Waging the Waiver Wars

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If you’re a loyal Los Angeles theatergoer, we might preface the following story by saying: Pay no attention to that plan behind the curtain. After all, if you’re one of those lucky people in the know-those who have seen enough Southland theater to know that the work onstage here is as healthy and vital, and occasionally as disappointing, as anywhere else you might care to name – then you already know firsthand that there’s no qualitative difference between a good show in a 60-seat former tire showroom and good show at the Ahmanson. The alchemy of live performers, and the unique bond they create with and among live audiences, thrives without regard to venue.

It even thrives without regard to the compensation or material conditions of its practitioners – and there’s, as Hamlet might say, the rub. If the stormy 37-year history of Equity Waiver (now known as the Equity 99-Seat Plan) proves anything, it is that when theater artists want to get in front of audiences, however small, they won’t take no for an answer – even from their union. What’s also clear is that the artistic richness, abundance, and diversity of L.A.’s small theater scene, which we’re fortunate enough to take for granted today, simply wouldn’t exist without the stubborn insistence of L.A.’s theater artists on their right to strut and fret their hours upon the stage.

Of course, you don’t need to know any of this to enjoy the next show you see at a small theater in L.A. But if you appreciate a theatrical tale of outsized passions and raging conflicts, the history of the Equity 99-Seat Plan offers plenty of drama.

The Explosion Before the Storm

In the early 1970s, L.A.’s theater landscape was hardly booming. The Pantages was still a movie house; the Pasadena Playhouse, once the home of a prestigious theater school, had had its doors padlocked in a federal tax case; the future Geffen Playhouse was a furniture store. The Music Center’s two new theaters, the mid-sized Mark Taper Forum and the cavernous Ahmanson Theatre, formed a lonely beachhead in Downtown L.A.

“As best as I can remember, my impression as a New York actor coming to L.A. was that the only game in town was the Taper,” says Barbara Beckley, who would go on to become the founding artistic director of Burbank’s Colony Theatre. “I wasn’t aware of much theater going on in town. I do remember being at that meeting where the members voted in Equity Waiver.”

Beckley refers to the historic meeting of July, 1972, at which West Coast members of the actors’ stage union voted to “reconsider” a proposal by the union’s Western Advisory Board to eliminate all Equity rules in theaters with fewer than 100 seats-in other words, to effectively waive Equity’s work and wage rules and allow its members to perform in small theaters without union protections. There were already several dozen such small theaters, mostly in the Hollywood area, at which actors not otherwise occupied with film or television work were getting onstage in unofficial, under-the-radar productions.

As Tom Ormeny, now artistic director of Burbank’s Victory Theatre, recalls: “A group of actors went to Equity and said, ‘We all know this is happening. We think it’s time for you to create a waiver for LA.’ There were so many actors here, and because there was no other theater going on, they wanted to create stuff, and what was between an actor and a producer was none of Equity’s business. They decided work was more important than the money.”

That’s hardly a line of argument to warm the hearts of union leaders, Ormeny concedes, but he says, “It became apparent that there was going to be a major rebellion against Equity if they didn’t change the rules. They’d lose a lot of members.”

Equity bowed to the pressure, issuing a Waiver on an “experimental” basis. But if this sounds like a tentative resolution containing the seeds of further conflict, it was. Take a look back at that verb “reconsider.” What rank-and-file members like Beckley may not have realized when they voted to waive Equity rules in that July meeting was that the proposal had originated in March – and had been soundly rejected by the union’s New York council. This division, between the union’s East Coast theater trade capital and the upstart actor-producers of L.A., would come to haunt L.A.’s small theaters in the decades to come.

In the meantime, though, as Ormeny put it, “There was an explosion of theater.”

Concurs Beckley: “Overnight, 99-seat theaters started springing up all over town.” Soon enough, with some actor friends, Beckley herself caught the self-producing bug, and before long they were running a 99-seat theater in Silverlake, where the Colony Studio Theatre would remain for 25 years.

“What drove it was that there was just nobody in town who had the wherewithal and the passion and the drive to make theatre work on any kind of large scale,” Beckley says, pondering the origins of what could justly be called a Waiver movement. “I don’t know if that was to some degree audience-driven, or culturally driven. I do know that a broad theater community happened in L.A. because Equity Waiver happened in L.A. Looking at it now, it’s clear that its effects were tremendous and far-reaching.”

Indeed, by 1980, according to a study by Scott Henderson, the number of small theaters had increased to 124 theaters and 41 independent production companies from a mere 45 in 1970. Many ensembles and artists that are fixtures on today’s L.A. theater scene trace their beginnings to this first decade, from the Matrix to Colony to the Victory. And a few that had already existed in non-Equity form, such as East West Players, Company of Angels, and the Odyssey, were given new life and legitimacy by the Waiver.

