Ask If It's Equity

Call your local presenting house and ask if their next offering is Equity. Show ’em some love if it is; let ’em know your disappointment if it ain’t!

1992

I’d like to take you on a little journey back to 1992. Why 1992? We’ll get to that, I promise. But suffice to say that 1992 was in some ways the beginning of the future of touring.

In 1992 there were two very different segments to the touring marketplace. The flagship Equity tours on full Production Contract (paying the same as Broadway, but with the added bonus of a healthy per diem), and the non-Equity Split-Week/One-Night tours. And these two segments couldn’t have been more different.

In 1992, there were multiple companies of Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables, and Cats and a brand new 1st national tour of Miss Saigon (more on that fateful tour later). There were also healthy (but smaller and shorter lived) tours of the other recent Broadway fare, The Will Rogers Follies (the ’91 Best Musical Tony winner), Once On This Island, and the Secret Garden, etc. These three British blockbusters and the smaller titles gave Equity enormous clout and loads of employment on the flagship Production contract (which paid at the time around $925 /wk plus a nice per diem for tour living expenses, health insurance, and pension contributions).

In contrast, the split week tours at this point were almost exclusively non-Equity, paying their actors between $300-$400 a week, with a paltry per diem, Motel 6-style housing, and no benefits. They played something called the community concert circuit (consisting of college theaters, forgotten vaudeville houses and even a couple high school cafetoriums), as well as B and C city touring houses. But they rarely played a full week in any one city. And they never played the major markets. The big non-Equity producer at the time was Troika (name sound familiar?). The tours they put out in 1993 were City of Angels, Fiddler on the Roof, Grand Hotel, an adaptation of It’s A Wonderful Life, Little Shop of Horrors, Meet Me In St. Louis, and the official 50th Anniversary production of Oklahoma! (More on THAT fateful tour in a bit!)

In 1992, in a half-hearted attempt to capture work in the split week market, Equity negotiated terms for split-week tours into the Production contract at salaries of approximately 55% of the full Production contract minimum, with full per diem and benefits (but no concept of ‘overage’ if a tour did well). Unfortunately, because the Equity salary/per diem package was easily 2-3 times what the non-Equity tours paid, there was little incentive for any Equity producer to use it just to compete directly with far cheaper non-union tours. The split-week/one-night community concert market at the time just wouldn’t support it. This was not terribly concerning to Equity at the time because the classic musicals and middling properties that made up the Troika repertoire were no threat to the Big Four or the other fresh Broadway product. After all, they were never going to play LA, SF, Denver, Chicago or Boston (more on those last two in just a sec… oh the suspense!) The Production contract tour was king, and Equity had that market safely sewn up for all time. Right?

Wrong.

Several seemingly unrelated ingredients are going to change touring in the mid-late 90s. I call them:

  • The Big Four falter (and close)
  • Oklahoma! at the Wang
  • Broadway fizzles (a little)
  • Equity ignores the elephant in the room

The Big Four falter (and close)

Let’s go back to that shiny new 1st National of Miss Saigon. This Behemoth of a production was only slated to play about a dozen theaters in the US that could accommodate its enormous set, which was actually larger than the Broadway set. It opened in Chicago in October 1992 for what was to be a one year engagement before heading to Los Angeles. By late spring in 1993, it was clear that Chicago was done with Miss Saigon, and there was a mad scramble to find another venue where they could play until their LA stint. They limped out of Chicago (actors who signed one year leases on apartments in Chicago lost security deposits for breaking those leases!) and hobbled over to play three months in Boston before starting their regularly scheduled LA engagement.  The over-produced, overly-hyped tour didn’t live up to expectations. It closed in 1995, most probably having recouped its investment, but disappointing considering the success and staying power of its British cousins. A 2nd national tour of the Broadway production was mounted with a less unwieldy set. It ran from 1995-2000, but the two tours barely overlapped, and it marked the beginning of the end of the Big Four era of touring. In the mid-late 90s, the multiple companies of these titles began to close as demand for yet another return engagement dwindled. And, as it turns out, there wasn’t much waiting in the wings to take their place.

