DRUNK HISTORY: THE NATIONAL TOUR

The following excerpt on touring is from “#SOBLESSED: the Annoying Actor Friend’s Guide to Werking in Show Business.”

     In the Roman Catholic religion, there are artifacts known as “relics.” Relics are items closely associated with saints. If you are lucky, one day you’ll meet someone who toured the country on a Full Production Contract, and that person is known as a First-National Relic. If you come in contact with this rare entity, I suggest you spend significant time in its presence. The First-National Relic is sacred. They are an ancient national treasure. They existed in a time when people actually went on the road to save money. They indulged in superfluous luxuries they didn’t even need. The First-National Relic owns an apartment. They may even own a second property in a foreign location such as The Poconos. The only confirmed whereabouts you can witness this endangered species in action is in whatever city Wicked, The Lion King, Jersey Boys, or The Book of Mormon is playing – where they hide safely within their holy sanctuary.

     What events transpired to bring along the extinction of the Full Production Contract tour? Take a trip back in time with me as I attempt to transcribe the somewhat booze-hazy yarn I learned at Chelsea Grill, from a First-National Relic (who I’ll lovingly refer to as Old Annoying Actor Friend) that used to drink at a place called Marlowe – which is now the Brazilian BBQ joint next to Joe Allen’s on 46th Street.

The Fall of the First National

A Drunk-matic Tale Told in the Words of Your Old Annoying Actor Friend

     In the past, when you were no more than a babe, I earned an enviable living out on the open road. In those days, you didn’t go on tour to pay bills. You went on tour to buy timeshares. Now, your weekly tour salary is like the $200 you get in Monopoly when you pass GO, before rounding a corner filled with hotels. It didn’t always used to be like that…

A Long Time Ago, in a Broadway Season Far, Far Away…

     There once was a revival of The Music Man, directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman. It was nominated for a lot of awards, but it didn’t win any – except one. The 2001 First National Tour of The Music Man holds the esteemed acclaim of being “The First Time a First National Touring Company Launched Non-Union.” I think the cast was making about 76-trom-BONES a week. This pissed off everyone. Equity actors were picketing cities all over the country. Newspaper articles ran in local papers. There was even general outrage among non-theatrical folk for the injustice of paying actors so little to perform while charging premium ticket prices to audience members. The Music Man required a gigantic cast, and the producers felt that the only way to tour the show at all was to send out a non-union company for (allegedly) salaries as low as $450 a week, plus housing and a $35 per diem. Actors’ Equity was certainly not going to agree for any of their valued union members to work under such conditions. HELL NO. Steps needed to be taken to ensure this did not happen to a First National Tour ever again.

A New Kind of Tour

     When Actors’ Equity was given the chance to co-develop a cheaper way for producers to send actors out on the road, they freakin’ jumped on that shit. AEA was like, “Please don’t send the tour out non-equity! The Music Man was a mistake and we know that! We’ll do anything!” And that is when the very first Multi-City Ass Rape Tour was born. For now, we’ll just call it 42nd Street. The First National Tour of 42nd Street launched in August of 2002 under the newly conceived “Special Agreement Tour Contract” (a.k.a. Special Agreement to Be Paid Shit) with a minimum weekly salary of $575. That sounds like music to my ears. Come on along and listen to, the Lulla-bye-bye of Your Dignity. It might seem like a lot of money if you only make $30 at the dairy – but the 42nd Street tour was playing first-rate cities, including a sit-down at the Ahmanson in Los Angeles, while the exact same production continued to run on Broadway, where the cast made over twice the amount. But – hey! At least the tour was union!

Things weren’t looking that dark yet, though. Hits like The Producers and Hairspray were going out Full Production, so there were still opportunities and reasons to go on tour. Plus, the novelty of being plucked out of a touring company to replace someone on Broadway was still an alluring possibility. There was always a chance you’d get “bumped up” because the show was still running in New York. Now, tours rarely launch until well after their Broadway doppelgänger has posted a closing notice. Somewhere, a stigma was developed that booking a touring production is not as good as booking the Broadway production. Never mind that often the creative team goes back to the drawing board to improve the show for the road and future regional licensing. You’re not going to appreciate that, because you’re still wondering why it took you six auditions for the Broadway company to book the tour.

Contract Experimentation

     By 2004, Equity started dabbling in “experimental” touring programs designed to accommodate the diverse economic conditions of each show that went on the road by offering different tiers of salaries and other compensations. Like any good taboo experimentation, our union (with its members’ best interest at heart) bent over and firmly grabbed its ankles to Bottom for the producers – and we all woke up with crabs in our eyes. Actors’ Equity’s experimental phase in touring gave birth to the bastard Tiered Production Contract – and we’re not talking a cool bastard, like Jon Snow. The Tiered Production Contract is full on Special-Ed-King-Joffrey-Inbred.

