Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Sunday Read: Arden Ryshpan on Non-Equity Shows

(photo by Michael Cooper)

So what’s the problem with reviewing that non-Equity show anyway?
by Arden Ryshpan, Executive Director, Canadian Actors' Equity Association
A couple of weeks ago, Canadian Actors’ Equity Association (Equity) sent a letter to the newspapers in Toronto, asking them not to review two up-coming shows being presented by Dancap Productions Inc; “In the Heights” and “Shrek”. 
The request followed on an article, printed at the time Aubrey Dan announced his season, which not only pointed out that several shows would be non-Equity but quoted Dan as saying that he didn’t believe that audiences could tell the difference. 
These non-Equity shows are not just not Canadian Equity, they aren’t American Equity either. These shows advertise themselves as being “direct from Broadway” but may in fact be several generations removed from Broadway. In some cases, the original producer has already mined all the major markets with a full blown touring production and has now licensed a non-union producer to take a version of the show out on the road. In other cases, the original producer has no interest in sending out a tour themselves and immediately licenses it to a non-union producer – that’s the real meaning of “direct from Broadway” in the case of some of the productions that make their way over the border. Unfortunately, no one tells the audience that.

I’m very sorry to hear that Mr. Dan believes that the performers aren’t worth investing in.
Our colleagues at American Equity have watched the number of unionized tours decrease very dramatically over the last number of years. In an effort to recapture this market, in their last round of bargaining but one they offered significant changes to the touring provisions to Broadway producers. Some of those conditions are actually less favourable than the conditions in our agreement and this was the source of some upset on our side of the border. While they have managed to bring some of the work back into Equity, there are still too many of these shows going out non-union for either of our comforts.  
In The Heights
Nicole Cline and Perry Young
(photo credit: John Daughtry)
Both of the major papers (and the local alternative paper) chose to review “In the Heights” and they all gave it awful reviews, with all of them pointing out that it was a non-Equity production and that the cast really couldn’t deliver the goods.  Which left me oddly grateful that they had reviewed it, but even more grateful that they took the position that a significant reason for the weakness of the production was due to hiring non-Equity performers. 
The Globe and Mail printed a separate article (right under their less than enthusiastic review) about Equity’s request. The article quoted Aubrey Dan as saying that “…unionized actors can add $50,000 to $100,000. That can be the difference of being put into a loss position or not. “ I’m very sorry to hear that Mr. Dan believes that the performers aren’t worth investing in. But I would suggest that a less than stellar show with lousy reviews is the most likely reason he would find himself in a loss position. 

What you have with these non-Equity touring shows are unsuspecting audiences paying top dollar for a show that is not fully professional.
Unlike mainstream movies, where you might go see something for the special effects or the car chases,  people still come to the theatre to see the people on stage. Generally, we don’t blow up stuff on stage – at least not big stuff – and there isn’t a ton of fancy special effects to distract you from wooden dialogue being delivered by bewildered performers doing a scene with a tennis ball on a broom stick in front of a green screen. Don’t misunderstand me – I have tremendous respect for performers who can manage to deliver a coherent performance under those circumstances. It is unbelievably difficult to be able to rise above the challenges of playing opposite a dangling tennis ball. But that’s not what brings paying public to the theatre. They come to see people act and sing and dance at a skill level that is often remarkable. 
What you have with these non-Equity touring shows are unsuspecting audiences paying top dollar for a show that is not fully professional. As in the case of “In the Heights”, many of the cast members had little experience of any kind and the critics all said it showed.  And when audiences purchase a ticket at top dollar and do not receive goods of top quality in return, we all have a problem. 
In a world where consumers can increasingly watch what they want to when they want to on the device of their choosing for a small (or no) payment, what makes them want to leave their homes on an appointed day at an appointed time and pay significantly more? If an audience member pays $135 for a ticket (that’s top price for “Shrek” before service charges) and has a lousy time at the theatre, they are going to be either less inclined to pay full price the next time or, even worse,  less inclined to go at all. You can’t sell less than top value productions for top prices and expect audiences to keep buying your tickets. If they had a less than stellar experience, you can be sure that they will go home and tell all of their friends about it. That hurts all theatre, of all sizes and types and inevitably pushes down ticket  prices and attendance.  
Many papers have a policy of not reviewing non-Equity shows. For the most part, they assume that a non-Equity production isn’t a professional production and perceive little value in covering those kinds of activities in their papers.  I would agree entirely with that position. The problem we face – although it was solved admirably by the comments and accompanying articles about “In the Heights”, is how does anyone know what the provenance of the show is? American Equity does have a list on their website where you can find a list of what they are aware is touring without Equity contracts. But your average audience member is still completely in the dark in this area, many of them not having any idea that these productions could be anything less than the exact same people in the exact same production with the exact same sets/costume/lighting etc, that they would have seen in New York. 

Turning a show away at the border isn’t the best solution, but it is one that I will gladly take.
Unfortunately, current immigration procedures do not offer us the ability to stop these shows at the border.  Equity has begun working with both MPs and government bureaucrats to make the changes needed to give us the right to be consulted on whether or not a production should be allowed to enter the country but that will take time. In another positive twist, this little bit of coverage in the newspapers will add to our ammunition when speaking with the elected in Ottawa about this issue. Turning a show away at the border isn’t the best solution, but it is one that I will gladly take.  Ideally, we want Canadian audiences to be able to see high quality touring productions, productions which whet their appetite for more theatre of all types, productions which often engage Canadians, I might add. And the best way to do that is to find ways to support the efforts of our colleagues at American Equity and to find ways to discourage presenters from importing non-union shows into our largest theatres. When they can fill their stages with cheap, non-Equity shows, it takes work away from our members and it lowers the overall quality of theatre in this country.  And no one should support that, no matter how badly the kids want to see Shrek in person…