Oklahoma! at the Wang (or shattering the glass ceiling of touring)

Remember that Troika tour of Oklahoma! I mentioned before? It played a typical non-Equity tour season of split week and one-night engagements (a LOT of one-nighters–this might be a good time to mention that I played Will Parker on that tour!), with the VERY occasional one week stay in cities like Richmond VA and Baltimore MD. But near the end of the tour, a week was added, rather last minute… in Boston playing the Wang Center!

This was unheard of for a non-union tour. Both the Wang Center and Troika were really laying it on the line. The Wang had brought in a non-union tour [not produced by Troika] of Dreamgirls earlier in that same season which was reamed by the press, not because it was non-union, but because it just wasn’t very good, at least by Boston theatre standards. But on the strength of the generally good-to-great reviews Oklahoma had garnered around the country, the Wang was willing to take a chance. But why…?

Keep in mind: the 1st National of Miss Saigon blew into town unexpectedly for an emergency 3-month engagement with very little time to advertise or sell tickets. I don’t know for sure, but Cameron Mackintosh may have softened his famous hard-ball negotiating tactics in order to find a haven for his very large baby. He may very well have convinced the Wang to co-present with him, instead of four-walling that engagement [*]. I don’t know for sure. But, later that same season, the Wang Center was looking for some cheap product to make some quick cash. Related? Hmmm.

[* Four-walling is a term where a tour’s producer simply rents a venue, essentially taking on all the risk for the engagement, but also reaping all the reward. You have to be producing a big property to put out a tour this way, like Book of Mormon or Wicked.]

So, this little, very nice production of Oklahoma! came to the cavernous Wang Center, replacing their usual 11-person pit with the original full orchestrations played by Boston locals. The entire Troika home office came to Boston, sweating profusely. They needed this engagement to go well, both critically and financially, not because the tour needed it to break even (they’d already returned their investment), but because this represented an invitation to the Adult Table, and if it didn’t go well, they might never get another shot at the Wang.  The show got good (though not great) reviews and did good business, which considering the circumstances was BIG. Troika had done it: they’d broken through to the A-City Markets. It would take some time to gather momentum, but within a few seasons, they would be booking Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and the like. Touring would never be the same.

PLEASE NOTE: I do not conclude here that Mr. Mackintosh is ultimately responsible for the growth of non-Equity touring in the 90s. Troika wanted in with the major markets, and if it hadn’t been Oklahoma! in Boston, some other opportunity would have opened up eventually.

Broadway Fizzles (a little), and Equity ignores the elephant in the room

So, from this point through the end of the millennium, two things happened in the product pipeline: the muti-company tours first became single-tour properties, and the Broadway Source of New Product stopped pumping out blockbusters. OK, not entirely, but from the mid-90s to 2000, there were precious few properties that would sustain multiple companies, extended sit-downs, and long runs. The Lion King, Rent and the revival of Chicago are the notable exceptions from this period, but take look at the Tony nominees for this period [Best Musical and Best Revival ]. 1999 was particularly bleak. Equity touring work weeks tumbled drastically and fast, from a high of 44k in 1996 to a low of 18k in 2004.

Tours at this time were either full Production, the ill-conceived and little-used Split-Week, or non-Equity. Following Boston in 1994, non-Equity producers were gaining ground in larger markets, introducing their lower priced productions to presenters weary of aging blockbusters. The presenters traditionally needed a tent-pole title to anchor their season, and then filled the rest of their season with full Production contract tours of smaller titles. But when Troika (followed by NETworks and Big League Theatricals) began offering a far cheaper alternative in the major markets, guarantees(*) dropped for ALL touring product. In that one-week and split week market, non-Equity had become king.  It became increasingly difficult for the producer of a non-Blockbuster to sell a full Production contract tour.

