My Take on Non Union Tours: Part II – Where are these tours headed?

Yesterday, I gave you a brief history of Non Union Tours as I know it, and as I lived it.

But what do I think about these tours?  What do I think about the current campaign aimed at theatergoers, trying to convince them that only union tours are “Broadway” tours?  What will the touring market look like in ten years?

Let me try to answer all those questions in this brief blog.

First of all, and perhaps this is Pollyana of me, but I believe wholeheartedly that every Producer would like to produce an “Equity” tour . . . because doing so gives you access to an even bigger talent pool.  And notice, all you non-union folks out there, I didn’t say better.  I just said bigger.  Casting can be a numbers game.  The more people you have to choose from, the better.  And yes, Equity performers tend to be more experienced, may have Broadway credits, and so on.  What Producer in their right mind wouldn’t want that option?  I know so many of the touring producers out there . . . producers that have done 1st Nationals/SET tours/Non Unions, etc. . . . and all of them are dedicated to presenting the best production they can, with the best talent possible.

Everyone wants it.  But the economics don’t always allow it.  So non-union becomes another option to reduce risk.

And Non Union Tours do have a place in the market.  Without question.  Anyone who thinks they should be obliterated doesn’t understand the concept that there should be a product to serve all markets.  Just like there is a place for high school productions, there should be a place for Non Union Tours.  Just like there is a place for an Armani tuxedo, there is a place for a Men’s Wearhouse tuxedo.

Non Union tours help promote theater in areas of the country that are under served with other options.  However, they need to be produced responsibly.  They should not be produced simply to “make more money.”  They should be produced only when a union tour is too risky for the Producers/Investors (these folks have to make money – and the risk has to be mitigated. If they don’t make money, they won’t continue to produce/invest in the theater, and that’s no good for anyone).

Ideally, shows should step down from Broadway as follows . . . Broadway Show, Equity Tour, Non Union Tour.

Unfortunately, with the touring market as challenged as it is these days, that can’t always happen.  That’s where the SET tour stepped in.

So what’s the issue now?

The non union tours are still popping up on big stages and being packaged as part of a Broadway series here and there, with the Presenters charging similar ticket prices to consumers as they would for more expensive union shows.

Actors’ Equity believes that if the audiences were more educated about the difference between union and non, they might demand more union.

I give the union a ton of credit for their social media and traditional media push (I do wonder what those ads are costing members – but I guess if it got them even one more tour, that tour would pay for those ads in dues and benefit contributions in a heartbeat).  There’s one problem, however.

Entertainment tends to be priced at one rate for the type of entertainment it is, no matter how much it costs to make.  A $100 million dollar Avengers movie costs the same to see in a theater as a $1mm independent.  A New York Philharmonic album costs the same as a brand new country solo artist, even though one costs less to make (and one of those might even be union and one not, right?).

But the consumer doesn’t care how much it costs.  The only thing a consumer cares about is the quality.  And this is where the union has an uphill battle.  As I hinted at yesterday, as the quality of the non union tours only increases (thanks to the amazing talent that is coming out of high schools as well as what can be accomplished scenically with less money), the consumer won’t care whether the person has a card or not.  They just care about their experience.  The consumers will qualify it as Broadway or not.  Not us.  (Do you know how many times I’ve heard from people around the country that their local community theater was producing “Broadway” quality shows?)

If I was the union, you know what I’d do?  I’d modify my joining guidelines and go on a massive membership drive to sign up more and more young performers all over the country . . . so when the non-union producers were looking for people, it might not be so easy.

But non union tours would still exist.  As they should.  They have a place in the theatrical economy.  And if a consumer is willing to pay the price, then there’s not much we can do about it, no matter how many ads we place.

I believe that the future of providing more work to union workers (which I’m a big believer in, BTW, being a member of two unions:  ATPAM and the in question, AEA) is continuing to come up with contracts like the SETs – which give Producers more talent to choose from, but doesn’t challenge their economics.

What do you believe?


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  • Jared says:

    Yes yes YES!!! Ken, I don’t always agree with your opinions on things, but I agree with this 1000%.

