Theater Things That Don’t Make Sense Vol. 11: Why pay once, when you can pay twice.

When I was producing Godspell, I bumped into a a quirky little union rule that didn’t make much sense to me, but cost my investors and me more than a few ‘cents.’  I was gonna blog about it then, but I figured it was a pretty rare situation.  Since I didn’t think I’d slam up against it again anytime soon, I let it lie.

Flash forward two years later, and while budgeting Gettin’ The Band Back Together for Broadway, I’ve bumped back into it.  And from what my GM tells me, it comes up on a whole bunch of Broadway shows.

So, I thought I’d clue you in, in case you face the same issue in the future.

Here’s what’s going down:

On a show where an actor plays an instrument, there is a bit of a jurisdictional battle over which union that “player” should belong to – the actors’ union or the musicians’ union.  Sure, he’s an actor, and that’s his primary function.  But, as the musician’s union justifiably argued years ago, that actor might be replacing the work of one of their members – and that’s the ultimate no-no when it comes to unions.

Honestly?  The musician’s union has a point.  In some cases, if that actor didn’t play that instrument, you might need another musician in the pit, right?  And you probably auditioned looking for an actor that played that instrument in the first place.  The musician’s union could be losing a job, and it’s their job to prevent that.

When this came to the bargaining table years ago, the first part of the decision was that the actor had to be paid the greater of his contractual actor salary, or the salary that he would have made as a musician.  Example:  if the actor’s contractual was $1,750 but the minimum musician salary for whatever he was playing was $1,875 . . . he’d get $1,875.

Ok, makes total sense.  I’ve got no issue here.  We shouldn’t get away with paying less for a specific type of work.

But here’s where it starts to get a little odd.

The actor is made to join the local musician’s union (and pay the initiation fee).  Now, since a majority of them never expect to work in that union’s jurisdiction again, guess who a lot of agents ask to pay that fee?  That’s right.  The Producer.

Hmmm, not sure I like that part.   But hold on, that’s not the big issue.

The producer is then required to pay benefits (health, pension, etc.) on behalf of that performer to the Actors Union . . . and the Musician’s union.

Yep.  Both unions get paid.

One person.  Double benefits.

Now remember, in most cases, that actor won’t work under the musician’s union again, which means they most likely won’t vest in the pension plan, and won’t need the health insurance (since they will most likely be covered under their actors’ union plan).

One person.  Double benefits . . . and they won’t even use them.

And now you can probably see why, in 2013, this just doesn’t make sense to me.  And this is one of those little things that drive Broadway Investors crazy.

Instead of all of the folks in on this battle coming to an equitable solution that didn’t add expense to the show (splitting benefits, a your-turn/my-turn rotation, etc.), the solution was to just make the Producers and Investors pay more than they should.  And remember, this wasn’t even our jurisdictional issue!  We just got saddled with the mediation bill . . . to the ‘tune’ of thousands of dollars per year.

You know, come to think of it, I’d be even more upset about this if I were the actor!  Why?  Think about it.  If there is extra money being paid out, and the actor isn’t going to see a benefit, why not just pay the money straight to the actor???  They are the ones doing the extra work, right?   That money could be going straight in their pocket!  And they could invest it/bank it as they see fit!

(Now, let me make something clear. I’m not pointing a blamity-blame-blame finger at anyone for this idiosyncratic rule.  These kinds of things get into agreements for a whole bunch of reasons, including tit-for-tat on other areas of the negotiation, precedents, etc.  So no blame here – no evil anyone.  We study history not to blame, but to learn, so as not to repeat.)

So what’s a Producer to do?

Well, you can choose to not have your actors play instruments.  (That was something we considered greatly on Godspell where our actors weren’t replacing pit musicians at all.  The artists came in playing instruments and we found a way to use that in the show.)

But then the show probably just wouldn’t be as good.

And so you pay.  And that’s what is happening now, and that’s what I’ll be obligated to do on Gettin’ The Band Back Together (unless there is a collectively bargained change, which would probably mean us giving up something else somewhere else . . . sigh).

But we can’t do these kind of things forever.  This is how budgets get bloated.  Rules like this have to be more realistic, or we will have to start making decisions that will cause the shows to suffer.

And when the shows suffer, the audiences don’t come, and then there won’t be room for any benefit payments, never mind two.


