How Actors Solve Problem Producers

April 12, 2009 at 12:01 am | Posted in actors, employment, Producers | Leave a comment
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This week: Problem Producers… Accusations & Resolutions

Paul Russell

Visit Paul @ PaulRussell.net

Miller, Pritchard, Akins and Brinkley. Just some of the more infamous producer names associated with alleged, questionable practices in relation to one or more of the following; arson, fraud, embezzlement and/or provision of unsafe work place conditions. Add now to that short list of names, often whispered with contempt by actors, directors, designers, stage mangers and some civilians, two more. Troutman and Waldman. Theatrical producers in Florida who recently got more attention than desired when they abruptly canceled a production while in rehearsals and the abandoned actors were left in Fort Lauderdale with no money and means of return to New York. Solution? Actors became activists and went to the press.

Two weeks ago I received an e-mail from one of the affected actors, Heather Gault, who is also a reader of this blog and my book. Let’s begin there:

“Dear Mr. Russell,

I wanted to write and tell you about a disturbing incident that happened to me and my fellow actor co-workers last week….

Recently, I and eight other actors were flown from NYC to Fort Lauderdale to perform a production of the Cy Coleman musical ‘The Life.’ We arrived and began rehearsals as planned, and things proceeded fairly normally for two weeks. Last Tuesday, we were called from our rehearsal by the producer, Jamison Troutman, who told us to leave the theater and go home, that the show had lost funding and would be canceled and we were not going to be paid. The next day, we were informed that not only would we not be paid for the week of work we had just completed, but that the production team (Troutman and Director/Producer Gary Waldman) was unable to fly any of us home–an obligation they had to us explicitly stated in our contracts, no matter what. There were six of us living in a cast house with no car, no paycheck, and no means home.

Then, Waldman and Jamison did the unthinkable (as if it got worse!). They told us it was our fault that the ‘money’ had fallen through, and that the only way we could redeem ourselves and the show would be to work for free on good faith that they would pay us . . . sometime. Naturally, we said no way. And so they pretty much left us to rot in our little house, and told us to leave via our own means…”

Gault went on to detail that local press both print and televised began to cover the story once she and her fellow actors went proactive to the media.  The accounts in the Miami Herald match the claims that the show was canceled and return transportation for the stranded actors was not provided. Eventually a local Good Samaritan helped pay for the actors to return to New York.

Unfortunately this kind of alleged producer behavior is not new nor is it rare. Particularly in the non-union world of the arts. Most producers are well-meaning, reputable, and often charitable to both the community they reside in and to their employees. Such as Richard Rose, the producing artistic director for the Barter Theatre, Charles Abbott of Maine State Music Theater and the Prather family. Unlike Rose, Abbott and the Prathers, it’s the few problem producers that go rogue on morals which cause actors, directors and designers to be wary of most if not all producers no matter how honorable. That’s unfortunate.

I worked for several producers who were less than Dickensian. One of them having been sued by Actors’ Equity after AEA withdrew its members from the producer’s productions upon complaints from the actors of unsafe working conditions; 2 AM rehearsals held in parking lots  and company members forced to sleep in the aisles of one of the theaters. That was over twenty years ago. That same producer remains in business with two, Keystone state, properties. (Arson Update: https://answersforactors.wordpress.com/2009/11/29/an-angry-call-to-alarm/)

Most producer abuses occur in the non-union circuit (both stage and screen). Several reasons for this I believe. First and foremost there’s no union jurisdiction. Secondly most of the talent on and off non-union stage and screen is younger, with higher expectations which often can not always be provided by a non-union budget. And so after years of less-than-happy employees the non-union producer becomes less than happy themselves. But high expectations is not always the cause for a producer, union-regulated or not, for behaving poorly. There are people out there who for lack of a better phrase but accurate; just plain suck.

So what can an employee of a rogue producer do? If you’re union, you have that organization to back you up. If you have representation, your agent or manager can try to negotiate a solution… if the producer is willing. If you’re non-union, there’s not much you can do. But, there are ways to make known to others a problem producer and/or to solve a major complaint.

First; try to negotiate a solution with the producing entity via constructive and calm communication. Don’t angrily confront the producer or antagonize. Communicate first through the chain of command (if one is established). Also, whomever you speak to, whether it’s a stage manager, company manager, assistant to the producer, whomever; treat the producer not as an unfair employer but as a person who may have their own challenges of which you’re not aware. I know from my own experiences with rogue producers (and there were too many) that my first suggestion seems Pollyanna. But hostility rarely wins. Also, be cautious of the manner in which you speak of your dissatisfaction to others within the company. Your dissatisfaction/complaint may not be relevant to others. Or, you may be speaking with someone who is close to the producer.

If resolution cannot be reached either through yourself, representation or your union you always have the option of leaving the situation. O.K. I hear in my head some reader screaming, “Right Paul but what about breaking the contract? I’ll be sued or get a bad reputation”. Union contracts offer an out. Non-union contracts? Well, if the producer is not obliging by the agreement put on paper between you two then the contract was broken and is null and void. Your reputation?

I recall working for a less than dishonest non-union producer who when I inquired for a change in housing that would include a working bathroom, didn’t have broken windows that allowed pigeons to enter, wasn’t cramped with eight people to the one and only room, and wasn’t above a loud nightclub he hissed in return, “You’ll never work in this town again.” And I calmly shot back. “Where, New Hope?” I remain in the business. Sadly, so does he.

The Internet has been a great tool for spreading information for both positive and negative experiences of those who work in the arts. One place online is Non-Equity Deputy found at:  http://nonequitydeputy.com/Default.aspx. Here is a grass roots web site that provides visitors to share both favorable and unfavorable tales of working the non-union circuit. One caution: Sites like this can also be abused by some disgruntled, anti-socialite users spreading uninformed gossip or malevolent postings. Verify with others within our community both positive and negative feedback on anyone (that’s what many directors, producers and casting personnel do with the gossip and work history feedback of actors).

If you encounter an experience which rivals that of Gault’s and her cast mates in Florida, go to the press. BookMoreWork_TelseyQuoteProblem producers do not like their communities to be aware of possible unfavorable behind the scenes behavior. But again, caution; the problem must be as severe as that in Florida. If you’re just unhappy about 12 hour work days, rustic housing and dressing rooms without heat; that’s typical non-union, regional theater. Get used to it.

Now, this may have seemed like producer bashing. No, it’s a heads up about those few producers with poor behavioral patterns. I have great respect for many of the men and women who, despite a declining public interest for the arts, provide employment for artists and entertainment for those seeking a diversion of creative intellect. As Sondheim wrote, “Art isn’t easy…” That applies to all involved.

My Best,

Paul
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Paul Russell’s career as a casting director, director, acting teacher and former actor has spanned nearly thirty years. He has worked on projects for major film studios, television networks, and Broadway. Paul has taught the business of acting and audition technique at NYU and has spoken at universities including Yale, Temple and the University of the Arts. He writes a column for Back Stage and is the author of ACTING: Make It Your Business – How to Avoid Mistakes and Achieve Success as a Working Actor. For more information, please visit www.PaulRussell.net.

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Paul Russell’s career as a casting director, director, acting teacher and former actor has spanned nearly thirty years. He has worked on projects for major film studios, television networks, and Broadway. Paul has taught the business of acting and audition technique at NYU and has spoken at universities including Yale, Temple and the University of the Arts. He writes a column for Back Stage and is the author of ACTING: Make It Your Business – How to Avoid Mistakes and Achieve Success as a Working Actor. For more information, please visit www.PaulRussell.net.

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