RIP: Workshops. WTF is a Lab?

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In #GRATEFUL: Everything Happens for a Reason, the reader navigates show business from their perspective and their trajectory is decided upon at the start by which class they think they are part of in “Broadway High School,” with freshmen being the most idealistic and seniors the most jaded. In “Broadway Freshman,” you have an opportunity to celebrate booking a new workshop by going to Glass House, where you stumble upon the most cynical of Broadway Seniors, who sets you straight regarding the differences between a Lab contract, and a Workshop contract…


 

In the mood for some risotto balls and attention, you head to Glass House Tavern, because that’s where it’s at. It’s not so much that Glass House Tavern is new, it’s that it’s now. It’s a place to go with friends where you can also network, and, unlike Bar Centrale, it’s much more accessible (i.e. cheaper).

Post-show hour at Glass House is a Broadway fuck-fest potpourri. Someone from everything is there. It’s like God told Stephen Sondheim to construct an arc in the middle of the theatre district where two actors from every Broadway show would flock nightly to evade the flood of Times Square tourists and mass audience exodus. It truly is a location built for the heavenly divine.

While you’ve decided to venture to Glass House alone, you’re confident it won’t be long before you run into someone you know vaguely enough to engage in a conversation where you can casually drop your recent crowning achievement of booking a new Broadway workshop. Your real friends don’t want to know about things like that. Accomplishments are for acquaintances.

After a few minutes of networking and social netwerking (i.e. talking to one of the Platt brothers and then taking a picture with them and posting it on Instagram), you slide up to the bar and order a vodka soda.

While you wait for your drink, you see that the majority of the crowd has cleared out to go to either Broadway Bowling or Anthony Rapp’s poker game, so you strike up a conversation with the person next to you, who is nursing what looks like a whiskey sour. After a few minutes chatting with this person (who is clearly in the business, because they’re at Glass House), you realize by their disposition that they must be a Broadway Senior.

You’ve encountered these rare creatures at auditions, but never in the wild. Broadway Seniors seldom find themselves alone in open venues where they can be exposed to a highly concentrated amount of schmooze. While this Broadway Senior is certainly a downer, you’re fascinated as to why they are here—and since there’s not an average-prospective-theatre-major’s-chance of getting into CMU that they’ll be asking you what you’re working on, you decide to flip the script and ask them.

To your surprise (and delight), you discover they recently booked the exact same job as you!

“I’m doing that workshop, too!” you scream with the glee of the general public during season one of Glee.

“That’s great,” they sigh, with the glee of the general public during seasons three through six of Glee, “but it’s not a workshop; it’s a Lab.”

“Yeah, same thing.”

“No. They aren’t,” they snap with cold eyes. “You know A Chorus Line?”

“Yeah,” you nod, “I saw the revival with Mario Lopez.”

“OK, we’ll get back to that, because I have stories… but, A Chorus Line is where all this shit started.”

Your new friend proceeds to finish their whiskey sour and order a double Johnnie Walker Blue, neat. They must be on one of those government job production contracts.

“In the ‘70s,” they continue, “Michael Bennett rounded up a bunch of his dancer friends after a class and they all sat around talking about the business and their experiences within it. He recorded their stories and then persuaded Joseph Papp to fund a ‘workshop’ at The Public where he could develop a musical about Broadway dancers based off of those recorded tapes. This wasn’t going to be a normal musical-making procedure; A Chorus Line would need a rather unique rehearsal process, with a group of dancers collaborating closely with Bennett to create it. Papp agreed to produce the workshop, and the rest is history.”

You roll your eyes. “Anyone who’s ever owned a starter pair of Capezios knows this.”

“Yeah,” they nod, “and if you’ve ever had your foot traced by Phil LaDuca, you know that because of their contribution, Bennett worked out an agreement with Equity for any of the performers involved—with either the taped recordings or the original workshop—to receive one-half of the one-percent of the weekly box office gross receipts designated for the author. Why? Because not only were the dancers co-creating the show, they were also getting paid a fairly shitty weekly wage in exchange for their heavy collaboration.”

For the most part, this is a lot of information you already know, so you’re thinking, “Ugh, I got stuck with a drunk talker.” I’m sorry.

“This is really fascinating and all,” you smile falsely, “but I just saw my friend walk in. She’s really mad I haven’t retweeted her in a while, so I should probably go do damage control—

Your subtle excuse goes ignored.