  • [* Guarantees: the amount that the local presenter ‘guarantees’ weekly to the tour producer. Then expenses are deducted from the remainder of the box office, and the presenter and producer split any remaining profit. The guarantees a producer is able to get for his product determines the budget and scope of the touring production, since this is the only money they’re guaranteed to have in order to pay weekly operating costs and hopefully recoup the investment. Overages back then for tours were the exception, not the rule. ]

Take a moment to look at it this way: Imagine that Troika, NETworks and Big League are Wal-Mart. The venerable downtown department stores are Production contract tours, and the townsfolk are the local presenters. Wal-Mart sweeps into the outskirts of town offering the same clothes and goods as the downtown department stores, but WAY CHEAPER, because they have a cheaper labor pool and they source their goods from cheaper sources. The shoppers flock to shop at Wal-Mart, forcing the department stores to lower their prices. But the department stores still have the same overhead as before – they can only lower their prices so far before they can’t afford to pay their bills (and their employees) and they fold, leaving a hole in the center of downtowns across the country, and a glut of cheap products being sold in hastily constructed big metal boxes by under-paid workers. [This analogy falls apart if taken too far into the details, but the economics are basically the same, and it’s a sad reality either way – just another observation from years of touring and navigating sad,  devastated downtowns across the country.]

Eventually, the inevitable happened: a well-received Broadway revival was licensed to a non-Equity producer. This was The Music Man in 2001.

As lovely and refreshing as this revival of The Music Man seemed to audiences in New York (where musicals get a first-class revival or none at all), it had three strikes against it: by this time, non-union producers had forged a successful track record of touring classic musicals cheaply; in doing so, they’d pushed the guarantees downward to the point where a full Production tour simply couldn’t compete on price; and finally, as wonderful as this title is, TMM gets a lot of play regionally, and audiences weren’t likely to come clamoring for yet another version at premium prices.

The uproar over a non-Equity The Music Man  made it clear that AEA members considered 1st national tours to be their territory, and after five years of rapidly dwindling road work weeks, they wanted that 1st national work. When TMM went out non-Equity anyway (after long negotiations failed to get a contract) the membership rose up against the non-Equity producers. There were pickets and leaflets and even a pro-union stage show (on an AEA contract!) outside the theaters wherever this tour went. That was a nice bonding experience, but it didn’t bring back jobs, and it didn’t stop the success of that tour.

Not long after, the behemoth (65 actors on stage!?) revival of 42nd Street was set to tour. But moving every week with a cast that large (and the producers didn’t want to part with a single pair of tappin’ feet) at full Production rates resulted in a package so expensive that no one would buy it. Remember that Split-Week contract I talked about before? Well, that was still around having been used nearly never in a decade. The Split-Week contract offered an Equity producer no help since a tour had to play 80%+ split- and one-week engagements to qualify. The 42nd St. tour didn’t qualify, and the Split Week rate package was still hundreds of dollars a week more per actor than non-Equity pay. Without a viable contract, this tour was going out non-Union. Having just spent months picketing The Music Man, Equity was determined to get this 1st national tour, and they did. By all accounts, what we ended up with was a CRAPPY contract… BUT it was work that 65 tappin’ Equity folks took and performed. And it was a dear second lesson in how drastically the road had changed, one that Equity and it’s members were only starting to fully appreciate.

Up to this point, Equity’s leadership had taken the stance that all tours should be full Production or nuttin’. The sadly inadequate attempt to organize the split-week market with an insanely overpriced Split-Week contract simply resulted in non-Equity producers walking into the resulting vacuum and creating a new market for themselves. By the time the leadership finally came around to realizing that this tactic had lost our members 26,000 work weeks A YEAR (!), the situation was dire indeed, and Troika et. al. were King of the Road.

The Full Monty (and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and Billy Elliott, and on and on)

The Full Monty 1st national tour went out on a Production contract in the spring of 2001 playing LA. Within a just few months, the tour was in serious financial trouble and folded. Thus ensued a scramble to save the show and all those union jobs. The tour eventually went back out on an ad hoc, less-than-Production-rates contract. Hooray! But  this was one of the first in a new series of lessons along this line: not every NEW show is The Lion King. That is, when a show is not a sure-thing, runaway hit, a Production contract tour could be the death of it. The touring market had shifted and Equity had NO OTHER VIABLE TOURING AGREEMENT. [This same scenario played out with the 1st national Production contract tours of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Billy Elliott.]

