JOSEPH STERN / MATRIX THEATRE
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Waiver Wars
(Originally printed in the Los Angeles Daily News, Sunday, October 3, 1982)

The usually placid and predictable 99-seats-or-less Equity-waiver theater scene lately has taken on the bash-bam-gee-whiz image of a Saturday morning cartoon show. The bold proclamations, the broad charges and countercharges seem to be getting more flamboyant by the day.

The issue at hand is the integrity of small theater in Los Angeles, where certified stage professionals are allowed to work for free. Actors' Equity, the professional actors' stage union, waives the performer's rights regarding working conditions, rehearsal time and, most importantly, salary.

Since 1972, most waiver theater has been a money-losing, non-paying labor of love for all those involved.

But the situation may be changing.

Today, the actors and other creative personnel involved in this form of theater are not necessarily amateurs or fringe performers who work infrequently. Last year, John Cassavetes introduced three full-length plays in waiver theater, with wife Gena Rowlands and Jon Voight starring in one and good friend Peter Falk in the other.

Other names involved in waiver productions past and present are Max Baer, Steve Allen, Bret Sommers, Marcia Wallace, Julie Newmar, Frederic Forrest, Cliff DeYoung, Betty Garrett, Jack Cassidy, Marisa Berenson, Lawrence Pressman, Ian McShane and numerous others.

Nor are all these famous names necessarily doing waiver theater to bail out flagging careers. While still highly visible as a star on "The Waltons," Ralph Waite both founded and starred at his Los Angeles Actors' Theater. Penny Fuller, a recent Emmy winner for her performance in "The Elephant Man," currently is on stage at the Matrix Theater in Harold Pinter's "Betrayal."

But there is something new on the waiver scene; something clearly beyond known actors wanting to trod the boards or stretch themselves.

The center of this latest debate on the waiver scene is Catalina Productions, a 2-year-old film and production unit owned by actor Gregory Harrison (of television's "Trapper John, M.D.") and producer-manager Franklin R. Levy.

In addition to producing several top-rated TV films, Catalina has been dabbling quite successfully in waiver theater.

The group's first two productions were a revival of John Patrick's almost-forgotten 1945 war drama, "The Hasty Heart," starring Harrison, and a musical spoof previously presented in waiver theater, "The Orphan's Revenge."

Incredibly, both productions went from their modest waiver runs at the Cast Theater in Hollywood to full-scale commercial productions. "The Hasty Heart" became the first waiver production to make the jump to the large Music Center when it was booked into the Ahmanson Theatre by artistic director Robert Fryer. Fryer scheduled "The Hasty Heart" as last season's fourth offering, replacing a canceled revival of "Anastasia" with the late Natalie Wood.

"The Orphan's Revenge" was picked up by Ford's Theater in Washington, B.C., where it enjoyed a three-month run.

For their second time out as {.heater producers, Catalina staged another, earlier war drama 1928's "Journey's End" by R.C. Sherriff with Andrew Stevens and Maxwell Caulfield in the leading roles. This production became the first cable project where a performance was taped in its original waiver theater.

Later this month, Catalina will unveil also at the Cast a production of Mark Medoff's much-seen comedy, "The Wager." The four-member cast consists of the highly visible and marketable Hart Bochner, David Marshall Grant, Mark Harmon and Glynnis O'Connor. Once again, a cable production is a likely prospect.

While the public may delight in seeing recognizable "names" in intimate theaters for modest admission prices, other waiver-theater practitioners have been less than cordial about Catalina's success.

Most vocal in his opposition is Joseph Stern, himself active in television as the producer of "Cagney and Lacey" and a co-producer of the upcoming mini-series, "The Winds of War." Stern is one of the founders of Actors For Themselves, a 9-year-old organization whose productions include such critically acclaimed successes as, "Are You Now or Have You Ever Been?" (one of the first waiver shows to transfer to a commercial theater), "The Changing Room," "Chapin" and the current alternating productions of "Two Small Bodies" and "Betrayal" at Stern's Matrix Theater in Hollywood.

"I was absolutely delighted when it was announced that 'Hasty Heart' was going to make the jump from a waiver theater to the Music Center," said Stern. "Then I heard how they treated some of the original actors, and I got mad."

It is Stern's contention that by replacing half the "Hasty Heart" cast in the move from the Cast to the Ahmanson, Catalina had exploited the talent and good will of the performers who worked several months for no salary on the original production.

"They replaced two of the key Cast supporting players, Jennifer Salt and Edward Edwards with Lisa Eichhorn and Kurt Russell, supposedly because the latter two were better-known names needed to fill the 2,000-seat Ahmanson," Stern said. "But since the Ahmanson claims to be 80 percent sold-out on subscription, I still fail to see the box-office allure of Eichhorn and Russell.

"Eichhorn has no major American television or stage credits and only one modest film success ("Yanks"). Salt, on the other hand, was a regular on the highly rated 'Soap' series. As for Russell, he replaced an actor (Edward Edwards) who had won a L.A. Drama Critics Award for his performance of the role. Furthermore, Russell's only recent film success was 'Escape From New York,' hardly Music Center audience fare."

