In Praise of Our Performing Arts Unions

I’ve often heard producers—as well as some artists—gripe about Canadian Actors Equity, complaining that the union’s stringent rules are killing creativity in our theatres. The point can be argued, as obviously Equity legislates working hours and minimum fees for its members, and with the paucity of funding available to independent companies, financing non-conventionally structured projects can be challenging.

My own perspective as a producer has been quite different. Whenever an issue arises, I tend to call up the wonderfully good-humoured Equity business rep, Miriam Newhouse, who explains the rule but then may also suggest where and how I might apply for a concession if needed. I rarely have difficulty understanding why a rule exists, but sometimes circumstances do warrant exceptions, and my experience has been, if it’s a reasonable request, Equity will usually grant it.

This was also brought home to me in negotiations a year ago with ACTRA, the screen actors union, where I applied to use their T.I.P. agreement for an independent short film, a BravoFact involving opera singers recording the sound track with actors playing the roles on screen. This was new territory for me, and when I finally approached ACTRA, there were numerous complications due to the imminent timing of the music recording, and the filming which was scheduled to take place two months later. In short, we didn’t strictly fit the criteria or proper timelines to qualify for the concessionary agreement, yet Tasso Lakas at ACTRA stretched the elastic as much as humanly possible in order to allow us to work within the T.I.P. framework. What was demonstrably clear in this instance was that, rather than ‘negotiating’ in an adversarial way with a protective union, both parties were simply trying to find a formula that would allow us to do what was necessary and still fair to the performers in the context. As a neophyte film producer, I felt that ACTRA was, in fact, an ally in the ongoing challenge to build an authentic Canadian culture, which also sums up my long experience with Actors Equity.

Nonetheless, it is the legitimate, indeed vital role of performing arts unions to protect the interests of their members and negotiate remuneration and benefits on their behalf. If we were simply to apply the laws of supply and demand, with the huge number of aspiring and under-employed actors available in the marketplace at any one time, there would always be plenty of artists willing to work for little or no money. As it is, actor pay cheques, even with regular contracts, are hardly generous; in fact it often galls me to observe that people surrounding a theatre operation—the accountants, the plumbers, the printers and marketing staff are generally paid much more than the performing artists who star on our stages.

All performers, when not employed, do need to flex their creative muscles outside regular channels any way they can. Aside from the plethora of fringe festivals where productions operate as collectives sharing the box office, Equity has, in recent years, created various alternate models, such as the Indie Contract, that significantly reduce producing requirements. And, there is also the co-operative agreement, where equity members can form ad hoc collectives, similar to a fringe structure so that the artists become de facto producers sharing revenues and expenses. Indeed many highly praised recent productions have emanated from several new small venues in Toronto, such The Storefront, that operate almost entirely on co-op agreements. On one hand, this could well be perceived as an erosion of economic standards for the profession, yet there is no question artists have seen this as a way of investing in projects in the hope that many of them will then develop a future life. The point here, though, is that Equity has show great flexibility in allowing these models to flourish. Because of the chronic lack of arts council support to date (another topic), I too may avail myself of such models in the future for particular projects, though, if we are committed to this profession, I strongly believe that paying artists through standard contracts should remain a producer’s first priority.

I too have had epic battles with Actor’s Equity going way back to the mid-70s, and it’s well possible that I may have to roll up my sleeves and arm wrestle for new variances in the future. Nonetheless, I believe what currently exists is a remarkably healthy ecology where our performing arts unions advocate not only for their members but also for the totality of the Canadian cultural industry. As such, I soundly sing the praises of the many artists who spend long hours serving on Equity councils and committees, and the devoted union staff who, in my observation, ably balance the protection of their members with a genuine concern for the vitality of our theatres.

Ken Gass, Artistic Director, Canadian Rep Theatre


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