My Take on Non Union Tours: Part I – A History

I was but a wee boy of an actor when the Non Union national touring market exploded on the scene in the early, early ’90s.  I remember auditioning for the national tour of Grand Hotel while I was still in college (I didn’t get it), and then getting cast in the national tour of South Pacific just as I was graduating (I didn’t take it).

While sure, there had always been a show/event/circus here and there that toured without union performers, it was around this time when tours of shows that were recently (or still) on the big Broadway boards started making their way around the country with fresh-out-of-college-kids-without-AEA-cards.  The company behind these big shows was Troika, which was born out of the ashes of this awesome dinner theater outside of DC called The Harlequin (I saw a killer Damn Yankees there in 1990).

Shows like Grand Hotel, The Will Rogers Follies, and City of Angels all toured non-union, and they not only did well, but audiences enjoyed them.

So that led to more shows, and more companies producing them.

For awhile, all was quiet on the touring front, as the non-union tours that were going out were after the “1st National” tour had run its course.  The NUTs (my fun acronym for Non Union Tours) were mostly “mop-up” tours, playing the teeny-tiny one-nighter markets all over the country that their bigger brother Equity Tours couldn’t play (Harlingen, Texas anyone?).  Or, they were tours of shows that weren’t successful enough on Broadway or that didn’t have enough demand from the touring market to warrant a 1st National (like the NUT of A Grand Night for Singing that I Company Managed in 1996).

And then the NUT hit the fan.

A couple of shows, most noticeably a tour of The Music Man that was based on the semi-successful Broadway revival in 2000, skipped a step.  These shows didn’t put out a big tour first.  They went straight to the NUTter.

(See, the Producers of tours were starting to get the squeeze from Presenters, who were trying to keep the “guarantees” (the amount paid to a Producer for walking in the door with a show) low, because they were getting the squeeze from Subscribers, who didn’t want to pay for 6 shows a year any more, and so on.  A Non Union Tour kept costs low.)

And if that wasn’t enough, some of the more popular NUTs started stepping up to the bigger stages.  No longer were they only playing the nook and crannies of the market.  They were performing in many of the same venues as their bigger Broadway brothers, the 1st Nationals.  As a result, the Presenters and the Producers were making more money.  And most importantly, the audience didn’t seem to mind (new scenic technology and better training programs for young performers resulted in a much higher quality production than previous non-union productions).

By 2004, according to Actors Equity’s own website, 40% of the one-week touring market had gone non-Equity.

Gulp.

Well,  as you can imagine, this made the union and its thousands of out-of-work actors very, very angry.  (Wouldn’t you be?)

So they swarmed in, and very smartly hammered out a compromise with the Producers of many of these tours.  They introduced the SET contract (SET = Short Engagement Tours), which paid actors based on the amount of money the Producer was receiving from the Presenter (on a sliding scale), and also provided for “back-end” participation should one of these small tours play a massive stage and do gang-buster business.

Everybody won!  Producers got to utilize the best talent possible.  Union actors got work.  And there was a financial model that made sense.  I was super proud of both sides when this deal was struck.

Well, ten years have passed . . . and there’s a storm a brewin’.

Actors Equity recently launched a massive campaign via social media and and some traditional media encouraging audience members to #AskIfItsEquity.  The goal?  To educate the theatergoers in the markets around the country that while they may pay the same amount of money for the tour of The Lion King as a one nighter non-union No, No, Nanette, one employs union actors and one doesn’t.  The union believes that the Presenters shouldn’t market these non-union productions as a “Broadway Tour,” or include them in a “Broadway” subscription season.  (There are interstitial ads currently running on ChicagoTribune.com with headlines that read, “Paying Broadway Prices?  Make sure it’s Broadway!” that link here.)

The campaign has of course had its supporters, but interestingly enough there was a bunch of backlash from a lot of the folks out there who don’t have their union cards, or choose not to have them, for being dismissed as being 2nd class.

That’s what got us to today.

What do I think?  And where is the touring market headed?

Tune in tomorrow.

But if you’ve got thoughts you can share them today in the comments below.

 

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Comments
  • Miguel Garza says:

    The Harlingen, TX reference made me chuckle. My hometown is 30 minutes west of there. Thank you for the piece and can’t wait to hear your take on it.