    I think many Equity members (and perhaps even Equity leadership) are under the mistaken assumption that all of the shows that go out non union could sustain themselves as Equity tours, and that’s just not the case. As someone with lots of actor friends (both union and non union) I have a pretty good idea of what shows are going out union vs. non union, and I have yet to hear of a non union show go out that I think could support an Equity budget. When producers start sending shows like “Book of Mormon” and “The Lion King” out non-union while the Broadway production continues to rake in the money, then we have a problem. But with shows like “Catch Me If You Can” or “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” which had troubled Broadway runs and no major awards to help increase sales, I truly believe (as you do) that the producers looked at the economics of producing an Equity tour and decided it just wasn’t feasible before opting for a non-union version.

    I agree that making Equity easier to join is the ultimate solution to this problem. Most non-Equity performers I know would join Equity in a heartbeat if they could. All of the most prestigious regional theatres and of course Broadway operate under Equity contracts, and performers of course want easier access to those auditions and more serious consideration for those jobs. If touring producers are unable to create a strong product with non-union actors, then I believe the vast majority of them will pay the extra money to operate under an Equity contract.

    • Nathan Renner-Johnson says:

      Good points Jared, but I do take issue with one thing you said. While there are many non-union perfomers who would jump at the chance to be AEA, I personally know equally as many people who have chosen, at this point, to not join the union. This is because the opportunities to them, at this point in their career, are greater outside if the union. Most of their work is coming from places (some regional Theatres, non-union tours, etc.) that cannot offer it to them if they become AEA. This is now a little off topic, but I believe that AEA’s restriction on its members to take any non-union work really limits it’s member’s opportunities and it is yet another reason people choose to not to become AEA. Should AEA loosen it’s restrictions, they would also find greater interest in membership giving them an even larger share of the pool, allowing them to be even more appealing to tour producers.

  • I’m a proud union member and supporter. That said, I also recognize that people need a place to train. Non-Eq tours also offer that additional training/experience.

    Perhaps another approach would be to have mixed casts where the non-Eq cat could earn points towards membership? Much like professional summer stock.

  • Matthew Mattei says:

    I agree with you 100% also. What I’m not agreeing with are the union members that seem to think that because they hold an AEA card, they are more talented than a non-union member, therefore, the non-union tours are not “Broadway Quality” because the performers are non-union. We all know this is not the case. As a musical director, I’ve worked with union and non-union actors and I can tell you that the talent is the same, if not better than an AEA member. Just because you hold a card, doesn’t mean you are more talented than the person who doesn’t. Then again, most of the time, the gripe is coming from AEA members who sometimes do not get cast over a non-AEA actor strictly based on talent.

    I like your point about the cost of CD’s etc, you can also apply that to concerts. People are going to pay for good quality shows no matter who is in them.

  • Randy says:

    Being insiders or fans, most of us on this blog have what might be called a “more refined palate” regarding the quality of productions. For me, the point of calling a touring production a “Broadway” show is not simply that it is any show that was once on Broadway in some incarnation at some time in the past. This is why it’s like finger nails on a chalkboard to me when someone says they are seeing a Broadway show because they’re going to the local community theatre production of “Oklahoma” (I feel your pain, Ken). By my own completely personal criteria, I’ve always felt the point of a touring “Broadway” production is that it 1) is a replica (in terms of direction/choreography, orchestrations, design elements) of a current or past Broadway production, or is angling to land on Broadway soon; 2) some members of the cast, usually in principal roles, have Broadway credits making me feel as though Broadway truly is coming to my town. Talent being again subjective, varied, and therefore irrelevant, credits have a psychological impact in those bios whether we like it or not. At least they always did for me seeing touring shows as a kid, and credits would be a factor (all other things being equal) if I were producing/casting a touring show. I want my audience members to be saying, “Oh, look, he/she did [whatever] on Broadway!” Again, please note, I said all other things being equal.

  • Georgia says:

    I agree with you; what angers me is that the non-Eq tours are billing themselves as Broadway tours. Here in Columbus, GA, the series is billed as “Broadway Off Broadway.” I paid almost $300 for our family to see inexperienced musical theater kids in their 20s phone in a show. It will be difficult to convince my military husband to spend our hard-earned money on a musical again.

