Sunday, January 20, 2008

Questioning the Showcase Code Reforms

In a recent post, Isaac questions the prospect and/or likelihood of Showcase Code reform. I think it's good to question it, provided one asks the right questions. For example, he writes,

1) I asked earlier what the artistic impact of the showcase code was, and the answer seems to be largely that there isn't one. I doubt this is true. If the Showcase Code is truly bad for the work we're making it must then have some negative impact on that work. I understand that we probably don't want to say Yes, my work is not as good as it could be because of our business model or whatever, but I don't think we can have it both ways. Either it affects our work or it doesn't. If it doesn't affect the artistic quality of the work we produce, then I think that saps the argument for reform of some of its strength because....
This strikes me as strange. What does "impact" mean? If you define "impact" by the fact of work getting done at all -- before we even arrive at the quality question -- the Code has clearly had one for more than 40 years; the entire history of Off-Off-Broadway has been predicated on it. And the kind of work that virtually everyone in the theatrosphere says they want more of would, in large part, not exist without it.

Second, both union and nonunion Off-Off-Broadway work has succeeded and failed, historically, for reasons that include the Code, but not solely because of the Code or in spite of the Code. The purpose of the Code -- and what I think is both the philosophical and the practical purpose of Off-Off-Broadway -- is to be the laboratory for the theatre, the underground, the proving ground, the training ground. Does anyone quesiton that without a place to fail, one cannot succeed? Is that not one of many definitons of "impact." To me, it's not a matter of "either it affects our work or it doesn't" because the question is not "either/or" so much as "and."

2) Ultimately, I question who showcase code reform is going to benefit. And in order for Equity to be interested in it, it has to benefit actors.

Here's why I question it. Let's take the 16 performance limit for a second. A lot of people would like to see that changed. I get that to some extent. But who (in general, I'm leaving out box office split venues here and I know that) can afford to extend their shows for extra weeks in the current market with overinflated theater rentals being the norm?

Let's then take the budgetary cap for productions. Who can afford a show with a $25K budget? A $30K budget?

Of course Showcase Code reform is going to benefit actors. But this also leads into a completely different aspects of the discussion that no one ever addresses in a meaningful way: Why is the Dramatist Guild completely unrepresented, like a neglectful, absentee parent, on the subject of playwrights working in the OOB arena? Certainly the Dramatists Guild derives as much financial benefit (that is to say none) from this work as Equity does. And why, while we're at it, is the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers (SSDC) completely unrepresented, like a neglected, absentee parent, from this discussion too?

I have never understood why this whole debate is forever predicated on what Equity says and thinks and does (or doesn't do). Why, indeed, is it the Equity code? Why is it all right with playwrights, directors, or any other theatre practitioner for the actors' union to serve as the powerbroker, the gatekeeper? True, actors are the ones who are going to force their union to make changes, but why are playwrights and directors contented or thrilled with the fact that the organization that should be their natural representative in this discussion utterly uninterested in them? And they are -- I mean, for god's sake, everyone knows that as a result of Joe Mantello's lawsuit a few years ago, the DG and the SSDC regard each other as natural enemies, not allies.

The greater point here is Showcase Code reform will, should, and must benefit everyone. And we've got to make sure that non-actor practitioners understand what their stake in this is as well, instead of worrying about the actors. The actors can deal with the fact that their union couldn't give a flying fuck about them. What about all the other practitioners' representatives not giving a flying fuck about them?

Isaac's point about budgetary caps is also very well taken, but frankly I think it's really sort of secondary. Many young but so-called institutional nonprofit OOB companies -- companies that produce whole seasons year after year -- operate under the Code (usually ignoring the caps, as everyone knows) and learn how to find the money because they're constantly fundraising and constantly producing. It's murderously hard, but it's that much harder if you're only doing one show a year or whatnot.
Now there are all sorts of other things in the showcase code that I would love change (limits on rehearsal hours/weeks, the no-remounting-within-a-year policy etc.) but I think making those changes in a way that wouldn't lead to a lot of extra exploitation and abuse is tricky.
Actually, I don't. I think the model already exists for all this, and that's the 99-seat contract that some of the people writing comments on Isaac's blog have referred to. And the 18 or so of us that are sitting on the steering committee of the League of Independent Theater have been getting up to speed on the provisions of this agreement and why it really is probably the best alternative to the Code. It isn't reinventing the wheel. What everyone must demand -- and making the case for the actors to demand -- that New York City be treated like anywhere else in the nation.

NOTE: Here's something from the nytheatre i on the same subject. I say, email Martin and get involved!

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9 comments:

Rat Sass said...

Leonard,

Right on about the need for the Dramatists Guild and the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers to become partners in the discussion. But the genesis of the League of Independent Theater arose from a few “producer problems” with Equity. These producers are not questioning or trying to alter the rules established by DG or SSDC, only AEA.

All practitioners are stakeholders in the Off-Off theatre community but you are saying here that Showcase Code reform needs to stop “worrying about the actors.” That seems to me a pretty hostile and aggressive position to take against the actual owners of the rules. Is that also the stance of your steering committee? Who are the Equity actors on that committee?

The League seems to have lost most of its original inclusiveness and transparency. All discussion appears to have already moved into the clubroom.

Leonard Jacobs said...

But as you know, the genesis is even deeper, really, than that. The code has needed reform since I've been around -- I started producing in 1990 -- and this is just the latest incarnation of the efforts to affect change.

