In Arts & Entertainment Commentary

Sam Cieri and MacKenzie Lesser-Roy starred in the non-Equity production of "Once." (PHOTO: Joan Marcus)

Equity versus non-Equity debate rages on for theater audiences

Equity versus non-Equity.

The perennial question – which may not be top of mind for most audiences but, for others, may be key to the quality of a production – reared up again with the recent performance of the touching hit musical "Once" at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts.

I heard people talking about it in the lobby at intermission and read about it in several reviews critical of the show, relating issues with the sound and Irish accented dialogue with the non-Equity show.

Actors Equity is the union of stage actors. It's a powerful and influential organization in the world of theatrical arts. It provides for standards of working conditions, health and pension benefits, and minimum salaries.

There is a complex path for an actor to earn his or her Equity card, but perhaps the most frequent path is via experience. For every role, an actor can earn Equity points, and once the threshold is reached, the actor can get the card.

There is an assumption on the part of some people – and I have been slightly guilty of this in the past – that an Equity production is going to be better than a non-Equity production.

In Milwaukee, there are five theaters than have contracts with Equity – The Milwaukee Repertory, First Stage (a young audience contract), Skylight Music Theatre, Next Act and Milwaukee Chamber Theatre (a Small Professional Theater contract). What this means is, for actors, work at one of these theaters helps add up your points for membership into the union.

Let's take a look at some of the assumptions that Equity guarantees of top-flight shows.

As a general rule, an Equity show has more experienced actors and stage managers (an argument could be made that the stage manager may well be the most important person in any production). But there are exceptions.

The production of "Dirty Dancing" that played at the Marcus this season was a disaster. The actors employed in the production were only average, and the play itself was weak, trite and incomplete to the original story. The fact that it was an Equity tour was, in fact, misleading if you're one who automatically expects Equity performances to be of uniform high quality.

The same season brought us "Once," the story of a young Irish singer with his hopes for success fading and a young Czech woman who was consistently filled with hope. One patron I know said she was a "blubbering idiot" at the end of the moving and exuberant romantic show. It was a non-Equity show, and it was one of the best of the year.

It's important that when it comes to touring shows the decision by producers to make it an Equity or non-Equity show is based, in large part, on economics. Staging a tour without Equity actors means that it costs less to the producers in the form of wages, as well as pension and health benefit payments. The show can still be advertised as a Broadway tour, but while all Broadway shows have all Equity casts, the touring production may not be Equity.

Much the same can be said of the local Milwaukee theater community.

The Rep is the only LORT (League of Regional Theaters) company in Milwaukee, and they are allowed one non-Equity actor for every nine union actors in the Powerhouse space. It consistently delivers top-quality plays that are always among the best in Milwaukee each season.

For consistency, I could make an argument that First Stage is as good as anyone in town, seeming to create important and interesting shows every time they mount a production. It's eloquent testimony to Jeff Frank and John Maclay that they just keep developing great productions for children (and adults) in this city.

Many non-Equity productions in this city, however, can match anything that the Equity theaters do: "The Dumb Waiter" at Alchemist; "Any Given Monday" at In Tandem; "Tartuffe" at Off the Wall Theater"; Bachelorette: at Theatre Red; and "Ordinary Days" at All In Productions – just to name a few.

What all this means is that, while Equity normally ensures that you are going to see something good, non-Equity doesn't mean that second-rate is what's waiting for you.

Ballet changes

Changes in the Milwaukee Ballet company were announced this week, including the retirement of Marc Petrocci, a leading dancer who has been with the company for 13 seasons.

Other members leaving for other opportunities include Susan Gartell, Valerie Harmon and Alexandre Ferrreira. Timothy O'Donnell, who has been a dancer with the company since 2012, will become a leading artist. Lizzie Tripp was promoted to the company from Ballet II.

Brazilian Jonathan Batista will also join the company as a leading artist, and the company is also adding four other dancers: Randy Crespo, Cuba; Lahna Vanderbush, Japan; Alexander Negron, U. S.; and Marie Harrison, Hong Kong.

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