The Problem with AEA


What I wish I had been able to do this week

I haven’t posted in awhile because I’ve had a crazy busy week. Among a few other magical surprises, my company lost an actor, and it turned out that, because the show was a commission being built specifically around this actor and his particular talents, we couldn’t, hard as we tried, recast non-AEA, so we had to scramble to fill the slot with something else. We can’t use an AEA actor because we can’t afford the lowest-tier contract right now, and we’ve used up all our waivers.

And I hear all you people outside the Bay Area saying “What?!” Yes, in the Bay Area, a company only gets a few waivers to use in their first few years of existence, and then can never use another waiver ever again for any reason world without end.

Before I go any further, let me lay down a few piles of facts: I’m very pro-union. My grandfather was a forklift driver and my husband is a middle school teacher. I know what unions are for and why they’re important, and union busting is something I cannot abide. I would never cross a picket line. I think unions are vital.


I remember my mother refusing to buy grapes and making sure we knew why.

Secondly, I wouldn’t have any reason to complain about AEA if I didn’t follow its rules. I left an entire job on the table in part because I couldn’t handle willful violations of AEA contracts. I didn’t want to be associated with that, and I didn’t want to have to fight like a cornered wampa over every single contract. I could easily eliminate my problems by just violating contracts and hoping to fly under the radar (“We’ve never been caught,” I was told), but I won’t do that. For one, I think I WOULD get caught, and, much more importantly, it’s not right.

So here’s my problem: In the Bay Area, at least, AEA operates under a fundamental misunderstanding of its own market.

AEA exists in a bizarre context. There are hundreds of actors working in commercial theatre like big Broadway musicals, touring companies, and the like. These commercial enterprises would happily work these actors to death, collect wagonloads of cash from $200 tickets and 45 kinds of merch, and then pay the actors starvation wages (if that) if they could get away with it. AEA is the one thing stopping commercial theatres from using actors like human ATMs.

However, AEA also covers actors working under the nonprofit model. The 501c3 model, as it applies to the arts, exists so that arts organizations can be released from the concerns of the for-profit model– continual growth, market share, and profitability that returns income to investors. It was determined, and rightfully so, that “high art,” new advances in art, and experimental art are not usually big sellers, and that if we are to have vibrant, cutting-edge art being produced in this country, or the preservation of heritage art, we need to protect them from the vagaries of the marketplace. The nonprofit model (ideally) gives companies the freedom to stop worrying about sales, market share, growth, and profitability, and instead use grants and donations to supplement income.

After a perfunctory glance at the AEA documents library, it seems to me that AEA contracts in the Bay Area aren’t much different than anywhere else, apart from being the only place in the country without a functional waiver. (I’d love to hear from some of you folks across the country if I’m wrong about that.) Our agreements are the MBAT, the BAT, and, of course, the LORT. Theatres also use the TYA agreement and the Guest Artist agreement, but primarily, the system is BAPP (our mini-waiver), MBAT, BAT, LORT.  We have 5 LORT theatres in the Bay Area. The other 300 or so of us are BAT and below, so that’s what I’ll address.

This system is, of course, tiered, but not necessarily in the way you’d think. Bay Area companies can only use a BAPP for a few years before that agreement is denied to them forever, regardless of their income. The MBAT is only available to companies that use a 99-and-under theatre, and in the Bay Area, where competition for theatre space rental for a full run of 5 or 6 weeks can be fierce (before we had our own space, we used to start booking our season a year in advance), sometimes the only space available to you shuts you out of the MBAT, again, regardless of income. The BAT is internally tiered– the salaries you must pay the actors increase each year, whether your company’s income increases or not. Once you start working under the BAT, salaries are tied to TIME, not to INCOME.

By limiting the waiver and by tying salaries under the BAT to time rather than income, AEA is forcing Bay Area nonprofit theatres into a for-profit growth model, and it just doesn’t work. A nonprofit theatre’s income is in no way guaranteed to increase year by year– nor should it have to. The point of a nonprofit theatre is the art, not popularity. If we wanted to make a bunch of money, we would all be doing Annie starring Kim Kardashian and Justin Bieber.


Perfect for Miss Hannigan.

Here’s my first example: A theatre I know qualifies for the MBAT in every way except one: The theatres they rent are over 99 seats. They could afford to hire at least 5 or 6 AEA actors a season on the MBAT contract, but they’re not allowed to use it. So they can either make an all-out push to grow much larger in order to be able to afford the BAT contract and its continual increases, or they can stay non-AEA. Of course, in this economy, that kind of growth is not realistic, and why should they be forced to grow to a size that might not be sustainable for them? Solution: they only hire non-AEA actors. So that’s at least 5 or 6 AEA actors who could have been working, who instead sat home while non-AEA actors took those jobs.

I’ll use my own theatre as my next example. We’re no longer allowed to use the waiver, and we can’t afford an MBAT. The MBAT requires a weekly salary for the actor that makes the actor the highest-paid person in the room in almost every MBAT company, including the Artistic Director. We have a tiny, 59-seat theatre and we do a 4-5 show season, primarily new plays by emerging playwrights. In order to hire AEA actors regularly, we’d have to grow by about 50%. This would take years and is by no means guaranteed since we’re dedicated to accessible ticket prices, making our only avenue grants and donations. Solution: we only hire non-AEA actors. FUN FACT: I had a high-profile AEA actor call me and ask for the lead role in a show I was directing. He knew what my approach would be to the show and felt that this would be the only chance he would ever have to perform the role in that way, or perhaps even at all. I called AEA and went to bat for him, and was told no, he could not work on a waiver, and that “AEA actors need to be protected from what they want.”

