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On Monday of this week, Red Bull Theater, the New York group that specializes in Jacobean bloodbath dramas (think Shakespeare, but gleefully less tasteful), was supposed to be online. The company had announced that they would be reconvening their company from their 2015 production of ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore to read the play — unproduced, unrehearsed, Zoom-style aesthetic — and livestream it. Their normal Monday night series, Revelation Readings, was on indefinite suspension because of the coronavirus, and this free Facebook and Vimeo teleconference event was meant to engage their audience, revive spirits, and honor John Ford’s zippy, 400-year-old incest plot. “Love me or kill me, brother!” That sort of stuff.
But last Thursday, the union Actors’ Equity emailed to tell them that they were in breach of their agreement. A business representative from AEA wrote, “I want to reach out and remind you that the Revelation Reading agreement has a prohibition on recording and this wouldn’t be allowed under the terms of that agreement.” The Red Bull folks were flummoxed: It wasn’t a recording and it wasn’t a Revelation Reading, but still Equity had the power to shut it down. Some frantic emails over the weekend and phone conversations on Monday didn’t put the situation right. They were offered terms (paying the actors’ salary and health payments) that, artistic director Jesse Berger says, “were extraordinary for a company of our size — they were prohibitive.” Red Bull rejected those terms. On Monday at 5:30 p.m., the company had to announce that the free event, scheduled for just two hours later that night, was canceled.
Both Berger and Red Bull’s managing director, Jim Bredeson, wanted to make clear in our conversation that they have the utmost respect for Equity (“a valued partner”), and that on Monday the conversations were collegial, in good faith, and hopeful. But “it fell apart around 3:30 that day. At that time,” says Bredeson, “what we were told is that the executive committee of Equity had met the Thursday before and decided on some preliminary terms for streaming. I asked whether those had been bargained and if so with whom.” Bredeson compares the terms to the streaming provisions for LORT theaters, which allow venues like ACT in San Francisco to stream their production of Toni Stone for paying audiences. Despite feeling that the comparison was ticket-buying apples to livestreamed oranges, the Red Bull folks shut down their reading because they didn’t want to create conflict with Equity. “It was supposed to be about creating community,” Berger says, ruefully.
Equity’s statement on the Red Bull issue takes umbrage: “At a time when almost everyone in the arts is going without a regular paycheck and worries about their health care, it’s deeply sad to see that some employers will still ask Equity actors to work without the protections of a contract.” A source at Equity told me that any employer in a collective-bargaining agreement must check with the union any time they use members, and it doesn’t matter what form that work takes. (In a time when new forms are springing up like fungus after rain, that absolutism might prove tricky.) The source notes that 80 other theaters have agreed to the terms. But the fact that Red Bull didn’t contact the guild beforehand seems to be the most serious sticking point. Contact us first, Equity asks, so that negotiations can take place. But while charity work and fundraising by Equity members is covered under the Theatre Authority guidelines, according to the website, the application needs to be filed 30 days before the event. Thirty days ago was March 1, which was, well … another country.
According to Bredeson, “We hadn’t contacted them because we didn’t feel it was in their purview. You do have to speak with Equity when it means live performance,” Bredeson says, “but our arrangements with them are for Off Broadway theater in the Manhattan borough. Our thinking was, simply, we didn’t feel we were creating a theatrical production. We were just asking friends of the company to support the company and to have a community moment.” This is certainly a new, nebulous world. Is screen-only performance even governable by Equity? How does SAG, the Screen Actors Guild, factor in? Is cyberspace a stage? “Our position has been the same since the beginning,” says Bredeson. “It didn’t occur to us that they would have dominion over work created in the virtual space, an international marketplace.” My colleague Sarah Jones, who reports on labor issues, is a little skeptical on this point. “Work is work,” she says. “The union will naturally feel like it has jurisdiction over an event like the one Red Bull had planned.” She’s also curious about the choice not to contact Equity. “It would’ve been a fairly simple thing to do.”
The Red Bull folks had offered the participating performers an honorarium, so the actors had not seen trouble coming. Kelley Curran (set to reprise her role as the murderous Hippolita) says that “when Red Bull asked me to do it, they offered us a fee. And for the amount of time, since there was no rehearsal, it felt reasonable,” she says. “We assumed they had squared it with the union.” When Equity announced the reading couldn’t proceed, she emailed the union, expressing her disappointment. “I do think it was a genuine mistake,” she says, referring to Red Bull’s failure to contact the union, which she characterizes as a misstep. “I appreciate the union making sure its members are not exploited,” she says, “because of course we want to protect the workers. But how do we navigate these mistakes that get made? It has to be with grace and compassion.”
The Red Bull situation has sent ripples into the field, which is already turbulent. Some tiny groups, who have also been innovating with livestreamed events, are frightened that their models might also run afoul of the union. One young producer operating in the virtual space points out that “there is currently no AEA guidance regarding tele-digital, informal readings for free or for charity.” These kinds of readings barely existed before two weeks ago, and he fears that Equity is assuming jurisdiction of what is, essentially, new ground without ever writing it into their laws. Certainly Equity is fearful about setting precedents that might lead to further exploitation of actors and stage managers — but the shutting down of the entire theatrical sector is an extraordinary circumstance. Is there no way to have rules that only function during this industrywide crisis? To have waivers that expire once we’re able to gather again?
Now the question is about what comes next. Red Bull is talking to peer nonprofits about their agreements, wary of letting “practice make precedent.” Says Berger, “We’re setting rules in the Wild West in a time of crisis! We would like to proceed with online programs to serve our audience but we don’t want to set standards under duress.” What would be wonderful is a long, careful process, full of bargaining and negotiation and the calm cooperation that theater is known for. Everyone on all sides of the Red Bull situation wants the best for performers, the best for the field, and given time (and a less frightening situation), they could probably have found a way through the stung feelings and sense of broken agreement to something mutually agreeable. Each person I spoke to had the best will in the world. Now the trick is getting them to agree on what that world will look like.