Hello, true believers (any of you that get that reference are awesome. And probably my age). As actors, we are taught to be humble and grateful for the work opportunities we are given. Though we will all likely encounter situations where humility and gratitude aren’t the first emotions that come to mind, for the most part, it’s a good idea to stay that way.
There’s no linear path to your career as an actor. You may be a college theatre student, perform in summer stock (Equity or non-Equity), graduate, work in regional theatre, go on tour, book a Broadway show, then lather/rinse/repeat the last three if you’re lucky. Or you may leave college before graduation for a Broadway show. Or you may work on Wall Street with your finance degree and decide at age 40, “Hey, I always liked acting, I think I’ll give that a try.” One person’s experience will not necessarily be someone else’s, a point I try to remember each time I sit down to write.
When actors are given a contract for most theatre jobs, they usually have finite terms, an “end date.” I would imagine that most contracts are honored by the actor, as work is hard enough to come by. But occasionally, we are lucky enough to have another company offer an opportunity before we have completed the terms of the current employer. Assuming we want to accept the offer, what do we do?
The first step is look at your current contract. What is the “out clause”? An out clause refers to the terms of terminating your employment. Sometimes these are as simple as providing ample notice of your intention to leave, it can be as little as two or four weeks. Be careful though, as there will occasionally be clauses in contracts that prohibit leaving during certain periods of the contract, such as during previews. Many regional theatre contracts are structured in such a way as to severely limit the opportunity for an actor to break their commitment. This may seem a bit unfair, but from a producer’s perspective, you are their choice for the job, and you agreed to the terms of the contract, so replacing you is certainly inconvenient and could possibly diminish the show, i.e., their product.
There are also contracts known as “run of show” agreements, whereupon the actor agrees to perform in the “run of the show” with no specific end date. These may sound restrictive, but can also be quite a benefit to an actor. My recent position as the standby for El Gallo/the Fathers in The Fantasticks was a run of show agreement, I could stay as long as I wanted, provided I was capable of doing the job I was hired to do and a good member of the company (meaning basically, not doing anything stupid to get myself fired).
Let’s say you’ve identified the out clause, and you are within your legal rights to terminate your contract. Now what? This can get sticky, but you have a few options. The first is the direct and professional route. You contact the producer (and you can do this verbally but I would always suggest a written follow-up, so there is a record of what was said) and let them know your intentions. The timing can be flexible, of course it must be per the rules within your contract, but let’s look at this scenario. Let’s say you are doing a show that runs for two more months, but you have an offer that will require you to be gone before the last two weeks. The out clause is four weeks notice. Do you tell the producer as soon as you can, or do you wait for the last legal minute?
The answer sadly is, “it depends.” If you have a good relationship with the company and want to give them as much time to prepare as possible, then this is your path. If you have an adversarial relationship with them, and fear potential retaliation (such as, they replace you sooner than you wish, leaving you with a gap in employment), then perhaps you wait until you reach your legal obligation. I’m not advocating or advising this option, but the truth is, the business can be really tough at times, and you may find yourself in this position, so there’s the information.
Now, let’s come back from the dark side of the force…
Any time you choose to leave a job, be it in theatre or “civilian life,” it’s optimal to leave on the best of terms. Your decision to move on has created more work for your employers and your coworkers, as they will likely have to participate in more rehearsal for your replacement. So try and make this easy on them. If you are being housed, make sure you leave that housing in AT LEAST the condition you found it in, and maybe even a little better. Your replacement may arrive before you leave, welcome them into the company and offer what you can—you may be refused for any number of reasons, but still make the offer.
Finally, remember that although this may be a tough decision and process, these are the kinds of problems you want to have, so don’t be too hard on yourself. At the same time, I wouldn’t make a habit of breaking contracts, whether you are legally capable or not, it’s not the reputation you want. Leaving a show, long-running or otherwise, is one thing, breaking a finite contract is another.