Arts & Culture

Actors Equity wants informed theater-goers

Stuart Ward has had a steady gig for two years, which is a long time for an actor. He's been playing the male lead in the U.S. tour of the musical "Once." He loves it and doesn't want to leave.

But he'll be out of work at the end of the year.

"This tour is ending," he said in a phone interview with the Herald. "And then a non-Equity tour is starting."

For the past 20 years or so, there's been a growing trend of non-Equity shows being touted as Broadway shows at regional performing arts centers. They may be part of the center's Broadway season, or they may be advertised with such phrases as "direct from Broadway." The tickets can cost just as much as those for non-Equity tours that feature members of the cast from the actual Broadway run.

It happens all across the country. ("Broadway" is the name of a street, so it can't be trademarked or copyrighted. Anyone can use it.)

One local example: a non-Equity "Beauty and the Beast" is coming to the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall in October. It's billed as "the smash hit Broadway musical." There's nothing incorrect about that, but people may assume it's an Equity show.

The Straz Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa often presents non-Equity tours.

The presenting facilities never lie about it and they're not being misleading. But still, people may misunderstand.

The Actors Equity Association, which is the labor union representing the world of live theatrical performance including actors and stage managers, has been trying to fight the trend and has "made great inroads," AEA spokeswoman Maria Somma said.

The main thing Equity wants people to do is inform themselves, she said. A lot of the non-Equity shows are

quite good -- if you go to touring Broadway shows, you may have seen a non-Equity production and not been aware of the difference.

So, for the audience, what is the difference? Actors have to meet some stringent criteria to become Equity members, so a level of talent and experience is ensured. Non-Equity tours don't have to pay as much money and they can usually hire only actors who are not Equity members.

One way that may manifest itself is in age-inappropriate casting, Somma said. Non-Equity producers may find a lot of great 24-year-olds who are eager to tour and don't need big bucks. They're not as likely to find a great 50-year-old man to play Tevye in "Fiddler on the Roof." Actors of that age usually have families and other commitments; if they're making a full-time living from acting, they're usually Equity members. I recall years ago seeing a non-Equity tour of "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" in which Joseph and all 12 of his sons were about the same age.

You might also see a difference in ensemble numbers. It's hard to find a lot of people who can sing, dance and act, and harder still to find such triple-threats who will go on national tours for bargain pay rates. So chorus numbers are often simplified, or just not performed as well.

Just to make it perfectly clear here: We're talking about touring productions. Shows from local theater companies are a different animal altogether.

Equity doesn't want people to avoid non-Equity tours, Somma said. Again, a lot of the non-Equity shows are very good. But the people at Equity think it's important for people to know the difference before they spend their money.

Actors Equity has launched a campaign called "Ask if it's Equity."

On the campaign's website (askifitsequity.com), the first thing you see is "If you pay to see a Broadway tour, you expect to see Broadway." You can type in the name of a show and see if the national tour is Equity or not. Or you can tweet the name of the show to @askifitsequity.

It gets kind of complicated. Later this year, both Equity and non-Equity tours of "Elf" will be going around the country at the same time.

As Sommo said, there's no reason to automatically avoid non-Equity shows. But theater tickets are expensive. Equity shows ensure a level a professionalism from its actors that non-Equity shows can't guarantee. If you need to be selective about what shows to spend you $100 on, taking 10 seconds to check whether a show is Equity is worth the effort.

Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919.

Follow twitter.com/martinclear.

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