EQUITY WAIVER--HAS IT GONE SOUR?

Mar, a UCLA graduate, was a Times summer intern.

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."

Some theaters, like Schmitt's Cast Theatre, have instituted a payment policy for their actors. Although each theater's compensation policy varies, an entire cast can share as much as 15% of the gross earnings after expenses.

Waiver actors may also receive non-monetary compensation, Schmitt said. For example, actors often get free refreshments and virtually unlimited complimentary industry tickets during previews. Some producers also pay for individual mailings and pictures to casting directors and agents, Schmitt said.

Nevertheless, actress Nidia Cota thinks actors who work for free don't get any respect.

Cota said that she was involved in an Equity production that went on a nationwide tour. After the tour, the producers brought the show back to Los Angeles as a Waiver production, promising that the actors would be paid.

A few days before the show opened, the producer decided she couldn't afford to pay the actors nor could she hire stage hands, Cota said.

"I had a bad back, so I refused to move the heavy props and set," Cota said. She was promptly fired.

"If actors were being compensated for their time and energy, producers would think twice about getting rid of them," Cota said. "This way, if you complain, they just get rid of you."

But the lack of a contract also can benefit the actor, leaving him free to drop out of a show if he lands a TV or film role, and this often happens.

"In every production we do at the Odyssey Theatre, at least one actor leaves the show for a couple of performances to do more remunerative work," said Ron Sossi, artistic director at the Odyssey Theatre.

Many Waiver shows do not have understudies because actors are generally reluctant to understudy roles without pay or guarantee of exposure.

Faced with an actor's last-minute departure, the producers' only recourses are to send a replacement into a show reading from a script or cancel the show altogether, Sossi said.

"It's a situation we producers have to bite our tongue and live with."

3--Professionalization. The hope in 1972 was that Waiver theaters would eventually move to the fully professional level. But since Waiver began, only one theater has reached that goal: the Los Angeles Theatre Center, formerly the Los Angeles Actors Theatre.

Founded in 1975 as a 174-seat house, LAAT was too large to be granted Waiver status. But Equity supported its growth by allowing it to operate under both Equity and Waiver conditions, recalls Stephen Richard, LATC's managing director. During its formative years, the theater operated as a Waiver house about 75% of the time, paying its actors a percentage of the box-office gross, he said. "The theater's financial commitment to its actors grew as it grew."

Without the Waiver privileges, the theater would have been forced to pay its actors contract wages of as much as $200 per week, plus a percentage of the gross.

"There was no way we could afford that in the beginning. Without Waiver, we would never have been able to grow as we have today," said Richard, whose new $16-million four-theater facility just opened downtown on Spring Street.

If Equity supported LATC's maiden efforts, it has refused to grant Waiver status to the new Tiffany Theatre on Sunset Boulevard--and found itself in a court battle.

Owner Paula Holt approached Equity last November for approval of a plan to renovate the 280-seat movie revival house into two 99-seat Waiver theaters. She was told, she claims, that there were no procedures to approve plans, just existing spaces.

Equity (which has declined to comment on the issue) allegedly refused to grant the theater Waiver status after the theater was constructed. According to Holt, the union ruled that the Tiffany had previously been a legitimate Equity house and therefore could not be cut down to a Waiver theater.

Holt nevertheless opened the Tiffany with a show using an Equity cast, "Fatty," which the union did not picket. She then took Equity to Los Angeles County Superior Court and has been awarded attorney and court fees. She plans to file for an injunctive relief and possible damages.

"By making me a commercial theater, they (Equity) are in effect making me not function," Holt said.

4--Waiver as a Showcase. More than half of Sautter's respondents cited career-related benefits from appearances in Waiver shows.

Michael Nader, for example, got good notices in Tennessee Williams' "Vieux Carre" in 1983 at the Beverly Hills Playhouse. "All of a sudden instead of seeing casting directors, I was reading for directors and producers." A short while later Nader landed a plum role on "Dynasty."