    • Ashley says:

      You couldn’t be more right!! Instead of throwing your money away there, go supportive the Springer Opera House in Columbus, if you don’t already. They hire Equity actors alongside very talented non union actors from all over the country wjo would never phone in any performance. I’m an Equity actor who has worked there and love them and Columbus!

  • Ned Donovan says:

    I fall somewhere in between. As a non-AEA member myself who hopes to join in the not too distant future, I wonder about the other options that AEA should make available to taking back these tours if they want. To me? Create an EMC contract that works on some smaller SETA Tours. A one year SETA tour would be enough to finish an equity card, it would put a couple people on the tour who weren’t AEA lowering costs in payroll and dues contributions from a producer, and it would (I think) inspire a lot more non-AEA to hit the AEA national tour calls (perhaps even a non union audition could be attached to these lower contracts). In doing so, it might become more economical to have more of those tours going out. It may mean that the exact same number of AEA contracts would be going out on the SET tours, but they would be spread out among a much larger list of AEA tours. Both parties win, the union creates another great avenue for non union to become a member, and I think it would help create more opportunity for producers to produce Union Tours.

    • Andrew Husmann says:

      I have to say that this is a pretty good idea… Over the years I’ve worked a couple of First National tours… Used to be that you would go on tour so you could save your check and live off your per diem but these SET tours don’t necessarily pay enough to an actor to save very much at all and you pretty much have no choice but to double up in hotels. I have worked some dinner theater contracts that were half union and half nonunion and that seemed to make sense for all parties. I think that would work for tours as well…

  • Lynn Manuell says:

    I was a company manager for Troika, who treated everyone really well and produced excellent shows. But these are my thoughts…I have performed since I was a child. I deferred becoming Equity because it stopped me from doing college shows etc and was told by the theatre I should wait to get my card. Once there was Equity equivalent rules the Equity theatre I had worked for submitted that I had performed there in an Equity show but they refused them. I also was the only non-equity performer on a ship but they refused that as well. The point being that it is incredibly difficult to get into the union and I always felt like walking in and singing for them! In England Equity is the only union so film, television, shows even cabaret can count to get points to your Equity card….I think they should do the same here…the number of unions actors have to join is crazy. It makes insurance crazy and makes actors have to have multiple union dues. I know this may not be feasible but having the ability to join Equity become more feasible would be a good start.

  • Ned Donovan says:

    Also, to respond to a LOT of criticism I’ve seen/heard from those against this movement. The union is not saying that their members are necessarily more talented than the non-AEA option, they’re saying the “production” as a whole will be of a higher quality. Whether that means experience, technical achievements, even down to orchestra size. I’ve seen a lot of tours on both end of the union spectrum, and while there have been plenty of non-AEA tours I’ve seen and enjoyed a whole lot more than some of the union tours that I’ve seen, at the end of the day, the equity productions always seem to be of a higher production value overall. There has been next to no nonunion tour that I myself have seen where the production value on almost all fronts isn’t a step down from a union counterpart. That’s not about talent, it’s simply the experience as a whole. Now I’m sure someone will chime in with a tour I haven’t seen that was nonunion and technically through the moon, but in my experience the equity tour is a more complete production in all facets, not just performers.

  • Byron says:

    I don’t agree that increasing membership in the union, especially with young actors right out of college, is the way to go to stem the tide. There is already a large percentage of AEA actors (and stage managers) who are struggling to find work as theaters across the country are in the midst of downsizing and/or shutting down operations completely. Increasing the number of AEA members while the number of AEA contracts decreases will only serve to make some people question why they should join the union when there is not enough work for so many of its members.

    Make membership attractive and something to work and strive for, but don’t cheapen it by making it so easy to attain.

