Actor Gregory Harrison recalls the early years of his career when he did nothing but study acting and do Equity Waiver shows. "I would study all day, do plays in the evenings and wash windows from 11 p.m. until 2 a.m. But I could say that I was an actor and mean it because I was working in Waiver. There's not an actor I know who has had to grow up in Hollywood, who hasn't benefitted from it."
But good things can turn sour. There have been increasing charges of abuses on the Waiver front. Actors complain that they are forced to work in unkempt theater facilities, supply their own costumes, sweep the stage, build the set and even strip at auditions. Producers and landlords are accused of profiting at the expense of the poor, unpaid Waiver actor.
Local theater operators reply that a few complaining actors are out to destroy Waiver. Says Ted Schmitt of the Cast Theatre: "There's an old axiom: 'Do you know how to make an actor bitch? Give him a job.' "
But Equity appears to be listening. The union's 99-Seat Waiver Committee hopes to propose stronger action to protect its membership from exploitation at the October membership meeting. Waiver administrator Michael Van Duzer also hinted that Equity may devise an "educational system" to inform actors of their rights under Waiver.
What is Waiver? The story starts in 1972 when Equity created the 99-Seat Theater Plan to allow actors to develop and showcase their craft when not working in Equity shows. In essence, the actors' union agreed to waive supervision of the smaller theaters, meaning that its members could waive getting a salary.
The result was one of the fastest-growing theater movements in the century. A survey of Los Angeles Waiver theaters, conducted by Carl Sautter for Equity last October, indicated that there are an estimated 130 Waiver theaters today, compared with 42 five years ago.
This looks like success. But some members of the theater community argue that Waiver's rapid and unchecked growth has taken place at the expense of the actors it set out to help. These are the major issues:
1--Working Conditions. Most performers answering Sautter's survey indicated that they approved of Waiver, but wanted Equity to work for improved backstage conditions. Says independent producer James Carey: "Many backstage areas are, at best, dangerous. Lights are not hung properly. Rugs are not adequately affixed to the floor. Theaters are cold during the winter and hot in the summer."
Darryl Allara, Equity's first Waiver administrator, maintains that it is not Equity's responsibility to govern the "safe and sane" conditions of Waiver. "These things are covered under a contact. With Waiver there is no contract."
David Meyers, Waiver administrator from 1982-83, recalls getting many phone calls from actors complaining about backstage conditions. But few actors dared to come forward with a specific complaint. "Our members have to realize that they have the power to direct the union to work on this situation if they do like they did when Waiver was created in 1972."
2--Payment. Waiver was developed by actors for actors, strictly as a no-pay situation. The problem, according to Waiver administrator Van Duzer, was that "everybody jumped on a bandwagon that wasn't prepared to hold everybody up."
"Everybody" included producers. Under Waiver, the producer is free to "develop big production budgets and leave the actors out as one of the payment entities," said Sara Maultsby, a producer for Los Angeles Theatre Works, a nonprofit group.
That was the accusation that led to a near walk-out of the cast of "Delirious" in August. The play initially opened at the Pilot Theatre on a $35,000 budget. The actors received a weekly stipend of $25. Producer Susan Dietz agreed to pay the cast 15% of the gross if the show was a hit.
If it wasn't a hit, Dietz told the cast she could give them the 15%, but the show would close.
The cast chose to waive the 15% and keep the $25 weekly stipend just so the show could go on, said former cast member Eddie Velez, who co-stars in "Charlie & Co.," a CBS show which premiered this fall. The producers then invested another $12,000 to move the show to the Matrix Theatre, hoping that the location would draw a larger crowd.
The show became a hit and the cast once again approached the producers about the 15%. According to Velez, the actors were essentially told by Dietz that "There are other actors waiting in the wings ready to take over your roles. If you don't like it, you can take it or leave it." So Velez left it by quitting the show.
"We had two good weeks. The actors thought we were cheating them and they went crazy," Dietz said.
"Equity's problems stem from people not getting paid," Dietz said. "It's a terrible system that needs to be revamped."