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Curtain drawn on The Graduate in backstage struggle at Canadian Equity

Evil Dead The Musical at the production’s opening night at Toronto's Randolph Theatre on Oct. 29, 2013.

CHRIS YOUNG/The Globe and Mail

The Graduate, Terry Johnson's stage adaptation of the 1967 Mike Nichols film, was not performed in Toronto this week. Instead, the Randolph Theatre on Bathurst Street where it might have been sat empty – its stage vacant, its seats unfilled.

Whether this is a good news or bad news story for Canadian theatre depends on how you view the operations of Canadian Actors' Equity Association, also known as CAEA, or simply Equity.

The 38-year-old professional organization normally works behind the scenes for its 6,000 members, but was thrust into the spotlight earlier this year when Canadian Stage blamed it for the cancellation of a high-profile run of its show, Helen Lawrence, at the Festival TransAmériques in Montreal.

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More common are shows that quietly do not go on, or theatre that does not tour, due to what producers (and some Equity members) view as unnecessary roadblocks set up by the organization.

Such as The Graduate, for example. Director Andrew Shaver's production finished a successful, extended run at Montreal's Segal Centre in September. It's the type of show that has had commercial runs in New York and London, but wouldn't fit in easily with any of Toronto's not-for-profit companies' seasons.

So when Corey Ross, president of Toronto's growing for-profit theatre company Starvox Entertainment, realized that he had a slot at the Randolph Theatre to fill, he looked into transferring the Segal production.

Enter Equity, which administers collective agreements and negotiates on behalf of its members (stage actors, but also dancers and choreographers and directors).

In Ross's version of events, Equity's unwillingness to bend on the issue of a costly technicality led to abandonment of a possible Toronto transfer for The Graduate. Ross says he did not want to pay per diems for two-thirds of the cast, who were normally based in Toronto. Both the Segal Centre's general manager Jon Rondeau and former artistic producer Paul Flicker have similar recollections as to where the transfer hit an impasse.

But Equity executive director Arden Ryshpan says that this version of events is inaccurate – and that, ultimately, it's up to producers to decide whether to pay what a professional show costs, not up to Equity to grant concessions. "We work very hard to make any engagement possible within reason," Ryshpan says.

Not everyone agrees. And many in the theatre industry – from for-profit producers to Equity members who create their own independent work – are increasingly vocal about the need for Equity to become more flexible and less bureaucratic.

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"I don't know any member-creator who considers Equity a can-do organization," says Aislinn Rose, general manager of the Theatre Centre, Toronto's leading indie theatre organization. "Instead of 'how can we make this work,' they seem to have an attitude of 'that's impossible.'"

The curtain opened on the backstage drama last April when Helen Lawrence, a $1.4-million production created by visual artist Stan Douglas with Da Vinci's Inquest screenwriter Chris Haddock, had to withdraw from Montreal's Festival TransAmériques. The noirish cinema-theatre hybrid was set to be the first English-Canadian production to take the FTA's prestigious opening slot.

Canadian Stage managing director Su Hutchinson and artistic and general director Matthew Jocelyn pointed at what they saw as the culprit: Equity, which represented the 12 cast members; the two even posted online an overview of five months' worth of frustrating e-mail correspondence.

Six months later, Canadian Stage continues to argue that Equity's terms and conditions are keeping large-scale English-Canadian work from getting a proper showing across the country and on the world stage. "I hope Helen Lawrence is a catalyst," Hutchinson says of the show, which opens at Canadian Stage next week. "We do good work in this country and the reason, I believe, there hasn't been [touring] work is because it's prohibitive to get it out on the marketplace."

With the Professional Association of Canadian Theatres' agreement with Equity up for renewal in 2015, Hutchinson is leading a charge to make its provisions about touring more dynamic, so that short stops at international festivals (of the type that many Quebec-based companies such as Robert Lepage's Ex Machina make) can become financially feasible.