So, with the non-Equity tours having spent the 90s filling the vast vacuum below the lofty Production contract with their cheaper guarantee tours, Equity sat on the Production contract throne and declared that nothing was amiss. That is, until they came onto our playground and took our TMM 1st national tour lunch money. Oh, but we didn’t get it even then. We doubled down on the Production contract. Until 42nd Street threatened to go non-union, and we bent over backwards to prevent a repeat of TMM.  But we were learning faster now. Members wanted these jobs. They were hurting from the loss of tens of thousands of road weeks, and they wanted to WORK. [ASIDE: the eligibility for health coverage from AEA work went from 10 weeks/one year of coverage to our current 12 weeks/6 mo – 20 weeks/1 year in 2003. Is it a coincidence that the clamor to get these jobs back was so loud? I think not.]

By 2004, we’d tried and failed/succeeded on enough special ad hoc touring agreements to come to the table at Production contract negotiations with a new system of tiers to allow any tour producer the option/advantage of using an Equity contract. These tiers succeeded/failed enough that by 2008, it was clear that the lower tiers were different animals (and competed more directly with non-union tours), and so needed to be addressed separately. Thus was born the S(hort) E(ngagement)T(ouring) A(greement). After another 3-4 years of success/failure, both the Production contract and its top tiers and the SETA entered tough renegotiations with possibly the most member input I can remember any contract negotiation receiving. The member feedback, attendance, and participation  in the SETA negotiations was phenomenal! And now it’s pretty darned perfect. NOT!

BUT, both the Production tiers and SETA are effective tools which have regained tens of thousands of touring work weeks – great jobs – for our members. There have been outrageous successes (the new Les Miz and Newsies, with consistent overages) and some not so successful outings (A Christmas Story and Mama Mia where some major failings of the contract were exposed). But the majority of the tiered tours end up going out on an appropriate tier that nets the actors occasional overages and allows the tour to eventually recoup, which means that they are in line with what the marketplace is willing to pay for these titles. [Memphis, a 1st national that went out on a SET Agreement, is a prime example of this.] And by ‘marketplace,’ I don’t mean the presenters and their dubious guarantees; I mean the audiences. Because when a tour is modestly successful, it’s because it sold enough tickets to put it in line with the expectations set up by the guarantees it went out with.

What’s even better is that the largest players in the non-Equity touring game, Troika, NETworks and Big League are now putting out more union fare than any other producers in the touring market. Talk about a total reversal.

[NOTE that is ain’t all wine and roses between Equity and these folks–they STILL produce non-Equity tours as well, and continue to be a huge thorn in Equity’s side in terms of organizing the road]

So, when a ‘new’ Les Miz or a Legally Blonde goes out on a SETA tour and does BLOCKBUSTER business, paying its actors $35k a year in overages, THAT’S GREAT TOO! It means that presenters got it wrong, and their audiences really wanted this show. Badly! They were wrong about Kinky Boots, and those presenters in conservative markets who were spooked by the Thanksgiving parade backlash on Twitter are finding themselves begging for an extension because their audiences CAN’T GET ENOUGH, or… if they’ve wrongly discounted the little Disney-show-that-could just because it’s based on a bad movie (really, the movie was a flop, folks) and so won’t enjoy the name recognition and good will The Lion King had, then they end up PAYING OVERAGES OUT THE WAZZOO. And who wins? The actors and stage managers.

And if it turns out that the negotiated tier qualifications need to be re-examined to keep the marketplace healthy and keep the tours on the highest sustainable tier, well then that’s all part of the process.

We’ve seen these tiers work to create Equity jobs that didn’t exist 10-15 years ago. And we lost them in the first place because we sat on our throne for a decade with our eyes closed and our snoots in the air. It was a deadly mistake then, and one that we can’t afford to repeat. But now that we’ve taken the hit to reclaim our territory and prove the worth of these tours, it’s time to make these tiers work and pay better for our actors and stage managers!