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Why Canadian Actors’ Equity Association is important and why it has to change


by Michael Wheeler

In many of the circles I run in “Equity” is a dirty word. It is often uttered derisively, and under one’s breath. Something to be avoided at all costs, and dealt with only when absolutely necessary. For Canadian theatre artists trying to create their own work – dealing with this hostile force is one of, if not the biggest, obstacles to pursuing their craft. It is frequently uttered in conjunction with other dirty words.

I think this is a darn shame.

As an artist who unabashedly wears his progressive convictions on his sleeve, I really WANT to like the professional association that represents and fights for the workers in our industry. I think in many ways theatre artists are the canaries in the coal mine in terms of the 21st Century economy: Increasingly our labour is becoming casualized – purchased by employers who offer no benefits or job security on a contract-by-contact basis.

Although there are exceptions, like the year-round acting company started by Peter Hinton at the NAC, in general the North American trend has been to move away from providing steady work and opportunities to local artists. South of the border, Mike Daisey has articulated in great detail the huge amount of money pouring into buildings and institutions as “arts funding”, while the conditions for theatre artists rapidly deteriorates. We are experiencing many of the same conditions and we need a strong professional association to advocate on our behalf.

This is why CAEA is important to all of us. We are caught in a grander paradigm of precarious workers with no security or opportunity to create savings. CAEA has a crucial role to play in advocating and organizing against this disturbing trend in support for artists. In particular, by ensuring the best rate of pay and working conditions in successful profitable productions.

Unfortunately, like some sort of auto immune disease, the vim and vigour with which the association should be protecting artists with the major producers and funders in the country has been turned loose on its own membership. Where the energy of the organization should be going into finding new opportunities to expand and enhance our industry, significant resources are going into shutting down and intimidating member-initiated projects.

The consequences of this misguided strategy have been immense and devastating for independent theatre creators. Unlike artists in competing markets like Boston, Chicago, NYC and LA, Canadian artists have no way to get new work off the ground under a specific company name. There is the option to produce under the Co-Op agreement, but this requires every production member to be part of Equity and does not allow shows to happen under the name of a theatre company. Unable to brand themselves (a key element of building an audience), use the artists they want to work with, and raise tens of thousands of dollars to put on their first play – a huge number of indie theatre productions fail, or simply do not happen at all. It has not been an awesome era to be an emerging theatre artist in Canada.

Those productions that DO happen succeed only after long, stressful, unreasonable, and often hostile negotiations with CAEA. The cumulative effect of this extremely dysfunctional relationship is that those companies that have survived are bitter and lacking in any sort of trust in CAEA to look out for their interests. It was this situation that led to the formation of The Indie Caucus, to provide a unified voice to these concerns. This led directly to a 96–1 vote demanding a response to indie needs at the CAEA 2008 AGM in Toronto. Incredibly, this vote was ignored, until a 42 -4 vote at the 2009 AGM in Montreal to move on this issue post-haste.

All of this has led to the incredibly important, i-won’t-talk-to-you-if-you-don’t-go Regional AGM to address indie issues @ 7pm at Theatre Passe Muraille this Monday May 17th. Just as important is the recent announcement that CAEA will be establishing the Independent Theatre Review Committee to gather feedback from across Canada on this issue. If you would like to join this committee you have until just May 20th to put yourself forward. They will likely be taking nine new members. Seeing as the committee started with three Ontarians (well 2 from Ontario and one from the “dance region”) – if you are not from Ontario and you have an Equity card, your odds of making the committee are VERY GOOD. There is only one actor from Toronto so far, so there is some room there too.

Fundamentally what is missing from existing CAEA agreements is any cognizance of five dramatic shifts going on in Canadian theatre:

There are very few artists under 35 who categorize themselves solely as “actors”. We all have multiple identities now. Someone is a playwright-dancer-director, another artist is an actor-choreographer-writer, and I even know a stage manager-lighting designer-poet. These are the people creating art now. Most importantly, we are all producers. If you try to explain this to anyone at CAEA they look at you like you’re speaking gibberish. It’s like there are no check boxes to accommodate this reality so we’re just going to pretend it isn’t the case.

Where are the young people? Have you been to the theatre recently? As a thirty-three-year-old I often find myself THE YOUNGEST PERSON IN THE AUDIENCE! This is a major crisis. Who is going to come to the theatre in twenty years? We need to take drastic and immediate action to make theatre accessible to a younger generation of theatre-goers. This is going to require engaging and supporting younger and emerging theatre artists instead of persecuting them. It’s time for a Youthquake – and unlike in Slings and Arrows it is going to take more than a slick marketing campaign.

