Praxis Theatre is currently on hiatus! Please find co-founders Aislinn Rose and Michael Wheeler at The Theatre Centre and SpiderWebShow, respectively.
November 14, 2011, by

Why Sunday’s RAGM is a big moment for Canadian Theatre and why it’s got nothing to do with raising dues

by Michael Wheeler & Aislinn Rose

A-year-and-a-half ago we published “Why Actors’ Equity Association Is Important and Why it Has to Change” which at the time became one of the most read posts in the history of

The piece concludes with 5 core points about why CAEA needs to reform its policies with regard to independent theatre that still remain true, valid, and urgent to this day:

The future of the theatre in Canada lies in a new generation of hybrid producer/artists. There are very few artists under 35 who categorize themselves solely as “actors”.  We are all using the same computer software to create the script in Word, the budget in Excel and make a presentation to the board with Powerpoint. This engager/actor framing device Equity is using to talk about this is at least thirty years out of date.

The average audience for theatre in Canada is very old and this must change for us to survive and thrive. If there is going to be anyone to see the work we make in fifteen years, we are going to have to reach new and younger audiences. Unlike the fictional Youthquake of Slings and Arrows fame this is not going to be caused by a slick marketing campaign – it will be addressed when work by new, younger and more diverse artists is supported instead of punished.

We are at a competitive disadvantage with the US. Contracts like the Showcase and 99 Seat Agreement in the US make new and innovative work much easier to produce. Lots of these shows become nothing. Some become hits and tour to Canada. We are at a particular disadvantage given that our current complicated indie agreements don’t even address touring or TYA productions. Is our major contribution to world drama this decade going to be limited to exceptional remounts of Andrew Lloyd Webber?

Canadian theatre has really sub-par engagement with diverse communities. Both in terms of audience and practitioners our industry is overwhelmingly white. This despite Canada being home to several of the most multicultural cities in the world. Equity needs to wake up to the fact that when they curtail and limit indie theatre, which is far more diverse, they are actively making this problem worse.

This multi-year battle is wasting everyone’s energy and time. How much energy has gone into our multi-year internal battle to have CAEA stop treating its younger and self-producing membership like they are committing a crime for trying to create new plays subsidized by their sweat and hard work?

Yes, we’ve posted this before, but it’s still funny and, apparently, still relevant.

Our post from Spring of last year was motivated by the frustration that came from there being not one – but two consecutive votes at AGMs (One in Toronto and one in Montreal) by a combined vote of 138 – 5 to address the problems facing indie theatre.

After more than two years or stalling and delays, The Independent Theatre Review Committee was set up and commissioned a study to look into the indie issue. An executive summary of the report has recently been posted to the CAEA website, but moves to release the entire document have been met with more stall tactics.

Here are some highlights from the summary:

  • In terms of the existing small-scale agreements, satisfaction levels are highest among the Festival Policy (formerly Fringe Waiver) and the Guest Artist Policy. [It is worth noting that the Festival Policy was recently changed to closely mirror the Toronto Theatre Agreement originally proposed by The Indie Caucus and presented to CAEA Executive Director Arden Ryshpan in 2008.]
  • 45% of respondents had engaged fellow Equity members to work on a theatre project.
  • 25% admitted to having worked off-contract
  • 80% said working on small-scale projects is very important or somewhat important to their career.
  • Factors more than 50% deemed “very important” included the ability to “work in a flexible schedule that permits other work or commitments”, opportunities to “work with people they admire or respect”, and the desire to “create new/original work”.
  • More than 66% were willing to waive quotas of Equity vs. non-Equity members within a given show, as well as pay for a full work week regardless of their level of participation.

Equity members have voted overwhelmingly in favour of steps being taken to address significant dissatisfaction among members with regards to small scale and independent theatre creation at two consecutive AGMs, beginning in February 2008.

Deadlines have come and gone, and Equity seems no closer to action. It must be asked: how much more time does Equity need to implement the clearly expressed will of membership?

This question goes to the heart of the future of Canadian theatre. Will we see more theatre made for a predominantly wealthy, white, elderly audience created by major institutions, or will we see more theatre made for and by the vast, diverse and eclectic population of Canada?

Membership has already clearly stated which option they would like to pursue, the question now is whether Equity will listen and adapt or continue to ignore and deflect.

