Why It’s Time For A Change
by Barrett Martin
Let me begin by saying that I believe in the process of developing new theater. It takes blood, sweat, and tears from EVERYONE involved. From the Producers to the Creatives to the Artists… it takes all of them to bring a piece of theater to life. Everyone takes risks to create something new. They risk money, other career opportunities, time away from their family, etc. all because they want to help be a part of something meaningful and successful. We ALL want to create a piece of work that will not only benefit us all with success, but ultimately entertain audiences for years. Therefore, I believe there is a world in which we can all agree on how to fix the “Lab Agreement.”
[Disclaimer: Because this is an ongoing negotiation, I am not speaking on behalf of Actors’ Equity Association and cannot speak on specifics other than what has been reported in the press. I will, however, offer my opinion based on my experience as someone who was a part of one of the first Labs when the contract was created.]
In my career as a member of the ensemble, I have been a part of various levels of development from workshops, to staged readings, and labs. My first Lab contract was for The Addams Family. I took part in a dance lab for the choreographer. There wasn’t even a full script or score at this point, but the lab gave the choreographer an opportunity to explore the world he was going to create, and we were hired to help create that world with him. We were compensated $1000/wk for 2 weeks, and most importantly (as dancers), we were protected under our union for the work we were doing and, most importantly, protected in case we ever got injured while on the job. (This is NOT the case when dancers agree to do “pre-pro” in a studio for a week or two with a choreographer.) In my opinion, this was a wonderfully crafted deal that helped all parties involved achieve what they wanted. We had a few two-week readings as the script was developed and even a Puppet Lab to work through some of the puppetry that would be used in the show.
2019. So here we are more than a decade later, and I can say without hesitation the lab contract has definitely evolved. Most Labs are fully realized productions being done in a studio space with set pieces, costumes, sound, five-piece bands. etc. However, the contract for Equity members has not changed. Wages are still $1000/wk, and the League of Producers has found more and more ways to abuse the agreement. For example, they will get around the four-week limit by holding a three-week lab, taking a week off, and then holding another three-week lab. They also have used the Lab agreement as a substitute for rehearsals of an incoming Broadway Production at a cheaper rate (i.e. Instead of four weeks of Production rehearsal at a rate of approx. $2000/wk, they schedule a lab a month or two earlier and rehearse the show at a rate 1/2 of full Production. Then, they cut two weeks of rehearsal from the start of the production.). Undoubtedly, there are many more examples, but I don’t want to bore you any more with specifics.
So, this leads us to what are we asking for and why. Again, I’ll reiterate that it is an ongoing negotiation, so I can’t really say what the final outcome will be. However, I can give you the basics:
A pay raise for developmental work. The pay has not increased since the Lab contract was created.
Some protective “fences” that address the main abuses that the League has gotten away with while using the Lab agreement beyond what it was intended for.
As creative artists, we are looking for profit participation after a show has recouped and initial investment has been returned. This small payment would recognize the creative, CREATIVE contribution that the artists have given to the development of a project. (Most shows don’t recoup, so this will almost always cost the Producer nothing.)
Simply put, the Lab Agreement is no longer being used in the way it was intended to. Therefore, we are ready for a change. We have been ready for a change for more than two years. We have waited patiently, but it seems clear that our colleagues at The League seem unwilling to commit to making any change. Therefore, we have found ourselves at a work stoppage. I’m proud of our union for taking a stand and listening to the membership. I also believe it can be resolved fairly soon. Until we figure it out, I think Equity should give The League the opportunity to use the Workshop contract in its place and take it off the Do Not Work list.
In the end, we all want the same thing… to create magic!
So, here’s to a swift and cordial resolution agreed upon with bright light and love.