  • Steve mccoy says:

    was a union and non Union actor for the past 30 years.. Realy no difference in the money. Did troika for abot 5 years and More recently pheniox .. Great people.. Great productions and great stops.. Usualy with the original bway production team.plus sides to both

  • Jim Cressman says:

    I am going to check into the “Broadway in London (Canada)” series at the non-union Budweiser Gardens, operated by Global Spectrum out of Philly. I hate these shows in an arena anyway and very rarely attend. Terrible sound for starters. And as a friend calls them, the “truck and bus shows”

  • Peter Mennie says:

    So will Kinky Boots in Toronto be union or non-union?

  • As someone whose primary contact with Broadway is the road, I find the drastic increase in non-Equity tours very distressing. I have seen some of these tours that have been very good (“Catch Me if You Can,” Scott Schwartz’s “Godspell”), and I have seen some that have been glorified college productions (like Cameron MackIntosh’s “Oliver!” and an “Elf” tour). The reality is that they most typically simply aren’t worth the $75+ costs they charge . . . and I simply won’t pay it. These tours usually feature cheaper sets than the Broadway productions, adapted choreography, and actors playing characters significantly older than themselves like in a college production. The non-Equity tour of “The Wedding Singer” cut out an entire song, and I skipped it.

    I was very sad to hear the “Annie” tour was non-Equity, so I’m skipping that one. I also passed on “Nice Work If You Can Get It.” There is precious little to see on the road these days, and the lack of Broadway-quality productions (and yes, I know non-Equity actors can be very talented) severely limits the shows I see on tour.

  • Natalie Letra says:

    This topic has always been something I’ve questioned. I’ve seen my fair share of equity and non-equity productions, and I noticed in my subscription to the Hippodrome in Baltimore you have to accept the four non-equity productions and then are optioned to add on the equity productions, which kind of stiffs you because you pay per equity production you add to your subscription. I wish they would allow you at least one equity in the package since that does seem unfair. However, I don’t discount the quality of non-equity tours. Coming from someone who was obsessed with “In the Heights” and saw the Broadway production, equity tour and non-equity tour I enjoyed each production immensely and felt that the non-equity tour gave the equity tour and even Broadway production a run for its money. I even found one of the actors better than his Broadway counterpart.
    The interesting thing is that when I visit non-equity shows a good amount of people don’t know that they’re seeing non-equity, and some even don’t know that there’s a difference. It’s interesting that some people are so unaware of the one cardinal attribute that differentiates itself from the Broadway production (aside from the fact it’s not Broadway). With that, I find that most people (at least the ones I’ve met), aren’t bothered by the same price tag as the equity production most likely because they don’t realize there’s a difference. Either way, I want theatre to continue to grow and to expose itself to countless people across the country, I don’t want the non-equity stamp to effect that so I’m all for charging the same price. Is that fair? Probably not. But I don’t think we should discount an equity production/touring company that works just as hard as an equity company simply because they don’t have their equity card.

  • Ed Whitehead says:

    I think it is a little presumptuous to say that the best talent has got to be an Equity member. By far, the worst performance that I have ever seen was on Broadway. You know – sometimes it is the old adage “It’s not who you know, it’s who….” I have seen some great Equity performers and some really bad ones. I have Company Managed both Equity and non Equity tours and I have found that in most cases the talent is fairly equal. I also have a touring theatre company and I have sent both Equity and non Equity tours out. I look for the best talent available – regardless.

    Equity brought many of these problems on themselves. The amount of money that a producer has to pay in order to get an Equity member is a lot. If I have a choice, why would I hire 20 Equity members and pay them their salary plus individual rooms when I can hire twenty non-union members of similar talent and pay for 10 rooms and have them double up? Why should I pay $50.00 a day per diem when I can pay $30.00 (plus provide a meal at every venue?) For some companies such as my own, we aren’t playing the Troika circuit – we play venues that pay anywhere from $8,000.00 – $15,000.00 per show. When you factor in hotels, a bus (around $800.00 a day) and lodging, plus trucks, salaries, per diem, etc. – the earnings are small, but I contend those audiences need entertainment too.

    But again comparing talent, I think it is unfair to say the non-Equity member is of lesser talent. As we all know, many shows feature performers whose claim to fame is being on a reality show or game show or they are movie actors who “always wanted to do Broadway.” Greater salaries doesn’t necessarily mean greater talent.

