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Equity Waiver: For Fun or Profit?
(Originally printed in the L.A. Times Calendar section, May 2, 1982)

Recent Calendar articles on Equity Waiver theater have prompted a number of letters from readers close to the Waiver scene. At left, actor Howard Honig replies to the charge of director-critic Charles Marowite that Equity Waiver's showcase function is akin to "whoring" (Feb. 28) and below, actor-producer Joseph Stern responds to our report on the new links between Equity Waiver and the Hollywood entertainment community (April 4)

Dear Mr. Marowitz:

A group of us actor/"whores" were sitting around the dressing room of our Waiver theater and discussing your article. We agreed that your ideas completely ignore the realities not only of theater in Los Angeles, but of theater in America and the American actor's relationship to that theater.

For you to seriously suggest that actors in this country, by banding together, can change the attitudes of the public and of their employers toward the theater displays naiveté and ignorance in the extreme. When, for example, did the Broadway stage ever develop "its own elite artists whose continuous development in the live theater created a breed of performers artistically distinct from celluloid 'names'"? Who are those artists? Are they still a breed apart, working away on good old Broadway? The only ones we can think of abandoned New York and the theater to work in films and television.

We American actors do have some rotten traits born out of our experience. After a time, we resent working for nothing, in this country there are rarely any rewards for actors other than personal satisfaction (which doesn't pay rent) and money. In this country, Mr. Marowitz, money means acceptance. That's a reality we don't appreciate, but we have had to make our peace with it.

You argue that stage actors who feel they can survive only by recourse to the other media, do so on the "fallacious assumption" that Los Angeles need be limited to only one wholly subsidized theater. If that is a fallacious assumption, you can doubtless fill us in on the sources of funds you have found with which we can subsidize other theaters. We actors are painfully aware that every major country in the world (and many minor ones) subsidize their theaters and artists far more generously than the United States. That's the atmosphere we American actors have had to survive in, Mr. Marowitz. So, in order to survive at all, we play the game. Perhaps you know another way?

We took a poll in our dressing room. How many of us (we are seven) were doing this play because we believe in the play and love to act? How many of us were doing it to showcase ourselves for films and television? We came up with a vote of seven on both counts.
You see, with the exception of one young man, we have all been around (and around and around), and basically "we don't get no respect." So, we work for nothing to keep our spirits alive and our instruments in tune hoping that we can make a few bucks along the way so that we can afford to practice our art, or our craft, or whatever the hell it is.

We don't kid ourselves that working in television is the be-all and end-all, the great goal. We have all done it — a lot of it — and we know it is sometimes trash. But, somehow it is still considered acting and it beats typing and waiting tables and driving cabs. We American actors have not made the rules. Even the producers in this town, the people to whom we used to look for some leadership to-
ward even a semblance of artistic and theatrical integrity, have yielded their power to the network accountants.

You write, "one looks in vain for political ideas powerfully put or hazardous experiments couched in innovative theater language." We don't doubt that you look in vain for that in Los Angeles. You can look in vain for that in New York, too. Have you noticed which plays succeed in New York? Would you have us all dedicate ourselves forever to the La Mamas and the Performance Groups? Many of us would, and for very little remuneration, if we were not to be ignored in the bargain and thought of as freaks and idiots to boot. Somewhere, somehow, we expect to get something back.

You "rejoice" when Waiver productions of "Thursday's Girls" and "Nuts" reach a wider public "naturally," as you put it, "by displaying the concerted talents of artists whose work has organically succeeded on the stage," Neither of those plays could be described as "hazardous experiments" or "couched in innovative theater language." For your information, Mr. Marowitz, they were both mounted by actors looking for work in television and film, part of the giant audition in which we participate unceasingly. The only difference is that these productions succeeded, and so they have your blessing. Are you perhaps participating in the double standard which you claim to deplore? Are all we auditioning, waivering Waiver theater actors who participate in less-than-successful productions condemned by your 'definition' to whoring forever?

When you can find a way to create an atmosphere in this country of respect for actors, to define for those who employ us just what an actor is and to convince them that in the long run, real American actors will serve them better than models, sex objects, foreign imports and over-the-hill athletes, then write another article, Mr. Marowitz, and we will all rejoice in your findings.


