The Seafarer: Director’s Blog #2, Equity

Directors at community theaters often gripe about Actors Equity Association, the union that represents stage actors and stage managers. We encounter a lot of frustrations in this regard. First of all, some of us have friends who are Equity actors and whom we would love to be able to cast in our non-professional productions. In a number of cases those actors would be interested in performing the roles we’d like to cast them in, too. And some of those very same actors did perform in community theater before they earned their membership in Equity. Furthermore, the profession is so very very competitive, with far more actors than there are roles available at any given moment, that Equity actors may find themselves without work for months on end, and sometimes longer; and an artist who doesn’t practice gets stale. But working with an Equity actor means working under an Equity contract, and that in turn means spending money. Community theaters aren’t set up, generally, to put people on payrolls; and most community theaters don’t pay their actors, partly because community theater began as a volunteer enterprise and even more because community theaters typically work on shoestring budgets.

.   I know of three or four ways around this dilemma, and I know people who have taken advantage of those ways. But I’m glad to say that, although I have found myself on more than one occasion faced with the problem, I have taken the through road, not the detour.

.   My mother was a member of a teachers’ union, as is my brother-in-law now. One of my sisters was a member of a musicians’ union when she was working as a professional musician. And I am a proud member of the American Association of University Professors, a professional organization, and am currently represented at Central Connecticut State University by the Association’s collective-bargaining wing. For two seasons I worked as a local jobber, a non-member union-sanctioned job, in an Equity summer-stock company. So, although I haven’t been a miner or an automotive worker or a meat-packer or any of the other things traditionally associated with unions, I am a union member, in a family with a history of union membership. I’ve also seen how easily people can be taken advantage of when they’re working at something they love: they will take on extra work, or work long hours overtime, or do double duty, or waive compensation to help realize a project they believe in. And I have seen the consequences of that generosity and commitment, too, in the form of burnout or disillusionment on the part of the person and, for the entity that benefited from that generosity, new and increased expectations of future employees based on what the previous person was willing to do. I believe in the value of unions for the protection of employer and employee alike, and for the maintenance of professional standards and mutual dignity. In any dealings with unionized workers, I’m all about solidarity.

.   That said, when I auditioned actors for The Seafarer I was conscious of the possibility that Equity would make or break my cast. People who saw (and loved) the staged reading of The Seafarer I directed saw the work of an excellent cast, and I was hoping to have the chance to use actors from that cast if possible. But one of those actors is Equity. He had done the reading on an Equity waiver (Equity has generally been very helpful to me for my staged-reading projects). A long time ago I used an Equity actor in a full production by way of a waiver, but I expected that regulations would have changed since then. I planned that, if I wound up wanting to offer my actor the Seafarer role, I would take a shot at a waiver request and then see where we could go from there.

.   I had a great turnout at auditions, and I thought I might find someone among them who could fill the role at issue as well as my Equity guy could. But ultimately, although I saw a lot of ability and promise, I did not see a genuine alternative. I offered the role to my best candidate, and contacted Actors Equity Association to see what the possibilities were.

.   My dealings with Equity on this matter couldn’t have been more cordial, personable, and supported. The representative, Tripp Chamberlain, liked the project I described and guided me through the process of applying for a Special Appearance Contract, a waiver being impossible for a full production. He also directed me to a Paymaster service that would handle the salary, withholding, and reporting functions of the contract, since WCT isn’t set up to do any of that. He answered all my questions, including the naïve ones, and moved the paperwork and decision process along quickly.

.   Meanwhile, the WCT Board were wonderful too. They agreed unanimously that the quality of the production was the foremost concern and that our little budget could be managed so that we could meet the financial requirements of the contract.

.   When we got the go-ahead from Equity, we were in fact ready to go ahead, and Damien Langan’s name will have the Equity asterisk in the program.

.   I’m writing about this because I want to encourage other theaters that might find themselves in the same casting dilemma. If your board of directors is willing to make the effort, it is indeed possible to cast the actor of your choice and present a play that mingles professional actors with accomplished nonprofessionals, and to do it in a way that honors the actor, the theater, and the craft we all love.

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