She would like to see Equity streamline the process by which it considers contract changes, and also hopes that it will follow Canada's French-language Union des artistes in introducing more flexibility in general. This would, for example, give actors more agency to decide for themselves whether to sign on to a tour that might not offer the usual hiatus period between stops (a sticking point with Helen Lawrence) but are prestigious career opportunities.

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But if you imagine Equity is also eager to renegotiate, to prevent embarrassments such as the Helen Lawrence cancellation, that doesn't seem to be the case.

Ryshpan believes her Toronto-based organization is standing up for professionalism and a living wage for artists. "There just isn't the money in this country to support international touring," she says, pointing to the cancellations of the PromArt program by the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, and the Trade Routes program by the Department of Canadian Heritage in 2008. "You can't pay people nothing and then tour and say that's a success."

The rising cost of touring theatre goes beyond Canada. Several years ago, U.S. Actors' Equity faced a problem with Broadway musicals increasingly opting for non-union tours, so it introduced a more affordable touring agreement for producers who couldn't handle the normal one.

Canadian Equity hasn't followed suit. Starvox's Ross argues that compared with U.K. and U.S. counterparts, Canadian Equity is much less competitive. "Equity has a particular disadvantage in its structure when it comes to touring shows," says Ross, noting, for example, a provision that bases minimum weekly fees on the potential revenue of the largest theatre on a tour.

That's why Ross has taken shows such as Evil Dead: The Musical, which he produced in Toronto with Equity actors, and toured them through the United States with a non-union cast.

Ross has a list of suggestions about how Equity could help build commercial theatre in Canada (which, aside from the biggest guns such Mirvish Productions, is almost non-existent) and thus help its members get more work. His main point is that Equity should focus on maximizing work for its performers, the strategy Actors' Equity has adopted in the United States, rather than maximizing fees.

But while Ryshpan does not deny that Canadian Equity touring rates are higher than in the United States, she says other factors (such as Canada's universal health care) reduce the gap, and points to The Wizard of Oz North American tour that originated in Toronto as a recent success story. She notes also that Actors' Equity in the United States is facing a member backlash about its introduction of cut-rate contracts. With the average Equity member's income from performance in 2012 being only $16,612, it difficult to accuse the professional organization of greed. "The truth is none of us can compete with non-union."

While conflicts with not-for-profit institutions and commercial producers will have to be worked out at the negotiating table in 2015, the harshest criticisms Equity is facing come from "member-creators," members who are also producers.

But unlike big producers who may have to abort or cancel shows if they hit an Equity roadblock, Equity member-creators have a simple option for when they encounter a rule they feel is too expensive or impossible to comply with: lying. It's easy to find members who, off the record, complain about Equity overreach (one actor tells of being chastised for emceeing at a wedding without a contract) and share stories about rehearsals conducted outside of the eye of "big brother."

The Theatre Centre's Rose, who works with many independent theatre artists and collectives, believes that Equity members lying to their organization is not good. She helps member-creators to navigate the bureaucratic back-and-forth at Equity to make things work the way they want – and on the books.

Rose feels Equity members should be able to determine for themselves whether the conditions they set for themselves in the rehearsal room are fair or not. "I want to see Equity support those artists, to say, 'You are adults who can make decisions.'"

Equity's Ryshpan says her organization is responsive to change, citing recently introduced flexible contracting options and working conditions for big theatres creating new work, and a new "Indie 2.0" policy that has seen contracts for small productions with limited resources skyrocket over the past year.

"It doesn't matter where you draw the line, people are going to feel they've fallen on the other side of it," she says. "The best thing we can do is consult with our members."

Equity will be doing that as contracts comes up for renegotiation in 2015. But, for Rose, the change has to be a shift to enthusiastic encouragement for entrepreneurial members – not just tweaks to contracts and rules that can be creative straightjackets. "The No. 1 phrase I hear is that Equity is one of the biggest obstacles to the creation of new work in this country," she says.

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Theatre critic

J. Kelly Nestruck is The Globe's theatre critic. More

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