Small Professional Theaters Stick Together

Companies in New England are learning benefits of group negotiations with the union

'When we began our negotiations, Actors' Equity almost keeled over," says Polly Hogan, as we sit in the empty 244-seat auditorium of Boston's Lyric Stage, where she is the producing director.

Such a reaction by Equity, the national stage actors' and stage managers' union, is not surprising. With her colleagues, Ms. Hogan, chief negotiator for the New England Area Theaters (NEAT), was doing something unprecedented: banding together to bargain on behalf of the seven Equity members among their group of 14 small professional theaters within about 50 miles of Boston.

In the end, Hogan got enough concessions from Equity to represent a success story of regional solidarity that may set a national example - and could signal more and better theater for audiences around the country. The recently concluded agreement governs conditions affecting actors, stage managers, and theater management, from wages and hours to benefits.

NEAT hopes the accord will prove a boost for the often struggling small theaters in Greater Boston. Equity, on the other hand, heartily hopes this kind of group bargaining begins and ends with NEAT. The terms are fine, says Equity - after all, the union negotiated them. But Equity worries that similar-size theaters around the country - with which it usually negotiates separately - may gang up to make regional demands of their own .

"This is the first area in the country where the small theaters have gotten together and been recognized as a whole bargaining unit to negotiate a contract for their area," Hogan says.

For theater-lovers, the Neat agreement represents an important step toward the preservation of a vital cultural asset: small local theaters that present dramas and other genres not readily available elsewhere at the professional level. Small houses like the Lyric in Boston produce an intimate stage chemistry that offers a compelling - and lower-priced - alternative to big touring shows. They link people's theatrical experience to the region they live in, fostering the kind of lifelong interest in theater that is key to the health of theater as a whole.

But such places can't exist unless their costs - and thus ticket prices - are kept within reach of many theatergoers, and these factors are regionally determined, according to Hogan and others. This new deal, she says, means NEAT members "can't be forced to accept a contract damaging to their [economic] survival."

A few other places - like San Francisco, Chicago, and Hollywood - have regional Equity deals affecting small theaters. But these provisions are part of an umbrella rulebook governing a range of theaters big and small. Much of those regional deals served as a model for NEAT demands, although other parts were rejected.

For most theaters like the Lyric Stage - a Small Professional Theater (SPT) in Equity terminology - negotiations "are based on a national rule book called the SPT contract," explains Carol Waaser, senior business representative for Equity, who was the chief negotiator for the final sessions with NEAT. "Each theater sends a proposal with their specific financial picture," Ms. Waaser says, "and we work out a deal" governing hours, compensation, working conditions, and the like. "But the NEAT theaters felt that they could do better if they banded together."

And for good reason, claims Hogan. For instance, NEAT now has a deal lasting about 2-1/2 years, as opposed to a regular contract that has to be negotiated annually. "It allows us to plan our lives," Hogan explains, "without saying, 'Oh my gosh, what's Equity going to do next year?' "

The Lyric's 1994-1995 annual report shows total revenues - on which actors' salaries are partly based - of about $447,000. That includes grants and donations, and originally Equity wanted such unearned income to count.

"That's ridiculous!" says Hogan. "You can't depend on it. We do well in ticket sales but are lousy in fund-raising." But now, she states, "We have insured that unearned income will not be taken into the equation." She says the new agreement brings an actor's minimum weekly salary at the Lyric to $250.

Items like these were hammered out one by one, Hogan recounts. "right down to bathrooms and health-and-safety issues," in the presence of a liason committee of Equity actors in the area.

Some 10 years ago the Lyric was smaller and operated under a so-called Letter of Agreement (LOA) with Equity. The next step up would have been to join the League of Regional Theaters (LORT), a group that often faces its own bargaining challenges with Equity (see adjoining article). At that time Equity expected LOA companies like the Lyric to progress to LORT status and pay actors the higher salaries involved at that level.

"But a number of us in the Boston area realized we were not going to grow any more," says Hogan.

As Equity's Waaser recalls, "Theaters all over the country were saying 'I don't want to become a LORT theater; I want to stay a 200-seat theater that does cutting-edge work.' " A middle ground was worked out: the SPT level, which includes the NEAT theaters.

Waaser says that nearly every city Equity deals with "thinks they're different from the rest of the world, but they're really not." Washington, she says, "is a little bit different because it's a town that's built on politics, so funding is different, and the theatergoing public is somewhat transient.

"Orlando is different because of the tourist and live-entertainment industry," she says. "But the rest are pretty much the same. Some cities like Atlanta and Minneapolis advanced sooner than others in building a theatrical community. I think Boston did as well."

Hogan and her NEAT colleagues hope this deal will help ensure that Boston's theatrical community prospers, at least for the time being.

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