Questioning the Showcase Code Reforms

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In a recent post, Isaac questions the prospect and/or likelihood of Showcase Code reform. I think it’s good to question it, provided one asks the right questions. For example, he writes,

1) I asked earlier what the artistic impact of the showcase code was, and the answer seems to be largely that there isn’t one. I doubt this is true. If the Showcase Code is truly bad for the work we’re making it must then have some negative impact on that work. I understand that we probably don’t want to say Yes, my work is not as good as it could be because of our business model or whatever, but I don’t think we can have it both ways. Either it affects our work or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t affect the artistic quality of the work we produce, then I think that saps the argument for reform of some of its strength because….

This strikes me as strange. What does “impact” mean? If you define “impact” by the fact of work getting done at all — before we even arrive at the quality question — the Code has clearly had one for more than 40 years; the entire history of Off-Off-Broadway has been predicated on it. And the kind of work that virtually everyone in the theatrosphere says they want more of would, in large part, not exist without it.

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Second, both union and nonunion Off-Off-Broadway work has succeeded and failed, historically, for reasons that include the Code, but not solely because of the Code or in spite of the Code. The purpose of the Code — and what I think is both the philosophical and the practical purpose of Off-Off-Broadway — is to be the laboratory for the theatre, the underground, the proving ground, the training ground. Does anyone quesiton that without a place to fail, one cannot succeed? Is that not one of many definitons of “impact.” To me, it’s not a matter of “either it affects our work or it doesn’t” because the question is not “either/or” so much as “and.”

2) Ultimately, I question who showcase code reform is going to benefit. And in order for Equity to be interested in it, it has to benefit actors.

Here’s why I question it. Let’s take the 16 performance limit for a second. A lot of people would like to see that changed. I get that to some extent. But who (in general, I’m leaving out box office split venues here and I know that) can afford to extend their shows for extra weeks in the current market with overinflated theater rentals being the norm?

Let’s then take the budgetary cap for productions. Who can afford a show with a $25K budget? A $30K budget?

Of course Showcase Code reform is going to benefit actors. But this also leads into a completely different aspects of the discussion that no one ever addresses in a meaningful way: Why is the Dramatist Guild completely unrepresented, like a neglectful, absentee parent, on the subject of playwrights working in the OOB arena? Certainly the Dramatists Guild derives as much financial benefit (that is to say none) from this work as Equity does. And why, while we’re at it, is the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers (SSDC) completely unrepresented, like a neglected, absentee parent, from this discussion too?

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I have never understood why this whole debate is forever predicated on what Equity says and thinks and does (or doesn’t do). Why, indeed, is it the Equity code? Why is it all right with playwrights, directors, or any other theatre practitioner for the actors’ union to serve as the powerbroker, the gatekeeper? True, actors are the ones who are going to force their union to make changes, but why are playwrights and directors contented or thrilled with the fact that the organization that should be their natural representative in this discussion utterly uninterested in them? And they are — I mean, for god’s sake, everyone knows that as a result of Joe Mantello’s lawsuit a few years ago, the DG and the SSDC regard each other as natural enemies, not allies.

The greater point here is Showcase Code reform will, should, and must benefit everyone. And we’ve got to make sure that non-actor practitioners understand what their stake in this is as well, instead of worrying about the actors. The actors can deal with the fact that their union couldn’t give a flying fuck about them. What about all the other practitioners’ representatives not giving a flying fuck about them?

Isaac’s point about budgetary caps is also very well taken, but frankly I think it’s really sort of secondary. Many young but so-called institutional nonprofit OOB companies — companies that produce whole seasons year after year — operate under the Code (usually ignoring the caps, as everyone knows) and learn how to find the money because they’re constantly fundraising and constantly producing. It’s murderously hard, but it’s that much harder if you’re only doing one show a year or whatnot.

Now there are all sorts of other things in the showcase code that I would love change (limits on rehearsal hours/weeks, the no-remounting-within-a-year policy etc.) but I think making those changes in a way that wouldn’t lead to a lot of extra exploitation and abuse is tricky.

Actually, I don’t. I think the model already exists for all this, and that’s the 99-seat contract that some of the people writing comments on Isaac’s blog have referred to. And the 18 or so of us that are sitting on the steering committee of the League of Independent Theater have been getting up to speed on the provisions of this agreement and why it really is probably the best alternative to the Code. It isn’t reinventing the wheel. What everyone must demand — and making the case for the actors to demand — that New York City be treated like anywhere else in the nation.

NOTE: Here’s something from the nytheatre i on the same subject. I say, email Martin and get involved!