But hey, now, don’t I want to pay actors? OF COURSE I DO. I would love nothing better than to pay every actor who comes through our theatre each year (about 30 per season) a weekly salary. Hell, I’d love to pay MYSELF a weekly salary. But we don’t have that kind of money.


This is a fundamental misunderstanding of the nonprofit model.

Nonprofit theatres are not necessarily interested in a for-profit growth model. We are not necessarily interested in constantly increasing our income or our market share. Many of us are keenly aware that our work, because of its experimental nature, will never sell 500 tickets a night. Many of us do work that is specifically designed for small spaces, limiting our earned income. Many of us are devoted to accessible pricing, which limits our income. Most of us do not wish to produce work specifically designed to be popular and make money, as the commercial theatre does. Again, we do not wish to produce Annie starring Kim Kardashian and Justin Bieber.

So now you’re asking me, “OK, you’re not going to sell 500 tickets a night at $200 each. But what about those grants and donations for which the 501c3 makes you eligible?” Here’s what you need to know: grants and donations do NOT continually increase over time. In a difficult economy, they actually decrease. There are 4 kinds of contributed income: Corporate grants, foundation grants, government grants, and individual donations. Sometimes companies decide to halt all grants to the arts and shift focus to something else, or decide they want to focus on specific geographical areas, or are having a down year and decrease the amount of money they’re granting. Foundations can only grant the amount of money their endowment makes, which, as any investor knows, is not an ever-increasing amount. And don’t even look me in the face and say “government grants.” Government funding has all but evaporated.  Individual donations are directly tied to the economy. You can’t donate to a nonprofit if you’ve just lost your job.

It’s impossible for nonprofit theatre companies to rely on an ever-increasing income. There is NO SUCH THING. Nonprofit theatres are not able to function on a for-profit growth model, despite what AEA thinks, and it’s AEA actors who are suffering for it.

Because nonprofit theatres aren’t growing on a for-profit model, and because our Bay Area AEA contract structure assumes that nonprofits theatres ARE growing on a for-profit model, a huge amount of Bay Area theatres are severely limited in the number of contracts they can afford or are shut out of AEA contracts entirely. Therefore, most AEA actors in the Bay Area work far less than they did when they were non-AEA, and, I would wager, make less at it as well. Sure, the one job they land pays more, but the non-AEA actor is working 7 jobs for every one job the AEA actor works. If you’re an AEA actor who’s a white man who can sing, chances are you’re working a few times a year, but if you’re a woman, forget it. Young white women show up to auditions by the wagonload, so unless you have a particular, hard-to-find skill, you are frequently easily cast around, and the company can save the 1 or 2 AEA contracts they can afford for that show for a role that’s more difficult to cast. If you’re a person of color, just getting considered can be an uphill climb at some theatres or by some directors. Because the pool of jobs available to AEA actors is much, much smaller than the ones available to non-AEA actors, actors of color are especially hard hit when they become AEA.

At the risk of repeating myself: when you’re forcing nonprofit companies into ill-fitting for-profit growth models, most companies (if not all) must limit the number of contracts they can underwrite each season. LORT theatres are favoring shows with small casts, something with which playwrights nationwide have been struggling for years now. In the Bay Area, the lion’s share of BAT and MBAT theatres are only able to hire a few AEA actors per show, casting the rest of the show nonunion, while the AEA actors who could have been playing those roles sit at home perfecting their Covenant abatement strategies.


Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

So what’s my solution?

Tie AEA agreements to INCOME, not to TIME or to SEATS or to anything else. That would make the relationship between AEA and nonprofit theatres realistic, and would result in more AEA actors being hired, which is good for both the theatre companies and the AEA actors. AEA contracts could be tied to a company’s income in the prior fiscal year. If it’s under X, you work under this contract, if it’s over X but under Y, you work under that contract, and so on. Income is REAL. Imagining that money undergoes mitosis and automatically grows over time is not. Imagining that a theatre space with more seats will automatically make a nonprofit theatre more money is not. Use the real income, not the imaginary income. Work out salaries that are fair when compared to the company’s income bracket. You wouldn’t need to reduce the salaries that already exist—just allow companies a more realistic set of criteria for qualifying for contracts.

Bring the Bay Area in line with the rest of the damn country and allow waivers for companies whose financials qualify, regardless of how long they’ve been producing.

Empower your membership to decide for themselves what jobs they will take. The companies who would be using a waiver are currently not using any AEA actors at all. The companies you’ve shut out of the MBAT who can’t grow to BAT are not using any AEA actors at all. Is that better for your membership, really?