The Tiered Production Contract was a sexy excuse to keep a show union while paying actors an amount based off how well the producers thought a tour would perform financially. The formula to decide our pay cut was based off words like “presenter, “guarantee,” and “Net Adjusted Gross Box Office Receipts.” Now – I’m too drunk to explain what any of that means, but it sounds pretty bad. Basically, the level of the tier is reflective of the cost of running the show vs. potential money earned. Productions that either cost too much to run or aren’t projected to make a lot of money, are often placed on lower tiers. Can you imagine if this theory were applied to Broadway productions? I mean like – wouldn’t Scandalous: the Life and Trials of a Kathie Gifford Vanity Piece have been Tier C based off its box office advance? Wouldn’t Spider-Man: Turn Off the Crazy be Tier D based off its running cost? Why is this behavior acceptable on the road? Is it only a matter of time before Actors’ Equity agrees to a tiered Short Engagement Broadway Contract? Is anybody listening to me? #jazzhands.

Along Came SETA

     There were originally six tiered categories ranging from B to G. In 2008, it was discovered that by the time a production qualified for the bottom three tiers, it was sold to a producer who would tour it non-equity. That is when tiers E, F, and G spun off and became the SETA contract – which has since grown to six categories itself. When I say “spun-off,” I’m not so much talking a spin-off like Frasier, but more like the kind of spin-off when three of the Golden Girls moved to Miami to run a hotel. If you don’t understand that reference, then I’ll go back to the “bastard” one. Tiered Production Contract Tours is to Special-Ed-King-Joffrey-Inbred as SETA Tours is to people who think they’re too cool to watch Game of Thrones… God, I suck at this – um … The SETA contract is so horrible it has two more categories than cancer.

The SETA contract stands for, “Take a-SEAT-a Before You Read That Paycheck.” It also stands for Short Engagement Touring Agreement. The name suggests it was developed for small productions that tour for a short time. Wrong! It applies to any open-ended tour that doesn’t play a given venue longer than four weeks. So… Like… That’s every tour. SETA was originally created to protect the integrity of the Production Contract. Production Contracts are negotiated between the union and producers before SETA, to prevent concessions granted in the SETA contract from creeping into the Production Contract. At some point in the process, the SETA contract clawed its dirty ass out of the sewer where it had been biding time and building strength crudding up mucous and feeding off pond scum – and slashed the shit out of the Production Contract.

Fuck It, Cheers!

     It was around this time in the national touring downward spiral that I gave up, married an IATSE member, and moved to Jersey to sell real estate. I was like, “EFF THIS. I’ll let the stably employed spouse provide, while I wait for Broadway to call again.” On another note, if you ever want to know what’s happening with that workshop or out-of-town tryout you did, talk to the IATSE guys. They know what theatre a show is going into before the theatre owner.

After I quit touring, I got a bit disconnected from how things went down between 2008 and 2011. I’ve even logged onto Google to fill in the holes and complete the code, but it’s unclear exactly when the top three tiers in the Tiered Production Contract got the “Red Wedding” treatment. It’s like – one day I woke up and the first national tour of Memphis, the Tony Award winner for Best Musical, was on a SETA contract, and I was like – WTF? SETA all of a sudden had a first, second, and third category. Pretty soon every tour was SETA. You know that when the Les Miserables tour goes out SETA, we’re all screwed. Luckily, the “integrity of the Production Contract” is safe because IT DOESN’T EXIST ANYMORE. The only producers who send out Full Production Contract tours these days are just trying to share the size of their man parts.

Don’t get me wrong; the SETA tour isn’t all that bad. The top category’s weekly salary is $917 less than Production Contract, but you get free housing! You don’t get free housing in New York! You also get $48 a day to pay for food! I mean, you can buy groceries for one week from a single day of per diem – unless you get stuck in a hotel with only a refrigerator and a microwave, which is often. It’s amazing how fast you can burn through $48 before dinner because you don’t have a kitchen, and the thought of microwaving egg whites one more time is disheartening.

Actors on tour used to live off their per diem and bank their salary. I’m dating myself, right? In any given city, a healthy omelet, green juice, Panera lunch, and sensible dinner will put you well over your per diem – and god forbid you want a glass of wine or toke of reefer after the show. If you’re without a kitchen on tour and want to save money, you’re going to have to choose between your bank account and your body. Should you choose the former, then kiss your waist goodbye, because it’s damn near impossible to maintain your physique and fit into your costumes when the only way to bank your salary is via Clif Bars and McDonald’s. #whatididforlove.

SETA also allows you to travel forty hours a week (and up to ten hours a day) in a bus if it’s necessary. There’s even a clause in the contract that allows for twelve-hour travel days for every thirteen weeks – but they can be executed all at once if the producer wishes. That means that for every fifty-two-week period, you might have to endure a twelve-hour travel day, four times. I wouldn’t sweat the long travel days. I’m certainly too old to sit in hip-flexion for ten hours after a five show weekend, but you should be fine if you allot some of that per diem to Epsom salt and a foam roller.