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  • Andrea says:

    I think you make very valid points, and I’m glad to see that there was a resolution between the two unions.

    However, you’re missing the point of unions. The producers are not paying for your health insurance; they are putting money into the health fund. This allows people who only work 12 or 20 weeks a year (in AEA anyway) to be eligible for health insurance even though the money contributed for their contracts for the year wouldn’t actually cover insurance costs. It’s because of the people who aren’t eligible or who work over 30 weeks a year that the work requirements can be lower.

    While it would be nice if performers could pocket the money, when you’re in a union, the good of the many outweigh the good of the few.

  • Brannon Wiles says:

    I made the best deal on Broadway no one ever knew about on RING OF FIRE because it came & went so quickly. This was post-SWEENEY TODD so the unions were advancing these same rules about higher applicable salary, multiple P&H payments – and Equity required a significant premium for playing an instrument. I first suggested to the producers that we do the show under an AGVA contract: they use the AEA Production rules and have an agreement with Equity that actors can receive AEA health contributions in lieu of the (cheaper) AGVA contributions so they count towards Equity weeks.

    We had a band of 8, many of which were Nashville session musicians and such so belonged to AFM but not Local 802. 2 of those were more “featured” as actors (had solo numbers) and were AEA members. All the rest were on stage and also used in scenes, etc. Everyone in the 14-member cast played at least one instrument at some point.

    I went to AGVA and to 802 to make, in large part, to make many of the points you make. It seemed silly to have all those Nashville guys join AGVA and never work under its jurisdiction. Same with the actors who only played guitar – they’ll never work an AFM gig. And we didn’t, of course, have a problem with paying a P&H contribution in connection with an individual’s employment – that’s part of the package. However, it’s not like the show was conceived the way it was in order to avoid a pit orchestra (covering people with understudies was a huge challenge and we ended up with at least the same number of people we’d have had with a traditional split between actors and orchestra); it was simply the concept.

    It was a slog but we eventually had it so each person could choose which union they wanted to receive their health contributions (802, AEA or AGVA) but we only paid one per person. I believe we also had an arrangement which didn’t require actors or musicians joining another union, so long as they were a member in good standing of one. (There may have been some AGVA memberships for the “principals,” I don’t recall, but this would have been minimal in comparison to the weekly premium Equity would have imposed that AGVA didn’t.)

    Anyway, I realize not every show has the AGVA option – ours was all song with no traditional “book” so we could make the jurisdictional argument. (AEA & AGVA did their jurisdictional dance once we were running – not sure if there was ever an official determination but I think the tour (if it was union) and other subsequent productions have all been Equity.) And we were certainly followed by a number of shows with actor-musicians so the precedent may now be well-set. (I’m pretty sure ONCE has the situation you describe.) But there was at least one brief occasion where reason prevailed!

  • Greg says:

    You can’t have it both ways. You can’t not pay P&H to one union, and give the money to the actor, and save your investors money. A more realistic reading would be: Pay P&H to one union and save investors money. The good thing about the way it works now is that more money goes to the benefit of the artists who perform on Broadway.

  • Kathleen Hochberg says:

    OY VEY!

  • Sue says:

    And if the ticket prices are bloated and the show is anything other than Book of Mormon, the audiences will dwindle. Really, the unions should address the fact that it’s possible for one person to have more than one marketable skill. HEY, why not split actors’ unions into three– one for actors, one for singers and one for dancers?!?!?!?!?

  • Polo says:

    At some point, it will become acceptable to use pre-recorded music and eliminate the musicians all together. It’s already happened in all the night clubs. back in the old days, a musician could easily get a five night a week gig, called ‘sit-downs.’ We were all replaced by D.J’s
    In your case, your actors could play air-guitar to pre-recorded tracks so as not to be officially playing instruments, but faking it, just like they do on tv. But that kinda defeats the whole idea of live theater, doesn’t it.

  • Randi says:

    Oh my goodness, inefficient nonsense like that makes me so angry. It can’t continue.

  • Kerry Zukus says:

    I agree that paying double benefits sounds whack, but you should be glad the actor isn’t treated the same as a musician who doubles on instruments, i.e. a flutist who also plays clarinet on some numbers, because those people are paid more than the musicians who only play one ax. That being said, I actually think the actor is kinda being screwed under the present system because he or she should be paid more than an actor who only has to act. The musician/actor is really doing two jobs and should be paid accordingly. But that’s an argument for another day.