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and read Joseph Stern's letter


Dear Editor:

On April 5 I attended the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle's annual banquet and watched "The Hasty Heart" receive six awards for excellence. One of these was for "distinguished ensemble performance/' Gregory Harrison, accepting on behalf of the nine actors who had performed the play at the Equity Waiver Cast-at-the-Circle Theater, spoke of team spirit.

But as they stood silhouetted on the stage, this "team" had been reduced from nine to five actors. The other four had been replaced for the new version of "The Hasty Heart" at the Ahmanson.

The men responsible were the show's original producers, Franklyn Levy, Leslie Moonves and Gregory Harrison (a k a Catalina Productions); the Ahmanson's artistic director, Robert Fryer, and the playwright, John Patrick.

These men did not violate the rules of Actors' Equity, because there are no rules where Waiver theater is concerned. It is a gentlemen's agreement: The actor will do his work and the union will waive its jurisdictional rights. If there are any profits, hopefully, the producers and the actors will share them. What these men violated, rather, were the rules of fairness and decency. And their conduct may be the beginning of the end of Waiver theater in Los Angeles,

One of the producers told me that a combination of artistic differences, the author's right of cast approval and the Ahmanson's need for names were the reasons for the replacements. I was somewhat disconcerted. The Ahmanson, so we are told, has a subscription audience of 80% of its capacity. Granting that it's tough to sell the remaining 20% of its seats, I failed to see the box-office allure of the quote "name" replacements.

But as one of the actors told me, "I don't think these men are villains — just businessmen. Hell, everyone knew from the beginning that Frank and Greg had big plans. I just should've been smart enough to have had a contract."

This statement touches the heart of this event and the reason that we who have been involved with theater in Los Angeles have to reevaluate where we are and where we are going.

Waiver theater, when it began 10 years ago, was about the work. The byproduct was exposure to the industry. But with the cable and pay-TV explosion, Waiver becomes an invitation for experienced producers to come in and mount commercial productions in 99-seat theaters with professional actors working without pay. It becomes a kind of crucible for a pay-TV deal with no obligations to the actors who create the work.

The move of "The Hasty Heart" to the Ahmanson was an accidental event, made possible only by the cancellation of the Ahmanson's "Anastasia" after the tragic death of Natalie Wood. I suspect the eventual intention of Catalina Productions was to reach other markets. And so it has turned out. CBS has entered into an agreement with Catalina for a TV film of "The Hasty Heart." I wonder how many actors at the Ahmanson will be replaced when it begins shooting.

Catalina is also preparing an Equity Waiver production of the 1928 play, "Journey's End." The scenario is the same. A TV series star of limited stage experience heads a cast of seasoned but not "name" actors, working without pay. The theater is filled with talk of cable deals and perhaps a Broadway production. Yet the actors have no contractual guarantees that they will advance beyond the Waiver production.  Producer Levy has said that, this time, the nonprofit Cast Theater "will get back a piece of the action." (According to the theater's managing director, Ted Schmitt, that piece is 2% of the producer's net profit.) But what will the actors get back? If either "Journey's End" or "The Hasty Heart" were a new play, the producers would have to give any replaced members of the original cast the equivalent of three weeks' salary. But this rule does not apply to revivals. And at this writing. Levy has not had the grace to pay the dismissed members of his "Hasty Heart" team anything.

(Editor's note — Producer Franklyn Levy said last week that any replaced actors in "Journey's End" will be recompensed as if it were a new play.)

The actor is the co-producer in a Waiver show. He gives up his salary — money the producer would have to raise in a contract situation. Therefore he too must get "a piece of the action." He is not only an actor but an investor. Actors can be discarded, but an investor is tied to the production forever.

Waiver theater exists in Los Angeles so that actors can work at their craft when there are not enough paying situations. Waiver becomes a sham when commercial producers are allowed to subvert the system for their personal financial gain. We who work, love and thrive in Waiver theater must police ourselves and beware of those who wish to take and give nothing in return.


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