JOSEPH STERN / MATRIX THEATRE
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Stirring the Waiver Waters
(Originally printed in Drama-Logue, August 16-22, 1984)

by Lee Melville

While Los Angeles basked in the glorious victories of the Olympic Games and local theatre, particularly, was reflecting the success of the related Olympic Arts Festival, letters were being mailed from Mary Lou Herz, administrator of the 99-Seat Waiver Dept. of Actors' Equity Association to all waiver theatre manager/owners in the county informing of new policy set forth by the union.

A copy of the letter was printed in Drama-Logue Issue No. 31 (Aug. 2-8, page 7). In essence, the reason stated for the letter being sent was because of the union's difficulty in obtaining Subsidiary Rights Agreements on some waiver productions because the union is unaware that a show is being produced. At the meeting of Equity's Western Advisory Board on July 5, 1984, the recommendation of the 99-Seat Waiver Committee was adopted "that all shows playing in an Equity-waiver theatre must be 'registered' with Actors' Equity Association." The letter further states that even if the theatre space qualifies as waiver, each production mounted in that space must be registered in order to obtain waiver status.

The Los Angeles County waiver system has been in effect for over a dozen years now and it caused little surprise to read that Equity was going to clamp down and enforce a few regulations. Since changes were brought about in the similar San Francisco/ Bay Area waiver plan a couple of years ago, some local theatre operators said it was only a matter of time before the union began putting restraints on the waiver system here.

Reaction to the letters has been diverse with some theatre manager/ owners saying the registration requirement is welcome while others feel it is just the beginning of what are many rules and restrictions being planned by Equity. One actor who has been in several waiver productions said, "The [waiver] producers in this town have had a free ride long enough as far as not paying actors is concerned" and feels the time is long overdue when actors should be paid "something, even if it is just gas money."

Quite a few waiver producers have been paying actors "something" for some time but there is no uniform system. Each producer offers what he or she feels is fair and feasible. Then there are those producers who never pay anyone anything. And what about the many waiver productions where the actors are also the producers?

Los Angeles Theatre Alliance, in existence since 1976 but fairly low in profile lately, presently has about 60 members, the majority of which are waiver theatres. Equity's most recent count shows nearly 170 approved waiver spaces although a number of those have been inactive for some time and will subsequently be deleted from the approved list.

"'Conceptually it is my belief that the actor is the co-producer in a waiver production. He or she defers salary in lieu of monetary compensation or further profits. Hence, actors should be compensated whether it is an original or non-original play if they are replaced.  And it is in this spirit that I recommend a 10 per cent profit participation which is separate and apart from their working salary.' óJoseph Stern producer

A meeting of some of the Alliance members was held Tuesday, Aug. 7, as a preliminary discussion about the Equity letters. Alliance president Tom Ormeny (co-artistic director of the Victory Theatre) stated after the meeting that nothing concrete had been decided but indicated a committee of Alliance members would be formed which hopefully would talk with representatives from Equity. For what purpose? Primarily, to begin a communication.

One producer who refuses to panic about the Equity letter and, in fact, feels the registration requirement will be helpful, is Joseph Stern (Actors For Themselves, Matrix Theatre). Stern had written a proposal in the spring of 1983 which was submitted at that same time to the Theatre Allliance. However, he says, his proposal was never relayed to the members at large.

His proposal was drafted to protect both the actor and the producer. During the rehearsal period and initial run, the proposal protected the producers' interest. Once the play was extended and had potential for further profits, the actors were protected.

In the proposal, Stern states, "Conceptually it is my belief that the actor is the co-producer in a waiver production. He or she defers salary in lieu of monetary compensation or further profits. Hence, actors should be compensated whether it is an original or non-original play if they are replaced. And it is in this spirit that I recommend a 10 per cent profit participation which is separate and apart from their working salary."

The proposal's guidelines included a lobby display with photos and/or names of all the actors; all actors' names on flyers; announcement when an understudy or replacement goes on; cleaning of costumes to be paid by producers. Nothing unreasonable there; in fact, most of those things are already being done by most producers although there has been more than one report of costumes not getting cleaned unless each actor did his or her own at the actor's expense.

Where Stern's proposal met resistance was in the monetary guidelines. His suggestion was to pay a minimum of $50 to each cast member as an honorarium for rehearsals and the basic run of play, defined as eight weeks or 50 performances, whichever came first. When a production was extended beyond the basic run of play, the cast was to share 10 per cent of the gross box office receipts. After 26 weeks the cast would share 15 per cent of the gross.

Further guidelines touched on subsidiary rights, suggesting 10 per cent of all proceeds to producer (royalties and profit participation) be shared by those entitled to subsidiary rights (actors who opened the show and/or played at least 10 performances). This did not include productions which might move to an Equity contract or be used for cable, film or television wherein actors would be compensated in accordance with Equity or other union jurisdiction.

Joe Stern's production for the Olympic Arts Festival was Nina Shengold's The Homesteaders. After its two-week OAF run, during which the Equity members were paid in accordance with a union contract and funding was received from the OAF (this was true of all local Festival entries), Stem continued the play for an additional two weeks. The actors, by agreement with Equity and the OAF, received 20 per cent of the box office gross.

Did paying that 20 per cent create a financial burden? Stern says it didn't for him. Then, why did he not continue the run since the production received favorable reviews?

"Because these people [the actors] all work in movies and television and I would have had to replace two or three people. I'm not big on replacing actors. And I always thought the bottom would fall out after July 29 [opening day of the Olympics]. Although we did tremendous business, one of the best things I've ever done, I had designed the whole thing to close on the 29th. That's the way I sold it to the actors."

During the post-Festival run, Stern figures each cast member averaged $175 a week, not that much below the $200 minimum provided by the Equity contract for the Festival.

How do those figures differ from what Stern generally pays actors for his waiver productions? "I pay them each $100 for the entire run, which usually includes four weeks of rehearsal and eight weeks of playing. If I extend, I go into a salary."

Would paying the actors 20 per cent of the gross for future productions be unfeasible? "It's too tough without grants. I got $27,000 in grants directly or indirectly from the Olympic Arts Festival. The show cost about $50,000 and about $18,000 went to the actors. And it would have cost anyone else more [because] I own the theatre. If anyone had rented the theatre, it would have cost about 10 grand more."

But Stern reiterates what could be lived with is paying the actors 10 per cent of the gross after the first eight weeks of a run.
 

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