Equity, Broadway saying let's make a deal


As the Broadway season gears up for Tony Awards time, one offstage drama could command attention, too: negotiations on a new contract between the actors' union and theater producers.

Talks begin Friday between Actors' Equity Assn. and the Broadway League (formerly known as the League of American Theatres and Producers). They come nearly five months after a stagehands strike that kept more than two dozen shows dark for 19 days and cost producers and the city millions of dollars in lost revenue.

No one wants a repeat of that disastrous work stoppage, and both sides are exuding goodwill as they prepare to discuss a production contract that expires June 29.

"Actors and producers enjoy a very special bond," said Charlotte St. Martin, the League's executive director. "The collaborative nature of this relationship is of fundamental importance to our industry. We anticipate that the Equity talks will proceed with both sides seeking to forge a timely and mutually beneficial agreement -- one that will encourage the success of individual productions and the future of the industry."

"I think we and the producers both have made it clear that we want to approach these negotiations in a collegial, professional way that gets the job done," said John Connolly, executive director and chief negotiator for the union.

Still, there are things to talk about -- and negotiate.

Besides such standard topics as pension and health care benefits, one subject sure to be on the table is the experimental touring program started after the previous contract talks in 2004. It allows for different levels of pay for different kinds of tours.

At the top of the pay scale are such smash hits as "Wicked" and "Jersey Boys" that can sit down in cities for weeks and even months at a time. Other, lesser-known (and thus more financially risky) shows, usually playing weekly stands, have a lower pay scale. Adjustments most likely will be made.

The question of safety most likely will come up, too, what with larger, more elaborate settings that often use, among other things, raked stages, elevators, flying, trap doors and pyrotechnics.

Then there is the question of what some call "product development" -- loosening restrictions on, as well as compensation for, actors appearing in workshops of shows that go on to actual productions. Also to be addressed is the topic of "new media," using scenes from shows -- and thus, performers -- on the Web to promote productions.

Some 25 days of negotiations have been planned between Friday and the end of June. The location will alternate between Equity offices on the east side of Times Square and the law offices of Proskauer, Rose, home base for lead League negotiator Bernard Plum, on the west side of Times Square.

"The funny thing about the theater is that it simultaneously is incredibly courageous and experimental and at the same time, deeply conservative and traditional," Connolly said. "One of the hardest things to do is introduce change into the way things get done. That's true for employers, and that's true for performers, too."

Michael Kuchwara is a reporter for the Associated Press.