Saturday, March 3, 2012

Theatre For Thought, March 3, 2012

joel fishbane
Earlier this month, Canadian Actors Equity Association (CAEA) raised a protest over a non-Union touring production of In the Heights, brought to Toronto by Dancap Productions. Speaking to the Globe and Mail, CAEA executive director Arden Ryshpan made the following remark: “We think that audiences shouldn’t be inadvertently misled into thinking they are seeing a Broadway calibre production – which we would say they are not, if the productions are non-Equity.” Ms. Ryshpan echoed these comments in a subsequent article for CharPo.
The CAEA is trying to stop the media from covering non-Union productions in the hopes of creating a backlash against producers who don’t hire members of the CAEA. These members lose work whenever a non-Union company comes to town and the CAEA hopes that with media support, they can dissuade these companies from performing in Canada. Although I am sympathetic to their dilemma, in framing their argument the CAEA has taken a position that is both misleading to the public and gravely insulting to all Canadian artists. 
An artist’s Union status does not reflect their capabilities...

Inherent to the CAEA’s argument is the position that had In the Heights been a Union show, it would be “Broadway-calibre production”. This argument equates Union affiliation with artistic merit but the equation is uncategorically false. An artist’s Union status does not reflect their capabilities; nor does adherence to Union standards automatically mean a company will create a well-tuned production. 
Most theatres that abide by CAEA guidelines are members of the Professional Association of Canadian Theatres (PACT) , none of whom are ever required to pass a test proving they know how to stage “Broadway-calibre” productions. The artistic abilities of these producers are never tested by the CAEA. Companies have no guidelines to follow other than an agreement to adhere to certain business practices These include standardized pay scales, paying insurance costs and reimbursing artists for working overtime. 
It does not follow that ethical business practices will have any effect on the quality of the show being produced. It may have an effect in that the actors have not been overworked. But theatre is a lot older than its Unions and history has shown that artistic merit is not determined solely by whether artists receive their required fifteen-minute break.  
What you see when you watch any theatrical production is the artistic ideas of its creators - not of the CAEA.

An artist can only join the CAEA after getting hired by a theatre under Equity’s jurisdiction (usually a PACT company). At no time in this process does the CAEA ever assess the quality of the member’s work for themselves; the quality of each member’s art is judged only by those who hire them. What you see when you watch any theatrical production is the artistic ideas of its creators - not of the CAEA. While it is often the case that CAEA members, owing to their experience, will create stronger shows, it is nothing but arrogance to assert that this will always be the case.
We have all had the experience of attending a “professional” (Equity) performance which left us unimpressed; likewise, we have all sat in the theatre while a group of “independents” dazzled us with their skill. It is irresponsible to claim that only union-affiliated artists can provide quality art and insulting to any non-affiliated artist working to make their own contribution to Canadian culture. 
Union affiliation does not eliminate an artist’s ability to make mistakes – In the Heights got poor reviews, but it could have been just as lousy with unionized artists. They are just as capable as anyone else of producing disappointing work. To suggest otherwise is to suggest we judge a work based solely on the artist’s professional affiliations rather than the artistic merit of the work itself. This is a frightening proposition and one which is akin to censorship - imagine a show which is ignored by a Liberal paper because it features actors who are members of the Conservative Party. As an established defender of the arts, the CAEA should want no part in such a position.  
They are not members of the CAEA – does this mean that they are not capable of professional-calibre work? 

It is noteworthy that individual talent has little bearing on the overall quality of any theatrical show. Theatre is a collaborative effort and only a small portion of that collaboration is ever governed by the CAEA – after all, the CAEA only has actors, stage managers and directors as its members. A show’s sets, lights, costumes and script are all being supplied by non-Equity personnel. They are not members of the CAEA – does this mean that they are not capable of professional-calibre work? 
It would be a dangerous thing indeed if the CAEA decided that companies under their jurisdiction needed to adhere to some specific artistic standard. Given the subjective nature of art, their judgments would always come under scrutiny. More, the CAEA would be obliged to kick out members who don’t meet their own artistic criteria, thus turning them into artistic censors. 
This is also the role the Union threatens to play if they ever succeed in blocking non-Equity companies from entering Canada. Here is another idea Equity has been promoting and it has frightening implications. If we close Canada’s doors to non-union artists from elsewhere, how long until we turn our attention to other non-Union artists at home? It could be the end of non-Union theatre altogether. Goodbye independent theatre. Goodbye FTA. Goodbye Fringe. 
The CAEA would be wiser to direct their energies towards fundraising and advocacy for arts funding, which would make it more feasible for companies to produce under Union guidelines. They may also want to look at loosening their requirements for membership:  non-Equity producers would have a hard time producing their shows if there were fewer non-Equity artists looking for work.

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