Breaking the Code?

Off-Off Broadway seeks new Equity showcase rules

In the late 1960s, Actors' Equity started allowing members to forgo their salaries for specially approved "showcases" to be seen by potential employers. But today, the Equity showcase code has become the de facto legal framework for all of Off-Off-Broadway, where more and more theater artists gravitate to do the work they passionately believe in. Last season, Equity received over 1,000 showcase applications—under which union actors agree to work for just a MetroCard and, with luck, a nominal fee or a percentage of the gross. Showcase-code productions and companies this past year have won Obies (Soho Rep's The Thugs, Transport Group) and nearly scored a Pulitzer (P73's Elliot, A Soldier's Fugue). Showcases aren't just for nabbing agents anymore.

But many downtown producers say the current showcase code has become crippling, and they've begun an effort to change it. With the "Basic" (show-by-show) code, the maximum budget is $20,000, at least half of which can easily be spent on theater rental, and it's tough to break even at a capped ticket price of $18 and a limit of 16 performances. The "Seasonal" code for small nonprofits allows more spending and more performances, but requires mounting two shows a year, when many are lucky to stage one.

Proposals for showcase-code reform have been bubbling up since the spring. The most prominent—a 12-page report from ART/NY—was spearheaded by Susan Bernfield, artistic director of New Georges. This "white paper" has provided a rallying point this summer for a growing Coalition for Code Reform, spurring two town meetings and an online petition (at www.nyc99.org). Among its proposed amendments to the basic code are doubling the budget ceiling, raising the performance limit from 16 to 24, and allowing abbreviated "remounts" of successful shows sooner than the current one-year moratorium. For nonprofit companies operating under a seasonal showcase code, the coalition asks for more flexibility for "established producers" with strong track records as well as redefining and expanding rehearsal and development periods. Many of these reformulations also allow for increased fees to actors.

Reasoned though its proposals may be, the coalition has one formidable problem: As producers without a contract, they have no leverage with Equity. In a statement, Equity asserts that the code "is not a contract and isn't negotiated." Coalition leader Shay Gines recognizes that the cause is now in the actors' hands: "As an unincorporated association, Equity is owned by its members, so it will be up to the members to do something about this if they feel strongly."

Do actors feel strongly about loosening the code? As it is, Equity maintains that actors are already "subsidizing" Off-Off-Broadway. The web petition so far, according to Gines, has gathered nearly a thousand signatures—but only a third are from Actors' Equity members. Reformers hope that actors who've benefited from showcase productions will step forward. For Gibson Frazier, who appeared in the original 13P showcase of Anne Washburn's The Internationalist, the monetary sacrifices of acting under the code have been offset by relationships forged with playwrights who have to start out with showcases. "To do that kind of work on a new play is why I'm an actor," he says. Donna Lynne Champlin, an Obie winner for her star turn in Transport Group's The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, was grateful for a show that could only have happened as a showcase, but because "actors are so thirsty to do great work in great productions," she also appreciates that the showcase code "protects us from ourselves."

While Equity for the moment seems uninterested in the question, it acknowledges that "we have revised the code on several occasions over the years . . . to account for inflationary and economic factors as well as changes in the industry." But will reformers be satisfied by tweaking? Brooklyn playwright Matt Freeman seems to speak for many when he says the problem won't be solved as long as "the code still treats Off-Off-Broadway productions as glorified vanity projects."

 
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