We are at a major competitive disadvantage – when other major American theatre centres have access to agreements with American Equity that allow projects to get off the ground when they are at an early stage, when no one is going to make any money off of them anyway – it makes Canadian theatre much less likely to be daring or new. Are we artists who create daring and innovative work or are we just a place for productions from other places to tour to?

Canadian theatre has really sub-par engagement with diverse communities. Both in terms of audience and practitioner our industry is overwhelmingly white. This despite Canada being home to several of the most multicultural cities in the world. How can we do our job to reflect life back to our citizenry if we only reach and look like some of the citizens? This is a crisis of relevance. CAEA has to look at this situation, take a deep breath, and decide that a quota for the percentage of Equity members in indie productions is destructive and frankly, discriminatory. The door will continue to be closed to these communities unless their participation as both audience and artists in is encouraged.

We need to start working together. How much energy has gone into this multi-year internal battle to have CAEA stop treating its younger and self-producing membership like they are commiting a crime for trying to create new work subsidized by their sweat and hard work? We have much in common and lots to work on to create art and an industry for a new generation of theatregoers. It’s time to bury the hatchet and getting on with the making of this new era in contemporary Canadian theatre. There is no desire to diminish the hard work and many gains CAEA has made for Canadian theatre artists in the past, but it is time to move on and make some gains for the future.

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  1. Thank you for articulating what has been so frustrating to me over the past 10 years in Toronto. More to the point, thank you for lighting the fire under all of our butts, and giving us a solution towards taking a step in the right direction!

  2. Alison Darcy- Scapegoat Carnivale Theatre says:

    well said! Encapsulates everything I have been dealing with over here in Montreal as well. Thank you!

  3. Philip Akin says:


    I think that you are advocating for a galley in the time of the clipper. Equity /PACT in this day and age, under their current mandates, are evolutionary dead ends. The more we try to put more stickum on the machinery to make it work the longer the inefficient keeps running. Neither organization has a clue how to deal with many of the issues that are happening right now. From diversity to new media to accounting practices to best practices, none of it.
    Really what needs to happen is to do the Stop the Insanity Dance and to start over again.

  4. Dan B. says:

    Thank you for this thoughtful commentary and very insightful suggestions for improving this situation. Though it’s a very different beast, ACTRA could benefit from heeding the same advice you’re offering CAEA. In particular, the call for liberty to self-produce and participate in nascent creative works with other artists.

    Efforts to attain standards, rights and fair terms have been beneficial to actors, even those with multiple abilities. These organizations have evolved over time into bureaucracies that don’t value emerging talent or the messy, unpredictable and frequently unsuccessful collaboration of these artists on the fringe of their industries.

    However well-intentioned, these unions are inward gazing. Many artists who belong to them are uninformed about these limits on experimentation and independent work when they join. The only way to open these bureaucracies up to the reality they are failing to appreciate is to demand it as members.

    The community as a whole needs to speak up for changes in the way local projects and nascent collaborations are treated. It’s not only emerging artists who will benefit from more lenient terms and conditions on small self-produced projects. Actors and their unions and other artists and guilds and financiers will all benefit from encouraging local talent to practice their crafts in a professional way. Everyone stands to gain.

    It’s up to actors themselves to demand these changes and others that will help shape CAEA and other organizations to reflect the reality around them. Until then, CAEA and ACTRA will remain the embodiment of the past and out of step with their members’ creative needs and interests.

  5. Michael Wheeler says:

    Thanks to everyone for their comments. I think frustration has building within the community over this issue for a long time. Hopefully the meeting on Monday and the Independent Theatre Review Committee will lead to real and positive change. My big worry is that small cosmetic changes will be made so they can say “there we did something” while leaving essentially the same set of given circumstances for artists in place.

    Philip: Look, I know where you’re coming from. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve had the “if we just ignore them, they don’t exist” conversation, because you know, an association is a way different thing than a union form a legal perspective. The thing is, we are slowly on a path to reform right now: 96 – 1. I just want to write that again: 96 – 1. The mandate from the membership to staff and council on this is very, very clear: Fix this problem now. We are at a tipping point. Although there has been absolutely no positive change thus far, I think there is tremendous opportunity for reform currently.

    Dan: I agree there are many similarities. I think one thing everyone can agree on is that we would like to see more movies and plays going on in Canada. We want this so we can have an indigenous industry that we can all make a decent living out of. The argument I think you and I are making is that there have to be contracts that encourage the creation of grassroots local projects between like-minded artists, regardless of what associations they are affiliated with. This is necessary to pollenate the ecosystem and to give all of us a chance to control our careers. Without this you have no opportunity to harness your imagination for your own uses, it can only be hired out to other producers for their own uses.