The CAEA Ontario RAGM is Sunday, November 20th at 7pm at the Wychwood Barns, located at 601 Christie Street. All members in good standing are welcome, and it’s recommended you bring your membership cards with you.

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  1. Daf says:

    The myth of the 99seat agreement being a big incubater for development in the usa must be looked at more closely. Years ago CAEA did an examination of the various American models for small theatre contracts, including the examples posted here, and found no persuasive proof that the 99seat agreement was used effectively for much more than vanity or showcase productions–particlarly in L.A where it is pervasively used for showcases for tv actors between gigs–often times aharing roles. I would love to read some case studies of any truly wide ranging use of this agreement that is developmental and evolutionary in any sunstantive way. What productions are you refering to ahows that “become big hits and tour to Canada”? I suspect that your information for this statement is from
    Anecdotal sources.

  2. Michael Wheeler says:

    David Ferry!

    I suspected this post would attract your attention. Welcome back to the blog.

    It is true that the reference to the benefits of the 99 seat agreement is anecdotal from friends. Also – it is an LA thing, not necessarily a hotbed of theatrical creation. So you’re right – lets make a better agreement than what they have down there.

    What I think is absolutely clear is the agreements that exist now in Canada, are bad, and bad for theatre, and that CAEA membership has voted overwhelmingly for a new agreement that encourages independent theatre instead of punishing it.

    Gotta run back to my Praxis rehearsals – the first ever occurring under the CTA after spending 8 years building a company under flawed contracts that almost ruined us.

  3. rebecca says:

    This Is Cancer has toured every year for the five years since it debuted at Summerworks. BlindDate is booked for a four month tour of Canada and the US and taking more bookings into next season. Both of these shows started as Indie member /creator projects.

  4. allyson says:

    thanks for taking the time to post this Praxis! i would add a couple of other bits of food for thought. there are lots of artists over 35 who do not classify themselves soley as actors. there are lots of mid-career artists working in hybrid forms, or forms where the line between theatre, dance, music, visual art, for example, is blurry. it’s important that “indie” be recognized as something that includes emerging and established artists. there are also many independent directors, producers, creators who deal with Equity, but are not necessarily members themselves. we deal with them to engage our collaborators. a lot of the indie consultation has gone on without discussion with these producers and creators. if Equity is really going to understand the diverse creation models that exist in our community, it would be lovely for the discussion to continue and be less exclusive.

  5. Daf says:


    But not usa projectS under the 99 seat agreement right?

  6. Aislinn says:

    Hi Allyson, I couldn’t agree more with regards to indie artists over 35, and I’m glad you’ve raised this point. In fact, we recently learned about the term “submerging artists”, who are dealing with the very challenges you mention. I think this is a great issue for us to address on this site, and would welcome a submission from any submerging artists who might like to tackle it. Send me an email to the contact address above on the right and we’ll go from there.

    Also, I’d like to point out that I’m one of those non-Equity Producer/Creators. I think one of the greatest challenges we face with Equity in this regard is the perception that indie artists and non-members are merely hobbyists. I’m not sure they’re interested in having us at the table. But as Mike mentioned above, I’m a hobbyist currently producing Praxis’ first production under a full CTA contract.

  7. allyson says:

    Hi Aislinn and thanks. I perhaps will try to tackle it. “submerging” is the perfect word for it and I think the challenges and issues are far and wide. I was speaking just a few weeks ago with a director who found herself calling herself a “hobbyist” years ago, simply because no one would really listen. I am not a hobbyist and I am not sure that my work will ever be produced under the CTA (I’ve been contracted for other work under the CTA). I have spent years making agreements work for us (adapting process and adjusting continually), but I am deeply fatigued at making my work “fit” and continually having to justify it (over ten years and dora award nominations later). Actors are dancing, dancers and musicians are acting, theatre and our making of it is more complex and specific than ever. Your article is timely for many reasons.