Indeed, both Russell and Eichhorn had to join Actors' Equity to appear in the production, according to Stern. Although no rules were officially broken, Stern feels that the replacements were made arbi-tarily in the interest of commercialism over art.

Levy, representing Catalina, defends the action of cast replacements by stating that there were specific demands for cast changes made by the Ahman-son's Fryer and playwright Patrick. Levy said these demands could not be ignored. He also contends that actors appearing in revivals of plays are not covered by the Subsidary Rights Agreement, the Equity ruling that ensures an actor has "first refusal" on a role in a new play if the script goes from a workshop situation into a full, commercial production.

"I resent Joe Stern's accusation that we only do plays for cable and exploit actors," said Levy. "We do theater because it's an interesting alternative to film and television. But when I do theater, I don't want to do the tried-and-true. Why do The King and I' again when you know you can't compete with what has been done before? Why not do a show like 'Fanny,' perhaps in a different production scheme, and let the audiences and critics rediscover a show?

"By the same token, if you do a show that hasn't been seen a lot, like 'Hasty Heart' or 'Journey's End,' why shouldn't it be the best you can do? I always thought that if any of our shows was well-received, there might be a commercial afterlife to them.

"But we produced them as plays, not as tryouts for cable. I have great respect for the local critics. In many ways they're shrewder than their New York counterparts. As for the actors, everyone benefited from being seen in 'Hasty Heart.' However, in the future we plan to pay all the performers who may be replaced."

Stern, however, sees that matter quite differently.

"How did Jennifer Salt benefit from 'Hasty Heart'? By doing another waiver show for free? The fact of the matter is that Levy and Harrison are very shrewd, smooth operators. Essentially, they're using the waiver system to conduct free rehearsals and tryouts for cable and film. They are backer's auditions for big money. Catalina doesn't care if it sells two tickets to its productions.

"My God, even in a professional play reading, Equity insists that the actors receive a small token fee for their time. But in this situation, Equity waives all rights.

"If enough carpetbagger producers and production companies abuse the waiver plan, we may lose it. We have something unique in Los Angeles. It's an honor system. You want a successful show? Hold auditions and get the best available performers. Believe me, if Catalina were just interested in theater, they'd know that you can sell out with no names in a waiver theater... if the show is good enough."

Levy claims that Stern's displeasure with the "Hasty Heart" situation is based on jealousy and envy on Stern's part. He contends that Stern's production of "The Lady Cries Murder," starring Paul Michael Glaser (of "Starsky and Hutch" TV fame) and directed by Broadway veteran Joesph Hardy was conceived to move on to a commercial theater, including the Ahmanson, which ultimately housed "Hasty Heart."

"I think you have to be prepared for a certain amount of jealousy in this business," said Levy. "But I fail to see why Catalina is considered to be the outsiders invading the waiver scene. We hope to do a lot of theater in Los Angeles, which we feel will benefit everyone.

"We are also prepared to take criticism warranted and otherwise. When we produced 'Journey's End' right after The Hasty Heart,' some critics accused us of jumping on the bandwagon and following up one war play with other war play. The truth of the matter is that we considered 'Journey's End' as a production before we became involved with 'Hasty Heart.' But Greg opted to do the latter play instead. But we were so familiar with 'Journey's End,' we simply decided to do it next."

Counters Stern: "I believe 'Hasty Heart,' which I never saw, was a good piece of waiver theater that got extraordinarily lucky. If Natalie Wood's tragic drowning hadn't resulted in the cancellation of 'Anastasia,' it is extremely doubtful that 'Hasty Heart' would have made its move to the Ahmanson.

Stern also contends that Catalina had ample funds to pay the replaced performers.

"I happen to know that the Ahmanson gave Catalina $15,000 up front as a producing fee," said Stern. "Now, where did that money go? Certainly none of it went to the replaced actors, who worked three months and at odd hours to accommodate the shooting schedule of Harrison's series."

As for Levy's charges regarding the commercial aspect of "The Lady Cries Murder," Stern says that the production was financed by a group of investors, and that his theater would have retained only 1 percent of any future profits from that show. Furthermore, he notes that, since his organization had sole artistic approval over every aspect of the production, he was able to provide written agreements with every cast member of "Lady" guaranteeing them the right to recreate their roles if the show had gone on to a commercial run.

If the new-found problems of waiver theater are perplexing to some, Edward Weston, Western regional director of Actors' Equity, has adopted a distinct wait-and-see policy.

"We're definitely watching the situation," said Weston. "Obviously if productions go on to commercial productions on stage or cable and a significant number of actors are replaced in the process, there may be a certain amount of exploitation. We definitely don't want the waiver being misused as a cheap way of doing tryouts for cable and film."

Weston added that the increasing use of old plays as cable production may lead to an added waiver clause guaranteeing that actors get paid if a show old or new moves on in the commercial market.