  6. lesleigh Turner says:

    The young people are at the indie shows and at the high school productions. I went to see a high school show last night at Saunders High School in London, Ontario and the theatre was packed full of people of all ages including a majority of young people. They are going to theatre, they are interested in theatre but we need to get them involved. The excitement was palpable. Everyone going into the theatre was filled with energy and anticipation. It was a wonderful experience.

  7. Michael Wheeler, you are brilliant. I will try to be there tomorrow.


  8. Colleen Winton says:

    Thank you for your articulating what many are feeling. I am a proud member of Equity and recognize the many gains that actors have had under the association, and that change always comes from the members. I have already indicated my interest in serving on the Indepedent Theatre Committee.

    In B.C. we are not only dealing with draconian cuts to arts funding but with frustrations with a Western Office that effectively doesn’t exist from day to day and a National Office that cannot be creatively responsive to needs.

    There are many situations that fall outside the norms. I recently directed and tried to “remount” a highly successful production in which all the performers were interested in giving the show continued life. We were told that we could not do it for 2 years except under the auspices of the original producing company, even though that company was a non-member company that had issued Guest Artist contracts and had since ceased to exist. We were also told that we could not do it as a Co-op because 2 of the actors were non-Equity. We were hooped.

    Even in this difficult climate, there are many who are continuing to try to self-produce but it is becoming increasingly challenging. Many young entrepenuers are not even considering moving towards Equity status and and cast all their shows with very talented “amateurs” who see that they can have more work if they do not become Equity members. Gone is the aspiration to become an Equity member.

    At B.C. theatre schools they are now teaching how to “put on a show” recognizing that the first gig an actor will probably have will be of their own making. Perhaps, Equity just needs to go back to school for a refresher.

  9. MarkB says:

    Re: Philip’s comment that Equity/PACT being evolutionary dead ends.

    And yet Obsidian is still a member of PACT, isn’t it? 🙂 Hope to see you at the meeting!

  10. Jason Rothery says:

    I’m a playwright working with a professional theatre company in Toronto, but before moving here I spent several years at the helm of a small, professional theatre company in Calgary, Alberta. I wanted to thank you for your thoughtful and provocative analysis of the issues, and add another perspective from the vantage point of a producer.

    Firstly, I couldn’t agree more with your opening statement. Regardless of the scale or complexity of a potential production, we would rest assured that dealing with the CAEA was bound to be a major headache.

    My grievances for any given project are legion, but the most egregious experience occurred when we mounted a one-month tour to England. Equity demanded per diems of $120/day per member (they based this on Treasury Board of Canada per diem rates; actors in West End productions receive just over half this), would not allow us to book the ensemble into Bed and Breakfasts (argued with me about the type of breakfasts there, despite the fact that I had just returned from staying at some), the group had to take a mandatory one-hour break for every three hours of driving, and so on and so forth. The budget ballooned by 50%, and despite generous guarantees, and several large grants, the company lost money. The end result was that I vowed never to attempt to mount such a tour again. I often wonder how many such tours (six weeks of work, one month in England, flight and accommodation paid for by the company) never take place because the burdens placed on companies by the CAEA are simply too onerous, and their willingness to negotiate too slim.

    I have no doubt that there is LESS WORK because the hassle and demands placed on independent companies and producers by the CAEA is simply too much for many of us to manage.

    I would add, at this stage, that any individual person I dealt with at Equity (primarily through the Western Office, before their disintegration) was personable, polite, and often attempted to be helpful. Also, I recognize that the bulk of these regulations were put in place to correct real, past transgressions. I do believe that, at the core of the organization, is a desire to protect members from abuse, and establish a framework for adequate compensation.

    But I also know – because I’ve been privy to several conversations among colleagues – that actors often consider Equity their only bulwark against abuse that would otherwise take place. One of my peers told me that if not for Equity, producers would cancel breaks, reduce wages, and generally take advantage of their employees. Undoubtedly some producers would, but for those who would not – who (as artists ourselves) strive to provide amenable working conditions and a living wage – it is disheartening to be characterized as a potential charlatan. The general thrust of my life at that time was endless hours writing grants and raising money to ensure that my company could assure those conditions and pay those wages (even if my breaks were nonexistent, and my wages were less than those I paid). To some degree, Equity contributes to fostering an environment of entitlement which casts producers as a devious opponent, and the actor as an otherwise helpless pawn in an underhanded chess match.

    I fear we quickly exhaust the zeal and ambition of successive generations of passionate young artists by allowing an organization established to ensure some measure of protections at work to prevent that work from happening in the first place.