  • Keith Beck says:

    It seems the union(s) would want two people hired to do the work that a very talented actor / Musician could accomplish. Rather than pay both unions halves for the work of one actor. (Which I think would be the better thing to do) it would make more sense to pay the Musicians union a pro-rata rate of the actor’s musical work, on a fact and circumstances, show by show, case by case basis. Determine the cost for each musicians from the time they are called till the time they leave the theater. Determine the cost of paying each musicians union rate including Benefits. The show would determine a per. min musical union fee. Time the actors work musically and round it 15 min. Pay that fee on a quarterly basis for the run of the show on the back end.

  • Some very valuable ideas already posted. How about calling John Doyle, he is known for having his actors also play instruments, I wonder how he solved this issue? Gonna come up again, “actors” are being asked to do more and more…and then more, playing an instrument will be just one of many casting requests.

  • Gary says:

    In the last revival of Cabaret all of the actors played an instrument. None were asked to join the musicians union. Either the concept sold the idea with the unions (at the time) or it didn’t become an issue. I realize things have changed in the past few years but a musician can’t replace an actor, singer, dancer.
    It’s all in the concept.

  • LA Producer says:

    If your actors just faked playing (like some bands did on the old Ed Sullivan Show) and had the pit band providing the music, would you still have to pay double? Or ideally, if the band on stage is rehearsing badly (which I’m SURE is in the script) then they “get it together” with the pit ork playing perfectly? Understand the concept–was in the Musician’s Union for many years. But now as a producer these type of rules drive me bat sh*t!

  • Ken Wydro says:

    This is why I do non-union shows, in NYC and all over the world, with the best quality of actor/singer/band who all get paid and treated fairly so that the producer can live long enough to employ them again. Who else gets paid for NOT working – and thinks that is a good thing? The bottom line is that you can have a great show, and not BE FORCED to deal with these non-sensical rules and regulations, and never miss a beat. And, live to play and pay again. Someone acts and plays an instrument – so what? What’s the big deal?

  • Good Lord, stop whining about negotiated deals!

    These costs are never going to make or break a show. Suck it up, pay what’s due, and put on a show that people want to see.

    One more thing, stop whining about negotiated union rules!

  • James says:

    Want to see the future of union theatre? Look at the steel industry. My father-in-law was a steel plant worker. Union with very generous pay and benefits. Across the street from the steel mill was an auto plant. Ideal positioning, right? The auto plant bought steel from China because it was cheaper to buy steel and ship it overseas than buy it across the street. Keep up with the outrageous rules etc. like the one Ken described here and the ticket prices will either go too high for people or producers will switch to non-equity period. I already have many Equity friends lamenting the fact that their non-equity friends get far more work than they do. What will eventually kill Broadway if anything? The unions.

  • Zanne Hall says:

    Unions are supposed to help, not kill the golden goose. Is there still a union rule that producers pay a worker to raise the curtain even though there’s no curtain? I love that craziness.

  • RLewis says:

    If the performer is never going to work in the musician’s union again, doesn’t the Taft-Hartley Act provide some relief from that performer needing to join the 2nd union?

  • The whining never stops.

    Red herrings for Thanksgiving dinner.

  • Elisa Christina Clayton says:

    Excellent FYI! Thank you!

  • mark says:

    I ran into this issue with SAG and 802….. Problem is, 802 is LAME!!!! They dropped the ball years ago for ALL musicians and they’re hanging on by a thread because of their inept approach to EVERYTHING! I confronted them a few years ago about a tug of war between SAG and 802 about SAG waivers and 802 jurisdiction. It should be up to the Actor/Musician to decide if they belong to both. The unions have to work out a reciprocal agreement. Too many non-musicians appear in film, TV and yes…. Broadway. It looks fake if you are faking it, plain and simple. If I were allowed to choose, and yes I believe I, not the producer nor the union, should be able to decide my benefits and future,that should be MY choice. Having said that, one benefit should be paid to the union of choice, keeping in mind that you are then subject to that union’s scale. 802 pays for doubles, SAG not.

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