Friday, 1 p.m. is when Actors' Equity, the stage actors union, will hold a meeting of its Los Angeles membership to consider a proposed new Actors' 99-seat Theatre Plan. It could be the start of something bloody.
The new 11-point code was drawn up as a possible replacement for the union's 14-year-old Equity Waiver Plan whereby, in theaters of 99 seats or less, Equity "waives" certain rules (but not its jurisdiction, as was incorrectly reported in Stage Watch last week). Because the Waiver has been such a shot in the arm to Los Angeles theater, the proposed changes are being viewed with both interest and animosity by the local theater community.
Last week, we presented the comments of Waiver theater operators (many of whom are also members of Equity) in favor of retaining the Waiver as it is. This week, equal time goes to Los Angeles artists who have worked in Waiver and found it wanting.
Many of these artists were unwilling to speak on the record, for fear of reprisals. Those who spoke off the record most often complained of producer disregard for actors' needs.
This "disregard" encompasses inadequate dressing rooms and rest rooms, pressure to provide and maintain one's own wardrobe (for shows in contemporary dress), long rehearsals (12-hour stretches with one short break were cited as not uncommon), the absence of understudies, poor stage management and a parsimonious attitude toward complimentary tickets.
Lack of pay was also a concern, especially in the case of theaters demanding long-term commitments to developing shows, but it was not the overriding factor.
The overriding concern was human consideration. "Consideration of the actor," specified actor/director Bill Cort, who staged Oliver Hailey's 40-actor "The Bar Off Melrose" at the Waiver Melrose Theatre earlier this year. "There was never a time that Paul (Kent) or Jomarie (Ward, co-owners of the Melrose) came forward and welcomed the actors. At no time were they taken into account.
"I don't know anyone in the cast who was negative or resentful of the fact that no one did anything for us while we were there," said actress Marie Windsor, who was in the play. "What they resented was that things were not taken care of. We formed a group to insist they repair the toilet and fix the air conditioner.
"We were a happy group, basically content with the experience. Our demands came after they had taken in a fair amount of (box-office) money. When the time came to close after 16 weeks, some of us wanted a party. The theater made no offers, so we wrote them (Kent and Ward) a letter. If they wouldn't give us a party, would they contribute $1,000 for one? They hit the ceiling. They didn't say, 'Here's $500 or $200.' They gave us nothing at all."
"After five months of full houses and nobody getting paid," Cort said, "it was not an unreasonable request. My belief is the actors were not asking for money but for acknowledgement."
Jomarie Ward, administrative director of the Melrose, discounted the complaints. Acknowledging that the show finally cleared about $1,200 a week, she said, "What's wrong with that? We don't ask the actors to share our costs or our losses." About the theater's refusal to contribute to the party, she said, "We weren't included. We were told we were down for $1,000."
All of which, some might say, illustrates the need for rules that would avoid such wrangling in the future. Can the new plan help?
We asked independent consultant Carl Sautter, whose Theatre Support Services was commissioned by Equity to study the Waiver--in 1980 and 1985.
"Certainly the fact that my report is quoted (in the new proposal) means that the new guidelines are heavily based on it," Sautter said. "To my mind, the most important finding in '85 was that the Waiver situation had substantially changed. In 1980, we had looked primarily at nonprofit theaters. By 1985, there were more theaters, more of them for profit--even though no one was making any money--and public funding was down to 12% (of what it had been).
"The reason for the 1985 report had been increasing complaints by actors. The best idea at the time was meeting with the actors--and not just Equity actors. Sixty-five percent of them wanted to continue the Waiver but add some rules. Where the controversy lies is in what those rules should be.
"I'm very upset at the lack of public discussion," Sautter emphasized. "I'm astonished that Equity has not met with the theater operators about this," he added, echoing the position taken by a majority of Waiver operators.
"The theaters were incredibly cooperative with me," he said, "and for Equity to refuse to meet with them troubles me a great deal. It sets up a confrontation. There's no doubt that certain things need to be ironed out. Some theaters are real firetraps--a tragedy waiting to happen--but I would hate to see a vote taken without more open discussion.