  8. […] The piece concludes with 5 core points about why CAEA needs to reform its policies with regard to independent theatre that still remain true, valid, and urgent to this day: Read more… […]

  9. Rebecca says:

    @DAvid – no, we are not touring under a 99 Seat Agreement…I shared that information about those two shows because of the way both of them GOT OFF THE GROUND in the first place – with quite a bit of flack from Equity in the initial stages (who are now very helpful that we are more “successful” and fit a model that makes more “sense” – ie already existing). This Is Cancer, and Blind Date both started under the radar. Had there been an agreement that made more sense at the time, an agreement that actually facilitated us creating our work – then we would have considered using it. It makes ZERO sense that Equity would not bend over backwards to facilitate members who are creating NEW WORK that employs fellow members. Generating your own work takes an insane amount of commitment and long term belief in your own ideas, a willingness to lay bare your own bank accounts (at least the way Bruce Horak and I work)….to run into resistance of any kind from an association that claims to want to “protect me”…and my interests, is beyond baffling. What worked 30 years ago is out dated. I would have thought that a collection of artists would be a bit more cutting edge in their thinking and problem solving.

  10. Kris Joseph says:

    I actually think the issue of dues and the issue of Indie theatre ARE connected.  Dues give the Association the money it needs to accomplish its goals, and currently the Association is stretched beyond the breaking point.

    Change — much-needed, as everyone acknowledges — requires money, time, and will.  A large amount of time has been dedicated to the indie issue, and will continue to be.  There is significant will for change on all sides, as the new ITRC report has indicated.  What is missing from the equation is money (or, at the very least, a prioritized allocation of resources).

    The Association is running a deficit and has not raised dues since 1999.  As production becomes more diverse and more time is spent by staff trying to make small-scale work happen, the demands on them increase.  A significant percentage of staff resources go into administration of work created under the Guest Artist Agreement, CoOp Policy, and Festival Waiver, but none of those agreements require payments of working dues from members.  We have to keep the lights on somehow, and more and more of the projects being created provide less and less revenue for the office that is trying to help those projects along.  This is one of the many reasons why our first dues increase proposal in SEVENTEEN YEARS includes only an increase to basic dues. 

    The creation of any new agreement — even modifications of the existing ones — requires money (and time… which also requires money).  All the things members and staff dream about for making their lives easier (online forms, online payments, electronic processing, etc.) require money for development.  None of that money currently exists or is foreseeably available.

    Further, the fallout of the ITRC report is arriving at exactly the same time that the Canadian Theatre Agreement is being negotiated.  This is a critical and significant undertaking that staff MUST complete this year, on top of their full-time day to day responsibilities.  So remain patient — change will come, but it still won’t be immediate.  Sorry; we just don’t have the resources.

    I have a very good understanding of the challenges being faced by members, engagers, member-engagers, and staff — I chaired the ITR Committee for 18 months, dug through the research, and helped write the report.  Like many artists, I came to Equity through self-production, and continue to self-produce regularly.  I’m not ignorant; I stand with you; and I insist that there is currently no intentional “stalling” on this issue.  We now have much more *concrete* information than we did before the ITRC was created. But a motion at an AGM demanding progress will do NOTHING if the Association doesn’t have the resources to act on that motion.  Without an increase in dues, staff services will be CUT — not enhanced — and I can guarantee your frustration with indie issues will continue to grow.

    What “stalls” progress for our Association are members who would vote against a dues increase.  Without money and time (which also leads to money), there can be no change.

  11. Michael Wheeler says:

    Hi Kris,

    Thanks for your frank comments as Chair of the ITRC Committee. I’m not an Equity member currently, but if I was, I would probably vote okay to an increase in dues because I would understand they hadn’t been raised in seventeen years. I would also be like, “What? Why not?”

    I don’t think this issue of raising dues has to be connected however. The indie caucus first started advocating for reform in 06, there were two votes overwhelmingly in support of reform in 08 and 09, a major report commissioned and studied on indie reform in 11, and still no word on how that will turn it into policy. Seriously, 5 years of emails and meetings and blog posts and whatnot. It’s exhausting really.

    Compounding this problem is our reliance on using code names from the movie Top Gun when sending indie caucus emails about Equity stuff to each other. We have been around so long and so many indie companies have joined us that we are almost out of pilot names. If we don’t resolve this soon, the next company is going to have to sign off as “man in bar”, which would be embarrassing for everyone.

  12. Kris Joseph says:


    I can’t comment on what went on before I joined COuncil in ’09.  But this is a problem that is well-worth studying.  In some ways, yes, I feel like the ITRC has gone a very long way to simply say many of the same things members were saying years ago — but now there’s data to back up those thoughts and recommendations, and that is a huge step forward.