And finally, stop imagining that small, nonprofit theatre companies are all sitting atop hoards of gold, arrogantly refusing to give your actors a dime while wiping their asses with hundred-dollar bills. Most of us are barely paying ourselves. Some of us don’t pay ourselves at all. And, apart from a few bad apples, almost all of us are aching to pay AEA actors– who are our friends, people we have worked with for years, people we LOVE– a living wage. Personally, I want to be able to pay ALL actors, AEA or not, a living wage.

What’s best for AEA actors? Because it can’t be struggling year after year to get any work at all while the non-AEA actors around them are working nonstop, right? And the reason that happens isn’t because producers are dicks. It’s because we’re desperately trying to keep the doors open, and we only have so much to allocate for personnel after donations have fallen off and one of our major granting orgs closed their grants for the arts completely, and we did two new plays last year that were critical successes but didn’t sell well, and because we want to keep ticket prices affordable so our audience can stay diverse. And because we’re not working under a profit-driven growth model. And we don’t want to do The Facts of Life: The Musical! with Taylor Swift as Blair, Beyonce as Tootie, and Seth McFarlane as Mrs. Garrett. OK, maybe a little BUT THAT’S NOT MY POINT.

My point is: There has to be a better way, for ALL of us.

UPDATE: There are indeed several other places across the country without a waiver. I feel your pain, Salt Lake City and Las Vegas (and anyone else out there). I feel your pain.

SECOND UPDATE: I’m thrilled with the conversations this has started. I’m even more thrilled that we seem to be thinking of ways to come together to work within the confines of the financial reality of the nonprofit theatre world.

Comments for this article are now closed. I’ll be posting a follow-up article soon!

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47 thoughts on “The Problem with AEA

  1. Reblogged this on Cindy Marie Jenkins and commented:
    This is an important conversation in many cities. What are you thoughts, in the theatre industry or others?

  2. Dig. As a (non-union) actor, I’d love to be paid, but I love the amount of work.

    As a writer/director, I’d love to give my actors all that they’re worth; financially AND artistically.

  3. Eva Rebane says:

    I’m one of those truckloads of white AEA women and I wholeheartedly agree. Well said. Will be passing this one on. 🙂

  4. Greg Crafts says:

    Los Angeles-area producers at the 99-seat level are currently working on forming a Producers Trade Association to negotiate with AEA, SDC, USA, etc. According to our research, it seems that our AEA 99-seat Waiver Agreement is the last of its kind in the US.

  5. Reynaldi says:

    In reviewing the BAT, I didn’t realize that the agreement is negotiated between AEA, the Aurora Theatre Company, 42nd Street Moon, Magic Theatre, San Jose Stage Company, SF Playhouse, The Jewish Theatre San Francisco and Z Space (at least, according to the most recent agreement). These companies occupy the top strata of Bay Area theatres (not including LORT stages). Perhaps it’s time for the many smaller companies to band together and negotiate a new agreement, one that follows the LORT model of being based on income (as you suggest). I think the Bay Area would benefit tremendously from a larger collective bargaining unit of theatres that more accurately reflects the diversity of organizations, in terms of size, work, and number.

    • Bert van Aalsburg says:

      Those theatres listed are the signators to the BAT. They negotiate with the union on the conditions of the agreement. But they are not an organized group of theatres. And, theatres who use the contract are not necessarily those who have participated in the negotiating. SF Playhouse has been operating under the BAT for some time now and only recently participated in the negotiations. It is my understanding that any theatre, who uses the BAT, is able to ask for a seat at the table. And I really don’t think there is anything stopping any theatre, whether as a group or individually, from approaching Actors’ Equity with a request to find a way for you to hire union actors.

    • This was done in NYC 10 or so years ago and became the ANTC agreement – a version of Off Broadway for use by the smaller (but larger than off-off) NYC companies ( I moved into management and am no longer an active union member, so I haven’t kept tabs on how that worked out, but it seems like it would be worth trying to do something like it, perhaps using SPT as a model. In any case, I agree, you guys should use your collective bargaining might just as much as the union does!

  6. demondoll247 says:

    I can’t thank you enough for expressing my frustration with the process of acting within AEA’s guidelines here in the boondocks. One of my favorite charities can’t really afford to pay the admin fee just to get permission to use me, and I’ve been combing through the rules and bylaws to figure out a way to work with a company that I adore.

    • Bert van Aalsburg says:

      Rather than seeking alone, contact Bethany Umbach in the LA office. She’s our Bay Area rep and will help you find a way. Trying to find a way around the rules jeopardizes your standing in the union as well as jades the producer to believe every actor will abandon their union. Bethany’s email is

    • Bert van Aalsburg says:

      Not in the Bay Area? Contact your rep in whichever region you are in. If you don’t have their contact info, go to the Equity website. As an Equity member, you can log on to the member’s only section and get contact info on the rep for your area.

      • Valerie Weak says:

        There are no Equity reps in the Bay Area since the office here closed years ago. (5 years?) Offices are in LA, Chicago and NYC. Bethany is the rep for the Bay Area, and is based in LA. FWIW, Bay Area based membership is I believe the largest and most vocal portion of the membership that is outside of a city with an office.