The Light is Getting Dimmer

     While I could continue discussing why the present touring life isn’t quite what it was in the past, I think it’s important we look toward the future. The national tour contract tumbled down the slippery slope of desperation out of fear. We, as a union, seem to be afraid that if we stand our ground and try to get things back to the way they were, everything will end up non-equity. If that’s the concern, then let me present you with an example of how a recent Equity tour, that in an effort to stay union, is not a lot different from the non-union tour that started this mess in the first place. Second place? #yes. #how. #hmm. #ugh.

In the fall of 2013, a national tour launched starring a household name that many people know from a famous 1960’s – 70’s TV show, but you might recognize from a show that was on the WB before it became CW – and if you don’t know what the WB is, you’re dead to me. To protect the integrity of this production, I’m going to change the name to something completely random. Let’s just call it, Shmello, Shmolly! When auditions for Shmello, Shmolly! were first published on actorsequity.org, I was like, “Did I accidentally log onto The Onion? Is this sarcasm?” The tour of Shmello, Shmolly! was slated to go out on a SETA Category Six contract for $548 a week, in which it was to play a scheduled seventy-three cities in six months. A 2011 – 2012 non-equity tour of a different musical (Shmiddler on the Shmoof) played over ten cities less, in seven months. Was this for real? Was there actually a universe where a non-equity tour had less one-nighters than an Equity approved tour?

At $548 a week, it would be criminal for your agent to take 10% from your paycheck. Under the assumption they take only 5%, and you loose an additional 15% to taxes and 2% to dues, you’re looking at banking around $427 a week. I’m still trying to figure out how potentially forty hours of travel, plus twenty-four hours of performances a week, is better than working two shifts at an average New York City bar for the same amount of money. All this talk about numbers is making me want to play a game of what the kids call #throwbackthursday, and compare the conditions of Shmello, Shmolly! with the 2002 non-equity tour of The Music Man.

2002 Production Contract Minimum: $1,250

Alleged Non-Equity Salary: $450 + Housing + $35 per diem

Percentage of Production Contract Earned: 55.6%

2013 Production Contract Minimum: $1,807

2013 SETA Category Six Salary: $548 + Housing + $48 per diem

Percentage of Production Contract Earned: 48.9%

Getting the Chance to Perform and Share Your Gift: Priceless.

Based off those calculations, the cast of the non-equity tour was closer to Production Contract than the Equity tour by 6.7%. If The Music Man took place today, under the same conditions, it would be making $121 more a week than Shmello, Shmolly! – if you adjust for inflation.

Obviously there are exceptions to consider; mainly that The Music Man was a big First National and Shmello, Shmolly! was never intended to be anything more than a small bus and truck. However, The Music Man caused so much of a stink in each city it visited because of the limited salary the actors were being paid. Union members picketed because it was non-equity, but the media made a bigger deal out of how little the actors were being compensated when the audiences were still paying premium prices. To add to the oddity of this entire situation, tickets for Shmello, Shmolly! are (in some cities) only ten dollars cheaper than the average ticket price of the next Production Contract tour that follows it. I think it’s a little bit dated to keep blaming the economy, when the average ticket prices on the road are often more expensive than on Broadway – regardless of how high or low the tier of the contract. Audiences aren’t being given a cut. Why should we have to take one?

If we keep allowing concessions just for job opportunities, it’s only a matter of time before the SETA Category Six goes from being the exception, to the rule. We need to do something about it. And like any good member of AEA, I’m going to fight the only way I know how – by venting to you over cocktails and then never attending a meeting or voting in any union elections.

I’ll drink to that… I could use another drink… Does anyone still wear a show jacket?

***

OLD TIMES IS HARD

     It was at that moment when my First-National Relic completely blacked-out on the bar at Chelsea Grill. I appreciated their story, but isn’t it just like the Old Annoying Actor Friend to highlight how much better life was when they were in their prime? Things might not be as good – but who are they to discourage us from following our dream of touring the country doing what we love?

If the SETA contract was only created to make jobs available for union members, then we should jump on those opportunities because it’s a chance to perform! We should be #grateful. Performing gives our position within this business some credibility and validates our life choice. Even if the SETA contract is just a Sad Excuse To Act, you can still have a lot of fun – even if you can’t afford to buy fruit when you’re hungry in between shows. #workiswerk.

