Philly needs an Equity Showcase—sound the horn!

I was producing a Fringe show last year, and I had an Equity actor (Actors’ Equity is the union for theatre actors). No problem, my co-producer and I thought, we had done an Equity showcase in New York and the paperwork had been only slightly confusing; otherwise the process was pretty straightforward and the basic demands of the showcase were completely fair. But as we began rounding up the paperwork for our Philly Fringe show we soon discovered that an Equity showcase was specific to New York, it was not nationwide, and it did not exist in Philadelphia. Oops. Shit. How the fuck are we going to afford this guy?

I am not an expert on Equity Showcases, but I can explain the basics. It allows Equity actors to basically waive salary requirements, which means that a small theatre company, which doesn’t have the budget to pay actors much of anything and certainly not Equity salaries, can produce new works and have Equity actors in the cast. There are numerous rules such as travel stipends, fire captains, 99 seats or less, and that no one in the production can be paid more than the Equity actor. Generally it is for new work (it may always be, I’m not sure) and there are limits on the length of the run.

actors equity  showcase philadelphia

Actors’ Equity logo–when are we going to lose the happy/sad thing?

Why are Equity showcases a good thing? They’re good for Equity actors because it allows them to work on new plays, showcase their range, actually act between Equity jobs, and build relationships with emerging theatre artists. They’re good for theatre companies because it enables them to cast an Equity actor without going bankrupt (and frankly they would never otherwise cast an Equity actor) and to make artistic connections to those Equity actors. I don’t know the history or origins of Equity showcases, but this is certainly how they’re used today: they showcase Equity talent, and those actors are seen in new roles.

It’s a win-win to use my least favorite expression.

In Philly, there is really only one way to get around the Equity problem, one which surfaces particularly during the Philly Fringe, perhaps more than any other time of year. You can get a sort of special dispensation if you—the Equity actor—are named a producer of the show, which pretty much means you give up all your Equity rights for the short duration (because you cannot be a producer—management—and a union member at the same time). On the one hand, this is a good thing because it allows Equity actors to put on a show of their own without losing their Equity status. On the other hand, when an Equity actor is named as a producer it is most likely complete bullshit. Basing a system on lies—a kind of don’t ask, don’t tell policy—is never helpful. There is also a Special Appearance Contract, which is less than a regular Equity contract, but still cost prohibitive to 95% of those productions, and they either force limited rehearsals for the Equity actor, or they force everyone involved to pretend they didn’t rehearse as much as they actually did. Again,lying.

As far as I know, Equity showcases don’t exist here because it hasn’t been pushed for, and if you haven’t lived in New York and done theatre there, you wouldn’t have any reason to know about it. Well, this is the time to push for it. If the theatre community here wants to be known as a hotbed for new, original theatre (and it deserves to be) and a place that attracts talent because of it (which it does), it is in everyone’s interest to have an Equity showcase provision for this city. One reason I suspect that we don’t have one is that new, grassroots theatre is not what this city has been traditionally been known for. But clearly in the past 20 years, the theatre community has grown immensely, and each year new companies and theatre artists are putting their roots down here and staging new works.

If an Equity actor would like to show that they can do more than Falstaff at a rep theatre in Vineland, it ain’t gonna happen unless there is a showcase option. It is very difficult for an equity actor to make connections with new theatre artists when it’s prohibitive to work together. The incredible scope of shows during the Fringe is great barometer of how much is going in the city. But while the Fringe drums up the most coverage, just looking at the listings on any given weekend reveals an incredible variety of theatrical productions.

And let’s be clear, Equity showcases do not replace paying gigs. In New York, where there are more dues paying Equity actors than anywhere on earth, not to mention more theatre actors period, it would be easy to refuse such a provision, and those small theatre companies would have no problem casting their shows without Equity (which is true here, too). In other words, Equity could (technically) afford to be intransient. Yet they have created this provision and with good reason. Showcases are about exposure, honing one’s craft, and collaborating with your fellow theatre artists. Financial bounty will never be found in Equity showcase performances either in lost pay or the company’s coiffures, and that is not the intention of them in the first place. They would never have been a paying Equity gig, and the rules of the New York showcase are designed for small scale productions.

We need to position Philadelphia as an important center of theatre, which means we also need to enable all of our theatre artists to work together. If they benefit from it in New York, where the numbers dwarf our own (in Equity gigs, Equity actors, and non-Equity folks), we will surely benefit from it here.

So what do we do? The first thing that needs to happen is that people need to start discussing the matter (and educating themselves on the showcase model), and engaging as many Equity actors (who would ultimately be the ones to vote for such a provision–the deciders as George Bush might say), theatre companies, theatre artists, foundations, theatrical organizations as possible in the discussion, as well as the local chapter of Equity and perhaps the national Equity HQ as well. If the Philadelphia Theatre Alliance, for instance, would like to score big in helping grow our theatre community, this would be a huge coup. Certainly the 26-member board, made up of representatives from major theatres and theatrical organizations in the area, would be a strong group to spearhead the issue. To get an Equity showcase status for Philadelphia would be a proclamation that we are a city that produces new theatre, that we are progressing the art form, and that the future of theatre is happening on our streets.

Published by the Philadelphia Performing Arts Authority

P.S. There is of course one big problem in an honest discussion—namely, theatre companies and equity actors are put in the position of having said they lied about things like “producer” credits even though your local Equity officers may have been looking away in the classic plausible deniability fashion. And the only ones open to punishment are the actors themselves (by possibly losing Equity status)—though I doubt that would happen for unprovable past transgressions, it is always in play for future shows on the model that now exists. Getting bogged down in past sins would not be beneficial for the discussion, and this should be about the future.

P.P.S. I am not arguing that showcases will save America, and a lot of the above points to the poverty of our profession. This is really about creative advancement (and its relation to financial realities). We do need to work on the financial advancement part (particularly outside the realm of charitable giving), but that is another article.

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About the author

Josh McIlvain

Josh McIlvain is the artistic director of SmokeyScout Productions which he co-founded in 2008 with Deborah Crocker (to whom he is also married!). He has had more than 115 productions of some 70 plays throughout the U.S., including more than 38 New York City productions. Josh is also the leader of the rock collective Josh McIlvain & The Generals of Sexcop (listen to the hot tracks at sxcp.bandcamp.com!), the editor/publisher of Philly Fiction (collections of short stories set in Philadelphia and written by local writers), and the editor of the FringeArts booklet and blog.