What I think about the workshop and “lab” debate.
There’s been a brouhaha brewing on Broadway lately over the decrease in the use of the Actors’ Equity “workshop” contract, and the increase in use of the newbie “lab” contract for the development of new musicals.
The high-profile case that has thrust this topic into the spotlight is none other than Hamilton whose actors are asking for a piece of the profits since many have been around the show since the beginning of its blessed life.
Add to that this David Mamet-like scene as written by AnnoyingActorFriend, which expresses in story form the frustration of the modern Broadway actor working on developmental contracts.
Before I get into MHO, let me give you a abridged history lesson.
- After the success of the Michael Bennett sessions that became A Chorus Line, Actors’ Equity and the Producers hammer out the first workshop contract, which gives actors a small weekly salary and a share of 1% of profits of future productions (for a more detailed history on this negotiation, listen to this podcast with John Breglio who was literally “in the room where it happened” and helped craft this deal).
- Decades later, a new contract is developed (the aforementioned “lab”) as a result of the changing climate of developing new musicals. It doesn’t have the 1%, but has a much higher weekly salary (currently $1k/week).
Reading just that history, you can understand why actors would be frustrated to be put on a lab contract, and then have the show explode, and not share in the upside since they, without a doubt, helped shape the show at the beginning.
But honestly? I think the focus of this argument (and of AnnoyingActorFriend’s will written and well intended post) is in the wrong place. It’s easy to point to the 1% as the reason why Producers wouldn’t want to use the workshop contract. But I actually don’t think that’s the problem. It’s certainly not for me.
One of the greatest joys for me is to write checks to people when my shows are making money . . . especially when those people helped give birth to the show (and worked for little or nothing at the beginning). It’s why I gave 1% to my actors on Prom, the upcoming Gettin’ The Band Back Together, even when I didn’t have to.
When the money is pouring in, I’m a big believer in spreading it around.
So if it’s not the 1%, what is the concern for Producers and the Workshop budget?
Well, what I didn’t specify above is that in addition to the 1%, actors in a workshop are given a first right of refusal to continue on with the project. For the lab, that first right doesn’t exist (it was given up in exchange for a higher weekly salary).
At first glance, it makes total sense that an actor should be given a first right of refusal to continue on. That’s what they all want, right? And that’s what Producers and Directors and Writers want too. It saves time and money on casting, etc.
Unfortunately, for workshops and other early stage development, “first rights” aren’t practical. A workshop is a chance to experiment with material. I’ve done early development and had entire characters CUT from a show, or made younger or even one time, changed race. In other cases, a writer was replaced, a director fired, etc. When such drastic changes occur as a result of a workshop, Producers are forced to buy out the workshop actors at four weeks salary (lets round that off to about $10k per actor inclusive of benefits and taxes). That could easily be a total of $100k or more.
That’s what scares Producers . . . staring at $100k of buyouts on your production budget before profits are rolling in. And certainly you don’t want a Producer saying to a Director, “I know that actor isn’t perfect for this role anymore because her song has been rewritten, but it’ll cost me $10k to replace her.” That’s just gross. The art has to win in early development.
So, when Producers have a choice, they would rather spend a little more upfront (the lab contract’s $1k/week) and not have the obligations going forward. Development needs to be flexible. And the workshop contract isn’t flexible enough for the stage of development shows are in when they would normally use it.
The 1% isn’t the issue. Giving the art a chance to breathe without weighing down the show’s development expenses is. (And is important to remember that some actors might want the $1k a week compared to the few hundred of a workshop and the promise of the 1%. It’s easy to want the 1% after the profits roll in . . . but Book of Mormon and Hamilton profits are super rare. Hindsight is 20/20 . . . Did I tell you about the chance I had to be a Producer on Once?)
Maybe a solution to this dilemma would be to offer actors a choice? “You can participate in this workshop and take X% of Profit and a low salary or no profit and a high salary.” I love giving employees a choice, because the decision is theirs, so there can be no bad feelings no matter which way it ends up.
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Ken created one of the first Broadway podcasts, recording over 250 episodes over 7 years. It features interviews with A-listers in the theater about how they “made it”, including 2 Pulitzer Prize Winners, 7 Academy Award Winners and 76 Tony Award winners. Notable guests include Pasek & Paul, Kenny Leon, Lynn Ahrens and more.