GREATER WASHINGTON, D.C./BALTIMORE
Without question, Actors' Equity's Greater Washington, D.C./Baltimore Liaison Area is thriving. Not only is it one of our most heavily-populated regional markets, it boasts the highest number of workweeks per member of any Liaison Area in the country. It's not even close, really. And our most recent regional report dubbed D.C./Baltimore "America's Fastest Growing Theater City."
But even the greatest successes leave room for improvement, and D.C./Baltimore is no exception.
First of all, the 100-mile radius rules of our Liaison Areas have created for us a massive and multifaceted market. Having two major—and very distinctive—cities within a Liaison Area can be a complicated proposition, with the members and theaters in each having their own distinctive vibes. While folks from Baltimore work in D.C. and vice versa, it has to be acknowledged that there is real physical distance between the two, which can affect our ability to organize our membership effectively.
That said, D.C./Baltimore has an extraordinary leader in Roy A. Gross—its current Liaison Chair and a candidate for Eastern At-Large Councilor—whom I have always found to have his finger right on the pulse of the entire area. He's been an extraordinary advocate for his local members, and an invaluable benefit to me in my time as Eastern Regional Vice President, offering great insight into the intricacies of a market as large and broad as D.C./Baltimore, and always presenting bold and innovative ideas for how we can improve it. Roy has set an incredible standard for communication and collaboration between a Liaison Chair and elected leadership, and I'm enormously grateful to him for that.
And what I've come to understand about the D.C./Baltimore market is that it can feel very much like it's broken up into four distinctive pockets—the big theaters, the mid-size players, the tiny pre-paid houses, and a massive non-Equity scene. This is not uncommon in and of itself, but it feels like there are chasms between them, both in terms of the wages they offer and the opportunities to be had by our local members. There's work to be done here.
There are 7 members of LORT operating in the area—two in Baltimore, one in Bethesda, three in D.C. proper, and one in Northern Virginia. Along with the Kennedy Center, these are unquestionably the big kids in town. It's an extraordinary assemblage of institutions, accounting for a big chunk of those workweeks available to our members per year. But as is common in many of our regional markets, a huge chunk of the contracts at these theaters go to SMs and actors based in New York. More needs to be done to incentivize local hiring at these major theaters, especially when there is a large and vibrant local talent pool, and these are the contracts most likely to pay a real, living wage for their work. As the Chair of the Equity Principal Audition Committee, I'm committed to continuing to strengthen the access provisions in our contracts, and to cutting down on needless audition concessions granted to employers.
Then come the mid-size players—the employers using agreements like SPT and LOAs. It can often feel like there's no rhyme or reason as to why one producer uses one contract, while another uses another. And to be frank, there hasn't been much. Historically, Equity has determined which agreement an independent theater will use based on factors like the number of seats in its auditorium, the number of performances given per week, or the volume of tickets sold at the door. Unfortunately, these metrics have very little to do with a not-for-profit employer's actual ability to employ and pay our members. This is how we end up with $7 million theaters operating as SPTs, when it feels like they should have "moved up" long ago.
Thankfully, work is already underway to help mend this situation. First of all, the Council has instituted a new, broad policy called "Judge It By The Budget", which requires that when we negotiate with not-for-profit employers, we have to take their entire financial picture into account when determining their rates and their ratios. Armed with this new directive, a handful of Equity Councilors and staffers—including myself and the incomparable Erin Maureen Koster—have begun work on a better model for independent theaters. A better contractual model will not only allow us to achieve better, fairer outcomes for our members in negotiations with individual employers, it will also empower our Business Reps to negotiate specifically to the needs of local members and local theaters alike. Especially as we work together to emerge from our current crisis, a negotiating model that allows for more specifically-tailored, locally-relevant outcomes will serve to ensure that that the industry remains viable, while also ensuring that our members' needs are addressed. Most importantly, though, we will eliminate the ability for a successful and thriving employer to become "stuck" on an inflexible contract with no room for growth.
Finally, there are the tiny pre-paid contract users, and the non-Equity scene. To put it bluntly, we need to be better at organizing. Not every theater is going to be an Equity theater, but there are too many non-Eq houses that could absolutely afford to employ our members. And again, this new contractual model is going to be a major part of the solution. So often it is a perception of inflexibility in Equity's contracts—a perception that has been somewhat accurate—that scares potential employers away from partnering with us. I have great confidence that once smaller producers see our willingness to negotiate in new, flexible ways, they will recognize that entering into a full, fair Equity agreement is actually one of the best ways to ensure long-term viability, health, and growth.
These are my hopes for our members and the industry in Greater Washington, D.C./Baltimore. I look forward to continuing my work, and implementing these new ideas in my next term as your Eastern Regional Vice President.