“So then sometime around Ballroom—I think maybe 1977? I don’t know, text Jen Tepper—Bennett refined the agreement with Equity so that actors who take part in an original workshop of a production share a separate percent—or ‘point’—of the box office instead of the writer’s, and that more-or-less became the standard contract used until recently.”

“OK, cool,” you nod, “So, like, why are you yelling at me?”

“Because nobody produces under the Workshop Contract anymore!”

“Then what are we doing?”

“I told you, it’s a Lab,” they explain, “Nobody has used a real Workshop Contact since The Book of Mormon. After that, it mysteriously became a Lab, and yet you kids walk around town calling it a workshop instead of calling it what it actually is: a LAB—or, as I call it, ‘Lazy Ass Broadway’ because I swear it only exists because someone wasn’t paying attention.”

“A ‘Workshop,’” they say, using air quotes, “Is now a word that has become branded in the lexicon like Kleenex; a tissue isn’t always a Kleenex—sometimes a tissue is made by Puffs!”

Now you’re confused. “Then, what’s a Lab?”

“It’s the exact same thing as a workshop, but without the good shit.”

“Isn’t the good shit just the joy and personal validation of being allowed in the room with the creative team to help craft a new work?” you ask.

No. The good shit is the dollars,” they say sternly, “not the immediate salary –which is somewhere between $630 and $750 a week—but the dollars that you earn if the show becomes a bigger deal.

“When a new work is presented under a standard Workshop Contract, the company involved splits around one-percent of the weekly gross box office receipts should the show transfer to a commercial run—no matter if you’re in it or not. You also get first right of refusal. That means that if the show moves to Broadway, and the creative team is like, ‘Oh, sorry, we forgot that you’re short,’ and decides to replace you with what I call a ‘Tall Boring,’ then they have to pay you no less than four weeks of production contract to compensate you for them wasting your time and killing your dreams.”

Your eyes widen. “Whoa.”

“Not bad, huh?” they smirk. “Guaranteed royalties and protection, in exchange for your contribution and time spent devoted to the original development? That’s literally why the workshop contract was created—to give actors special benefits in lieu of full salaries during an extended creative process.”

“But, wait,” you urge, “Aren’t we getting a thousand dollars a week for this Lab? That’s more than you said we’d get paid under a Workshop Contract, so that’s better, right?”

“You’re part of the problem!” exclaims the fired up actor, throwing their arms up in the air. “Sure, a Lab is more money on the front end, but if it were a workshop that became a hit, we’d get to split a percent for every single commercial production.”

You sort of see their point, but “One percent isn’t a lot when split between twenty or thirty people.”

Frustrated by your constant combating, the self-proclaimed Leader of the Anti-Lab Movement orders another scotch and proceeds to break down the math for you.

“Say there end up being four productions—Broadway, First National, West End, Second National—and each one grosses half a million dollars a week… If you split that between thirty cast members, your share comes to over twenty-five hundred dollars a month.”

“You know a lot about this,” you admit, surprised by how easily this person is able to do math while completely blasted.

“It haunts me every day,” they say, polishing off their second scotch and ordering a third. Woof. You’d be on the floor by now.

“I guess it makes sense that producers wouldn’t want to lose that money over time,” you say, “No wonder the Workshop Contract is gone.”

“It’s not!” they scream, slapping the bar, “Just like the Full Production Touring Contract, the Workshop Contract still exists, but people don’t use it anymore because there are other options and I’m trying to find out what the eff happened.

It’s at this point that you start to side with your new cast mate. Sure, they are bordering on belligerent, and the addition of the third scotch they just ordered is only going to get them more fired up, but—

“We saw how the tiered touring thing happened!” they continue on with no regard for cutting me off just now, “we watched those contracts devolve over time! In many ways we were able to understand the choices made by Equity because there was a greater fear we’d lose the jobs on the road to non-union actors if the salaries weren’t cut. But like…Where the fuck did this Lab thing come from? AND WHY? Why did someone say ‘yes’ to this? Did a major producer walk into Equity one day and say, ‘So, these Workshop Contracts…I want to do them and all? But like…without all the actors’ rights,’ and then did someone random just say, “YES! We can call them…Labs!” while looking at a picture of their Black Labrador on their desk!?

“What would have been the alternative if someone said ‘NO?!’ It’s not like a producer is going to think they’ll land investors from mounting a presentation of Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead: the musical without a boatload of Broadway talent to back it up. They have the option to go non-union with tours that are launched after Broadway, but it wasn’t like they were going to do the same thing with shows pre-Broadway. This wasn’t one of those situations where producers had another alternative, and yet we gave them one.”

