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Actors Contracts

( Originally Published 1916 )

IN the outer office of a well-known firm of producers in New York there is a little sign which reads, " Artists are not to consider themselves engaged until contracts are signed." By the same view I may explain withholding until this time, discussion of actors' contracts.

In contradistinction to the belated efforts of native dramatists in evolving a satisfactory contract, is the work of the newly formed Actors' Equity Association, headed by some of the foremost players in America, and which has lately puzzled the theatrical world by joining the American Federation of Labor. This association grew from a meeting of about eighty actors, late in 1912, to hear the report of a Plan and Scope Committee appointed to consider conditions of native players. Francis Wilson is president, and to his efforts and to those of Howard Kyle, who spent nearly all of his time for something over three years, and much of his leisure since, organizing forces at the headquarters in New York, the firm establishment of equitable professional regulation in America is largely due.

The federation is an offshoot of the older Actors' Society, which had become more particularly a social organization; but matters of recreation were eschewed here once and for all, and the purpose of rectifying the grosser evils at least, unremittingly sustained. Years before, the Actors' Society had undertaken similar reform, but had been only moderately successful in securing practical allegiance of its members, who, when out of engagements, almost invariably would make contradictory concessions for the sake of getting in. However, it waged a rather effective campaign in the matter of inadequate and unsanitary dressing rooms.

Experiences concerning the actor's condition rather than his convenience, continued to cry for remedy for many seasons. These specifically had to do first with the fact that actors were in the habit of giving their services gratis throughout the period of rehearsal, with no assurance that they would not be discarded at the end of that time as miscast, or yet, that when payment did begin it would last long enough to make up for the early gratuitous time and effort. The protest here was based, reasonably enough, on the circumstance that the manager asked the actor to gamble with him, but didn't increase his salary when the gamble turned out particularly well.

Again, it long was the custom for the rank and file of actors to accept half salaries for approximately six weeks out of their short year: two weeks before Christmas, before Easter, and before election—these presumably being the slack times in the theatrical season. But it so happened that many an attraction continued to play to heavy receipts over these periods—one striking instance said to be an edition of Ziegfeld's " Follies," playing to $19,000 one Holy Week—and the actors still appeared for the reduced amounts; while one manager, at least, was known to play an election week engagement at half salaries in Canada, where they have a king and voting at another time than the American occasion. An account relates, too, how a " revivalist " of that popular melodrama, " Lost River," which calls for the services of some twenty " spirited chargers," telegraphed his manager on the road to this effect : " Next week Xmas week; half salaries actors; half oats horses."

Further still, it became a popular managerial coup to play special matinees for nearly everything but Flag and Mothers' Day, the producer's expenses covering merely ushers, lighting, and so forth, actors being expected to throw in their services for the usual weekly arrangement. Many a civic regulation encountered en tour permitted Sun-day performances, too; and here was an additional expenditure of time and energy with no pay.

Effect of continued work on the ensemble, with no rest, and quick jumps from town to town, lowered quality of performance; but few managers took that into consideration. During the first American tours of Tommasso Salvini, the great tragedian refused to give more than four performances per week, and declined to render his tremendously popular and profitable " Othello " oftener than once a week, declaring it impossible to make it worthy of his artistic standard without at least five-day intervals. But he was in a position to dictate. Companies playing one-night stands sometimes had to lose a Saturday night and its pay, in order to " jump " to a Sunday evening performance for which they received no recompense.

These were but the most ordinary evils, special consideration being required for such things as compulsion of actors to purchase their own costumes when these were useless for any other purpose in event of failure; irresponsible managers disbanding their companies many miles from home, leaving them to find their way back as best they could, a clause in their contracts probably providing for transportation only from the point of opening to the point of closing, wherever that might be; dismissal of players without just cause, or exorbitant fees charged by agents for securing engagements.


From an impersonal viewpoint, the most praiseworthy feature of the association has been its absolutely impartial aim to insure equity not merely for the actor, but also for the manager; and among cases brought to attention of their splendid counsel, have been a number of players who have not lived up to their contracts—deliberately leaving engagements regardless of managers' convenience, to take others more congenial or more remunerative.

A set of rules is provided, to which every member pledges himself to subscribe; and among these are regulations directing all actors engaged in presentation of a given play to report at the theater for performance at a time designated by the manager or his representative; that rehearsals must be attended promptly; that actors must report as required at the railroad station when traveling, and that reasonably sufficient notice of inability to appear must be sent to the proper officer in order that substitutes or under-studies may be gotten in readiness, accompanied by a doctor's certificate of indisposition if that is the plea. The last-named clause also stipulates that in cases of illness, the manager reserves the right to withhold or pay salaries. The stage manager has full control back of the curtain; and objections to his rulings are to be referred to the manager. Actors are to play their parts as rehearsed, unless otherwise directed by the manager or his representative. And so on, through a number of minor injunctions as to good behavior.

In remarkably short course of time the association won acceptance by most of the leading producers of America of a lucid and never ambiguous contract for equitable arrangements between actor and manager. This embodied clauses insuring a living remuneration during rehearsal, rehearsal to begin not earlier than thirty-five days prior to the specified date of opening; due written notice of two weeks in cases of dismissal or resignation; one-eighth of a week's salary as additional pay for each extra performance beyond the regulation number of six evening and two matinee exhibitions—save for matinees on legal holidays in the State in which the company plays; full pay over the alleged " slack " weeks, with the proviso that the manager may " lay off " his company temporarily one week before Christmas Week, and one week before Passion Week, without salaries; safe return to the point where the production was originally made, and, very important to actresses, provision by the manager of all other than " civilian " costumes, together with appurtenances.

In several instances these conditions were already taken care of in standard regulations then in force. Charles Frohman and Winthrop Ames were notable examples of managers who had early anticipated the remedies called for by the Association in existing forms of agreement.

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