  7. lynda says:

    This was one of the reasons I left AEA because living here in the Bay Area it was impossible to make it work. I believe in the union, I was a proud union actor but it didnt make sense to stay in here in the bay area. I left after 20 years of being a union actor 😦

  8. Daniel Olson says:

    What union lets their members decide individually what salary or working conditions are acceptable or appropriate? That’s not a union. Union members stand together and let their elected and hired representatives negotiate acceptable hiring. There are, of course, union members who simply use the union for what it gives them then complain about the restrictions. Some actors use the union to get work, then ignore their commitments to other union members so that they can play roles they’ve been longing to portray or do something during a dry spell of not getting work.

    When the union grants a theater the ability to “use” willing members without pay or contract (that’s right; it’s a financial grant from the actors and the union), the actors are investing time and their money toward the success of the theater or the play. The theater needs to use those actors’ investments to build toward supporting AEA actors in the future. The goal cannot be to keep “using” people. If a theater doesn’t have a goal of becoming a paying theater, then that theater should stick to volunteer actors. The union and the actors are making a mutually beneficial agreement; they’re not just giving you a few freebies.

    I cannot speak with authority to the formula that AEA uses to determine salaries and benefits. But I suspect it isn’t simply what a theater has been earning. Again, your actor employees are investing in you when they are being paid minimum wage type salaries. They, and the union, want you to be focused on potential revenue not just past revenue. I believe that this is why AEA takes into account the seating available in the theater as well as budget and other factors – it’s about your potential not just what you’ve done so far. A BAPP actor is working with you to develop income potential, not to encourage you to simply be able to put on the next play.

    Union actors gave up the idea of paying for their costumes and music and paying community college fees for units. They gave up the idea of working outside theater as a career and doing theater as a hobby or just for the art. A professional actor chose to work toward making a living from doing theater, so if you are granted the gift of using a professional actor for free, recognize that that grant is an investment in your growth and potential to pay for the PG&E, the rent, the lumber, the props, the royalties, the playwrights, the directors, the designers, the musicians, the crew, AND the actors. The theater might be non-profit, but the theater artists don’t have to be.

    Two more things: AEA doesn’t think you’re sitting on a pile of money; they just want to make sure that you show commitment to your potential, so one of the union’s jobs is to push you toward your potential if you want to continue to hire professionals. Lastly, I wasn’t “working” non-stop before I joined AEA; I was giving away my university degree, and my training, and my gas, and my time with my friends and family – non-stop. I was working somewhere else. That’s OK, because my goal was to help put on the next show and maybe get paid someday. And I was making an investment in myself. Now I’m working when I do theater. It’s rare that I work, certainly not non-stop, but when I do it, I’m doing my role and my job.

    • Jon says:

      First of all, I am exceedingly pro-union. I do feel from your post that what you’re talking about, with regards to theatres, still supports the commercial, large-theatre growth model.

      I, again, support unions, but many unions are like the Death Star: Built for large-scale assaults (larger, for-profit theatres), and not built for the “small one-man fighters (smaller, non-profit theatres).”

      Unions MUST protect its members, that is not an arguable statement, but many unions do need to (and some HAVE needed to for a while) find ways to work with the smaller, lower budget organizations, especially if the smaller organizations are willing to support the union’s guidelines.

      • Daniel Olson says:

        I don’t have any idea what is said between AEA reps and producers during negotiations, but it seems to me that it should be made clear when a BAPP or lower-than-living-wage minimum salary is accepted by AEA, that the union is making an investment in the growth of the theater – that the theater or producer must make a commitment to the union to improve their ability to hire.

      • As I’ve said numerous times, the for-profit model of continual growth is not sustainable for an industry that operates in the red and makes up that difference with grants and donations. Grants and donations are not an unlimited resource, no matter how hard you wish it to be so.

  9. Brian Herndon says:

    BAT theatre salaries are tied to income, not to time.

    59. TIERS.

    (A)Determination. During the term of this Agreement, a Producer’s tier shall be based upon actual weekly box office receipts averaged over the three most recently completed calendar years:

    Average Receipts
    Intro Tier: $0.00 – $2,799
    Tier 1: $2,800 – $5,999
    Tier 2: $6,000 – $11,599
    Tier 3: $12,000 – $20,799
    Tier 4: $20,800 – $24,999
    Tier 5: $25,000+

    And the Tier determines the weekly salary (for the current year of the contract, Year 3):

    Intro Tier: $209
    Tier 1: $257
    Tier 2: $347
    Tier 3: $425
    Tier 4: $520
    Tier 5: $591

    The time increases you mention are cost-of-living increases:

    BAT Tier 3 Weekly Salaries:

    2010-11: $413
    2011-12: $417
    2012-13: $425
    2013-14: $438

    An average of less than 2% a year.

    • Each tier contains within it an increase for each year the theatre remains at that tier, no matter what you call it.

      The issue is, when you must continually increase income to make the increased salaries (and although those are small increases individually, when multiplied by all the actors you’re paying over all the weeks you’re paying them, it adds up), it drives up your income, continually pushing you into higher and higher tiers. It’s a never-ending cycle that pushes nonprofits into an unsustainable for-profit-style growth model.