“Huh.” You’re stumped.

“Literally: WHAT. THE. FUCK. HAPPENED.”

“But, I mean, I get it… We don’t write the shows,” you offer, trying to think of a reason this happened, because everything happens for a reason. “We don’t direct them, or choreograph them or—

“HAVE YOU EVER DONE PRE-PRODUCTION?”

“No.”

“More like Free-Production,” they scoff. “Look, I love my choreographers as much as anyone, and I want to continue to work for them, but, I’ve done a lot of unpaid work in an effort to help facilitate a vision that will be used in the actual rehearsal process—often one I’m not even going to be a part of. I’m not asking for much! People would be surprised what a gift card to Outback Steakhouse can get them!”

I’m going to have to butt in here and just say that if there is pre-production pay, it usually comes from out of the choreographer’s pocket; this is an entirely different problem, so I wouldn’t bother getting the Senior started on it because they can clearly lay into a subject when provoked.

“And don’t get me started on this bastard hybrid of a Workshop and a 29-Hour Reading known as an ‘Experimental Staged Something-or-Whatever’ where in ten days you essentially block the entire show and learn fully choreographed numbers, but are required to hold your binders like it’s effing Encores. I did one of those this year, and because we were all so damned stressed trying to get the thing together in that amount of time—and weren’t protected by any kind of first right of refusal—we memorized the entire show in an attempt to impress the creative team so they would actually use us again. The presence of binders doesn’t mean we aren’t contributing to the final product.

“The moment you start to put a show on its feet, it changes. There’s no way to deny the fact that when you move a piece of theatre off the page and hand it to a group of actors, their mark will be made on it in some way. It doesn’t have to be as drastic of an impression as A Chorus Line; sometimes it’s a funny bit a performer made up, or some staging that gets suggested, or a line that is rewritten because the actor found a way to make the structure of it flow better, or a special trick a specific dancer can do that the choreographer finds a way to showcase. Shit like that works its way into the original staging and, eventually, scripts licensed from MTI. However small they may seem, contributions from the actors in original workshops have helped people win Tony awards.

“Look, workshops, and labs—or whatever—die every day. I know the odds that our little show will even get to Broadway, let alone become Hamilton, are about as likely as anything beating Hamilton—but there’s a chance. I’d forfeit the extra couple hundred dollars a week that the Lab provides, in exchange for what I could be rewarded, should what I’m contributing to become a hit. None of us walk into a project assuming it’ll fail, and yet the only people who’ve seemed to grasp this fact are the producers—now that they’ve found a way to save money, should the project succeed. Props to them for doing their job! Seems like the only people not marking on Broadway these days are the producers.

“We’ve been fighting for years to get a percent of grosses split amongst an original Broadway cast, but how do we expect to do that now when we’ve lost it in the workshop? This is all just a further example of how actors are constantly looked at as expendable—just grateful to be there. The workshop contract was forged from a group of artists coming together to create a show out of love for what they do, and they were rewarded for it. The final ballad from the musical that started it all is literally called, ‘What I Did For Love’—the sheer irony that Hamilton performed a tribute to A Chorus Line on its 40th Anniversary at The Public and none of those actors’ contributions were protected under a true Workshop Contract is even more fucked up than when I didn’t book Hamilton.”

All of this interests you, but you can’t let them go on without saying, “I see what you mean, but I feel like there’s too much ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ when it comes to Equity. It’s our union. If we want something in the future, we have to be active now. What good is venting over drinks instead of attending membership meetings or voting in any union elections? We don’t have anyone to blame but ourselves.”

And with that, the Broadway Senior slams back the rest of their third double Johnnie Walker Blue label and gazes at you hazily—their head barely able to sit upon its shoulders. You don’t know what to say, except—

“So unless we’re going to do something, we should be grateful. We get paid to sing, and dance, and live our dreams. Who cares about all the ugly crap? You must always be grateful.”

Fearing they didn’t hear you through their boozy-delusional-fog, you further press them with this important question:

“Why can’t you just be grateful with what you have? I’m always grateful.”


 

#GRATEFUL: Everything Happens for a Reasonthe epic sequel to the 2013 best selling book, #SOBLESSED: the Annoying Actor Friend’s Guide to Werking in Show Business, was released November 30th and is available on Amazon Kindle and Paperback!

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