Sunday, April 11, 2004

Non-union 'Broadway' tours criticized

Ticket prices don't reflect quality, union proponents say

By Jackie Demaline
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Equity versus non-Equity (that is, stage actors union versus non-union) is on reader Linda Grayman's mind, particularly timely because the non-Equity national tour of Oklahoma! opens Tuesday for a two-week run as part of Fifth Third Bank Broadway in Cincinnati at the Aronoff.

Non-Equity tours are becoming more and more prevalent as producers work to keep down the costs of touring shows. Broadway in Cincinnati's series includes two or three every season.

Non-Equity versus Equity tours is also the hot-button issue in fast-approaching union negotiations. Equity's contract with producers comes up in mid-June. Cincinnati-based Broadway producer Rick Steiner (Hairspray, The Producers, Little Shop of Horrors) won't be surprised if things heat up sufficiently to result in "a brief work stoppage" on Broadway and on the road.

What's the fuss? And should the average theatergoer care?

Grayman admits to a bias - her son is an Equity actor who will be touring here in August in Mamma Mia.

But her points should strike a chord with audiences for touring Broadway shows. "My husband and I have been subscribers for a very long time and we love going to the series," says Grayman. "However, we have been bothered for the past several seasons about the non-Equity productions. The performers are talented, although somewhat inexperienced ... in general, the quality of the set and staging is lower."

Broadway all Equity

Michele Kay, assistant professor of stage management at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music and a member of Equity, says audiences should definitely care. "The biggest reason is that people are being charged the same amount, they're being marketed to as 'straight from Broadway' and it's not. There are no non-Equity shows on Broadway.

"That's not to say the performers aren't good, but they're usually much younger, the sets are smaller, the production values aren't as high. They're getting something else, often an assistant director's version."

Kay adds vigorously that as consumers, theatergoers should also think at least a little about the union protections that Equity provides performers. "Would you buy a shirt made by people who aren't paid a fair wage? The principal is the same."

Steiner, too, says audiences should care. "You can find a diamond in the rough, but the (performance) quality overall is going to be better in an Equity show."

No easy answers

Brad Broecker, senior vice-president of Clear Channel Theatricals (which owns Broadway in Cincinnati) sighs, "This is not an easy sound-bite discussion. The question we always get is "If this (production) is less expensive, why are ticket prices the same?" but performers are only one part of the cost."

It's also true that non-Equity shows often put more chorus members on stage than an Equity tour.

Ken Gentry heads NETworks, which produces Equity touring shows, including Seussical and Cinderella and non-Equity shows, including Oklahoma! and The Full Monty this season and Rent and Oliver! due to tour here in 2004-05. (Miss Saigon will also be non-Equity.)

Gentry is naming no names but says there are good and bad Equity tours and good and bad non-Equity tours. He thinks NETworks does some of the best non-Equity around.

"We don't make the distinction," he says, adding that NETworks always tries to work out an Equity contract initially and productions, union or not, are all about "meeting and exceeding audience expectations."

"We sit down and ask ourselves, and the authors, if they're available, what was the original intent?" says Gentry. "We try to gather a director, choreographer, designers who all want to accomplish the same things."

National tour director Fred Hanson assisted on the Broadway revival, choreographer Ginger Thatcher assisted Stroman in New York and is working from Stroman's original choreography, and the Broadway sets, costume and lighting design are being re-created for the tour.

"We were specifically attracted to this revival," says Gentry. "I'm really attracted to (director) Trevor Nunn's approach to classical musical theater. It's all about who these people are - the reality of the characters are the heart of the piece."

Broecker judges that non-union performers have "markedly improved" in recent years with so many actors coming out of training programs.

Amanda Rose plays Laurey, the farm girl who unwillingly falls for cowboy Curly in Oklahoma! The South Carolina native started her professional career after earning a theater degree in 2002. She went through 12 auditions to earn her role (Gentry says auditions went on for eight months.)

"We took the show apart and thought about it," she says. "We went back to Green Grow the Lilacs, the original text (by Lynn Riggs). We did nothing but script work for the first week."

The company is young, says Gentry, but so are the characters they are playing.

He says the biggest difference is that the tour production is 25 minutes shorter. "We didn't think people wanted to stay in the theater for 3 hours and 15 minutes."

Kay acknowledges that it is possible to create a facsimile but she still suggests caution.

'It's a fine line'

"It's a fine line," she says, adding that she believes there is a place for non-Equity tours - but not in markets the size of Cincinnati. "They should be in small towns, not large cities. There should be a place for young performers and stage managers to get their feet wet . . .."

A theater-savvy town like Cincinnati, she says, should have Equity tours.

Steiner believes a new contract will result in a multiple-tier system, with the number of theater seats defining the pay scale.

No one is willing to guess whether that will affect ticket prices on the road.


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