Curiously, L.A.’s midsized theaters – hence theaters offering paying Equity contracts – also began to thrive in the ensuing decades, as the Taper achieved national fame in mid-1970s, the Westwood Playhouse opened in 1975, and the Pasadena Playhouse made a second entrance in 1986.

This concurrent midsize-theatre health is another important fact to keep in mind as one traces the history of Equity Waiver, since the anti-Waiver argument is often made with the zero-sum logic that says that more non-paying theater somehow undercuts or drives away paying theater.

His Least Favorite Year

Though Michael Van Duzer didn’t work at Equity when the Waiver was first ratified, he was on hand when the underlying tensions behind the Waiver erupted, in what would soon be called the “Waiver Wars.”

And he’s lived to tell: Van Duzer is still Equity’s representative to L.A.’s small theaters, and though tempers have cooled, he recalls the 20-year-old battles well.

“It was certainly the worst year of my life,” says Van Duzer of 1988, the year that the Waiver Wars broke out in earnest. They had begun quietly enough in 1985, when Equity took another look at the Waiver and its discontents.

“We had a meeting where we basically had a two-page document that says actors will be paid $5 a performance,” Van Duzer recalls placidly. “That proposal was taken to a membership meeting. At that meeting there was a lot of hysteria, with people saying, ‘The theaters will go out of business,’ ‘We won’t have any place to showcase ourselves.’ And the other side either wanted to curb Waiver or just had a distaste for professional actors getting paid nothing. There were a lot of eloquent speeches and a lot of hysterical screaming, so we went back to the drawing board.”

Though the Colony was among the majority of small theaters with respectful work practices, Beckley concedes that some restrictions on the Waiver were probably in order.

“There was a show, Bleacher Bums at Century City Playhouse, that ran for years, and the actors didn’t make a dime,” Beckley recalls. “Under the Waiver, as long as you could make the rent, there were no rules regarding nudity, rehearsal time – you could do whatever you wanted. On the other hand, the actor owed nothing; he could walk away without penalty at any time if he felt unsafe.”

Of course, without being exploited, an actor may develop strong loyalty to a production he’s invested time in, making such a no-fault bargain less simple in practice. “You can always say, ‘No, dear, you can walk out at any time,’ ” as Beckley puts it, “but who’s going to do that?”

So, while L.A.’s small theater producers reluctantly entered informal talks with Equity to discuss amendments to the Waiver-talks complicated by the fact that many of these producers were also actors and Equity members, creating what the union saw as a conflict of interest – an enterprising young producer named Paula Holt was renovating a West Hollywood movie house called the Tiffany. She wasn’t aware of the brewing Waiver Wars – and had no idea what she was venturing into.

“My original intention was to try to build a midsized house, but my architect told me I didn’t have the footprint or the ceiling height,” says Holt, now an independent producer. “He said, ‘I can’t build a decent 350-seat house, but I can make you the best Equity Waiver theater complex in town.’ ”

By 1987, the new Tiffany was ready to open one of its 99-seat stages with a play about Fatty Arbuckle starring Equity actors Kelly Bishop and Art Metrano. Equity, however, was troubled by the prospect of a state-of-the-art theater, not run by actor-producers, operating under the Waiver.

“I think the union, with directions from New York, was concerned that Off-Broadway shows would transfer from New York to a Waiver space,” says Holt now. So Equity filed an injunction against the actors, on the grounds that Holt had downgraded a midsized house to make her Waiver complex. (The old movie theater had indeed hosted intermittent performances by a satirical troupe, the Committee, but without a glance at Equity.)

“It was a strange climate because of the Waiver Wars,” Holt recalls. “I assumed it was a cooperative environment, but it became very personal.” She says that Equity’s regional director, Edward Weston, told her, “I’m going to make sure nothing ever comes into your theater.” As Holt says, “That’s when I knew I needed a lawyer.”

Holt won her case after six months of wrangling and sleepless nights (and the Tiffany would go on to enjoy an extraordinary 15-year run as one of L.A. preeminent theaters, big or small).

But the battle over L.A.’s small theaters had just begun: In the spring of 1988, a referendum on the Waiver was sent out to West Coast Equity members about the plan. The actor/producers who had been in talks with Equity had not been notified and felt blindsided by the move.

“I remember we were on a plane, and we got the notice that the referendum had gone out,” recalls Maria Gobetti, veteran Waiver warrior and co-founder, with her husband Tom Ormeny, of the Victory Theater. “And I said to Tom, ‘I guess this is war.’ It was very painful.”

To Be Continued

In Part Two: Waiver War Weapons

Rob Kendt

Rob Kendt