This was commissioned as part of New York Innovative Theatre Foundation's celebration of Indie Theatre Week. Link to the original article here.
Second Base on Your Wedding Night
Contributed by Shaun Bennet Fauntleroy
If someone gave me the power to change two things about Equity’s Basic Showcase Code, I’d increase the maximum amount of performances from 16 to 20 (five weeks of shows instead of four) and next, I’d increase the ticket price to $25. This format already exist in Equity’s Seasonal Showcase Code for the most part, but the annual gross income required for the Seasonal Code is $25K, and that alone makes this nearly impossible for most Off-Off-Broadway producers to use. So, now that we’ve established that the Basic Code is what most Indie Theatre producers are likely to qualify for, let’s examine why these specific changes would be an improvement.
As an actor, I find the restriction of 16 performances, or the four-week limit, to be tortuous. The first week, preview week, you’re getting used to the costumes, the lights, having an audience, and the theatre you were only allowed access to a couple of days ago. This is when you’re working out the technical and artistic kinks, which is why press is asked to wait after previews to review the show. Then, the work of discovery continues and that third week of the run is usually the honey spot for me. That’s when things are just starting to gel, the mysteries of the world you’ve created become exposed, and it all gets into your marrow. You’re finally ready to just “live it,” and then a week later...you close. It’s like having to stop at second base on your wedding night. (Something you’ll often hear backstage after the last performance of an Off-Off-Broadway show is, “Well...now we’re ready to open.”)
So, what’s the big deal about having a few extra performances? Would it really make that much of a difference? Let’s look at this example. Some of the most incredible performances I’ve seen recently on Broadway have been Arian Moayed in Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, Mark Rylance in Jerusalem, and Cristin Milotti in Once...(all Tony nominated, by the way). These beautiful actors had been cultivating these performances elsewhere for months and by the time they got to Broadway these roles had been well lived in and, dare I say, perfected. There’s also the rehearsal time issue. A Broadway or Off-Broadway contract gives you the option of rehearsing at least 5-7 hours every day. In Off-Off Broadway, people are rehearsing a few hours after work, and usually not everyday due to costs and scheduling. Now, I’m not saying that you can’t give an incredible performance if you haven’t been working on it for a year, or that these actors were only wonderful because of having worked on those roles for so long, but time, to an actor working hard on a role, is delicious (ask the Moscow Art Theatre!). Having that extra week to perform can be hugely helpful, especially considering that Off-Off-Broadway is where most NY theatre actors are consistently plying their trade and sharpening their skills.
Now, despite all this, I know Equity has put these restrictions in place to protect their actors, and I’m incredibly grateful that very necessary protection exists. But, is raising the ticket price to $25 so producers have a bit less money to lose too much to ask? Adding $7 extra dollars to the ticket price (which, in a perfect world could add about $200-$500 dollars to the nightly receipts) could help producers afford that fifth week of rental and transportation costs. To deny this because of concern for the actors not getting their fare share of the sales is illogical. I know several people who worked in a hugely successful, multi-award winning Off-Broadway show for over a year. Despite all its success, they still had to keep their side jobs, because although the $300 or $400 they made in that show wasn’t nothing, it definitely wasn’t something to live on. Let’s be honest, few of us make any money in theatre unless we’re a star or we’re on Broadway. We do this because we can’t help ourselves, and because we feel more at home at the theatre than anywhere else in the world.
So... Dearest Equity, we’re asking you to recognize that actors don’t flock to Off-Off Broadway just because we’re “showcasing ourselves for industry professionals” as your code description puts it, but because exciting things are happening there and contract jobs are scarce. When this code came about in the 1960’s it was necessary and served its purpose, but it’s over 50 years later. Off-Off Broadway has evolved into something new and we need a new code for that sweet something new. Now, dear Equity, I’m off to the New York Innovative Theatre Awards to celebrate the exciting, groundbreaking art being forged in Off-Off-Broadway. You should come.
*Correction: There was a mistake regarding the annual gross income required for the Seasonal Code. After further clarification from Equity, the figure has been corrected within the piece; the annual gross income required for the Seasonal Code is $25K.