Here’s what I think the Screen Actors Guild and Actors Equity should do.

When Bernardo and Riff see each other at the “Dance at the Gym” in West Side Story, it’s obvious that at some point soon . . . there’s going to be a rumble.
This past summer, when TheaterMakers were struggling to figure out . . .
1) How to keep developing shows
2) How to earn to a living
. . . a question kept coming up that should have made me realize that we had our own rumble in the works.
That question?
“If the reading or production is on Zoom, how do we deal with the union?”
No one knew the answer. (I’m not even sure the unions did either.)
And that’s what has started the rumble between Actors Equity and SAG that made the NY Times this week.
I don’t blame the unions for not knowing what “the deal” is with streaming theater. It’s not like any one of us ever thought this would be a thing . . . that we’d have to solve . . . in the middle of a pandemic.
Not to mention that Actors Equity and SAG are like every other company in our industry. Producers, Agents, Regional Theaters and more. We’re all struggling to figure out how to keep our lights on . . . with less staff than we had since we started our business.
So, Actors Equity is claiming jurisdiction. SAG is claiming jurisdiction. And the actors? Well, they want to work.
And here’s the thing . . . Producers want to hire them.
My advice?
I’m advocating for The “Moonlighting” solution.
Remember that show? Bruce Willis. Cybil Shepard. She was his straight-laced boss; he was her wild-and-crazy detective. And they couldn’t have fought more. They fought so much . . . that you knew at one point . . . they’d make out.
Yep, I’m proposing that SAG and Actors Equity should make out merge.
This is an opportunity to not only solve THIS streaming issue, but a host of other issues that are going to come out of this crisis. Not to mention the issues that existed BEFORE all this. (Whenever our theater actors appear on TV (Morning shows, The Tonys, etc) there is so much extra paperwork that after over 25 years in the biz, I still don’t understand it!)
Wouldn’t it be easier to have the actors under one union roof?
You’d reduce friction for the hiring of these actors, which means more actors would get hired.
Or the unions could keep fighting.
But here’s what happens . . . when two people fight, everyone else avoids it so they don’t get caught in the melee.
That means, fewer people will get hired. Or they’ll get hired outside of the unions.
And no one wants that.
  • Sean Moran says:

    AEA has no jurisdiction over a filmed…anything. That being said ( and member of both since 1976 and 1977). BUT I totally agree…they should have merged years ago. But AEA has been so hateful- especially Bloody Mary McColl……to LA actors there will be a huge push back now.

    • Stewart Lyle says:

      First, I am an AEA member. (A VERY disenchanted AEA member,… um… that’s a different discussion.)


      AEA does have jurisdiction over live theater, and a Zoom event is… LIVE. However, the re-play of it is not. So where do we go in this grey area? Especially when these Zoom events and web broadcasts are attempts by theater groups to create and maintain both their organizations and their actors’ livelihoods when in-person events are not possible?

      Is this a live theater event produced by a live theater production company, being shown live (and/or subsequently rebroadcast) on Zoom? Is this a one camera viewing of a staged production, with that camera in that ideal audience seat the director staged the show from? Is it performed/recorded in one continuous take, warts and all? These are not traditional films or television shows (even one shot before a studio audience), and should not be treated as such. Sorry SAG/AFTRA, these should not be yours to constrain.

      But then, if the camera is moving around, doing closeups and such, or with multiple takes, or with post production editing, or even multi-camera directed-on-the-fly editing/recording, then that’s a TV production, being staged and directed for the camera. And Sorry AEA, these are not yours to constrain.

      It’s therefore complicated and almost intractable if both Unions continue to see this as an challenge to jurisdiction and their organizations.

      Instead, break the impasse by realizing:
      1) This is a new, hybrid type of production — neither organization can unilaterally address it and all its ramifications effectively;
      2) The real goal is to provide ALL of their ACTORS (and stage Managers) with opportunities to WORK, both in the future (this new approach won’t go away just because traditional theater, film, and television production resumes) must most especially NOW, when this is the most achievable, safest WORK opportunity available to help both producers and actors WORK and SURVIVE;

      AEA and SAG/AFTRA should NOT be arguing jurisdiction to determine which ONE of them gets to negotiate contracts for actors in this new medium. They should create a joint AEA/SAG/AFTRA structure for this new medium that incorporates each of their respective concerns, strengths, and organizational experiences with the differing aspects of this new medium. Work out dues apportionment, benefits, etc., for AEA-only, SAG/AFTRA-only, and joint AEA-and-SAG/AFTRA members AS ACTORS, not individual organization’s members. Then negotiate with producers as a unified voice for ACTORS and STAGE MANAGERS.

