Caution remains the byword, but after months of rumors, misunderstandings, worst-case scenarios, wild conjecture and paranoia, it looks as if Equity Waiver will have its day in court.
A much-anticipated special meeting of the Los Angeles membership of Actors Equity last week started with a battle but ended in a truce. Purpose of the meeting: to consider the union’s new Actors’ 99-Seat Theatre Plan as a possible replacement for the 14-year-old Equity Waiver Plan (whereby the stage actors’ union “waives” certain rules, but not its jurisdiction, in theaters of 99 seats or less).
Upshot of the meeting: a decision by the union leadership not to mail out a proposed membership-wide referendum to decide the fate of the Waiver, until (a) more discussion could occur at the union’s annual membership meeting on Oct. 24 and (b) union representatives have sat down with the Waiver Theatre Operators Committee to discuss the proposed modifications to the Waiver. The latter is something that Waiver operators, many of whom are also members of Equity, had been clamoring for all along.
The four-hour conclave, held Friday in the 500-seat Musicians Union Auditorium in Hollywood, was open to members only and played to a capacity crowd, a measure of the emotional flashpoint of the issue. Almost 600 people showed up, out of a total Los Angeles membership of 7,500.
That’s the highest attendance since Equity started keeping records in 1962, according to Edward Weston, Equity’s Western regional director, who also characterized the meeting as “very constructive.”
While no reporters were allowed in the room, all accounts indicate that the often heated discussion among the leadership and this embattled portion of its constituency accommodated a pro-and-con examination of the Waiver. Most widely decried of the proposed modifications were the limits on rehearsal time (four weeks) and performances (six weeks).
“If I’m not being paid for my work, at least I want the time to explore the part,” said Actors’ Alley’s Jordan Charney outside the meeting hall.
“Four weeks is unworkable,” echoed the Burbage Theatre’s Ivan Spiegel. “ ‘Bleacher Bums’ (a Burbage Theatre production) took eight weeks (to mount) and didn’t hit till the fourth or fifth week.”
“My play wouldn’t exist without Equity Waiver,” said John DiFusco, co-author/director of “Tracers,” a show that started at the Odyssey and went on to contract situations in New York, London and back in Los Angeles. “Six months of rehearsal (at the Odyssey), three months of begging to get people to come. If I’d had to bow to restrictions, none of it could’ve happened.”
The Equity meeting ended inconclusively (discussion will continue Oct. 24), but a sense-of-the-meeting vote, passed by a show of hands of about 4 to 1, urged the union leadership to hold discussions with representatives of the Waiver operators before going ahead with any referendum.
This outcome apparently contradicted the position taken by Equity attorney Richard A. Davis, who, according to Weston, had advised against talks with the Waiver operators. Davis was reportedly booed by members present.
Asked Wednesday if he would change his position in view of the sense-of-the-meeting vote, Davis said: “I do not know if there will be any meetings. I give opinions, I do not give directions.”
Complicating the issue may well be the term waiver itself, which may carry broader legal implications than just the waiving of a few rules. When the dust settles, watch for the word waiver to be dropped entirely from any new agreement. (It is already absent from the proposed new plan called the Actors’ 99-Seat Theatre Plan.)
Asked earlier if Equity would bow to the membership’s wishes and meet with the Waiver operators, Weston said, "(Equity’s) Western Advisory Board must decide that, not I.”
Joseph Ruskin, chairman of the Western advisory board, confirmed Tuesday that talks would most likely take place, adding: “I’ve never believed we could make sensible changes without sitting down together (with Waiver operators).”
What if the attorneys object?
“Enough of us aren’t going to let that happen,” he said. “We don’t want to be told that we can’t. We want to be told how we can.” Or, as another board member put it: “It would be hard to ignore the overwhelming wishes of the membership.”
Encouraged by these developments, the Waiver operators held a meeting of their own Monday, at which about 50 people showed up.
“We took votes on two motions,” said the Matrix Theatre’s Joe Stern.
“Except for three abstentions, everyone agreed that changes needed to be made in Waiver. The second motion was that we open a structured dialogue with representatives of Actors Equity Assn. toward the objective of reaching a formal agreement for Waiver. This one was unanimously passed.”
No dates have been set and much work still lies ahead, but things are looking up.
Playwright Oliver Hailey, who masterminded, coaxed, coordinated and birthed the collection of playlets called “The Bar Off Melrose” just returned from a summer in England to find the theater, where “Bar” ran five months, a target of some anger in the Waiver disputes.
Responding to the complaints carried in last week’s Stage Watch that Melrose Theatre owners Paul Kent and Jomarie Ward had been uncaring of actors, Hailey said:
“It was the happiest experience of my life--the best time I’ve ever had. I’ve never seen a director (Bill Cort) work so hard. And the best news is that Samuel French has just agreed to publish ‘The Bar Off Melrose.’ My job and my passion are to see new playwrights flourish. I wrote a play once called ‘For the Use of the Hall.’ I love Paul and Jomarie. They gave us the hall.”
Janice Arkatov contributed to this story.