      • Bert van Aalsburg says:

        The salaries and the tiers are negotiated between the union and the signator theatres every time the BAT comes up for review. And I would suspect the theatre managers align the tiers to correspond to the final year of the salary increases. They’d be dummies if they didn’t. That way, salaries don’t force anyone to drive their income up and move into a higher tier. In fact, more often than not, theatres have moved down from one tier to the next when box office averages decline. And there’s no one forcing any one to do anything they didn’t already agree to. The signators agreed to the contract and it works for them. That it doesn’t work for you is, well… All I can say is, if you want a seat at the negotiations, start using the BAT and add your voice.

      • I have been told by producers using the BAT that you are not allowed to move down a tier. I also know that AEA will often do one thing for one company and something else for another, so perhaps some companies are allowed to and some are not.

  10. Ray Renati says:

    Ray Renati The issue is so complex and confusing. The details and arguments seem infinite. I think the bottom line is this: AEA members, this is your union. You, in fact, are The Union. If you feel strongly about something the Union should be doing differently, then you need to get involved. Come to the meetings, vote, get involved. Maybe I’m being too simplistic about this, but there is really no other way to change things. It seems to me that the basic problem is that we have a New York centric model that is being applied to the San Francisco market, and there are very few similarities. I think the entire thing out here needs to be rethought out from scratch.

    I believe in AEA. I think it provides a vital service for union and non-union actors alike. I was just doing a photo shoot tonight where there happened to be non AEA actors in the cast. The director and stage manager decided to skip the break. I think that’s wrong for so many reasons. If there had been an AEA member in the cast, that simply would not have happened. The union takes care of all of us in ways that I don’t think people fully appreciate.

    • NO ONE is against unions. Practically everyone here has voice pro-union stance, Melissa (Bitter Gertrude herself) in particular. Everyone her is in favour of unionised guaranteed wage and protection against exploitation & overwork.

      The problem, as spelled out in the blog, is when the union forces smaller theatres to be held to the same financial standard as major houses. That doesn’t work because the smaller houses do not make the same money as the large houses – hell, the majority of small houses don’t make money at all. That’s why they don’t go union: they couldn’t pay union wages even if they wanted to. And they DO want to – everyone wants to pay their actors and techs what they’re worth.

      And as far as “go to the meetings” goes, that excuse doesn’t work with AEA’s stone wall approach. When their answer to everything is “my way or the highway (and non-union folks just go to hell)”, then they clearly show little incentive to change.

  11. Brian Herndon says:

    I call them cost-of-living increases because they are less than our annual rate of inflation. Over the last three years, covering the last BAT agreement, BAT contracts have increased an average of 2.03% a year. Inflation over the same time has been 2.3%. Maybe I should call them “not-quite-cost-of-living-I’m-making-less-in-actual-dollars-than-I-did-last-year” increases.

    I would also like to call shenanigans on the producers who are claiming that increased actor salaries are the reason they’re continually having to move up a tier. Since 2006, the tier caps have also been increased as well by an average of 3.3% yearly. Granted, the caps are negotiated every four years as part of the contract, but that 3.3% increase includes the reduction of the Tier 5 cap by 16%, and currently we have no BAT Tier 5 theaters. There was no increase in the caps in the last negotiation because both sides accepted them as is. Just as a point of reference, the average yearly inflation rate over the same period was 2.33%. So in constant-value dollars, the tier caps have increased more than the actor salaries.

    In the short term, let’s take a hypothetical BAT Tier 1 theatre, that uses 16 AEA actors and 4 AEA stage managers over every season, all on 8-week contracts. In 2010 they would have spent $41,568 on AEA salaries. In 2011 they would have spent $352 more in salaries through the COL increase. In 2012 they would have spent $960 more. If they needed to make this money via ticket sales, they would have to increase their average box office receipts by $22 a week in 2011, and a whopping $60 a week in 2012. Since they’re a hypothetical Tier 1 theatre, their hypothetical box office receipts over the last three years average somewhere between $2,800 and $5,999 a week. I hope they could absorb an extra $82 a week. I don’t see the “never-ending cycle” you mention occurring at the BAT level.

    I don’t want to throw a ton of numbers at everyone. I just want to talk specifics instead of generalizations.

    • You might not know this, but there are costs to the producer using Tier 2 MBAT and BAT in addition to salary– whatever the salary is, the actual cost to the producer is about double that due to worker’s comp and the like. Not that I begrudge that at all– I think it’s vital– but that money has to come from somewhere, and in a nonprofit model, it cannot be relied upon to increase every year sustainably. The longterm sustainability of the nonprofit model is an extremely hot topic right now as we lose AEA theatre after AEA theatre across the nation, and an unrealistic expectation of how much expense increase that model can bear is surely part of that phenomenon.

      While that nationwide problem is multifaceted, we have here in the Bay Area two very serious issues that I think we, as a community, can work to solve together:

      1. The saying, “Go AEA and never work again” is true for far too many Bay Area AEA actors, and

      2. That disproportionately hits women and people of color.

      I’m working on solutions to those problems, or at least I’m trying. I think #1 can be solved by making Bay Area AEA contracts more realistic. I’m working on #2 in other ways, but a solution for #1 will alleviate that at least somewhat.

      If you have solutions to those problems that differ from mine, I would truly love to hear them. That’s 100% honest, not challenging or sarcastic. The whole point of this was to start some much-needed discussion.