      In the end, Actors would work under a jointly created and administered AEA/SAG/AFTRA contract, whichever union (or both) they belong to.

      This approach highlights that Unions are not supposed to be about the Union as an organization, things like jurisdiction and turf. Rather, they are about the needs of their members. I know for a fact of work opportunities earnings that have been lost because AEA tried to force its model on this hybrid product – over the mutual agreement of both its members and producers. This is putting the organization’s ego above the needs of its members.

      AEA knows more about live theatre. SAG/AFTRA knows more about on-camera and broadcast. So instead of trying to grab this hybrid medium and force it into one of those models, work TOGETHER to create something that really addresses the medium.

      And get us all back to work!

  • Rik Deskin says:

    SAG-AFTRA is the union now, since 2012.

  • Kurt Johns says:

    I have been an AEA/AFTRA member for decades and I think the idea of having one actors’ union, regardless of the medium is long overdue. And yes there is will be hard negotiations and vitriol but the entertainment world and it’s media is changing. The resulting entity might just be a powerful conglomerate that benefits everyone, all sides of the table.

  • William V Carlton says:

    AEA represents STAGE MANAGERS and Actors. Your solution conveniently leaves out stage managers.
    Also, jurisdiction only applies to work places that have NOT been organized. SAG-AFTRA has no right, legally or otherwise, to claim jurisdiction over an AEA bargaining partner (theatre).

    • Stasha Surdyke says:

      THANK YOU! I was just going to write this! The folks here do NOT understand that AEA reps actors and STAGE MANAGERS, and their bargaining power with theatrical employers provides Equity Salaries, Equity health benefits, and Equity pensions.

  • Hey Ken, I applaud your thinking. However, while what you say makes sense, in the end it would cut the union staff in half. Right now there are two presidents, one for AEA and one for SAG-AFTRA. If the unions were to merge there would be only be one. The same would be true for each officer: while now there are two Executive Directors, if the unions merged there would be only one, and so forth. The question is this: which union executive is going to be willing to say “sure, I’ll give up my position for the betterment of the membership” – particularly when they are in a turf war as they are now? I remember when SAG and AFTRA merged and how difficult that became, and they were on friendly terms. How difficult would it be to merge two unions who are at odds with each other?

    • Stewart Lyle says:

      So if you’re going to merge, KEEP the two Executive Directors: one for Live Theatre, and one for On-Camera/Broadcast issues. They are different scenarios and need specialists. But the commonality of the craft (ACTING), and the need for a unified voice on behalf of all actors, especially in the face of new mediums, far overwhelms bureaucratic turf desires and self perpetuating organizational drives, especially when they get in the way of expanding WORK for the MEMBERSHIP. The MEMBERS and their needs should and must always drive the organization’s actions. This turf war between AEA and SAG/AFTRA is the organizations ignoring the members’ needs (WORK) for the sake of the organization.

      Take a look at my discussion above about a joint AEA/SAG/AFTRA negotiation and contract. Forget about the turf. Both organizations have very real claims, expertise, and experience with aspects of these proposed projects. So admit that and work together to create a joint agreement that, coming from BOTH organizations will be better all around for all involved.

      The Unions as organizations only come first so long as they put the members’ needs first. When the members’ needs (contracts so they can work) are put secondary to the organizations’ image and jurisdictional bragging rights, then the organization is no longer doing its job.

  • Ken, I totally agree with merging. For years before I came to the US I was a member of British Actors Equity. One union for all. I must say, I found it very convenient and extremely helpful for all branches to be communicating. Merely my opinion!

  • Angela says:

    A few things I’d like everyone who reads this to be aware of:
    1. AEA has had filming built into our contracts since 1952.
    2. We’ve had a New Media & Technology committee since 2012.
    3. Stage managers made up 16.9% of AEA contracts in 2019. (That’s a lot of people that this blog post just ignored, and they’re the very people who are being hurt the most right now.)

Leave a Reply to Stasha Surdyke Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *