There’s Not Much Work for Actors. Now Their Unions Are Fighting.

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For unemployed theater artists, there has been one bright spot during a pandemic that has prevented live performance: streaming.

But now two major entertainment industry unions are locked in a battle over that work, with compensation, health insurance, and even permission to perform at stake.

Actors’ Equity Association, the labor union that represents 51,000 theater actors and stage managers, is accusing SAG-AFTRA, the union that represents 160,000 people who work in film, television and radio, of raiding its turf and undercutting its contracts by negotiating lower-paying deals with theaters for streaming productions.

SAG-AFTRA, in turn, says that work made for broadcast has always been its domain, and that it has offered to work with Equity through the pandemic but that the stage union has refused all efforts at compromise.

The two organizations have been sparring privately about the issue almost since the start of the pandemic. According to Equity, during that time SAG-AFTRA has signed contracts for at least 60 streaming productions made by theaters that normally present work to live audiences.

The casts are often the same, regardless of which union is involved, but Equity says they are paid less well, and lose contributions toward Equity health and pension benefits, when SAG-AFTRA takes over. And stage managers are often cut out entirely, because SAG-AFTRA (Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) doesn’t cover them.

Now a frustrated group of Equity-represented stage managers is circulating a petition urging SAG-AFTRA to back off. “Don’t leave us unprotected and without work during a national health emergency that has left unemployment almost absolute and our industry devastated,” the letter pleads.

Heather Brose, a San Diego-based stage manager, said she has lost work as a result of shows that would have been represented by Equity being streamed under SAG-AFTRA contracts. “We’re being left behind, and we’re being left out of work,” she said. “It’s maddening that our sister union is doing this to us.”

Each union is blaming the other for the breakdown in what they say is normally a constructive working relationship.

Equity says SAG-AFTRA is violating longstanding union practice by encroaching on theaters with which it has contracts. The union contends that, because SAG-AFTRA pays daily instead of weekly, and because the stage actors don’t earn credit toward Equity insurance, actors have lost $600,000 in earnings and $150,000 in employer contributions to the embattled Equity-League Health Fund.

“We’re in the middle of the worst crisis facing the American theater since the flu of 1918, and why would now be the time to change our decades-long relationship of working together?” said Mary McColl, Equity’s executive director. “It doesn’t help actors and stage managers, and it doesn’t help the labor movement. We should be fighting to protect the workers, and instead we’re in this argument about whose fence should be where.”

SAG-AFTRA says it has offered to back off for the duration of the pandemic, but only if Equity agrees that streamed theatrical work is ultimately its territory.

“Obviously live performance has been hit harder than anybody, and I understand that there’s a real feeling that they’re fighting for their life,” said Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, SAG-AFTRA’s chief operating officer. “We want to help them, but we insist on recognition that this is intended to help them through the pandemic, and not to shift things long term.”

Crabtree-Ireland said SAG-AFTRA doesn’t represent stage managers, and that if Equity is concerned it could still represent them. McColl disputed that, saying, “This is exactly what someone who does not understand how the American theater business works would say.”

The dispute is complicated by the fact that some theaters administrators have quietly complained that it has been difficult to get Equity to negotiate agreements that would allow its members to work on theater made for streaming, which has become a key way to stay engaged with audiences and solicit donations during the pandemic.

McColl said the dispute with SAG-AFTRA has made it difficult to negotiate streaming deals. Nonetheless Equity says that since March it has reached agreements permitting its members to work on 249 “remote shows.”

Among the theaters named by Equity as normally producing with that union but now working with SAG-AFTRA are the Guthrie, a leading regional nonprofit in Minneapolis; North Coast Repertory Theater, in Solana Beach, Calif.; and TheaterWorks Hartford. But the practice appears to be increasingly pervasive as the pandemic drags on — just this week the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia said it would film a site-specific production of “Heroes of the Fourth Turning,” with its performers represented by SAG-AFTRA, not Equity.

Asked about the situation, the Guthrie declined to comment, while a spokeswoman for North Coast Rep said, “We are in the process of productive conversations with AEA to resolve this issue going forward.” Representatives for TheaterWorks and the Wilma did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The dispute comes at a time of increasing labor unrest in the entertainment industry, where many workers are facing long-term unemployment. Health insurance funds affiliated with both Equity and SAG-AFTRA are facing criticism after making insurance harder to obtain because of sharply diminished revenues. And this week members of the American Federation of Musicians, which represents musicians who perform onstage and on air, protested television networks, seeking greater compensation for streaming work.

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