      • Bert van Aalsburg says:

        You don’t mention that those added costs at MBAT tier 2 and the BAT are pensions and health contributions. (MBAT payments being less than those required on the BAT.) Something that I understand all non-profit businesses pay into for their employees. Those contributions, which are not required under the project policy (BAPP), begin at this level as a sign that the theatre is committing itself to become a fully functioning, non-profit business with employees and all the rest that the state requires from employers regarding income and salaries.

        And, in the face of those lost AEA theatres you mention, we have as many successes. Theatres that are growing and remaining AEA theatres. What are they doing right that the others are failing to do?

        The union is fully aware of the issue and is working on solutions.

        As for #2, well, AEA can’t force producers to hire more women and people of color. If producers won’t hire more women and people of color it’s their choice and not a result of any condition associated with an AEA agreement.

      • Bert, it doesn’t matter what that money is for. The money MUST come from SOMEWHERE. And in an industry with NO PROFITS WHATSOEVER, that operates in the red and has to beg for donations and grants to make up the difference, any increased cost is a potential problem.

        As I have said– repeatedly– I am pro-union. But this industry cannot sustain continually increased expenses, no matter what they are or how justified or good they are. Grants and donations are not an endless source. “Just raise more money” is not realistic.

        Yes, some theatres are thriving, but most are not. Those theatres you say are thriving are still relying on grants and donations, and are, say, one major corporation shuttering its grants for the arts program and one foundation having a down year and reducing its grants by half from closing.

      • Brian Herndon says:

        I’m sorry you decided not to post my reply with web links to the places I think are starting to make a difference. I think others might be interested in them.

      • I’ve approved every single comment I’ve received. I’m not at my computer 24/7, so I can’t approve them all the second they come in. I’m looking at my comments, and I see nothing on there that is not marked “approved.”

  12. First of all, thank you so much for getting this conversation started. This blog has inspired me to take action on this issue.

    I run an Off-Off Broadway theatre company in NYC, The Seeing Place Theater, and we’re running into a similar difficulty. We are a group of actors (mostly AEA), who have started our own company to have the ability to work organically within our industry. Unfortunately, we cannot run our productions for any more than 16 shows (over the course of no more than 4 weeks) on the current NYC Basic Showcase Code. We will be able to do a few more once we become 501(c)3, but I believe the limit is 22 performances and 6 weeks.

    As many of you may know, it’s nearly impossible to make your money back as a theater company if you can only run for a couple of weeks. As it stands with theater rental rates, we can only afford to run a show for 3 weeks; however, there have been a couple of shows that were so well received that we could have run the shows much longer. Many companies in other cities are able to build greatly on a hit show; however, in NYC we’re forced to have hit after hit after hit after hit – and that will mostly just help us keep afloat.

    In one case, we actually did extend our recent production of DANNY AND THE DEEP BLUE SEA onto an Off-Broadway contract, because we were being considered by the Drama Desk Awards. We had initially run the production in rep with THE LOVER for three weeks. The cost of three weeks of two productions was about $9,000. We’re bare-bones. The cost to extend just DANNY AND THE DEEP BLUE SEA on an Off-Broadway contract for one week (in the same theater) was $5,000. That was a show with two actors and one stage manager. We could never afford to do that with one of our larger ensemble productions.

    As a theatre company, we are committed to low-prices. We could charge up to $18 on the Basic Showcase Code. We choose to charge $12 – and it has made a huge difference since we made that change two years ago. But as much as we’ve begun to build a presence in NYC as a result of our strong ensemble work and low-cost mindset, we still cannot keep ourselves afloat without A LOT of assistance and donations.

    I think that one of the larger problems with AEA is that once we all become producers, we are no longer allowed to attend meetings. Therefore, the producer’s perspective is rarely heard by the union. And because most of the rules are geared toward a for-profit model, the union actually works against the ability for theatre companies to grow.

    A few years ago, I was producing a play I wrote, and I was the only AEA actor in it. Initially, AEA denied me the ability to perform in my own play because we needed to place more performances on the weekends than the weekdays to accommodate the show that was playing in repertory with us. I had to threaten to leave the union before they were willing to strike a deal with me.

    The unfortunate truth is that there are many of us who want to create our own work, and we find ourselves consistently in handcuffs because we follow our union’s rules. If we were able to do the things we need to do to build these kinds of independent theaters, there would be far more jobs for us and for other AEA actors. That would seem to be a benefit to the union – and to the arts in our culture. Under the current model, the only way to break through these glass ceilings is to have major donors or producers backing you. So, we artists remain at the mercy of those that have the money to push their work forward in our communities. And unfortunately, much of the time, those projects tend to be more commercial in nature.

    So, our union leaves us in an interesting predicament. In order to succeed, we are driven to the commercial model. In order to be artistically fulfilled, we have to resign ourselves to starving for our art. And no one that knows anything is in any kind of position to speak up about it.

    Thank you again. I’m going to start making our public aware of this problem. And let’s hope that we can make some kind of a change. Things have gotten out of hand.

    • This conversation is bringing up a few questions for me.

      First, how can Equity truly represent the Bay Area if there are no representatives in the area? This is a community of artists working together, and every company and every actor needs to call long distance to communicate with this important organization that is so strongly impacting them. Equity doesn’t have the budget to have a local representative serve the Bay Area?

      What if a company doesn’t want to grow? What if they want to work with the same number of Equity actors every year and do so without drastically changing their company? As Brandon states above, growing a theater company introduces risk and artistic changes that may endanger the company or change the mission from the intention of the founders, the board, and the artistic and administration team. I understand that Equity is trying to gain more employment for the artists in their union, but is it right that every theater company is mandated to grow if they wish to hire Equity artists. Only small non-Equity community theaters are free from mandated growth?

      And, does AEA care if a scene shop burns down, a flood costs tens of thousands of dollars of surprise expense, a major donor changes their donation pattern and no other donor has yet stepped up, or any number of unfortunate fiscal surprises that befall theater companies? (these are real examples and most of us know of other surprise expenses that have knocked the wind out of Bay Area theater companies). What if an economic shift happens after the first year of the three-year review cycle? Does the theater company need to struggle and suffer for two years before Equity re-evaluates their contract?

    • Richard Shavzin says:

      I’m not 100% sure, but I think that if you’re a member, you can attend meetings whether or not you also produce (unless the meeting goes into executive session). What you cannot do is vote, either on contracts or elections.
      And if this is the case, do all of you have to be “producers”? There are hundreds of theatre companies with an ensemble that effectively run their companies without having to adopt that specific legal position. The actual AEA language has more to do with the ability/power to hire & fire AEA members than just the mechanics of putting up a show.

  13. Brian Herndon says:

    Just spitballing here…

    Signature Theatre has given No Rules space to create art which frees them up from the costs of space. Berkeley Rep hosts PlayGround every month. If our larger theatres can help subsidize the smaller theatres, they might have a better chance at growing. Marin Theatre Company has their second space. What happens with Cal Shakes’ rehearsal hall six months out of the year?

    • The point of my post is that nonprofit theatres should not be forced to grow continually, and that this for-profit growth model is not sustainable for the industry as a whole long term. Since we all run in the red and make that difference up with grants and donations, and since grants and donations are not an unlimited resource, the financial reality is that continual growth is unsustainable, even if it were desirable, and even if the nonprofit model were not specifically designed to alleviate nonprofit companies from that growth model.

      • Brian Herndon says:

        Our economy continues to grow, and the value of a dollar continues to shrink. No business, for-profit or non-profit, can keep a fixed budget or else it’s effectively shrinking. What you call continual growth I call inflation, and I believe the union does an effective job of tying its salary increases to the inflation rate. The LORT salary levels were even frozen this year to help producers. If you freeze MBAT levels, you will end up below minimum wage.

  14. Molly Noble says:

    Thanks all for all the respectful, informative and self searching dialogue here. As an AEA actor and former producer, I appreciate this dialectic. As one member of BAAC suggested, “Perhaps it’s time for BAAC to look into a Q&A forum for smaller theatres.” The smaller companies may also be able shed light for AEA members due to the fact that several small companies are run by performers who see and respect both sides of this issue. Thanks for beginning a lively discussion, Melissa. Thanks for the numbers and union soul, Aaron and Brian, and thanks to all the contributors, producers and actors who continue to prioritize artfulness, safety and a living wage for actors.

  15. This is a great discussion about a difficult and often divisive topic. Everyone on both sides of the issue is doing their best to serve the goal of sharing live theater in a geographical region while also supporting the people who work in the field. One challenge I see is that theaters may not be able to grow at an expected speed, and occasionally a theater company will feel its budget contract through no fault of the artistic vision and the arc of creative choices. Every theater took a hit in the months after September 11, 2001. Bay Area theaters have felt crucial donations disappear with the dot com and real estate bubbles bursting within the past two decades.

    The development departments of regional non-profit theaters are required to raise nearly 50% of a company’s total income, often in the millions of dollars. When individuals, corporations, foundations, or even government funding constricts, the company must adjust, and this has nothing to do with the art happening on the stages of these companies. The artistic “growth” of the company might be happening, with better shows, better audiences, and higher ticket sales, but the company has taken a horrible hit that changes everything about what that company needs to do in order to keep their doors open.

    AEA BAT contracts dependent on ticket income don’t take into consideration the tectonic shifts that not only stop growth but instigate constriction of the overall budget, sometimes in the millions of dollars. Many regional theaters in the Bay Area have had to lay off a good number of administration support people, and all have had to make artistic choices that limit the kinds of shows in a given season to include at least one or two-person show on a simple set. When a company is struggling in these conditions while fighting to comply with the demands of Equity, the frustration they feel is inevitable and understandable.

  16. Patrick says:

    Thanks for opening up this can of worms. As a new BAT company (we’ve been on Special Appearance Tier 2 for about 3 years), we’re anxious about the perception that the union wants to move us along from tier to tier. The rules state, as Brian explained, that the tier jumps are ties to box office NOT time. Our box office has slowly, steadily increased each year, so I haven’t had the justification to test this rule. Hopefully that won’t happen. The cost of living raises within tiers that Brian also identified are to be expected. Staff, insurance, material expenses also go up over time. It’s only fair that salaries (and non-union stipends) go up as well. In theory, if your sales or funding drop off significantly you can go to AEA and request a lower tier. I believe the Willows was granted that concession in one of their reorganizations before they finally went belly up.

