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Evil Dead The Musical at the production’s opening night at Toronto's Randolph Theatre on Oct. 29, 2013. (CHRIS YOUNG FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Evil Dead The Musical at the production’s opening night at Toronto's Randolph Theatre on Oct. 29, 2013. (CHRIS YOUNG FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Curtain drawn on The Graduate in backstage struggle at Canadian Equity Add to ...

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.

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.

“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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