This could be the issue that divides Off Broadway.

As the Wall Street Journal reported on Monday, there is a bit of a brouhaha brewing Off Broadway.

See, the contract between the Off-Broadway League and Actors Equity Association expires on November 6th.

The main point of contention between the two parties?  A pay increase.  #Shocking.

Speaking of hashtags, Equity members started a hashtag last week (#fairwageonstage) with the hopes of shining a spotlight on the issue.

The current agreement for 100-199 seat theaters starts at $593/week and gets all the way up to $1,057/week.  The actors argument?  Who can afford to live in New York City at those salaries (especially the lower ones)? How can they have a career as an actor if they can’t earn a reasonable living?

And you know what?  I agree with them.

But here’s the problem (and the reason for the impasse).

In the current climate, Commercial Off Broadway Producers can’t make a living either. Go ahead.  Try and come up with a list of a few names who make their living solely from producing Off Broadway shows.  Got any?  Anyone that produces Off Broadway is either doing it as a second or third job, or is also involved with a handful of other things to try and scrape together a living (just like actors who work Off Broadway have to do).

The minuscule amounts that Off Broadway shows pay to Producers certainly isn’t enough to live on in New York City either, especially if those Producers have to have an office, an assistant, etc.  And, unfortunately, these days, most of those amounts get waived as soon as the show gets in trouble.  We all know that when Producers make a living (and can make a good one) is when a show recoups . . . and shows just aren’t doing that Off Broadway often enough anymore.

So ironically, the two sides here are at odds because they are in exactly the same position.

Except there’s one thing that I think is confusing the issue.

If you notice above, I mentioned the plight of the actor is similar to the plight of the Commercial Off Broadway Producer.  The interesting thing about this negotiation is that the League represents Commercial Off Broadway Producers and some Non-Profit theaters.

The Non-Profits have their own struggles, and I don’t claim to know the first thing about them.  I just know that they are different.  They raise money differently.  They market differently.  Their missions are different.

So perhaps, one of the reasons that this contract has been tough to get finalized this year, is because it’s time that we have separate agreements for these two different subsets of the Off Broadway industry.

No one is happy with the current state of Off Broadway.  And hopefully as things get closer to the Nov. 6th deadline, we’ll all remember that we’re in this position together.


(Got a comment? I love ‘em, so comment below! Email Subscribers, click here then scroll down to say what’s on your mind!)

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  • Frank says:

    Sounds to me like theater producers should be looking to do business in more money friendly venues. NYC is known for it’s theater, but when costs get to the point that no one can make theater, then you have to find somewhere else more accommodating.

    There are plenty of other metro-areas that could support more original theater if producers ever decided to try it out. And don’t give me the “but NYC is where everything happens. I can’t leave and risk losing out on something.” argument. In our digital world, you can always work things out from a distance a be apart of a larger, more global theater world.

    • Lewis says:

      This comment makes a great deal of sense … especially when venues in Florida (which has surpassed New York State in population) are brought into the equation! (Yup! We’re fourth now, after CA, TX … and FL!) I am amazed at how so many people in this business cannot comprehend this!

    • Jerry K says:

      I hope you are not a writer. Your grammar and punctuation is less than acceptable.

  • I hope the people who are working at this deal see your insight and pay attention to it.
    It really seems to sit at the heart of it all. (Or one of the hearts?)

  • Melissa Bell says:

    You are on to something here, Ken. It’s an uneven playing field and only the non-profit theaters can survive in Off-Broadway. Non-profit doesn’t mean they don’t make money or a profit. It means that there are no shareholders or individual owners who gain from those profits. And it doesn’t mean people aren’t getting paid. It means that the money stays in the entity to further its mission; in this case the mission is to produce theater and provide a cultural and educational experience to audiences. One big difference is that Non profit companies can use some of the money it raises to cover operating expenses, and more than one specific project, something a commercial producer cannot do. This gives a non-profit a big advantage. Plus non-profits benefit from a preferential tax structure. Yes its employees pay taxes, but the Non-profit doesn’t pay corporate taxes–the highest rate in the world. (OK Limited partnerships don’t either but there are still differences.) And many theaters give non-profits a discount on their rentals. Non-profits benefit from volunteers, in the commercial world they are called unpaid interns. In other words, the Non-profits are “crowding out” the marketplace (to borrow a phrase from John Maynard Keynes.) It’s like when the government spends too much money and crowds private investors out of a market. Especially the “super non-profits” like MTC and Roundabout. Now I love the work they do, but no one can compete with those giants. They can afford to pay union scales–it’s their mission to provide high paying jobs–but they are allowed to raise money differently than commercial producers. Again, that puts them in a different category than commercial Off-Broadway producers who must raise money for one specific show and pay expenses from their pockets. So yes, I agree with you Ken. The Non-profits and the Commercial producers are different animals and if the government treats them differently, so should the unions. But I would argue that the unions will be biased towards the non-profits for the very reasons above. And the unions won’t care if a few small non-profits go under, they are targeting the super-non profits, because they are the only ones who can raise the money to pay for the overhead. Please don’t get me wrong, I belong to a playwrights’ Collective, a not for profit organization, we exist on grants and our members donations, and we follow union rules; they protect everyone. And there are many, many small non-profits that are just getting by like us. I’m saying non profits are different, skew the market, and create biases in the playing field. That’s why I believe that in the end, Off-Broadway commercial producers will be a thing of the past and non-profits will continue to dominate.

  • Jerry K says:

    My play will revolutionize Broadway. Would you like to know why? Come closer…closer…now, I’ll whisper. You ready? It is better and more commercial than “Hamilton.”

  • Jay Z says:

    Ken, you love research and numbers so maybe you could compare budgets from the past with the present and show us which component has gone up the most?

    If Off-Broadway as profitable say in the 1980s, why was it? My guess is that it’s probably the rent that has increased far more than the actor’s wages…though it could be something else entirely.

    Armed with that knowledge, we could work towards making it profitable again.

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