  • Well, logic must be in play. The original contract (Equity actors allowed) is a good idea. But now Equity is putting the responsibility on the consumer. They are not doing their ‘policing’ job and in addition they are spending their member’s dues for some thing they [the union] should be doing. It’s bad press for Equity and a lousy and non-effective way to clean up their lack of supervision. Just my thoughts. —sjc

  • Randy says:

    The point of asking whether a show is Equity is not to disparage the talent of non-union actors. The primary point is to make audiences/consumers aware of the mark-up. I think a content provider definitely deserves to make a profit — everyone does. But I know that I chafe at the idea of paying the same for a product that is made for a small fraction of what similar products cost, so maybe others do to. Why is this company’s “raw materials” so much cheaper? And if it’s costing them so much less, why should I keep paying the higher price? And while the talent will often be the same, the seasoning preferable for some roles (older character roles) does make a marked difference in a production. In 1995 I did a non-union bus & truck one-nighter tour of “Anything Goes.” We had a pretty damned talented cast…one member has gone on to win a Tony Award. However, I was playing the captain of an ocean liner…and I was 23 years old. Sure, I’m on the taller side, but I didn’t even have a prematurely receding hairline. Our itinerary was purely smaller markets (Parkersburg, WV, Muncie, IN, etc.). The following year I landed the role of Danny Zuko in Troika’s bus & truck of “Grease.” Though absolutely thrilled to have the job, many of us did wonder at how unusual it was to be on a non-union tour of a show while a Broadway revival of it was still running as well as its 1st national (Equity) tour. (There were some unconfirmed rumors about some kind of consolation deal for Troika regarding “Busker Alley,” blah, blah, blah.) But. seeing as how we were a completely different production (not a version of the revival) playing all smaller markets, we figured there was really no conflict. Then Miami was added to our schedule…for a full week…with Frankie Avalon guest starring that week as the Teen Angel. Hmmm. Interesting. A few weeks later we picked up Philadelphia for the week between Christmas and New Year (and had to play a 9-show week). I was excited and more than a little uncomfortable. I think we were a pretty good show, but the production values certainly didn’t match up with union tours. The age thing didn’t work against us for that particular show…in fact, we were closer to the right age. But we were on the cutting edge of that trend because the following year “The Music Man” blew everything up.

  • Vicki Vodrey says:

    I’m not a big fan of the non AEA tours. I’ve gone to many of both, but often can tell the difference. I’m not saying that non union actors aren’t talented – they are. As a small producer/playwright in festivals, I’ve used both non union and union actors. But so often the non union “Broadway” tours seems to cut corners that show up in other facets of the productions. Sometimes I’ve gone to a tour not knowing if it was AEA or not, but after watching for 15 minutes or so, I’d look in my program and I would almost always guess correctly.

  • Ilene Argento says:

    I have to say, as an L.A. Theatre subscriber, I’ve not only been disappointed when a non-union college cast is billed as part of a Broadway season, without disclosing their lack of seasoning, but I’ve been downright angry.

    I believe that putting in sub-standard casts in 1st National Tours hurts the industry. We’ve been fortunate with most of our shows (just saw Pippin including much of the Broadway company at the Pantages on Sunday!) have been union companies (after all, it’s L.A.), but, thrown into the same year was a mediocre non-union production of Ghost and a HORENDOUS tour of Joseph! If I was a first-timer, and saw only these shows, I’d be done with theatre.

    If these same theaters who think their subscribers would run if asked to pay a little more for quality would ask their subscribers if they’d be willing to pay the same as always but get mediocrity, I think they’d find that people would shell out a little more. Cut the season from 6 shows to 5, if necessary, but don’t tour a college caliber production!

  • Jennifer says:

    I am a member of AEA and the point that bothers me most about the non-union tours is the performers aren’t protected for things like guaranteed safe working conditions, health insurance benefits, pension. Yes, I’m sure they are covered while under contract, but what happens after that? With a union contract your weeks of work go towards health insurance coverage after you leave the show (or it closes). You are also paying into a pension fund. Not to mention that you have union support for most discrepancies that my arise during the tour (dancing on cement stages, etc.) as well a protected against ridiculous schedules that put the actors at risk. Yes, the non-union actors may be making the same $$ as a union actor would on a union tour, but how fair is that when the producers are making MORE money on the non-union tour? It’s greed, plain and simple.