    As for short term work, the ITRC created a list of ten policy recommendations for consideration by Council, and that work will continue at Council meetings in the next few months, as those recommendations are debated.  It would serve all of us to discuss those recommendations with our CPAGs and Councillors so that they can be more ably dealt with at those meetings.

    Members should also be asking both Equity and PACT to follow up on the pilot of the Tangerine Project, to see what pieces of it (if not all of it) can be made permanent, in the CTA and potentially elsewhere.  Many of the Tangerine provisions would be terrific for small-scale work, across the board, and expressions of support for what is working, and how it should evolve, would surely be welcome by staff and Council.  

    We all just need to Keep Talking!

  13. Aislinn says:

    Allyson, I’d love to have you work on that for the site. Let’s get in touch for a follow-up piece.

    Kris, with regards to the dues increase, I would likely be voting in favour of an increase as well (if I were a member) but would also seriously be asking why they hadn’t been increased in so long, at least to the standard yearly cost of living increases. But if we want to talk about lost revenue, we should also look at the 25% percent of ITRC respondents who admitted to having worked off-contract. I think there’s an argument to be made here that if contracts worked more in favour of the independent artist, those artists wouldn’t feel forced to work off-contract, which could mean additional revenue for Equity.

    Also, while I’m a big fan of the Tangerine Contract (we used it for phase 2 of Jesus Chrysler, as well as the production phase we’re in now), it really doesn’t address the needs of small-scale work as you’re suggesting. It’s my understanding that Tangerine was designed for small to mid-sized PACT organizations to encourage them to actually invest in the development of projects from the early stages, rather than simply buying up the works that have already been created on the backs of tiny indie organizations. While its provisions to allow for greater flexibility in terms of payment structure and rehearsal schedules, to use the Tangerine Contract, companies would still need to be able to afford the minimum hourly rate for every hour worked.

    However, I really do hope Tangerine survives to find a permanent place in the CTA (and elsewhere), and I certainly hope there’s a trickle-down effect that will see PACT organizations using it to partner with the smaller indies to create new work together that addresses some of our other points about diversity and the need for new audiences.

  14. Martin says:

    Though I am not as “up” on current Equity structures as I was a dozen years ago, when I was a councillor and part of the CTA negotiating committee, I want to throw one more (always unpopular) wrench into the debate on dues and infrastructure.

    Because of the lop-sided nature of our sparsely populated, geographically mammoth country, a tremendous amount of resource at Equity always goes to the maintenance of a viable democracy when it comes to regional representation, and implementation of contracts and standards. Even though the vast majority of membership, and dues collected, come from the Toronto region, resources are unable to be proportionally allocated to that region. Simply speaking statistically, Toronto is the generator of most of the independent and boundary-pushing actor/producer work we see, but is often under-represented at Council, where the sometimes single-digit representations by entire provincial regions is subsidized to attend to decisions, and morally bound to advocate strongly.

    The system is unwieldy, and not always representative and responsive to activity within Toronto, particularly. I know this seems arrogant and counter-intuitive to everyone else in the country, but I’ve always been puzzled and constitutionally stymied by it. Certainly, our sincere egalitarian approach to governance forever slows initiative down.

  15. Since everyone and his uncle seems interested in reading this article I would like to add that our venue host for this Equity RAGM meeting on Sunday night is the fantabulous THEATRE DIRECT. See you there!

  16. Martin, it’s true that a large portion of equity’s membership dwell in Southern Ontario (~46%?) and so there is lots more indie work going on. But I can tell you from sitting on council that members from the other regions care a great deal about indie issues – even though there may be less of them and they may be more spread out. And the actual indie work that they create is certainly up to par with anyone in T-Dot. (One example – Ride The Cyclone at TPM that is currently kicking Toronto theatre’s ass.) So it’s not a question of the national membership not understanding or caring about the issue. I believe the recent ITRC survey results make that pretty clear. That’s not where the opposition comes from.

    But there are profound differences in what I would call “coverage” by Equity in the regions – for better or worse. It’s a lot tougher for Equity to govern regions from afar. And members from those regions often resent the fact that they have to forward their contracts to Vancouver or to the center of the universe (Toronto). So the misunderstanding and resentment cuts both ways. Equity is currently a national association. We are stronger because of it. So I think that reaching out to the regions is money well spent.

