Developing a piece of theatre from the ground up, especially an original work, is an expensive exercise. A producer will rarely have the opportunity to review and assess the combined production elements of a work prior to significant capital outlay, thus leaving a big question mark as to a particular work’s commercial viability. One way in which a producer may test a piece of theatre in a (comparatively) inexpensive manner is the 29-Hour Reading. The 29-Hour Reading is a concept created by Actors Equity Association (“AEA”) which allows commercial producers to engage AEA talent for the sole purpose of presenting a reading of a work; i.e. allowing producers to put a work its feet – to test the rhythm of the piece with live actors in front of a live audience.

The AEA Staged Reading Guidelines provide for the limited use of AEA talent outside of an AEA contract. It’s important to note that the Guidelines are not a class of AEA contract in and of themselves, but rather serve as a narrow exception that operates alongside AEA’s standard commercial contracts.

The perks of the 29-Hour Reading are clear; the producer is not required to make pension, health and welfare contributions on behalf of talent, nor is there a prescribed equity minimum to pay talent. Nevertheless, the concessions made by AEA pursuant to the Guidelines do not come without significant restrictions, which I have itemized below.

  1. Duration: Talent can only be engage for a period of 29 hours (inclusive of the readings themselves) during a 14-day period. Producers must remain cognizant of the fact that this leaves little time to work through a substantive amount of material, particularly in the case of 2 act musicals. Securing a lead creative team who can work in a thorough and efficient manner in the rehearsal room is key to maximizing the value of the presentation.
  2. Presentation: A producer may present a maximum of three (3) readings pursuant to the Guidelines. The presentation cannot contain any production elements, including costume, sets, make-up, wigs, or props. Furthermore, the presentation cannot contain any choreography and may only incorporate minimal staging. Actors must not be required to memorize any material, and thus must present the work ‘book in hand’. In practice, 29-Hour Readings largely take place in rehearsal rooms with non-theatrical lighting, and in front of music stands – no bells – no whistles.
  3. Travel & Expenses: Producers must cover any and all travel and expenses incurred by AEA talent in connection with the 29-Hour Reading. In my experience, a stipend of no less than One Hundred Dollars ($100.00) is paid to each actor in connection therewith.
  4. Audience: the audience must be invite only and cannot be charged for admission. Most importantly, the purpose of the 29-Hour reading cannot be to solicit investors for the project. I’ll type it again in bold underline; the presentation of a 29-Hour reading cannot be to solicit investors for the project. Remember – the sole purpose of a 29-Hour Reading is to propel the creative development of a particular work, not to garner interest from third-party financiers.
  5. No Recording: the presentation of the piece cannot be recorded for any reason, including archival purposes.
  6. The Asterisk: AEA talent must be identified on a billing page that is made available to all audience members. An asterisk must appear alongside each actor’s name indicating that said AEA talent is are appearing courtesy of AEA.

Finally, a producer must register the project with AEA during the six (6) months prior to the reading and must notify AEA of the AEA talent engaged on the project. The registration process if largely simple, however it’s always advised to register as early as possible in the event AEA has additional questions and/or concerns.

Adhering to the aforementioned restrictions is essential to not only a successful reading, but the continued commercial success of a project. Used correctly, the 29-Hour Reading can be a fantastic vehicle for creative development, often allowing creatives to experience the work in a live setting for the first time. On the flipside, failure to adhere to the Guidelines can land you in hot water with AEA and may significantly impinge on your ability to engage AEA talent for future engagements.