hires a PR company to try to smooth things out in the press. If they did, the optics might be strange that a theatre had the money to hire a PR team, but not pay their professionals a #FairWage. Meanwhile, during a strike, awaiting a scab production to debut, subscribers and potential audience members would be demanding refunds for their tickets. If the theatre is trying to get a replacement show up and running then…the theatre is bleeding money on the scab cast, presumably paying the union-busting director to direct this new cast, and scab stage manager in production while having to refund tickets for angry patrons not seeing the play they bought tickets for. Also, in our hypothetical production in Kansas City, a significant portion of the cast may be from New York. Does the theatre continue to house the actors on strike or do they buy plane tickets and send them back to New York? Subscribers probably start to cancel their subscriptions or call the theatres leadership asking why the plays are not going on or urging them pay their actors a #FairWageOnstage. The theatre is trying to tell these audience members why they should come walk through the picket line of professional actors to see the amateur cast when they are finally ready to perform and…NO. Just, no. We’re done gaming this out. It’s not going to happen.
BUT… what if a theatre or set of theatres were so craven as to plan on a strike happening and rehearse a scab cast while negotiations were ongoing (which they couldn’t do anyway, see above)? Well, they would not only be negotiating in bad faith by assuming an impasse would occur (which is illegal), but they would also undermine their ability to argue that they don’t have the resources to improve wages and working conditions for stage managers and actors. “Wait, You HAVE the money to rehearse a standby scab cast, but you don’t have money for professional artists to pay their most basic bills?” No. Nope. No. The scenario I’m describing would be a logistical nightmare. Again, the most likely actual outcome of a strike or job action is simply that the theatre would shut down, be empty, and have a parade of angry board members marching into the Artistic Director’s office to ask pointed questions about why the hell plays weren’t happening and why the theatre can’t find a few extra bucks so that the actors can pay their rent and eat. The theatre would NOT hire a replacement cast to replace the equity cast. The equity cast is NOT replaceable in a job action. It’s that simple.
“What about non-Equity tours?” Non-Equity tours are an ongoing tragedy but they are not a case of Equity actors replacing each other in the event of a job action. It’s also not a case of non-Equity actors replacing Equity actors in a job action. It is the tragic case of a producer cynically exploiting mostly young musical theatre actors, many of whom will become Equity, and hoping that provincial audiences don’t mind a twenty-two-year old playing Mama Rose in Gypsy. Equity is doing its best to limit the damage caused to union members when “Broadway” tours go out non-union. We have big ideas about how to help solve this problem, but that will be the subject of another piece. But as it pertains to being replaceable, these are not equivalencies we’re talking about. What this essay is about is whether or not we are easily replaceable in the event of a job action. The answer is that we are not.
So the scenario I gamed out above was for a regional production in Kansas City. That said, almost every single thing that applied to that production would also apply to say, a commercial production on Broadway. All the logistical, public relations, union solidarity, relationship maintenance, and financial pressures that apply to that fictional regional non-profit production would apply even more to a big flashy Broadway show. In the case of a strike, most not-for-profit theatres at least own their buildings or rent them for a pittance. They also have a yearly budget raised from a myriad of income sources. Institutionally, they would be able to, although very uncomfortably, suffer a job action for a while.
Conversely, all Broadway shows are in Broadway houses with insane rental fees and are solely reliant on ticket sales to stay open. In the case of a strike, a Broadway show hemorrhages money and without ticket sales and with massive audience demand for refunds, it’s very likely the show would simply have to close rather than suffer a continued job action. Also, as Equity has stood in solidarity with other unions striking on Broadway, it’s very likely they would all strike in solidarity with us if we had to. So not only would there not be any Equity actor who would replace you, no non-Equity actor would replace you either because there would be no one working inside the theatre during a strike. A Broadway producer can’t put on a scab cast during a strike if the musicians, stagehands, dressers, and board ops are all out on the street in solidarity with Equity. There’s frankly more incentive for a commercial producer to quickly settle a dispute rather than go through the nightmares gamed out above. When the Local One stagehands went on strike in 2007, it lasted for 12 days and then everyone was back to work.
Finally, audiences who enjoy professional theatre would feel terrible crossing a picket line of professional actors to go watch scabs perform. Audiences who have experienced high quality theatre expect a standard of professional excellence that frankly only comes from experience and skill. The value Equity members bring to our work is what commands high ticket prices. Our artistry and expertise entertains, emboldens, and enlightens. When we were working on our Off-Broadway campaign, we talked to audience members about our situation and every single one of them said something to the effect of, “My God. You are all so wonderful. How can they pay you so little!? You deserve more. I hope you get it.” The people who go to the theatre want us to be nourished and able to provide for ourselves. We’re worth it. Every single one of us is worthy of being able to pay our most basic bills when we are contracted for employment. That is what employment is; a contract for work in exchange for means to live. So many actors are waking up for our need for a #FairWageOnstage and I hope the point I am trying to make is sinking in.
All of this is to say that every few years when our contracts are negotiated, that is the time that all members must stand together, get informed, get organized, and demand a #FairWageOnstage. We must all realize and understand on a deeply foundational fundamental level that we are a union and if we act like one none of us are replaceable because no one can or will replace us.
April 28, 2018 at 9:40 pm
In the winter of 1970, I was in an Off-Broadway production of MACBETH that was shut down (as all were) because we (Actors Equity) had gone on strike. Our salary (favored nations) was $75 a week. In the binding arbitration in a judge’s chamber, I listened to Paul Libin, representing the league of Off-Broadway producers, passionately argue that if actors salaries were even slightly increased it would virtually destroy the Off-Broadway theatre scene. The lawyer representing Actors Equity asked Mr Libin to create the profile and itemize the budget of a typical actor living on the current salary. It turned out, this fictional “typical” actor would have to be single and living on a friend’s sofa.
We won a fractional salary increase. Last I checked, Off-Broadway is still around.