THEATER NOTES : Fewer 'Party' Goers

Fewer seats in a theater usually mean lower wages for the professional actors. So Actors' Equity, the stage actors' union, frowns on most attempts by producers to reduce a theater's established seating capacity.

Recently, however, for the production of "Party," a graphic gay comedy opening Nov. 12 at the 863-seat Henry Fonda Theatre, the union's Western Regional Board approved the use of the Hollywood Area Theatre Contract--which was designed for theaters seating between 100 and 499. The producers plan to cut the Fonda capacity down to 294 seats by closing the balcony and blocking off the back of the orchestra seats with a curtain.

Many producers and directors have long urged Equity to loosen the links between seating capacities and contracts. Peter Ellenstein, who wrangled with Equity over the contract for his staging of "Assassins" when it moved from a small theater to a mid-sized house earlier this year, predicts that the "Party" deal could encourage other producers to make similar moves. "I applaud Equity's progressive action in finding new solutions to the problems of producing in Los Angeles," wrote Ellenstein, in a letter to Equity officials.

Not so fast. George Ives, Equity's Western Regional director, said that the "Party" deal was "a fair request in this one instance, but it took the specifics of the situation to justify it."

The Fonda otherwise would be dark, Ives said, because the area around it is "so undesirable" during subway construction. Also, Ives noted, the extensive male nudity in "Party" probably limits the potential audience to the size of a mid-sized or smaller theater--but the other prominent mid-sized venues (the Geffen, the Coronet, the Canon) are occupied. Furthermore, Ives said, the "Party" producers have agreed to use the top rung of the Hollywood contract's pay scale--that is, they'll pay the actors as if the theater had 499 seats instead of 294.

"You'd have to have all of the same circumstances" to justify using this deal as a precedent, Ives said.

"Party" co-producer Leonard Soloway said that the Fonda balcony might eventually be opened if ticket demand is great enough. "But for the moment, I want to give the material a break. It really is an intimate evening."

James Nederlander, whose company owns the Fonda, invested in the New York production of "Party," Soloway added, and aggressively pursued "Party" for the Fonda. Soloway said that he didn't want to wait for any of the existing mid-sized theaters to open up because his own schedule was too busy after autumn. He shied away from 99-seat theaters because "we could never gross enough to make it worthwhile." The show's budget at the Fonda is $250,000.

The union locals representing the backstage and box office workers also granted concessions to accommodate "Party," Soloway said, but only Equity was initially reluctant to do so.

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