A dispute between two of the nation’s largest performing arts unions has created a stalemate over who should represent actors and stage managers for streaming theatrical productions. At the heart of the issue is whether SAG-AFTRA or Actors' Equity Association should handle live or digital shows presented on a screen created by a theatre company—and the safety and compensation standards for those involved.
With the mass theatre shutdown in March, streaming has become one of the most artistically and financially viable options for companies. Until theatres can safely open again, the medium will likely remain a dominant way to reach audiences and present work, creating pressure on both sides to come to an agreement soon.
Among the claims are Equity’s assertion that SAG-AFTRA’s governance in the live streaming theatricals arena results in lower income and health insurance coverage deficits. In addition, SAG-AFTRA does not represent stage managers, which are part of Equity for in-person productions, and has allegedly resulted in the laborers either being fired or told they can work as independent contractors.
SAG-AFTRA says because these productions are filmed and presented on screen, they fall under their union's purview. Due to the pandemic, however, the union has tried to present AEA with a draft waiver that allows Equity to handle streaming theatrical projects through mid-2021—provided that AEA acknowledges SAG-AFTRA's control in the domain of filmed media, streaming or otherwise. The waiver does have several stipulations to mimic the realities of live theatre performance, including limiting the number of viewers, filming in chronological order, and not streaming via major distributors like Netflix, Hulu, Apple TV+, and HBO Max. (Read the proposed waiver here).
Deadline reports that in the summer, Equity President Kate Shindle wrote to the leaders of SAG-AFTRA expressing concern over the perceived "weaponizing" of the grey area when it comes to remotely produced works for streaming. “At our July 8 meeting, I believe we reached an understanding that SAG-AFTRA would not stand in the way of Equity’s work—even if it included an online/remote component —for the duration of this health crisis,” she wrote. Shindle called attention to other agreements with groups like American Guild of Musical Artists as successful examples in the COVID era and added that the time for making decisions about jurisdiction should come later.
“Regrettably, AEA has not agreed to the waiver,” said SAG-AFTRA President Gabrielle Carteris and National Executive Director David White October 7. “Furthermore, our discussions with AEA’s leadership about these waivers have surfaced very real concerns on the part of their leadership over the long-term viability of the live theatre business model. In these conversations, it has become clear that, in several specific instances, AEA may have attempted to extend their presence into our jurisdiction and believes that extending into SAG-AFTRA jurisdiction may be strategically advantageous to AEA in the future.”
“A theatrical company working without an Equity stage manager and without the backing of Equity’s safety rules is inherently less safe, and this creates a more difficult environment for the entire company,” the union said in an October 8 statement. “It is unclear why SAG-AFTRA continues to sign long-time Equity employers to contracts that do not meet Equity’s safety or wage standards.”
“Our job is to ensure that workers are protected with fair pay, benefits, and a safe workplace,” added Shindle in a later statement. “This is supposed to be a matter of solidarity throughout the labor movement... It is beyond frustrating that instead, we are now having to argue over whose fence is where.”
The two unions, along with 10 others in the entertainment industry, met virtually at a summit May to ensure safety and continued employment in the COVID-era. The New York Times reports that since March, AEA and SAG-AFTRA have struck deals that Equity can cover nearly 250 shows, including works at the Guthrie in Minneapolis, Minnesota, North Coast Repertory Theater in Solana Beach, California, and TheatreWorks in Hartford, Connecticut.
In addition to statements from leaders on both sides, a group of Equity stage managers have created a petition on Change.org urging SAG-AFTRA to allow AEA to continue representing them for streaming productions.