  17. Martin says:

    Well argued, Mark. I’m glad to hear that the national membership is consistently responsive to indie issues. Such was not the case a decade-and-a-half ago, with notable exceptions. It also sounds like Toronto membership is less totalizing in its percentages now too. Certainly, there has been notable self-producing growth in Calgary, Winnipeg, Outaouais, and Vancouver/Victoria (which were always pretty strong.) I agree that we are all better off with a national council with consistent standards and lobbying. I don’t actually resent this, but it still raises perpetual questions for me. That said, it is expensive to run a functioning council nationally, for an organization as endemically stretched as Equity.

    It is notably difficult for artists to collectively organize, especially as they individuate and become more entrepreneurial. This is why visual artists – usually lone wolves – have no universal employment standards or anything approaching ‘collective bargaining’. As we become more diffuse in our needs, methodologies, and goals, it becomes more difficult to achieve administrative and contractual consensus. Once the standard employer/model – already fungible in the theatre – starts to de-construct itself, the organizational system starts to break down. Systems hate re-organizing; they seek equilibrium and consistency. I wish everyone a successful and candid dialogue on Sunday night. I myself am unable to attend, unfortunately, but I hope everyone takes inspiration from the Occupy movement, and continues peacefully struggling toward a new and better paradigm as the world turns.

  18. […] the full article from Praxis Theatre here 0 […]

  19. Philip Akin says:


    You state that the association is running a deficit. May I ask where you got that information from? According to this
    there is no yearly deficit showing on the books. As well there is Unrestricted Cash Assets of just over $2 million dollars. That is not numbers that would would attribute to an organization in trouble. Now these statements do not include numbers for Accumulated Surplus/Deficit so perhaps there is a huge deficit somewhere lurking but if that is the case then I wonder at the amount of the Unrestricted Cash Assets not being utilized for operating costs.
    Frankly I don’t mind the increase but one would hope that it would go towards moving the organization somewhat closer to the 21st Century as opposed to entrenching it even further in the 19th.


  20. Hi Philip,

    I believe Kris is referring to the current yearly budget – not an accumulated deficit.

  21. Philip Akin says:

    Hi Mark,

    Is their a deficit for the last year end? I haven’t seen any numbers around that but even so it does not address the Cash Assets of over 2 Mil.
    All I am saying is that if the rational for an increase is budgetary then there should be something that shows that.


  22. Philip Akin says:

    Sigh…and the spellcheck would reply: Gee Philip, their = there

  23. Well you are probably still buzzing from the Prince concert so it is entirely understandable. 

    A caveat: I am not an accountant, but here’s the way I understand it…

    Last year’s financial statement found on the website in the “news” subdirectory indicates there was no deficit. The accumulated surplus that you refer to is intact. But it’s become apparent that the yearly operating budget will be heading into deficit this year. As you probably know, rainy day stabilization funds have a tendency to disappear very quickly when there is a structural deficit occuring. Equity is not-for-profit – so things need to balance out to zero. That is becoming increasingly difficult as inflation takes its bite, working dues drop, and more and more members default on their basic dues. The new numbers will be presented at the NAGM in February 2012 in Toronto. Equity has already started to downsize its programs and is taking a very hard look at cutting some core functions should the referendum go down to defeat.  

  24. Philip Akin says:

    Ok Mark I get that and it does seem prudent but I have to say that if expected cuts come on the producer’s side because of government cutbacks etc then production will go down and I suspect many more actors will be going on withdrawal and this dues increase won’t be able to make up for that. A proposal on the table right now with the Canada Council will take 1% away from operating budgets and another 10% to be taken for re-allocation. Couple that with potential TAC cuts and we will all be cutting core programs. And if producer’s cut then the whole structural side of the industry will have to cut.

  25. […] Last November we wrote about a Canadian Actors’ Equity Association Meeting and why, as independent theatre artists, it was important for you to attend. […]

  26. […] one of the biggest roadblocks to the development of their work, another issue we’ve written about extensively. You’ll find no apathy on this topic. Younger artists have been working together for years to […]

  27. […] and endorsing an indie slate with these collective intentions. We have written extensively about Equity’s long and drawn-out process to create a new Indie Agreement, and my Praxis colleague Michael Wheeler […]

  28. […] 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 […]

  29. […] in Toronto. However, for the last few years, the Caucus has been focused primarily on tackling the major issues we face together in relation to Canadian Actors’ Equity […]