When Theater Companies Experience Lean Years


The history of Boston's Lyric Stage is by no means the only course it might have followed. Had it not remained a so-called Small Professional Theater, but instead expanded, it would have moved up - as Actors' Equity once expected - into a category known as the League of Regional Theaters. There it would have found itself dealing sooner with bargaining issues very similar to the ones it currently faces. LORT houses are larger and their budgets bigger, but they're far from being on easy street.

"Equity always goes after certain things to better their union members," says Harriett Sheets, operations manager at the Merrimac Repertory Theatre, a LORT member in Lowell, Mass., which recently completed its 17th professional season. "Salaries are always an issue, and stage managers' hours becomes a major point during the negotiation process."

Ms. Sheets, the Merrimac Rep's main Equity contact, explains that "LORT is a national council and basically negotiates with Actors' Equity union for us. Most of the time we use equity actors, and we occasionally use nonequity. Under the LORT contract you're allowed a ratio. We just got done with those negotiations. It's good for three years."

Several crucial gains were made, she says. One was a smaller increase in actors' and stage managers' salaries than Equity had wanted. "It was about 5 percent," says Sheets, "instead of 10 percent or 15 percent."

The Merrimac Rep was also able to retain its status as a so-called "protected theater." As Sheets explains, "With companies like us you experience some really good years financially and some that aren't.

"Last year we ended up with a deficit, and when that happens you can apply for protected-theater status and get a break on the health and pension you have to put in for the actors. It helps us a little bit in keeping our costs down." During recent negotiations, she says, "LORT was able to keep protected status for theaters that are already in that category, and some theaters were able to enter it."

The Merrimac Rep began as "LORT D" theater in Equity parlance, "It was the lowest category," in those days, says Sheets. The Merrimac Rep remains at the LORT D level, "But if we made more than a certain amount of money," Sheets points out, "they would come back and audit us and decide if they thought we should be stepped up. But we're still very small."

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