The Eisenberg Factor: As Actors' Equity Approaches the 100-Year Mark, Its Longtime Executive Director Assesses the Union's Effectiveness, Then and Now

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On June 27, a little more than 20 days after the Tony Awards ceremony marks the official close of the 2003-04 Broadway season, Alan Eisenberg will be laying out several thick-point pens, writing notes on sheaves of legal-pad paper and convening with various colleagues and advisers at the Actors' Equity Association offices on West 46th Street in New York City. As the association's chief negotiator, the always-feisty, no-nonsense labor lawyer will be gearing up for a fight--"a seminal negotiation," he calls it--over the production contract with the League of American Theatres and Producers, which expires near the end of June. "I cut down on carbohydrates when I'm under the gun," Eisenberg notes. "I don't walk under ladders, and I tend to drink lots of coffee. If I model myself after anybody, I guess it would be Justice Learned Hand."

Already, Actors' Equity has sent out a general call for help and suggestions, specifically from those members who were involved in hammering out the agreement with the League that was approved in 2000. And already, Actors' Equity has sketched out--in one of those "immediate releases" that sends pulses racing up and down Broadway--some specific lines of attack: "achieving an acceptable increase in health-care contributions" and the proliferation of nonunion touring plays or musicals--or, as Eisenberg puts it, using the typical circumlocutions of lawyer-ese and institution-speak, "the licensing by Equity producers to nonunion producers, often through Equity producers creating/backing a nonunion company."

The first concern, health care, is easy enough to understand. But the latter issue, a veritable battleground, may require the sort of analytic breakdown (or a sentence diagram?) that could send even the most right-brained of our intrepid artistes screaming for a dose of Advil. Nationally, the actors' union has called the growth of non-Equity touring shows a crisis for their organization. Eisenberg figures that 40 percent of all theatrical tours hit the road without unionized actors. Equity performers are working half the number of weeks on the road that they did six years ago, an important statistic because actors must work a certain number of weeks per year to qualify for union pension and health benefits. According to Equity president Patrick Quinn, recent nonunion tours of The Sound of Music, Miss Saigon and Oliver! have contributed to a major drop over the last few years in tour jobs for Equity actors that is "totally unacceptable."

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Part of the $1.6-million campaign, as a result, has been earmarked to wage a labor fight against producers of nonunion road shows, some of which play in first-run venues that typically house Equity productions, with many advertised as part of a "Broadway series," charging top ticket prices similar to those of Equity-approved shows. The union argues that these nonunion tours underpay actors and stage managers, who earn about one-third of their Equity counterparts. And some of them are actually backed or licensed by producing organizations that otherwise have Equity support in their Broadway endeavors.

"Actors are pissed," Eisenberg says, during a wide-ranging conversation in his office. "Nonunion shows have always been around, like when you are doing three stops in the Panhandle in a week [also known as "bus-and-truck companies"]. But this problem has exploded exponentially in the last five years. Some producers have realized that they can really make a lot of money if they push this business model, which like so many other American business ventures is interested only in the short run. If I can wax naive for a moment, this kind of initiative turns its back on all professional actors who are entitled or should be able to enjoy a middle-class living. I say 'I wax naive,' because the people doing this couldn't give a whit."

With producers using lower-priced talent in their nonunion road shows, even in the largest markets, one of the correlative issues that Actors' Equity has been examining is one of perception: Does a union cast guarantee a superior evening at the theatre? …