    I’ll also say that education amongst Equity members needs to be stepped up. As we saw this past January with the uproar over the tours of Kinky Boots and Newsies we have a lot of members who just are not willing to accept the fact that the economics on the road have changed. While our leadership is trying to find ways to win some of these contracts back with the creation of the Tiered Production and SET agreements we have large numbers of members who refuse to believe that they should be working for anything less than a full Production Contract, despite being shown that in many cases the numbers are just not there to support that model anymore.

  • Wes Haskell says:

    YES!! Amen. A lovely way to put everything into perspective–and a great view of BOTH sides. Thank you for this!

  • Becca Stoll says:

    Great post on an important issue, I’d just like to see an equal amount of attention being paid to which tours do or don’t have IATSE stagehands and AFM musicians. In the case of the former, membership to me implies a lot of experience and professionalism, key points when the line of work can at times be extremely complex and dangerous (makes the good health insurance key, too). For the latter, as someone who works in audio I’ve seen genius orchestrations and exquisite keyboard patches make a band sound large and luscious. And those adjustments can be great design choices or ways to rethink a score :/ a new way. But I’d hate to see that be used only as a way to cut down costs and put fewer butts in orchestra pits (it’s already starting to).

  • Scott Thompson says:

    I’ve seen a number of non-Equity tours. They don’t measure up and they don’t remotely reflect the quality that is supposed to reflect “Broadway.” Seeing a college girl (no matter how talented) playing Reno Sweeney is NOT the same thing as seeing a Broadway “star” of the correct age and vast experience.
    We might as well call college productions, “professional.” Not much difference.

    Then again, Broadway isn’t as good as it once was. At ALL. And as you say, the non-union folks are certainly better than ever before. So where’s the middle ground – who knows?

    I wish I gave audiences more credit for knowing and understanding what they’re seeing but their discernment skills, and over all taste levels are certainly at an all time low. I think they’ve been fed garbage now for sometime for the most part and have come to expect more of it.

    Bottom line, you can fool some of the people some of the time, as the expression goes…..or you can just admit that you’re in the schlock business and not care. While there are some good guys producing non-union tours, I don’t agree with your assessment that all of the non-union producers care about quality. That’s a stretch. Some do but many are quite happily keeping costs low, hiring hungry inexperienced actors and printing their “Direct from Broadway” ads and laughing all the way to the bank.

  • It’s funny, two years ago a large group of my friends and I couldn’t wait to join Equity. Now we have no desire to once we saw the unemployment rates. It’s getting to the point where some of these non-equity contracts are becoming more and more appealing. I know plenty of performers making $800 a week as non-equity. Yes we don’t have the protection that equity does… but on the other hand nothing is stopping us from just finding a new company to work with.

  • The problem occurs with the original B’way producers. They should spell it out in their license to the tour operator whether their show will be an Equity production or non-Equity. Instead of Equity spending (dues) dollars on trying to inform the public they should require B’Way producers to be specific in their licensing. The public forgets and is easily confused. It could simply be stated in all advertising and publicity that “This Is An Equity Production” or a “Non-Equity Production”. Pricing would reflect higher for one, and lower for the other. However, these ideas are probably too pragmatic for the powers that be. —scj

  • Howard Levitsky says:

    But they should be INFORMED consumers, knowing what they are getting for the money. Same as with “Natural” or “organic” food. Same as with genetically modified food. Same as with Underwriters Laboratories-tested electrical items. Best analogy – same as with minor league sports. A non-union tour with talented but inexperienced performers and budget sets and costumes and a tiny band full of sampled instruments is NOT “Broadway.” By all means send it out, but tell the people what they are buying. And then see whether the consumer will pay top dollar, especially after having seen a few of these productions.

    • Howard Levitsky says:

      My comment above should have begun with this quote from Ken: “And if a consumer is willing to pay the price, then there’s not much we can do about it, no matter how many ads we place.” I don’t know why it didn’t print.

  • Debbie Saville says:

    Creative excellence is a standard we all believe in with or without the labels. I always like to share a different perspective, based on where I am today in the creative process.

    I live parallel lives…30+ years in corporate America and the same amount of time in the theatre world. And with both environments I don’t believe in “labels”. Every couple of years, I see new “buzz words” weaving into the corporate culture…. ISO, Lean, just to mention a couple. And depending on the tide, these theories come and go as I continue to put my best effort into my work..