    We did have the issue about 6 years ago when AEA wanted to bump us from an MBAT to BAT when we couldn’t afford it. They wouldn’t budge, so we spent the next 18 months not casting any AEA actors. The main issue for us then – and continues today – is the BAT ratio of union to non-union actors. We have a storied history of doing large cast shows. Our main reason for staying away from BAT was that 50% of our casts would have to be union. That ratio DOES go up over time. We could NEVER have produced our community based piece LOVE IS A DREAM HOUSE IN LORIN with 25 performers (many of them high school kids and retired locals) under those rules. It’s true you can have one waiver show that doesn’t fall under the ratio rule, but our annual average cast size (including musicians) for the last several seasons has been 12. We see ourselves as “a little theatre that makes big plays.” The BAT rules are essentially asking us to change a programming model we have lived by for over 20 years. Bethany has expressed a willingness to help us through this transition but I am steeling myself for the year they say, “Ok, guys – either shift to solo shows and 2 handers or get off the bus.” I will not stop making plays that get me up in the morning and keep me up all night – or lay off a staff person (or 2) so I can afford the extra 10-15 contracts we’ll need to take on in order to meet our BAT TIER 2 ratio. So far, the union rep – specifically Bethany Umbach – has been flexible. We give her our budget so she can see that NO ONE is getting rich here. But it’s possible other BAT companies will cry foul if they feel we’re getting a break on ratio concessions when they are not. We’re taking it one season at a time. Right now, we also have to offer any SAG/AFTRA performer an AEA contract as well. Also, last night at our first rehearsal as a BAT company, non union performers had to sing a document stating they were “not a professional actor” I chafe at this rule. Why are you only a “professional” if you are in AEA. The rules surrounding workshops for new work are ESPECIALLY onerous and unproductive. But these are bummers for another post. Zoom!

    • I’m never worked under a BAT myself, so I’m relying on the BAT rulebook (which of course I read before writing this post) along with feedback I received from people who are working under the BAT, all of whom asked me not to name them personally in the blog, so of course I’ll honor that.

      I’m gathering that AEA makes certain concessions for some theatres that they do NOT make for others, otherwise there wouldn’t be so many conflicting stories out there about what it’s like to work under the BAT. I’ve heard over and over from people individually and off the record that AEA pushed them to tiers they could not afford, but since posting this, I’ve now heard from you and from Brian Herndon that that’s not the case. My only conclusion is that, clearly, sometimes it is the case and sometimes it is not, and I have no idea what the criteria would be for who AEA gives a break to and who they bring the hammer down on, but I will say that the people who asked me not to name them were not working for super-rich companies.

      • Brian Herndon says:

        I asked Bethany in Los Angeles about moving backwards in tier for BAT theatres. A theatre is not allowed to move down in tier during the length of the current BAT agreement (usually 3 or 4 years). If a theatre would move up in tier due to increased box office numbers, they are allowed a grace period before having to move up. When the BAT agreement is renegotiated (as it was in 2006 and 2010), the tier caps are negotiated and if a theatre qualifies for a lower tier based on its current box office numbers, it is allowed to move down in tier without question. I hope this explanation clarifies the situation.

      • Jeffrey Draper says:

        Why all the emphasis on ticket sales to set the rate? What about development? Theater companies get between 40 and 60% of their income from donations. If corporations, foundations, individuals, state or federal government, or some combination of these donors change their donation pattern, that changes about 50% of the operating budget for theater company. Actors aren’t paid out of ticket income, they’re paid out of the whole budget. Sometimes ticket income is the most stable thing about a theater company’s budget. Has Equity taken this into account when choosing how to structure contracts? If not, why not?

  17. Patrick says:

    Amendment to my above post. AEA asks non union actors to sign a statement that they are not “engaged in a career in the professional theatre, nor do I intend such a career.” Either way, it’s a wedge request. Why not just ask them to verify that they don’t belong to any of the 4A unions?

    • I told AEA that I wouldn’t have my non-union actors sign such a form, because it was untrue (“nor do I intend?” Where do they think union actors come from?) and therefore unethical. I also mentioned that a union can’t make non-union actors do anything (EMC don’t have to sign such a form, so these are all actors over which the union has no jurisdiction whatsoever). And I was told that if I did not force my actors to sign such a form, my AEA agreement would be denied.

      After that, I refused to use AEA actors at all for years because I would not force my non-AEA actors into something unethical just to make my casting marginally easier. The last AEA actor we used (for our last BAPP) was because having an AEA-approved show was a contingency for a grant we received.

      Oh, and AEA requires these non-union actors (or they did the last time I saw the form) to provide their SSNs.

      That form needs to be eliminated, period. I agree that it’s a wedge issue, but it’s also deeply unethical to hold an agreement with a theatre hostage until you force your actors to sign an out-and-out lie.

  18. David Zarko says:

    I’m surprised SPT or the Developing Theatre Program doesn’t apply to the Bay Area. It works, it should, and under that agreement AEA is pretty good about negotiating ratios and contracts based (loosely) on previous season’s income. The other model you might check is the NYC Tier Code that is essentially a lagged “profit” share model, again based on previous season’s income.

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