The touring production of "Peter Pan" was recently at the Cadillac Palace Theatre in Chicago.

The touring production of "Peter Pan" was recently at the Cadillac Palace Theatre in Chicago. ( / August 18, 2011)

That actor you're watching onstage tonight? He or she might well have skin in the game. And I speak not just of art or hunger for applause. I talk of cold, hard cash.

One of the more interesting and perhaps lesser noticed changes in show business these last few years has been the transition of touring shows away from fixed salaries to compensation models based on how many seats are filled.

Not so long ago, back in the glory of the early 1990s when multiple companies of "The Phantom of the Opera" convoyed across the Midwest, most touring Broadway shows offered actors production contracts, which meant financial rewards and working conditions that mirrored those on Broadway. In fact, for your average Broadway actor (especially the younger and freer variety), going on tour with a show could mean a more attractive deal than in New York. On the road, actors got nice per diems with no obligation to spend all that money if they could stay with friends. They could live on their per diem and bank the salary.

The production contract, the holy grail for actors, still exists in touring theater. But it's limited to a very small number of massively successful shows: "Wicked," "Jersey Boys," "The Lion King," "The Book of Mormon." That's about all. Those shows pay their actors minimum salaries of $1,754 per week — and in practice, closer to $2,000, given the various add-ons for understudying and the like. But almost every other Equity show on the road — "Peter Pan," "Priscilla Queen of the Desert," even "Les Miserables" — operates under a different contract with a far lower minimum salary for actors. Under the now-common contracts called short engagement touring agreements (or SETAs), salaries are less than half the full rates.

With a kick. If the show sells well, the actors get "overages," a revenue-sharing deal that increases when shows have recouped their production costs.

"We had to recognize that the economics of the touring business have changed," said Mary McColl, the executive director of Actors' Equity, over lunch recently in Chicago. McColl was explaining that the new contracts were an attempt to prevent shows from going the non-Equity route — not that the effort was totally successful, given that "Catch Me If You Can," which arrives in Chicago in a few weeks, is touring with a non-Equity cast. But McColl also noted that the new contract had stopped the producers of "Billy Elliot" (which operated under a production contract while it was in Chicago) from turning their tour into a non-Equity show. Perhaps the producers also understood the signal that would send — given that the show is about the struggle of a union.

McColl also said that her members can do very well under the SETA and other concessionary deals when a show is hugely successful. When "Les Miserables" was in Chicago last fall, for example, box-office returns were so strong that the actors got, McColl said, compensation "comparable to the production-contract rates." Nonetheless, that is not always the case.

Actors from "Peter Pan," for example, were chagrined to see some empty rows during their Chicago run, being as this cut their paychecks from the overages they had been enjoying in less competitive cities. If you are touring with Cathy Rigby, you have a vested interested in putting the proverbial butts in the seats to see her fly.

What does this mean for you, the audience?

Well, it's overly simplistic to say shows that offer performers production contracts are going to get better actors; art is not that easy to categorize. And you could argue that actors with skin in the game work harder, just like any other employee with a profit-sharing incentive. But in most professions, the higher-paying gigs attract the bigger talents, and theater is no exception. It has been a while since I've seen the touring cast of "Wicked," but I sure know that the creative team of that show has a wide pool of talent from which to choose. Production contracts are now rare on the road. Economic logic would suggest that those performers would, in very general terms, be the cream of the crop.

Of course, there is no adjustment in ticket price based on any of this. The type of Equity contract is not the kind of thing presenters like advertising. I try to point out when shows feature nonunion casts (the upcoming return visit of "American Idiot" being one), not because non-Equity actors are not worth seeing (many prove to be excellent) but because you will not be seeing anyone with Broadway experience. In the future, it might be worth noting what kind of Equity contract we're talking about, so you can judge that too.

And if you think Chicago theater, where love usually matters more than money, is immune from this issue, you'd be wrong. It's not unknown in the off-Loop scene for the very small stipends of non-Equity actors to become payable only when the box office hits its target.

cjones5@tribune.com

Twitter @chrisjonestrib