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Members of Actors’ Equity gathered in Times Square on Thursday to rally for new protections in their Broadway contract.
Of particular issue was the need for more understudies and swings on Broadway productions. The demand on these actors has always been high, but has recently been exacerbated by the pandemic, as actors have been thrown into roles they do not know to cover for COVID-19 cases in the cast. The pandemic also caused many members to rethink industry norms and push for a better work-life balance and safeguards within the industry.
Speaking at the rally, Maria Briggs, a swing and understudy on The Music Man, said she covers 11 tracks (or roles) in the musical, but has also been on all ensemble roles in the show, since she’s the dance captain and knows the parts. She’s hoping for better understudy coverage on productions, as well as better compensation correlated to the number of tracks that are covered. She receives a stipend of about $116 per week for covering all the roles, on top of her base salary.
“You don’t see the pressure that we are under daily, hourly, by the minute, because you only see the same grosses that come in weekly, while we bend over backwards without extra compensation,” Briggs said to the crowd.
“I’ve heard numerous times from many people, even my fellow castmates, ‘I could never do what you do…we’re at the point of destroying the swing morale,” Briggs added.
Actors’ Equity and the Broadway League have been negotiating the now-expired contract since September. These negotiations are specific to the union’s Broadway productions, as well as sit-down runs in cities, and not to its touring productions, which have been included in the past but are now being spun off into a new contract.
In addition to asking for more understudies and swings on productions, Actors’ Equity is looking for better ventilation in the theaters, particularly in backstage areas, which can be cramped and susceptible to mold due to being housed in old buildings; limits on 10 out of 12 technical rehearsals (a practice that occurs the week before opening in which actors and stage managers are scheduled for 10 hours of work and two hours of break time in a day); and five-day rehearsal weeks rather than six, before a show starts previews.
Judy Kuhn, a four-time Tony Award nominated actor in attendance, said the demands on understudies and other performers was one of the reasons she came out to the rally.
“When theaters reopened again, what was being asked of performers and stage managers and understudies was out of control. People love to write about the heroics of people being thrown on to a role that they’ve never rehearsed or officially understudied,” Kuhn told The Hollywood Reporter. “That’s a nice story, but that shouldn’t be happening. The pressure on actors to go on no matter what is really inhumane.”
Kuhn added that she believes scheduling around 10 out of 12s, as well as the demands of back-to-back shows around the holidays also needs to be rethought.
The union is also seeking greater paid sick leave for its actors and stage managers. As it stands, actors and stage managers above a certain salary threshold are not paid for performances they miss due to non-COVID-19-related illness. In the most recent contract, this applied to actors who made more than $6,000 per week. Members who earn less than that have a cap on pay or a limit on the number of days earned.
Vicki Whooper, an assistant stage manager on A Strange Loop who spoke at the rally, outlined the calculation made when it comes to taking sick leave, saying, “If I don’t feel totally OK, I should figure out how to push through it because no one else can do my job. That’s not OK. The show should not hinge on three to four people feeling superhuman to get things done.” This, in addition to the lack of work-life balance, has caused Whooper, who made her Broadway debut with the show, rethink the industry.
“We do this because we love it, but is it loving us back in the same way? No. And it breaks my heart,” Whooper said.
Negotiations for the new contract are ongoing and were taking place during the rally Thursday. Equity’s goal with the rally was to show the amount of support for these issues among its membership.
“Sometimes it’s helpful for folks on one side of the table or the other to see how much the other side cares about the things they’re asking for in order to push things across the finish line,” said David Levy, director of communications at Actors’ Equity.
“The Broadway League is engaged in good faith negotiations with Actors’ Equity Association and want to underscore that we value all of their members, including understudies, swings and stage managers for the work they do in bringing our productions to life. We are keeping our focus on the work at the bargaining table and look forward to reaching a mutually acceptable agreement. We are committed to the collective bargaining process and believe that we have made significant progress on the difficult and complex issues at the table,” the Broadway League said in a statement.
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