  11. Philip Akin says:

    Hey Mark,

    Yep Obsidian is a member of PACT and I am still an Equity member. In fact I don’t think that you can ever become a non-member of Equity. Obsidian is also a member of the Ad Hoc Assembly that is a group of culturally diverse companies from across Canada that is working on our own version of a working agreement. I have long advocated that diverse artists should leave Equity and diverse companies should leave PACT and that the funding from the councils be segregated. None of these ideas get much traction as you well know and so while we slowly lurch towards a kind of continuing slow motion meltdown it is in the best interests of the theatre company to utilize whatever things we can within the CAEA/PACT so that we can continue to produce black theatre. Cause there ain’t that much of it around.

  12. Michael Wheeler says:

    Huh. I think it’s worth noting in these responses that they come from across the country and that no one is writing anonymously. This is encouraging.

    Philip: If you haven’t noticed I’m avoiding the separate, but equally important problems occurring between PACT and Equity in this piece and thread. Your idea surrounding segregating arts funding are provocative. I’m pretty sure I don’t agree with you, but I’d be happy to publish an article in this space on the topic if someone qualified were to write such an article…

  13. tarab says:

    anyone with a good reason why a non-member’s attendance would be useful? any non-members attending who can comment?

  14. Well said Micheal. It’s so nice to hear the frustration we all feel being said without the usual dirty words and whining! I am a non-member and would definitely be attending if I wasn’t booked tonight. TARAB: My reason for wanting to attend as a non-member is that I also have a small production company and always struggle to find ways to hire the combination of actors that I want to work with…regardless of what percentage are union members! It is also an easy way for non-members to educate themselves in where they stand when they submit themselves to Equity productions and get a better understanding of when and how to make the step into joining the union themselves.

  15. tarab says:

    i hear that, freya.
    here’s what i just found on the caea site, regarding details of the meeting:
    “All Equity members in good standing are encouraged to attend.
    Apprentice, provisional and probationary members are also welcome. Please bring your membership card to show at the door.”
    if i had been more organized and sussed this out sooner, i might have organized some manner of “sit-out”. hm.

  16. Kerry Ann Doherty says:

    Just want to point out that tonight’s meeting is Ontario’s Annual General Meeting. CAEA’s bylaws state that “Each Region shall hold a Regional Annual General Meeting annually”. So that is why it is a members only meeting. There will be information provided about a wide range of Equity issues. And tonight’s discussion will be an on going discussion over the next year.

    Kerry Ann Doherty
    2nd Vice President

  17. […] Wheeler has a great article on the Praxis Theatre blog titled “Why Canadian Actors’ Equity Association is important and why it has to change” about the conflict with the Canadian Actor’s Equity Association for artists who create […]

  18. Michael Wheeler says:

    This is interesting. I think this part of the conversation illustrates that a huge number of emerging artists are not yet Equity members (for a variety of reasons), but they will be heavily impacted by the conversation that goes on inside the walls of Passe Muraille tonight and over the course of the year. I believe in Quebec the CPAG there has included non-equity members on their consultations. (Correct me if I’m wrong.)

    Whether or not these key members of the ecosystem are included in discussions in Ontario obviously hasn’t been determined. Doing this wouldn’t necessarily be contradictory to CAEA’s interests: There are a lot of potential new members out there that might be more likely to join the association if they weren’t being alternately attacked/ignored.

  19. andy says:

    It makes me very proud to see that we have such exciting and brilliant people working for all of us. Thanks Michael and everyone who participates in the discussion…please keep it going and keep us updated for those of us who have to miss tonight, but will be there in spirit!!

  20. ben says:

    A great article (old fashioned term). I’ll throw out two pieces of random wisdom. 1) laws and rules were made for the people who didn’t follow them, leaving the rest with more rules and laws to follow, but by nature the people the laws and rules were meant for didn’t listen to them in the first place, so any clarification or simplification of such laws and rules helps those who follow actually follow them. 2) When you want to get someone with authority to do something don’t present a problem, present two options and get them to choose. Governments and governing bodies like to stall and research the possibility of considering something in the future for years. Present it as two options and get them to sign off on one and you can fix things.

  21. DAVID STEIN says:

    Wow! Thank you for that, Michael.

    I actually resigned from CAEA in frustration, years ago (but retain membership in Equity U.K.), for the very complaints you enumerate.

    I see Equity as a closed shop, still bulging at the seams with self-protecting, late-middle-aged boomers like me, who got a lot of work in the early 70’s via Pierre True-Dough’s untold largesse. With that membership, how can one expect the “union” to be cutting-edge?

    I am grateful, however, to P.E.T., for all the experience.

  22. […] for independent artists since we wrote our last post on the issue (or since we published “Why Canadian Actors’ Equity Association is important and why it has to change” in May of 2010), it is essential for artists who are members in good standing to attend this […]

  23. […] have been at odds when it came to how independent theatre ought to be made in this country. These two articles offer quite a bit of history on this issue, including the votes by members to demand a new […]

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