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In Philly theater, union contracts and digital content are feeling out a way to coexist

Productions at Wilma Theater, PlayPenn, and People's Light have negotiated their way into your living room. But tricky questions remain about the future of theatrical productions distributed digitally.

The Wilma Theater in April after the pandemic forced theaters to close. Special union negotiations have allowed the theater to proceed with a streamed production in the new, COVID-19 scheme of things.
The Wilma Theater in April after the pandemic forced theaters to close. Special union negotiations have allowed the theater to proceed with a streamed production in the new, COVID-19 scheme of things.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

All this week, continuing through Sunday, Philadelphia’s Wilma Theater is streaming a video recording of Kill Move Paradise, a play presented in its 2018-2019 season that focuses on the afterlife of black men killed by police. “Even though it was produced in 2018, this play has a heightened relevance,” said Leigh Goldenberg, managing director of the Wilma. “It’s another voice in the anti-racist movement.”

But streaming the archived video of playwright James Ijames’ drama wasn’t a simple matter of digging it out and uploading it to the web. The backstage drama involved union negotiations and federal COVID-19 payroll protection dollars, all set against a backdrop of theaters trying survive in the transition to an unpredictable new normal.

PlayPenn, the annual summer workshop where rising-star playwrights fine-tune their work, is also moving online as the pandemic runs its course — again involving changes in union contracts between PlayPenn and Actors’ Equity Association.

“When all this came down, we didn’t know what we were going to do,” said Paul Meshejian, PlayPenn’s artistic director. “We were struggling whether we should do anything virtually. For me, the theater is people in a room with actors.

“When we talked to the union at first, it took weeks and weeks of them saying there’s nothing we can do,” Meshejian said, explaining that Actors’ Equity essentially told PlayPenn and theaters around the nation, “we’re not sanctioning live performances and we’re not allowing streaming.”

Since the start of the pandemic, the union has been adamant that actors must be able to work safely — meaning, at the moment, no live performances. Actors’ Equity has hired epidemiologist David Michaels, who headed the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) during the Obama administration, as a safety consultant.

At the same time, it was adamant that actors be paid for their performances, including those seen online, which meant scrambling for ways to control unpaid access.

It was an almost impossible situation — no live theater and limited live streaming. But, then something shifted.

PlayPenn got the OK from Actors’ Equity to present one limited online performance of each of its resident playwrights’ works in July — the result of labor negotiations with a twist in the time of a COVID-19. The union permits the occasional use of video if it’s a fundraiser. PlayPenn’s video productions will raise money for Theatre Philadelphia’s Emergency Relief Fund, which pays micro grants of $300 to working theater professionals. Actors in the online workshop performances will receive honoraria funded by foundations.

The re-stream of Kill Move Paradise was the result of a different accommodation. Weeks before the demonstrations following George Floyd’s death at the hands of police, Wilma had been negotiating with Actors’ Equity for approval to stream some archival videos of past performances, including Kill Move Paradise, so it could pay actors with a federal stimulus grant it had received. Then, as events unfolded, the negotiations took on new urgency.

New allowances for unprecedented times

Immediately after theaters shuttered in mid-March, Actors’ Equity negotiated a number of agreements with theaters to livestream productions that were on stage or about to open —always with the proviso that access be limited so actors wouldn’t find themselves in the situation of their work living online without them being compensated.

“These new remote work agreements help protect the economic security of Equity members with additional weekly salaries and health-care contributions,” executive director Mary McColl said in a statement. “When theaters go dark, actors and stage managers face tremendous economic uncertainty. A remote work agreement can be a win for everyone, from the audience to the actors and stage managers.”

The agreements typically applied to shows stopped by the pandemic, and theaters were only allowed to issue as many passwords as they had seats in the house over the run.

As theaters were closing, People’s Light in Malvern brought in a crew to make videos of Shakespeare in Love, which was then on stage, and Hold These Truths, which was about to open. Both were available to the audience through Equity’s remote work agreements, negotiated on the fly.

“We honored the actors’ full contracts,” said People’s Light general manager Erin Sheffield, and got permission to stream the whole production to a password-protected website for patrons who had already bought tickets. For Hold These Truths, they were approved to sell virtual tickets through a password that would expire. “We paid the actors an extra week’s work,” she said, “so we were paying into their pension and part of their health insurance.”

A long-due reckoning

From Jason Lindner’s point of view as the board president of Theatre Philadelphia, an umbrella marketing group for the city’s large and small theaters, a discussion on the relationship between live theater, the digital world, and the unions representing stage personnel is long overdue.

“If there’s a silver lining to this cloud, it is that it told theaters that they need to have an online presence,” Lindner said, after the theater world “basically dodged this question for 15 years.” Even as podcasts and livestreaming have become more prominent, he said, “they’ve been reluctant to figure it out. With the pandemic, now that it’s come to a head, they have to.”

“Of course, we want audiences from around the world to our enjoy our theater. We want people in Kenya to watch theater in Philadelphia, and say, ‘Isn’t that cool!’ … To me, the more we see theater the better,” he said, “but as far as not exploiting actors or designers, it’s a difficult question, and it needs to be answered.”

Lindsay Smiling, who plays Isa in Kill Move Paradise — and was to have played the lead in a Lantern Theater production of Othello that the pandemic shut down after just one preview — agrees it’s a tricky balance.

Smiling isn’t as concerned about being paid when limited video productions of his performances run online, as long as no one is profiting. However, he understands that Actors’ Equity is trying to be careful about setting a precedent. He expects some give and take on “what the rules will be” and how to regulate digital content going forward.

More important to him is how theater can move into digital spaces while still incorporating the audience in the experience. “That’s what makes theater theater,” he said. “You take that away and you have TV.”

Theatre Philadelphia’s Lindner said questions about compensation for digital distribution won’t go away after the pandemic. But just how Actors’ Equity might answer them is unknown. The national union declined to make officials available for comment beyond McColl’s statement, and the local Actors’ Equity representative, Christopher Sapienza, referred calls to headquarters.

Complicating matters is a looming jurisdictional dispute between the theater unions and SAG-AFTRA (Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists). For videos that began as staged equity productions in theaters, the Equity provisions apply, but how different is a new play filmed in an empty theater from work done in a studio for television shows or movies?

Win-win at Wilma

In Wilma’s situation, the theater had received federal stimulus payroll protection money that needed to be paid out promptly.

Ordinarily, Goldenberg explained, the theater has a 25-person payroll. But, during show times, payroll can swell to 45, with actors, crew, and box office personnel. Wilma received payroll protection dollars “based on the higher amount,” Goldenberg said, which was why the theater was able to work a deal with Actors’ Equity.

“It meant we could put people on contracts and give them their pension and health care,” she said. “We can share the art, we can support the artists, and we can make use of these funds.”

In just the first 48 hours of ticket availability for Kill Move Paradise, hundreds of people purchased access, raising $5,000 for Black Lives Matter. Meanwhile, Wilma is also paying actors to workshop — virtually — a possible digital version of Is God Is, which had been set to open in late May.