A play by any other name
When The Sacramento Bee divided its theater listings between ‘professional’ and ‘community,’ drama ensued
On the first Sunday of October, The Sacramento Bee’s Ticket sought to define for the theater-going community exactly what qualified as a professional theater and what didn’t. A cover story by reviewer Marcus Crowder laid out the traditional characteristics of community, college and professional theater, and the paper reworked its play listings to correspond to the same three categories. Gone is the alphabetical list arranged by show title. Now, both local and regional shows are listed within the “professional,” “community” and “colleges and universities” categories.
Though the new format gives extra credibility to those local theaters that have taken the increased financial risk of going pro, it seems, in the minds of some producers, to devalue the work of smaller theaters. For instance, the California Stage considers itself “professionally oriented,” according to Ray Tater, the company’s artistic director. It pays its actors and regularly showcases one or two professional actors who are paid at professional rates. But in the Bee, California Stage is considered a community theater.
This idea of professionalism is hard to define, as Crowder explained in his article, but the paper decided to draw its lines based on whether theaters operate under Actors’ Equity Association contracts and guidelines. The Actors’ Equity Association is the main labor union for live theater, and it negotiates professional salaries, working conditions and benefit agreements on behalf of the actors. Community theaters, as the Bee explained, “generally pay amateur rates.” The term, considered pejorative by some, also may describe houses that pursue theater as a hobby and rely on local performers who don’t pursue acting professionally.
Though Tater’s not insulted by the term “community,” he does think it’s odd for the Bee to change its format “to give priority to union theaters.” As he put it, “Equity is not a prerequisite for art.”
Bee Entertainment Editor Bruce Dancis claimed that the change was made partly because the Bee’s readers asked for help in distinguishing between the growing number of theaters in the Sacramento area. But producers read those listings, too, and some whose theaters ended up in the community category find the label more disturbing than Tater did.
David Czarnecki, general manager of Garbeau’s Dinner Theatre, expects that he’ll lose business when people looking in the community theater listings compare his ticket prices (for dinner and a show) with those of theaters that pay their actors almost nothing. He also assumes that Bee readers who can afford season tickets won’t be looking under the community category when choosing where to spend their theater dollars.
In response to Crowder’s article, Czarnecki sent out an angry e-mail missive that made the rounds of the theater community within days. To Crowder’s assertion that “most community productions use actors who are either not paid or who received only small, symbolic salaries,” Czarnecki wrote, “Those small, symbolic salaries totaled $176,000 last year for Garbeau’s. That was just for actors.”
Jackie Schultz, whose Studio Theatre recently brought back Six Women with Brain Death for a “goodbye tour,” called the Bee’s move “premature,” believing that the listing boxes theaters like hers into a category that they’re trying to step out of. Schultz pays her actors but has not made the move to using primarily union labor. “We are a professional company,” said Schultz, “just not union.”
Crowder’s article refers in part to a fourth category: semi-professional theater, but in the listings, there is no semi-pro category. If there were, that’s where one might find theaters like Czarnecki’s, Schultz’s and Tater’s.
To make the leap to Equity can be financially risky for many small theaters, and few Sacramento theaters have made the step up to becoming an Equity house recently.
Stephanie Gularte, artistic director of Capital Stage, found her company in the Bee’s professional category, and she’s pleased to be there. The Capital Stage opened as a professional theater in April 2004 on the Delta King. Before 2004, the Delta King Theatre used non-union labor primarily. The theater always paid its actors, but it paid them small stipends. As a professional house using primarily Equity actors, the theater is now obligated to meet “a whole slough of rules,” said Gularte. The producer had to put up a substantial bond, has to pay negotiated weekly salaries and has to provide health insurance and pension payments.
According to Gularte, it’s worth it to provide audiences with the best performers available. Though theater people will always admit that there are exceptions, it is generally agreed that Equity actors are more committed, more professional and more skilled than those who perform in their spare time.
“It’s not easy to get your union card,” said Gularte. To become a union member, actors have to be “serious-minded. … They really have dedicated their lives to the craft of performing.”
Becoming an Equity theater is appealing to many of the theaters in the Bee’s community category. Schultz said that some of the companies involved with the League of Sacramento Theatres once tried to negotiate as a group with the Actors’ Equity Association, but that was years ago, when there were fewer successful theaters in town. The talks ended without a contract. But a number of theaters in the San Francisco Bay Area have formed a coalition and entered into a joint contract with the association.
The Bay Area Theatre Agreement, detailed in an 85-page rulebook, started actors out at $175 a week in the theaters where an average weekly box office totaled less than $2,000. According to the rulebook, actors top out with a salary of $525 a week. Along with providing a standard salary, the contract obligates the theaters to provide actors with health insurance (about $100 a week per actor) and benefits, including pensions (6 percent to 8 percent of the actor’s salary) and travel costs. The association also provides guidelines for everything from how to tell an audience to turn off its cell phones to how to credit the actor in publicity materials.
“Every time theaters come to us and want to get into the professional arena, we try to sit down and work with them,” said Maria Somma, spokeswoman for the Actors’ Equity Association. The association offers small professional theater contracts, as well as guest-artist contracts that allow theaters to hire one or two Equity actors at a time.
Though Somma works in New York, she saw the Bee’s new listings almost as soon as they arrived on the stands. “When any kind of new trend appears,” she said, “it gets flagged.” Somma added that she’s noticed in the last couple of years that newspapers around the country are identifying Equity houses as professional theaters. “It’s part of the trend that’s happening,” she said.
Dancis agreed that most newspapers of the Bee’s size distinguish between professional and community theaters. The Bee was one of the last papers to make the change in their listings, and it did so as soon as Sacramento supported enough professional theater to make the distinction helpful to readers.
Czarnecki expects there’s another motive. He feels the Bee’s coverage of theater has thinned out over the years, and he fears that the Bee has separated professional from community theater so that it can stop providing adequate coverage of community productions. “This is the justification on what will happen next,” he said.
As evidence of the paper’s changing policy, Czarnecki pointed to a late-August column by the Bee’s public editor, Armando Acuña. Acuña called the paper’s coverage of local theater “a mile wide but only an inch thick.”
“I don’t believe the paper’s coverage consistently reflects in interesting and fresh ways the growth, development and future of these professional theater companies,” wrote Acuña. He said that if the paper was going to do enterprising journalism, it would have to consider changing its traditional “preponderance of play reviews.”
Dancis, Acuña wrote, responded that “it would be a disservice to cut back on such reviews because community theater is where some of the most creative and provocative stage work appears.”
In an interview, Dancis said that Acuña’s column is just his opinion.
“There’s more professional theater going on,” he said. “We have to cover that.” But Dancis believes the paper will devote the same amount of space to community theater next year as it did last year. “We will continue to cover what’s going on in community theater,” he added.