"We do know that rules usually get written when someone abuses the system," said Weston. "If enough Equity members want closer scrutiny of productions by their union, it may happen; but only if enough Equity members want it, as in San Francisco. Let's face it: Every project begins with an attitude of goodwill and optimism. Everyone is taking a chance. If someone wants to abuse the system or break the rules, then we may have to do something."

Another waiver producer, Ron Sossi, who runs the three-stage Odyssey Theater Ensemble in West Los Angeles, claims to have no aversion to the influence of cable in local theater.

"I have no ethical problem with it," said Sossi. "I just hope it doesn't become the only way to do theater in Los Angeles. If we get to the point where plays are chosen and actors are cast simply because of the cable potential, it could be less than wonderful. Since I have worked in the industry myself, I would like to see a definite separation between theater and cable.

"On the other hand, if a cable deal can allow an actor to make some money, how can anyone object to it? Quite frankly, a lot of us in waiver have worked hard to be taken seriously by eliminating the stigma of 'showcase theater' from our work. Cable could bring that all back again."

For the working professional actor, participation in mostly non-paying waiver theater involves many potential rewards and hazards. Actress Dee Wallace (most prominent these days as the mother in "E.T") has taken on the role of producer. With her husband, actor Christopher Stone, Wallace is co-producing the musical "Ameritage" at the Gene Dynarski Theater in West Hollywood.

"Equity waiver is the best way to put something back into the business, which has given my husband and me so much," says Wallace. "Whatever risks we took are paying off. One of our actors has gotten a TV job, the reviews have been wonderful and the reaction from audiences has been extremely positive. The people who wrote this show are unknowns, and we feel good about giving them helpful exposure."

For other working performers, participation in waiver theater means sticking their necks out to do on-stage roles of a different caliber that their usual screen fare. Linda Purl, now a regular on "Happy Days," and Brian Kerwin, recently a star of the "Lobo" series, are two performers who have put their time, energy and money into waiver theater.

Purl, who has made several forays into local theater, won critical acclaim earlier this year for her interpretation of Nora in a revival of Henrik Ibsen's " A Doll's House" at the Matrix Theater.

"It was a project my friend Simon McCorkindale and I wanted to do," said Purl. "United Cable underwrote the production with the understanding .hat they would have first-refusal on it as a cable production. Though we had excellent reviews and sold out houses for six weeks, by the time the work was done United was not in a position to undertake a cable production.

"We then explored the other cable production companies and were told that 'A Doll's House' wasn't the type of material they were looking for. '

Though Purl claims that she eventually made about $7 for her several months' involvement in the production, she does not consider the experience a waste of time.

"I suppose my work in waiver theater is separate from my commercial career," she said. "On the other hand, you can't put a price on what an audience gives you. I want to keep working, so if the project is interesting I'll do it if I have the time. I did a 30-second bit role in the film 'W.C. Fields and Me' just because it meant working with Rod Steiger for two days.

"On the other hand, as much as I appreciate the opportunities I've had in waiver, something inside me resents it when good actors don't get paid. Ultimately, I don't believe in professionals working for nothing. That's why I'm supportive of what Catalina is doing. I think there is room for all kinds of theater in waiver. What's really needed is a way of educating audiences to support local theater."

Kerwin admits to being the primary investor in a recent production of "The Subject Was Roses" at the Callboard Theater, which also starred Elizabeth Huddle and Michael McGuire.

"I can only say that I've always come out of a stage role as twice the actor I was going into it," said Kerwin. "There is so much high-risk money in TV that you don't always get to do challenging roles only the parts they think you can do."

Kerwin like Purl admits that waiver theater makes definite demands on a working actor. He says an actor must make a complete commitment to a show or risk "becoming a rat" by leaving the show while it is still running, as often occurs in non-paying waiver theater.

"Toward the end of the run in 'Subject Was Roses' the subject of cable came up," he said. "One of the cable people told me, 'You have a good enough TVQ, but the other two actors will have to be replaced. How about Linda Lavin for the mother?'

"Since the three actors and our director had worked closely on this project, I don't know what I would have done if a cable deal had come through. Now, in retrospect, I'm glad no deal came through. How do you tell an actor who has contributed as much as you have to a show that they aren't needed anymore? I'm glad now I didn't have to wrestle with that decision.

"When I did William Inge's 'A Loss of Roses' at the Met Theater, the atmosphere was, 'the play's the thing.' The producers just weren't interested in actors who thought of a play as merely a showcase. You have to maintain a certain amount of integrity doing waiver."

Ultimately, the whole system of Equity-waiver .heater may be altered for better or worse with the increased participation of professionals in the local theater scene. One fact seems certain: In a time of cutbacks in film and television work, a good many recognizable names may be expected to try their luck in the waiver waters. This artistic pool is no longer limited to the up-and-coming or occasional actor. And with the increased use of stars, the course of local live theater may be altered irrevocably.
 

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