STAGE : A Possible Scenario in Equity Waiver Wars : Commentary

We predicted last week that the decision to start paying actors in the 99-seat-and-under theaters will result in fewer shows. Ah, but will they be better shows?

The worst-case argument says that they won't be.

Large-cast shows like the Odyssey's "The Chicago Conspiracy Trial" or its current "McCarthy" will be out. Design budgets will be cut. Theaters that now can cast to the role will revert to being workshops, where members pay dues in order to subsidize production costs--and expect to get good parts in the show. We'll go back to the days of vanity theater.

The best-case scenario is that the new stipends will bring a new professionalism to the small-theater scene.

They will remind everybody that this isn't workshop theater, but the real thing. Producers will concentrate on doing the shows they really want to do, rather than assembling scattershot seasons for fictitious subscription audiences. Actors will be less likely to duck out of shows to do toilet paper commercials. Everyone will bear down, and the work will be more likely to transfer to a larger house, where some real money can be made.

What will really happen, we imagine, is that the good people in smaller theater will continue to do good work, while the bad people will continue to do the other kind. We can't see the Odyssey's Ron Sossi turning to schlock productions just to make a point. He's not built that way. Nor can we see other people suddenly achieving excellence.

It should also be remembered that in some venues Equity Waiver theater always has been "vanity theater" (i.e., self-financed) and that good work can be done on that level. Jude Narita's "Song for a Sansei/Coming Into Passion" at the Fountain Theatre was an example of a performer hiring a hall and showing us what she could do; and Narita was superb.

As for workshops, some of the most distinguished companies in Los Angeles theater history have worked on a cooperative basis, from the Actors' Lab in the 1940s to the Company Theatre in the 1960s. Good theater--and bad--can happen under any rubric.

Our hope for the next decade is that small theater finds many rubrics, many forms. Last week we suggested that Waiver theater had become overgrown and needed to be cut back. This doesn't mean that it ought to become a chalk garden. We are talking about regularizing pay scales for actors here, not about putting theater into prison. Let 1,000 flowers bloom. Well, 50.

Actors' Equity will have a great deal to say about that. The producers maintain that Equity wants to pull Waiver theater up by the roots, as it did in San Francisco. This is doubtful. Equity has 8,000 members here, as opposed to a relative handful up north. A good many of these members are dying to work before an audience, even if the recompense is less than a regular job would bring them.

They need an outlet. The 99-seat-and-under houses give them that outlet. Kill it and you kill a lot of hope, promote a lot of unrest. If Waiver theater didn't exist, Equity would have to invent it. In fact, it did.

Equity has a stake in Waiver's survival. The trick will be to defend the actor's rights without forcing too many of the producers out of business. Since the producers will range from a prosperous TV/film company to a bunch of kids just out of school, this will take plenty of individual attention. Rubber-stamp all requests and you'll end up with the big guys running Waiver--just the people who could afford to be producing in the mid-size houses.

From the union point of view it's easier to negotiate with the big guys. (Equity's Edward Weston finds the Shuberts courteous and realistic.) But it's the little guys who give the Los Angeles small-theater scene its character. Room has got to be left for maverick playwrights like John Steppling, for visionary young directors like Reza Abdoh, for rambunctious ensembles like the Actors' Gang.

Not only may their discoveries one day have commercial application (as when "A Chorus Line" appropriated techniques from Joe Chaikin's Open Theatre), their work keeps theater ventilated and alive--a medium of interest to people younger than 40. It can't be "The Hasty Heart" every night.

Attention has got to be paid to these artists, this audience. And Equity has discretion to do so, since it is not entering into strict contracts with the smaller-theater producers. Everybody is being "forgiven" something that would have to be negotiated under a regular contract.

The worthier the project and the less affluent the producing group, the more should be forgiven. Never to the point of undermining the actors' right to see something for their labors.

But if it's a "Chicago Conspiracy Trial," maybe the extras get less than the actors with speaking roles. If Theatre X is doing a season, maybe it gets a break on Show A if it agrees to do Show B under a regular union contract. Several groups in town already have such an arrangement with Equity.

I tend to believe Weston when he says that the union is ready to work with individual producers, once the producers have signed Equity's small-theater plan. The producers tend not to believe Weston. They blame him for sending out a referendum to Equity members behind their backs last spring.

In fact, some of them--union members themselves--are suing the union. In truth, Weston has taken a somewhat cavalier attitude toward the Waiver scene, implying that its producers are playing at theater rather than operating in the real world.

At the same time, you do sense in Weston a genuine desire to be helpful--if anyone would ask. Both the union and the producers need to be reminded that they are pulling in the same direction, even when they seem to be at odds. It's not about labor versus management. It's about a more professional Los Angeles theater.

Conflict is drama, though, and these are theater people. One of the producers told me the other day that Equity was clearly the big villain here, for having "abdicated its responsibilities" toward small theater when it invented the Waiver plan in 1972.

Huh? Wasn't the idea for the union to withdraw from the scene and to let it sort itself out? And wasn't everybody pleased when Equity did so? How could it pursue a hands-off policy toward the small theaters and be responsible for them at the same time? Wasn't it the small theaters themselves who were responsible?

Now that Equity is back in the ballgame, however, it does have a responsibility to see that things go fairly--that the big guys don't exploit the situation and that the little guys don't get hounded out of business.

This will entail paper work, but not necessarily a ton of it. It is no secret around town who the big guys and the little guys are. The budget figures are on file in a number of places, and if they aren't, that tells you something too. For the producers, the change will also mean extra paper work. That's a part of doing business these days, and running a theater is a business, unfortunately.

In that regard, it would be interesting to see Equity open its own small theater here, a counterpart to its New York operation, the Equity Library Theatre. This would have three advantages:

--It would provide jobs for actors.

--It would provide smaller-theater producers a model of how to go about it.

--And it would give Equity officials a realistic sense of what it is like, in 1988, to get a show open in Los Angeles.

As for the producers, one would welcome a bit more truth-in-packaging in years to come. More shows should frankly present themselves as showcase or workshop productions, with the cast drawn from a certain preselected pool, with ticket prices less than $10 and with no promise as to the standard of the acting or the writing. It is much better to know the parameters of a show at the outset than to discover them 10 minutes in.

Above that, we would have the honest-to-God theaters, playing in the same league (except for physical size) with the Taper and LATC. Wouldn't that be tidy?

But here the critic betrays the same urge for regularity that Weston exhibits when he speaks so fondly of the Shuberts. We musn't press a grid over small theater. The aim isn't to lobotomize it, but to channel its energy.

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