The association of Canadian theatre actors is asking critics not to review the Toronto presentation of In the Heights, in its ongoing effort to make non-union productions less welcome in Canada.
The current American touring production of the Tony Award-winning In the Heights is non-Equity – theatre shorthand for a show with actors not represented by the Canadian Actors’ Equity Association or its U.S. counterpart. The association negotiates collective agreements for actors’ salaries and benefits.
The touring production of In the Heights is being presented in Toronto by Dancap Productions, which will also bring the major non-Equity touring production of Broadway’s Shrek the Musical to Montreal and Toronto in March.
“In the case of these large productions, which are American touring productions of Broadway shows, many people are not aware of the fact that these are actually non-Equity shows. Not only are they not Canadian Equity, they’re not even American Equity shows,” said Arden Ryshpan, executive director of Canadian Equity.
“So what we wanted to do was to alert local media that some of these apparently high-profile shows are not Equity shows,” she said. “We also think that audiences shouldn’t be inadvertently misled into thinking they are seeing a Broadway-calibre production – which we would say they are not, if the productions are non-Equity.”
Although the Broadway version and a previous U.S. touring production had been union, the show’s producers are now using non-union actors to lower costs. This is common practice, said Dancap’s president, Aubrey Dan.
“If there were no reviews, then the public would be missing out on the opportunity to know if these were good shows are not,” Dan said.
Although some critics have made it a general policy to ignore non-Equity shows, “the world has changed,” he argued. “To keep costs affordable for the consumer, this has been the reality for theatrical producers.”
Long-running, homegrown productions are a different matter, Dan said. A Toronto production hoping for a long run will hire unionized actors, and Dancap’s position has been to hire Equity-represented actors whenever possible, he said.
Dan said the cost of running a U.S. touring production is typically $600,000 to $700,000 a week and unionized actors can add $50,000 to $100,000. “That can be the difference of being put into a loss position or not,” he argued.
Competitor Mirvish Productions has made it a policy not to present non-Equity shows in its subscription series, although it does lease its theatres to non-Equity presentations.
Mirvish spokesman John Karastamatis said, “[Equity status]indicates a certain level of experience and professionalism and an adherence to certain standards.”
However, he added that it was common for touring producers to mitigate financial risk by switching to non-Equity performers.
All this is occurring at a time when the theatre community is under serious financial pressure.
The higher Canadian dollar means that costs have risen for shows coming to Canada. Toronto also has to compete with major U.S. theatre markets such as Chicago, where the state legislature recently approved tax credits to lure productions, a policy the Toronto theatre community would like to see replicated here.
Canadian Equity says it wants the productions to come to Canada and portrays its protest as more informational.
“We aren’t looking for audiences anywhere in Canada to be deprived of the opportunity to see many of these fabulous touring productions that come out of the States. Our intention is not to block anybody’s access,” Canadian Equity’s Ryshpan said.
“But we do believe that audiences should be made aware of the fact that they are paying top dollar, in many cases, but there would be no way for them to know when they buy the ticket that it’s a non-Equity company,” Ryshpan said.
Dan countered that audiences and critics should decide and that he sees no difference in quality between the previous Equity performances of In the Heights and the current non-Equity touring production. “All new shows virtually are going to non-Equity to make them affordable to all the presenters [in different cities]” he said.