We’re grasping at straws these days, and understandably so. Each little tidbit of news we hear about upcoming Broadway productions is snatched at for reassurance that life as we knew it will soon be back to normal. Hamilton has set its reopening date! Pass Over (an upcoming Broadway debut for Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu) has announced its vaccination policies! Seasons are being planned again! Each juicy tidbit – for shows that haven’t gone up yet, mind you – suggests to a desperately hopeful theatrical audience that production will return, and the industry brought back from near-death. And yet the milestone taking place this week, perhaps the most important one to future theatrical activity, has gone largely unheralded.
This Wednesday, August 4, marks the date that Actors Equity will begin reviewing and approving the paperwork for Equity Showcase productions. Up until now, every announcement, every bit of “theater is back” news, has involved Broadway productions or productions by established off-Broadway companies. But as I’ve said many a time, the bulk of theatrical activity doesn’t take place on Broadway. As an example, that Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu piece mentioned above is a transfer from Off-Broadway, having been part of LCT3’s line-up in 2018. And the plays that make it to the off-Broadway houses each travel a long development road involving showcase productions, 29 hour workshops, staged readings, and the like. All such activity has been in limbo; Equity has been handling the paperwork for the Broadway productions that were already running or in preparation, but nothing for any new material that might come through the pipeline.
And honestly, there were plenty of fears that they wouldn’t. The relation that smaller producers have with the union is always fraught; there’s always the sense that they’d prefer the old business model of out-of-town regional productions leading to Broadway. The paychecks for the actors, and consequently the working dues payments, would be considerably larger if everything still worked the way it did in the 1940s (albeit at 2021 prices). And given the union’s stance with similar small-scale contracts – don’t ever bring up the 99-seat plan to a Los Angeles actor unless you’re prepared to hear an anguished lamentation on the subject – there was real paranoia that the union would use this current crisis to junk the Showcase code. Well, revisions may eventually come, but thankfully the union still realizes the value in it for emerging companies and creators of new work. The fact that those contracts will start being processed again next week is a sure sign that those contracts still exist.
I’ve produced under that code myself, when my Dragon’s Breath was on the Fringe; many actors have done so. It can be a hassle; the paperwork itself isn’t too much of a hassle, but there’s only one or two harried souls in the Equity office who are handling it. I don’t begrudge them the headache of trying to dig out from the avalanche of inquiries from artists who’ve had projects held up in limbo for the past year and a half. I do, however, take a measure of hope in that their grumpy discomfort is the best sign yet of things returning to “normal.”
(NOTE – I’m currently on vacation, so I wrote this post in advance a few weeks ago, not knowing about all the other things Actors Equity was planning that throw the ideal of “getting back to normal” completely out the window! I’ll be sure to check in about new membership requirements and the like in upcoming weeks.)