  • Bob says:

    Before moving to NYC, I saw many tours — both union and non-union.

    I was NEVER disappointed with a union tour. SWEENEY TODD (starring June Havoc), A CHORUS LINE, ANNIE (first national), THEY’RE PLAYING OUR SONG (with Dawn Wells!), and THE WILL ROGERS FOLLIES were amazing.

    The Troika tour of GRAND HOTEL was serviceable, OKLAHOMA! was dreadful. Troika’s CHICAGO was actually better than the original Broadway cast revival because they found the funny.

    There are many talented non-Equity actors out there. But for tours, I can’t imagine paying Broadway prices if they aren’t Equity tours. There is a difference.

    I’m glad that Equity has launched the campaign — if only to educate the ticket buyers. I have no problem going to a non-Equity touring show if I know it’s non-Equity and it’s reflected in the price.

  • Walt Frasier says:

    I grew up at the Harliquin. Fell in love with theater. Saw that same Damn Yankees and most of there final stellar production. I think Troika was born out of the Harlequin model in decline. The once mighty powerhouse regional producer slowly fazed out live musicians, food quality etc. I was at Montgomery College when Troika used our theater to Dress Tech their tours. I loaded in/out City of Angels. Loved it. I remember joking about the “Suits” overseeing the project.

    At age 30 I was the oldest on the Candlewood tour of Scarlet Pimpernel. You may have heard of our drunk bus driver that almost drove us into Lake Superior en route to Thunder Bay Canada. Good times…

    I think these tours add to regional theater as a place for young talent to develop. Doing classic and new shows gives us better on the job training than theme parks and children’s theater. And gave us something to do in between summer stock seasons.

    But I highly agree with the marketing issue. Charging Bway tour ticket prices for the same show.

    I love my Pimp castmates but they were college kids for the most part. Very talented college kids, but not a NYC based quality show. Our set from Gateway Playhouse was never meant to tour. I don’t this this tour was getting the ticket prices/guarantees the Music Man tour cashed in on… Certainly did not have the star power of Greg Brady. But if we had the pulic would have been ripped off!!!

    But at the end of the day, sitting in at APAP meetings, I hear about one presenter after another complaining about budgets, big donors only wanting to pay for old stuff, struggles to get young audiences… Non-union tours of new shows that can keep prices down will be more likely to bring in a Broadway Show ticket. The kids that want to see Spring Awakening would eat up a NUT ticket, if priced accordingly…

  • Debbie Klaar says:

    The way to avoid non-union productions is to have ALL actors who can prove they have trained and are serious about being a working performer is to ALLOW ALL ACTORS into Equity and SAG-AFTRA. If there are no non-union talents they there cannot be non-union productions. But, we want to make all those who’ve come after us SUFFER. In the end, all we do is perpetuate this useless cycle.

  • Randy says:

    I agree with Mr. Frasier above: the NUTs were/are a great training ground. I believe the smaller/smallest markets should probably remain the domain of NUTs…or be the only cities and towns that Equity’s SETA or tiered (low guarantee) tours go to. The economic reasoning behind why so many presenters in “A” cities can’t (or won’t) pay for more top tier shows might have a lot to do these days with a growing monopoly which owns/presents in a significant majority of touring houses. Bargaining power has shifted. I wonder if there is less “We can’t afford X…” and more “We won’t pay more than X. Accept it or your tour won’t play 40% of the best cities.”

  • Rich Newman says:

    It’s gotta be generally agreed that Equity doesn’t necessarily mean better quality.

    I’m sure we can all say “seen some great shows that were; seen some great show that weren’t; seen some awful stuff that was; seen some awful stuff that wasn’t…”

    Obv the marketing campaign is just that. Not necessarily instructive, just self-serving. And where can this lead? “#AskIfTheCleaningCrewIsUnion”? “#AskIfTheGMProvidesBirthdayCakesForEmployees”? “#AskWhatPlyToiletTissueIsUsed”? There can be an agenda for everyone/everything….

  • Beau Allen says:

    This problem arose when the producers of CATS and PHANTOM and LES MIZ decided the “show was the star” Broadway ceased to create new “stars.” Put some names back on Broadway marquees so the public wants to see that “star” and the tour will go out Equity because that star is Equity.

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