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

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.”

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