The deepening concern in this town with the fate of the Equity Waiver may be turning into a major crisis for local theater.
Rumors about the abolition of the Waiver (whereby the actors' union chooses to "waive" its rules in theaters of 99 seats or less) have been rife for months. The climax came Saturday at an "informational" meeting called by Camelot Artists (a group of Waiver producers) at the Las Palmas Theatre.
Christopher Callen and Katie Mitchell of Camelot were joined by other Waiver producers and actors (among them Joe Stern of Actors for Themselves, Barbara Beckley of the Colony, Jeff Murray of Theatre/Theater, Gretchen Weber of Room for Theatre).
They warned the 300 or so actors and others who attended about West Coast Equity's alleged plans to recommend (by mail referendum) a showcase-type code to replace the Waiver.
Acknowledging that their perceptions were based on unofficial documentation (a "leaked" set of minutes from an Equity Joint Committee meeting), they also advocated formation of an autonomous West Coast local for Equity.
A petition supporting the creation of such a local was circulated at Saturday's meeting, and while the two issues (the Waiver and autonomy) are separate, the belief expressed by the petition's backers is that local concerns--none more so than the Waiver--would be better served by a local governing body.
Several speakers, including Stern and Callen, emphasized that this is not an attempt at secession, but a wish to see the union redistribute its jurisdiction. This desire, they claimed, is based on the growing conviction that New York is no longer the national center of theatrical activity, that the regions have developed their own special needs and that these would be better handled locally. As Jeff Murray of Theatre/Theater put it: "We feel the union on this coast is not able to be responsive because it's controlled by New York."
The rally as a whole was less informational than agitprop, with attendant oversimplification of highly complex issues. Impassioned speeches were delivered by actors active in and in favor of the Waiver (Len Lesser, Salome Jens, Barbara Beckley, among others), countered by valid questions raised from the floor.
Someone suggested that the call for an autonomous local had at least the appearance of an adversarial gesture. And when, by their own admission, some of the outspoken pro-Waiver Equity members said they did not attend Equity meetings regularly, it was suggested to them that they should--and perhaps try to achieve their goals within the system.
Compounding the problem, however, is Equity's refusal to meet with Waiver producers and hyphenated actor-producers, even unofficially. This, several speakers emphasized, has only fueled their concerns and paved the way for an inordinate amount of speculation.
Queried about this refusal to communicate, Equity Western Regional Director Edward Weston said Monday, "I cannot talk to them, specifically because of legal advice. It's very technical, but has to do with previous court actions brought against Equity.
"I can tell you that they're acting on incomplete information. They're laboring under the misapprehension that there's been some sort of final decision. If there are to be changes--let me stress the if --the membership will make them. It will decide whether to keep the Waiver as it is, continue it with modifications or eliminate it altogether.
"The only thing we've promised members is that we'll make no substantive changes without a regular or special membership meeting before this goes to a referendum. And if members don't know this, it's because not enough of them come to meetings. Waiver has been the No. 1 subject at all membership meetings. Where have these people been?"
Since actors are free to perform in Waiver or stay away from it, isn't the whole issue overblown?
"On the face of it, yes," Weston said, "but a lot has changed. Some (Waiver) theaters have been able to get grants from government agencies and other sources with everyone getting paid except the actors." Yet more Waiver actors are getting paid. The actors in "Kvetch" at the Odyssey Theatre, for instance, each get $200 a week.
"At those rates," countered Weston, "why not dignify them with a contract and give them some fringe benefits? For theaters of up to 350 seats, we have the use of a 10-tiered Small Professional Theatre Contract. The lowest salary is $100 a week, determined by potential gross (the price of tickets), not seating capacity.
"I have no objections to people having strong feelings. I understand it. I object to people operating on misinformation. Nothing will be done without the utmost care. The assumption that we'll do something devious is calculated to inflame, not to solve issues."
As for the idea of an autonomous local, Weston dismissed it with, "If members want a local only so they can find a way to work for nothing, that's their business."