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Tuesday, March 6, 2012

After Dark, March 6, 2012

CharPo is in deep debate
by Gaëtan L. Charlebois

Maybe it's because I'm old. Maybe it's because Arden Ryshpan, the executive director of Actor's Equity is a friend since our days in the trenches of the ACTRA board. Maybe it's because I was a union activist in CEGEP, staging guerilla theatre during student/teacher strike marches and even walking out of a production directed by Jean Gascon because I felt we were scabbing...

Maybe it's because of all of these things that I truly did not see a controversy coming at me like a train in Actor's Equity's stance on non-Equity productions (as expressed by Arden herself on this site). Joel Fishbane's enormously well-reasoned rebuttal came out of the blue for me. The discussions we've had in the CharPo contributors forums surprised me.

The business of big shows involves big cha-ching and if you cannot take the heat get out of the fucking kitchen.

What was worse was that beyond my war horse mentality, when it comes to arts unions, was that everyone seemed profoundly confused about what, exactly, we were discussing. For instance, I have been told that The Globe and Mail does not review non-Equity shows. I believed this because CharPo was reviewing university shows, amateur productions and semi-professional shows and The G&M was not. We reviewed, discussed, wrote about all those works because - as our slogan says - we're about All Canadian Theatre, All The Time. But then the G&M, incomprehensibly, reviewed In The Heights, a production that was CONTROVERSIALLY non-Equity. Equity responded to the attention In The Heights was getting, partly with Arden's article for us. I had done a back and forth email correspondance with Arden saying there had been some fluster about In The Heights, Shrek - indeed a lot of shows. In essence, what Equity was asking us to do is not call attention to shows by production houses who were DETOURING Equity by crying, "Poverty." Aubrey (In The Heights) Dan's argument that it costs too much to employ Equity actors is a canard. The business of big shows involves big cha-ching and if you cannot take the heat get out of the fucking kitchen.

However, a publication like this site has a certain responsibility to readers which I see thusly: if you are charging $100 a ticket and are serving up cheeze, CharPo must scream it from the rooftops in the same way we do if a subsidized, Equity house is charging $50 and is serving up slop. BUT, if you are charging $15, are at a Fringe or in a barroom and are showing ambition and spirit and theatrical knowingness, we will shriek with joy, Equity or not.

In compromise, then, CharPo's sites and podcast will continue to review All Canadian (or touring) Theatre, All The Time but will do our best to draw attention to the fact a show is detouring Equity (like In The Heights and Shrek) and whether or not the spectator is paying the price for such penny-wisdom/pound-foolishness. Yes, as Joel says, there is some great theatre done by non-Equity members and, also, some drek done when everyone is in the Equity tent.

when we don't look askance at companies who detour unions, we end up with a situation like here in Quebec...

But I would like to finish with this thought: Equity, ACTRA and Playwrights Guild are good for all of us, not because their involvement suggests talent and ability but because they are the only entities between artists and abuse by employers (ACTRA saved my ass once, when CBC was pushing me around), they also help us climb out of poverty (that's, ultimately, what they are all there for) and they make the touchy tango that is contract negotiation a little What I also know for a fact is that when we don't look askance at companies who detour unions, we end up with a situation like here in Quebec where production houses did such a good job of detouring musicians' unions, that people in this province think nothing of paying top dollar for "musicals" with a recorded score. (I use the word "province" here in the sense of "provincial" as well.) The shows are not musicals - they're overpriced karaoke. 

But I also want to say that the spirit of exploration that exists in the Fringe (small and capital "f"), with shows like Ride the Cyclone and (very germane to this discussion) Big Plans is crucial to the growth of the art and the more attention we pay to that spirit - on sites like this - the better is all of theatre. I know well about the rewards of working on spec or for nothing (I am doing that right now as I tap this out). I am also thankful there are armies of artists (and right here journalists) who do it "for the art" or "for the pleasure".

But I also know Equity and its various incarnations are not "out to get me" because we work for little or for nothing. These organizations simply want us all to be part of the club, climb over the poverty-line, and, most importantly, have the protection they offer. 

PS: I also know that no matter what I write here - the discussion will not end.

1 comment:

  1. What an interesting discussion. While valid points are brought up on both sides, I find it personally appalling that newspapers would have any kind of policy that determines what they cover based on whether or not the production hires unionized actors. Such policies seem, for lack of a better (or real) word, unjournalistic. I will annotate that comment and say that my views towards the press does not in any way shape my opinion of Arden Ryshpan and she is entitled to her opinion, and I have no doubt that she wants what's best for the theatre community.

    At the risk of opening another can of worms, I feel it is necessary to point out the following observation.

    Arden Ryshpan's views represent the state of theatre in Toronto (and perhaps the ROC). Joel Fishbane's views represent the state of (Anglo) theatre in Montreal.

    These are two entirely different environments and the same arguments can not be applied fairly to both cities.

    Due to the dearth of Theatres in Montreal that have the means to hire Equity talent, there are many talented and brilliant actors who choose not to join the union until they have spent a significant amount of time cutting their teeth on the independent circuit. For some, who do not have the necessary experience to land roles in the few big productions in Montreal, joining the Union is tantamount to retirement, because it can ensure that you simply don't get any work.

    As for journalists, were they to limit their subject matter to only Equity productions, they wouldn't have a lot to write about.

    I would like to see this discussion continue, but I would like to stress that it should be framed as having very localized nuance. After all, we're ultimately all on the same side, aren't we?


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