What I think about the workshop and “lab” debate.

There’s been a brouhaha brewing on Broadway lately over the decrease in the use of the Actors’ Equity “workshop” contract, and the increase in use of the newbie “lab” contract for the development of new musicals.

The high-profile case that has thrust this topic into the spotlight is none other than Hamilton whose actors are asking for a piece of the profits since many have been around the show since the beginning of its blessed life.

Add to that this David Mamet-like scene as written by AnnoyingActorFriend, which expresses in story form the frustration of the modern Broadway actor working on developmental contracts.

Before I get into MHO, let me give you a abridged history lesson.

  • After the success of the Michael Bennett sessions that became A Chorus Line, Actors’ Equity and the Producers hammer out the first workshop contract, which gives actors a small weekly salary and a share of 1% of profits of future productions (for a more detailed history on this negotiation, listen to this podcast with John Breglio who was literally “in the room where it happened” and helped craft this deal).
  • Decades later, a new contract is developed (the aforementioned “lab”) as a result of the changing climate of developing new musicals. It doesn’t have the 1%, but has a much higher weekly salary (currently $1k/week).

Reading just that history, you can understand why actors would be frustrated to be put on a lab contract, and then have the show explode, and not share in the upside since they, without a doubt, helped shape the show at the beginning.

But honestly?  I think the focus of this argument (and of AnnoyingActorFriend’s will written and well intended post) is in the wrong place.  It’s easy to point to the 1% as the reason why Producers wouldn’t want to use the workshop contract.  But I actually don’t think that’s the problem.  It’s certainly not for me.

One of the greatest joys for me is to write checks to people when my shows are making money . . . especially when those people helped give birth to the show (and worked for little or nothing at the beginning).  It’s why I gave 1% to my actors on Prom, the upcoming Gettin’ The Band Back Together, even when I didn’t have to.

When the money is pouring in, I’m a big believer in spreading it around.

So if it’s not the 1%, what is the concern for Producers and the Workshop budget?

Well, what I didn’t specify above is that in addition to the 1%, actors in a workshop are given a first right of refusal to continue on with the project.  For the lab, that first right doesn’t exist (it was given up in exchange for a higher weekly salary).

At first glance, it makes total sense that an actor should be given a first right of refusal to continue on.  That’s what they all want, right?  And that’s what Producers and Directors and Writers want too.  It saves time and money on casting, etc.

Unfortunately, for workshops and other early stage development, “first rights” aren’t practical.  A workshop is a chance to experiment with material.  I’ve done early development and had entire characters CUT from a show, or made younger or even one time, changed race.  In other cases, a writer was replaced, a director fired, etc.  When such drastic changes occur as a result of a workshop, Producers are forced to buy out the workshop actors at four weeks salary (lets round that off to about $10k per actor inclusive of benefits and taxes).  That could easily be a total of $100k or more.

That’s what scares Producers . . . staring at $100k of buyouts on your production budget before profits are rolling in.  And certainly you don’t want a Producer saying to a Director, “I know that actor isn’t perfect for this role anymore because her song has been rewritten, but it’ll cost me $10k to replace her.”  That’s just gross.  The art has to win in early development.

So, when Producers have a choice, they would rather spend a little more upfront (the lab contract’s $1k/week) and not have the obligations going forward.  Development needs to be flexible.  And the workshop contract isn’t flexible enough for the stage of development shows are in when they would normally use it.

The 1% isn’t the issue.  Giving the art a chance to breathe without weighing down the show’s development expenses is.  (And is important to remember that some actors might want the $1k a week compared to the few hundred of a workshop and the promise of the 1%.  It’s easy to want the 1% after the profits roll in . . . but Book of Mormon and Hamilton profits are super rare.  Hindsight is 20/20 . . . Did I tell you about the chance I had to be a Producer on Once?)