However, there were some valuable life-lessons about touring that I was able to deduce from what my Old Annoying Actor Friend mumbled through their boozy-delusional-fog. This business is a job. You go to a job to make money to support your life. When you go out of town, you forfeit your life, in an effort to have a better life when you get home. You don’t go on tour because you want to see Scranton. If you have a valid reason to go on tour, then by all means, do it. If you’re breaking out of the ensemble to play a role – go on tour. If you just got out of a relationship and need a distraction – go on tour. If you’re a vagabond or right out of college, without an apartment, bills, or responsibilities – go on tour. Do not go on tour just to scrape by. If you go on tour, find the appropriate time to do so, know when to quit, and know when to make the decision never to do it again. Much like “swinging,” touring credits on a résumé only take you so far before they risk becoming your identity within this industry.

***

#SOBLESSED: The Annoying Actor Friend’s Guide to Werking in Show Business is available on Amazon Kindle and paperback!

5 comments

  1. Annoying Administrator Who Used to be a Stage Manager Frenemy

    Great post (which I saved to read later and have just now read months later so no one will see this comment but whatever). I understand and share your frustration, but I’m frustrated too that in all these conversations over the last few months no one really talks about the other side. Not “Think of the poor producers!” of course, but just the simple fact that the economics of touring are different from the economics of Broadway, so a show being a hit on the latter doesn’t mean it will be one on the former.

    1) Tours get guarantees from presenters. On the one hand, this actually makes touring a safer bet, since producers can budget for what they know they’ll get. On the other, as the economy has changed and let’s face it theatre has become less popular, presenters have been willing to pay less. That’s a problem. I don’t have those numbers, I can’t say if presenters are just being greedy. But I doubt it. Yes, the houses are huge but the tickets generally cost much less than Broadway, and unlike Broadway presenters have subscriptions, so that’s a further discount. It’s a problem, I’m not saying it’s not, but let’s just aim our rage at the right source.

    2) On SETA, Actors are supposed to get extra money if the show takes in more than the guarantee at the box office. I don’t know how often if ever this pans out. Maybe books are cooked. But I did hear that the Les Miz tour actually switched to full Production because it was paying its Actors MORE than that many weeks. I can’t verify this (you’re drunk, I haven’t had my coffee yet) so someone please shoot me down if that’s just a myth. But it does suggest that producers aren’t out to screw actors. If they money is there, it gets shared.

    3) Just because a show wins a Tony doesn’t mean it will do well on the road. Consider the kerfuffle over Kinky Boots’ appearance on the Thanksgiving Parade. Winning a Tony doesn’t mean you’ll play well in Middle America. “Kinky” is right there in the title. And presenters are going to be afraid of losing a whole family’s subscription if they program an “edgy” show. So they won’t program it at all, or they’ll put it on as an “extra” that people have to buy separate from their subscription. That doesn’t explain why Newsies is going out SETA, but it’s not just about edginess; some tours just flop, and I assume there’s some research done about expectations, how many people have really heard of Memphis, etc. (still doesn’t explain Newsies).

    4) Tours have costs that Broadway shows do not. Broadway doesn’t have to pay for gas or plane tickets, two costs that have increased out of line with inflation. On Broadway, if you have children in your show, their parents are just there. On the road, you have to travel them, and their tutors. Note that Kinky Boots, Music Man, Newsies and Les Miz all have kids. They’re not Matilda (which unless I missed it hasn’t announced a tour at all), but it’s an extra cost that adds up. Is that one thing enough to excuse not paying people what they’re worth? No. But I just use the examples to suggest that it’s not a 1:1 translation from Broadway to the road. They’re different shows, different budgets, different situations.

    All of that said, what I do find frustrating and always have is how powerless Equity seems to be. On the one hand, we’re not steel workers, we’re actors and stage managers, and unlike that building getting built no one HAS to do that show. The threat of “if you don’t give us these concessions we just won’t do the show” is real, and it sucks. But if there are “union houses” for IATSE, why not for Equity? Why not simply require that if you’re doing a theatrical tour at these venues, it has to be Equity? Start there and then figure out the money; take the threat of going out non-Eq off the table. I have no idea how that works, if that’s possible. But I know it would make me feel less helpless.

  2. Barnaby

    It’s quite possible that I have been on tour with Old Annoying Actor Friend. I, too, remember the old days of Full Production Contract. I am a Relic. The most important argument is “if the audiences are paying Broadway ticket prices, shouldn’t we making Broadway money?” And those touring houses are huge! Usually three times the size of the average Broadway house. Everyone knows that producers send out tours to make back the money they lost on the Broadway run. We’re the dummies that keep taking the jobs. Why? Because there’s ten guys that look just like you willing to work for less than you that didn’t book the job. The sad fact is if you love something, don’t do it for a living because too soon it becomes all business and not love. #bubbleburst #mommythatmancrushedmydreams
    God, I miss Marlowe!

  3. Ike

    I just wanted to say, as someone working/werking his way up in the business, this article was incredibly interesting and enjoyable to read. Thank you! Happy Thanksgiving!

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