    And so in the theatre world, AEA, non-AEA, IATSE, AFM is not my first thought. Because theatre to me has been a stage in my mind since I was a child. In 1st grade I wrote my first play. A couple of years later, for a school project, I wrote my first comedy piece for a commercial. Comedy skits continued as we did variety shows and I wrote the “in-between the next act” skits. And when I moved onto the theatre stage in my early 20’s, after performing a show we began having “after shows” which I created in the same type of format as a child, providing comedy and music after the main production, because no one wanted to leave the theatre.

    And here I am today, at 55, still creating new theatrical experiences as a writer, director, producer of a new original musical featuring a very talented blues band. On the last night of my first premiere, an original band member in the audience who is in his 80’s was escorted up on stage in his wheelchair. He owned that stage and belted out “Mustang Sally” to this sold out audience who graced us with two standing ovations during the performance. The energy in the room was unbelievable, everyone was dancing and cheering and once again, an environment was created where no one wanted to leave the theatre.

    That is my personal definition of creative excellence and there were no labels needed for this audience, it was the experience that will keep this show moving forward as I now create the next one.

  • Sandy R. says:

    I think a big part of the problem starts with the creative staff. Equity members who had an association with these non-union shows when they were union shows, are directing and choreographing them to make carbon copies of what was done on Broadway or on their Equity tours. Everyone’s got to make a buck, these days. I get it. But when a union show’s dance captain or an assistant director who also happens to be an Equity member directs or choreographs the non-union tour, they screw the union. The producers are getting what they want ‘straight from Broadway’ and not paying for the union talent to perform it. And the original creatives, depending on their contracts, still get their piece of the pie. The only ones who lose are the Equity performers….and sometimes the audience. (though to be fair I have had the pleasure of working with many young non-Equity performers and they have been wonderful….that’s just not the issue here.)

  • Michael C says:

    After yesterday’s “heads up” I thought for sure I wasn’t going to agree with today’s blog. Wow, was I ever wrong. There wasn’t a point in today’s blog with which I disagree or take issue. I currently live in an under served area when it comes to professional theater and, if not for the occasional non-equity one nighters, it is doubtful that we would receive anything even close to Broadway quality. Community, college and high school productions fill the void for many of us theater lovers but that one night touring production of “My Fair Lady” or “Guys and Dolls” offers an additional option and usually a step up for the audience. I’m sure many of these touring performers are getting loads of experience which might help those interested in getting their equity card and possibly a union tour or even a Broadway turn. For now it looks as if there is plenty of room for everyone and as long as the product put forth is worth the money the seats will remain filled for both equity and non-equity productions.

  • As producer,I have only toured strenuously difficult Equity tours with my non-profit Company. I would like to explore other options and partners to work with me as the risk has begun too burdensome to handle alone. Some of my projects, have had regional and NY press and I believe can make money…

    Is anyone as adventurous and listening Ken ???

  • Jason Kane says:

    I haven’t read all of the comments, but I feel like a few things are missing from the conversation…

    First, there’s no mention of the actor/SM salaries and the working conditions under the non-Union tours. Of course, paying your talent less allows more of these tours to be competitive or even exist, but that’s at the sacrifice of the performers and SMs. Presenters and producers get away with charging the same ticket prices (Ken uses the word “similar”; I would use “identical”), while they pay their talent far less than Union minimum. That’s what’s missing from the Equity argument about #AskIfItsEquity. Having served on Equity committees and National Council, I know that’s part of the discussion privately. I can’t understand why it isn’t more of the focus, publicly.

    Secondly, there’s no mention of the bait-and-switch a lot of the presenters have executed. The Thoroughly Modern Millie situation, for example. Several presenters came on board as producers of the Broadway production of Millie, then voted for Millie to win Best Musical as Tony voters. Then the same presenters said that Millie wasn’t a “top-tier” show, and therefore would not be viable as a 1st National Tour under an AEA contract. Equity doesn’t have any bargaining with the presenters, so they hold the upper hand when it comes to these situations.

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