Equity decries 2 shows

Union cries foul over 'Kate,' 'Cherry'

Broadway’s “Kiss Me, Kate” on the West End and the Royal National Theatre’s staging of “The Cherry Orchard” on Broadway have run into snags with Actors’ Equity.

San Francisco’s Best of Broadway series, under the direction of Carole Shorenstein Hays and Scott E. Nederlander, recently announced the RNT’s “Cherry Orchard,” starring Vanessa Redgrave, for its 2001-2002 series, with plans to play SF’s Curran Theater in the fall prior to a possible 20-week run on Broadway.

Not so fast, Equity’s Alan Eisenberg told Daily Variety.

“There are many outstanding issues,” the thesp org’s executive director said. “I don’t know if it is happening, and I don’t get what they’re trying to accomplish by announcing (the production) this way,” he said of a Best of Broadway advertisement in the San Francisco Chronicle. The Shorenstein Hays/Nederlander group also released a press statement, with “The Cherry Orchard” included in a season of such Broadway fare as “Copenhagen,” “Aida” and “The Full Monty.”

“It is not the best way to negotiate a deal,” Eisenberg said of the print announcements.

At the heart of those ongoing negotiations is Equity’s much-debated exchange program with British Equity, which requires that an equal number of American actors be employed on the U.K. stage for every English thesp hired here. The exchange program affects aliens who are not star performers.

Greg Holland, CEO of Best of Broadway, did not consider the “Cherry Orchard” announcement premature. “Anytime U.S. and U.K. producers contemplate bringing an entire unit across the Atlantic, there always has to be a starting point,” he said. “On the producing end, both sides have now agreed. One of the usual steps is engaging Actors’ Equity, and we are currently going through those mechanizations. We are on step 5 of what could be a 15-step process.”

If the National’s “Cherry Orchard” materializes on Broadway, its producers would include Shorenstein Hays, the Nederlanders, the National Actors Theatre and the Massachusetts Institute of Fine Arts.

“We have been in talks with the Royal National Theatre regarding two American productions going there,” NAT exec producer Manny Kladitis said. He would not specify which productions.

Eisenberg said that in his talks with Kladitis the exec producer mentioned an exchange of “Judgment at Nuremberg” and “Man of La Mancha” for “The Cherry Orchard.”

“I told him I didn’t view those as realistic possibilities,” Eisenberg said, “and that we would not approve this exchange unless we had a guarantee of what the exchange project would be and when it was going to happen. We were not going to approve a wishful thought.”

The “Kate” kiss-off

According to Equity, there are currently two and a half times as many jobs due American actors working in Britain as Brits appearing here.

For that reason, “Kiss Me, Kate” producer Roger Berlind expected no problems in taking four American actors to the West End in a future U.K. production of the Irving Berlin classic. Such employment of American thesps across the Atlantic would satisfy his exchange of four British actors who performed on Broadway in, respectively, “Judas Kiss,” “Amy’s View,” “Closer” and “The Blue Room,” which Berlind, in conjunction with others, produced in Gotham over the past three years.

Unbeknownst to Berlind (and any other legit producer interviewed by Daily Variety), Actors’ Equity and British Equity recognize an exchange of musical performers for musical performers and not for actors in a play, who can be exchanged only for other actors in a play. Since “Kate” is a musical and Berlind’s other productions under question are plays, the obvious problem arose.

Berlind called the musical-vs.-play distinction a “new standard that is unilaterally imposed” by the two unions. “This is an appropriate exchange of actors for actors,” he said of “Kiss Me, Kate” and the four British play imports. “One sings and the other doesn’t is not a valid distinction.”

Eisenberg agreed that the exchange distinction “is a private agreement between British and Actors’ Equity.” (And since it is not part of the collective bargaining agreement the union has with the League of American Theatres and Producers, any decisions made by the unions on this matter are not subject to arbitration.)

As for being a new determination, Eisenberg refuted the claim: “It’s definitely not new. It has always been that way.”

In very recent memory, the unions did approve an exchange of Brits actors on Broadway in “The Iceman Cometh” for Americans on the West End in the musical “Rent.”

Eisenberg acknowledged, “We make concessions on occasion.”

Harriet Slaughter, director of labor relations for the league, said the actors- vs.-musical performers distinction is a relatively new determination, in her opinion. “We had an alien issue on the table,” she said of the 1999-2000 negotiations on the new contract between Equity and the league. “During negotiations, (Equity) put on us on notice that the restriction is dramatic actor for dramatic actor and musical performer for musical performer. That is one of many terms that one must meet.”

Berlind remained optimistic. “The decision is not final,” he said. “Hopefully it will still work out.” He was quick to point out, “This will not affect our taking (American) actors to London (in ‘Kiss Me, Kate’). We need only British Equity’s approval.”

What it does affect are bonds held in escrow until the actors’ exchange is satisfied according to the two unions’ terms. “At present, they’re not giving credit to us, and we posted bonds to satisfy the exchange,” Berlind said.

The exchange bond for a British actor is determined by a complicated formula involving his or her salary, per diem, living expenses and health contributions. If an exchange is not completed to the union’s approval within a year, the dollar amount can go to the Actors’ Equity Foundation.

Eisenberg said extensions on that deadline are standard and not unreasonably withheld.

Yet, with bonds held in escrow running as high as $250,000 a performer, producers have been known to fret over any new, or perceived to be new, determinations on performer exchanges by British and Actors’ Equity.

For his part, Shubert Organization chairman Gerald Schoenfeld explained the unions’ position: “We employ British actors in dramas, but (the British) do not employ American actors in dramas. That is their rationale.”

Beyond that, the Shuberts’ money is now held in escrow, since they were also producers on “Amy’s View,” “Closer,” “Blue Room” and “Judas Kiss.” And it is not lost on the Shubert chairman that arbitration with regard to the exchange program is not an option.

Then again, Schoenfeld sees one possible avenue of recourse. “We can go to Washington, D.C.,” he said.

In an era of NAFTA and free trade, a showdown between the union and producers on Capitol Hill could be the best Broadway production of the upcoming legit season.

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