I'm saying we should stop worrying about the actors in the sense that actors have to take care of -- and bring about change from -- their own community. I agree with most people that the reason Equity has been so obstinate about reforming the code is the pressure to do so hasn't come from inside the ranks of the union. If such pressure did come from within the union -- and that's what happened in the 1970s -- I think the story would be different. So in that sense we have to let actors take care of themselves.

Finally, I speak for myself, not for the committee. And there's nothing hostile or aggressive in what I'm saying. That's a little alarmist, Nick.

Rat Sass said...

Sorry, Leonard, if I sounded alarmist. I should explain my position in more detail.

My theatre company has been producing Off-Off, nationally, and internationally for 25 years. Both our co-artistic directors are AEA members. So we have been dealing with Equity covertly and overtly throughout our history, as I am sure many other ensembles have done. We have also worked in collaboration with other companies and actors from around the country through our leadership within the rat conference and have produced or co-produced theatre in LA, Seattle, Chicago, Philadelphia, and other cities. Each city has its own special arrangement (plan, code) or non-arrangement with Equity on working without a contract with actors.

We have considered all the work we have produced Off-Off in NYC and with these other rat theatres around the country as “independent theatre.” So of course we are interested in the nature and make-up of an entity in New York calling itself the League of Independent Theatre. I am unclear about who are they, and who they are speaking for?

If one of the League’s principle goals were Showcase Code reform, it would seem to make sense to have Equity actors on its steering committee. Are there any, and who are they?

--nick

Leonard Jacobs said...

I think you really want to talk to John Clancy about all this. Don't think that I'm running this ship -- I'm just one body on a committee. The committee is large, has a lot of practitioners and is developing an agenda with administrative and legal parameters. But I'm not the spokesperson for the group, so I really think you should talk to John.

john said...

Nick,

The Steering Committee has lost none of its "original inclusiveness and transparency". That's contentious, provocative nonsense and you know it. You and I danced this ugly dance eleven years ago with the unwarranted Rat/Fringe debate and ended up only stepping on a lot of toes and driving a lot of good people off the dancefloor. If you, or anyone, would like to get further involved and do some work on this thing, email me at john@clancyproductions.com or call my cell, 917.539.3153 and I would be thrilled to spread some of the workload around.

Rat Sass said...

John,

Let's back up a step. Let me try to be as clear as is possible in email/blog communication. I come in peace. I come with complete admiration and respect for what you the League members are trying to accomplish. For that matter, since you brought it up, I came in peace 11 years ago when Rat was already well established and the Fringe Festival was just getting started. I approached you. I was excited about what you were undertaking and wanting to collaborate towards common goals. How it went askew and why... well I and others have our own take on that as you do. But why sling random, gossip fueling mud about ancient history now?

Again, let me go back to the beginning. I and Gabriele Schafer may be the biggest fans of the leadership you've taken on this. It's time has come and it takes a lot of heart to take it on. We've been to the three different public forums and Gabriele has talked to you quite a bit as well as to John Pinckard several times, expressing her readi- and willingness to become involved as an Equity actor and artistic director of an independent theater. She was told there's no place right now but to keep an eye on your blog. The meetings as characterized on your blog seem to be private not public invite now. So it's not contentiousness or provocativeness, it's more just curiosity. I've also said publicly (I have been commenting often on Showcase reform at other theatre blogs) that the committee probably needed to hunker down just to get some of the bureaucratic work done. Completely understandable. So no criticism, no slam, just a simple observation that, despite several tries, it doesn't feel like there's any way to get any information... like... who the members of the committee are and who you consider your constituents to be, whom you're representing when you say "independent theater." Maybe I'm not looking at the right websites or blogs. I'm definitely out the loop. I have your phone now and I'll email this comment to you as well.

john said...

Nick,

You're dead right and I apologize. Was pounding on the keyboard from 2:30 AM until I saw your post and reacted badly. Broke the first lesson learned: Never post angry.

I've put something up on my blog that I hope addresses the recent quietness on all matters League. We've just all been jamming on our own things, frankly.

Again, sorry about that.

RLewis said...

Please don't change the Showcase Code. I deeply believe that there always needs to be a lowest rung for the new artists to grab.

I do agree that changes need to be made, and like what i've seen in the 99 proposal. It needs to be its own thing, and not something that raises the bar for anyone just starting out.

Many of us have been doing this longer than the Showcase Code ever imagined (we're supposed to successful by now and no longer working on a volunteer basis).

I really believe that the problem is with the Seasonal Code. It was put together with the least amount of thought and insight. It works best if you have your own space; thinking that you would have to have a space to do year-round work year after year. That is not the case, and I think we need a Seasonal Code for non-leaseholders who produce non-seasonal ongoing theater.
Thanks, and as an AEA member, I'd be happy to help, if needed.

gaby said...

I'm very happy to hear from Ralph and was hoping he would offer his help as well. He is, as am I, a co-artistic director of a theater that doesn't have its own space, as well as an Equity member, which Equity often treats as a conflict of interest but lies at the heart of why many AEA rules don't make any sense anymore. We seldom "showcase" ourselves as actors anymore. New York theater has changed. We showcase our productions and hope they succeed. In fact at one of the TRU panels, a commercial producer said that no one even goes to showcase productions to see actors anymore.

Anyway, Ralph is personally very knowledgeable about Equity rules. And his company has just explored the early history of Off-Off-Broadway. And I passionately agree with him that there needs to continue to be opportunities to put production together on a shoestring. It's also a training ground.

I too want to offer my help again and would love to work with Ralph if there is any help needed.