Maybe a solution to this dilemma would be to offer actors a choice?  “You can participate in this workshop and take X% of Profit and a low salary or no profit and a high salary.”  I love giving employees a choice, because the decision is theirs, so there can be no bad feelings no matter which way it ends up.

 

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Comments
  • Kevin Lambert says:

    Completely agree. I understand how Equity needs to protect its member but when it comes to developing new material (which may in the future employ their members for longer terms at higher salaries) Equity tends to be incredibly short-sighted and one-size-fits-all in their thinking. I think these lab and workshop contracts should have more variables as you suggest to encourage the actual creation of new material and not hobble it. Your smart idea is just a beginning but a very sound and good one.

  • Kit says:

    Maybe it’s time for writers, producers, and directors to rethink the whole process of show development. While the “workshop” or “lab” models made sense starting with A Chorus Line… does it make sense to pawn off large amounts of character/show development to a group of actors. Does this not lead to the “too many chefs in the kitchen” issue? Shows are still failing at an alarming rate, so clearly this form of show development is also failing in some way.

    I’m not suggesting that I know how to fix this problem, but it appears that once again the theater community is dropping the ball on innovation when it comes to show development.

  • Jed says:

    As someone who has written a new musical, I shudder at all the variables in getting a show off the ground. Better I think, would be to simply do a superb job castings the characters at the very beginning, then rent a sound stage for two days. Rehearse the scenes and film them.

    Simple stage props. Go right to DVD or streaming, forget the theater. Remember, 80% of those workshops you spend so much money on, FAIL. Yes, that’s an 80% failure rate. The money needed to produce a simple DVD version would be far less than even the smallest of stage productions. Just make sure you cast perfectly, right at the beginning.

  • Rich Mc says:

    First, a well-written blog, presenting dual, yet highly unequal perspectives. Second, this becomes an issue only when b-Way is looked on as something other than a business. A good analogy may be found within professional sports which should also be treated, exclusively, as BUSINESS. A pro-ball player signs a five-year contract, and then proceeds to perform & rack up stats far beyond wildest expectations at the time of signing. Should he be given incremental salary increases or bonuses to reflect the xtra performance? Not unless specifically provided for in his contract. Similarly, actors have no right to added compensation beyond what they agreed to, signing on. And the one percent Ken magnanimously says he has no problem handing out to when times are flush? Seems right out of the pockets of investors, who shoulder all the upfront risk. Frankly, As a POG and possible future theater investor, I would not invest in a show giving its Producer this latitude.

  • Matthew Davis says:

    Ken,

    Great thoughts. My question is if what if an actor have right of first refusal but during rehearsals, it is discovered they are wrong for the part?

    Also, is it ever reciprocal. Does the playwright get the right of first refusal that if an actor gets cast in a show, that the playwright has right of first refusal that their play be produced?

    It seems a lot is asked of playwrights, but it is often that it is a one way street, the playwright must give Right of First Refusal, but directors and actors don’t have to give anything.

    Thoughts???

    Matthew Davis

  • Felicia says:

    A percentage of the future profits of a production for people who worked hard during its developmental stages and had a hand in bringing it to a point where it enjoys substantial commercial success? I see no problem with that. I don’t think a producer or originating creative of any substance (meaning personal character, not monetary substance) would.

    I’ve actually discussed that scenario with some cast members whose contributions have gone above and beyond the call of duty, and intend to put it in place at the appropriate time. I also have no problem with the promise of first right of refusal for the same such cast members – those who earnestly worked hard and used their talent to enhance the production. Even if the refusal right were not practical, for the very sound reasons Ken mentions, I would try my best to find some way to include them if that’s what they wanted.

    However, I’ve also encountered cast members who, for whatever mysterious reasons, seemed to think it was their duty to negatively impact and try to derail the production. To this day, I have no idea why. I probably can’t understand it because I don’t think that way. But at any rate, I cannot see giving first right of refusal to such a person, or a percentage of future profits for that matter. Especially if both amenities are intended as a reward for helping to elevate a project.

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