However, actor Michael Mallory said the idea of Waiver providing exposure for little-known actors is getting "slimmer and slimmer." Theaters which generally attract the industry seldom have open casting now, Mallory said. "Most industry people will not take the chance of wasting their time watching bad theater." Mallory said.

According to Sautter, many complaints center around the relatively new process of Waiver theaters casting "through agents only."

5--The Landlords. Landlords, not producers, are having a field day with Waiver, according to Van Duzer. The demand for Waiver space has made it feasible for "slumlords" to charge high rents for property in "dirty, dingy storefronts that they couldn't give to anyone else," he said.

The weekly rental of a space suitable for Waiver productions ranges from $400 to $2,000. The average rate is $900 per week.

"I know theater owners make their nut (expenses) and then some, otherwise they wouldn't be in business," said Michael Bell, artistic director of the West End Playhouse in Van Nuys. "If I didn't care about maintaining my property, I'd be making money too," he said.

Although rental income is a potential source of revenue for theaters, Sautter reported that most Waiver operations are struggling to survive. An exception "may be the handful of better-known rental houses which generally declined to provide budget information."

Joseph Stern, artistic director at Actors for Themselves at the Matrix Theatre, advocates "rent control" on Waiver theaters because he thinks that the high rents ultimately hurt the actors: "The money they waive goes into the production budget. They gladly give up their salary so the technical aspects of a show can be decent, but high rent cuts into that."

But actor Joe Marinelli said theater owners have to make money to continue to exist. "A theater owner is a landlord. As a businessman, he has a right to make money." If a theater goes out of business, actors lose a place to work, Marinelli said.

Waiver rents are high but so are the maintenance expenses and acquisition costs, said the Odyssey's Ron Sossi. "If our landlord turns our theater into a 7-Eleven, he'd make a lot more money."

In a move to work with rather than against Equity, a coalition of theater operators formed an Ad Hoc Theatre Operators Committee last September to clean up and organize the Waiver situation. There are currently 45 signatory theaters in the committee.

Signatory theater operators submit a copy of their operating guidelines to Equity and to the Los Angeles Theatre Alliance, a nonprofit theater service organization, according to committee member Gretchen Weber, the managing director of Room for Theatre in Studio City.

Guidelines are posted during auditions so actors can be alerted to benefits and burdens (financial or otherwise) involved in a production, Weber said.

Weber hopes that the committee will be an alternative to direct intervention by Equity: "If Equity says all Waiver houses are required to supply their actors with costumes, a lot of the smaller houses won't be able to afford it," she said.

"But if actors knew up front that they have to buy their costumes, or whatever, and they don't care, then that should be up to them," she said.

"The Ad Hoc guidelines are an attempt to recognize the professionality of the artist involved without breaking the backs of the theaters," the Cast Theater's Ted Schmitt said. "The abuses are only happening in a couple of spaces."

Actors who audition at a theater that has no guidelines should "walk right out," Schmitt suggested.

Equity's historic reluctance to police Waiver stemmed from the potential costs involved, Darryl Allara, Equity's first administrator, said. Actors for Themselves' Joseph Stern suggests that the union charge producers a small fee for putting on each Waiver production. "If there's really five to six hundred productions a year, that's $50,000 to $60,000."

The revenues generated from the fee would pay the salaries of two or more administrators, he said. A larger Waiver staff could address problems with greater depth and would enable Equity to not only formulate, but to enforce guidelines, Stern said.

According to Sautter, Waiver's biggest problem is consistency. His survey indicated that there are producers and theaters committed to "sharing resources with actors, providing a good experience for audiences, and willing to account for their activities."

On the other hand, Sautter observed that there are also producers and theaters that "through mismanagement or intent couldn't care less about the actors.

"Their activities discredit L.A. small theater with not only actors, but also audiences, reviewers and the very entertainment industry the 'showcase' function is supposed to reach."

Waiver has been responsible for putting Los Angeles on the theater map. But at the same time, Waiver as it exists today has become an "anti-actors establishment," Van Duzer said.

"When it starts to be more trouble than help, you know there's something wrong with the system."

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