Bear Bellinger and Kate Shindle
Bear Bellinger and Kate Shindle Credit: Courtesy Bear Bellinger/Actors' Equity Association

There’s been a tsunami of theater news over the past couple of weeks. Steppenwolf named ensemble members Glenn Davis and Audrey Francis as co-artistic directors, replacing Anna Shapiro, who announced in May that she’d be leaving at the end of her six-year contract this summer. Ann Filmer announced that she’s leaving her post as artistic director at 16th Street Theater in Berwyn, which she founded 14 years ago. (Almost two years ago, Filmer faced charges of mismanagement and racial insensitivity from the creative team of Loy Webb‘s His Shadow.) 16th Street is the smallest and most affordable of professional houses in the state. (Tickets are $22, and they operate in a 49-seat basement theater in the North Berwyn Cultural Center.) Under Filmer’s tenure the company has focused almost exclusively on nurturing new plays. They’ve retained RGW Consulting in Oak Park to formulate a strategic plan for the theater’s future.

Michael Halberstam, the founder (in 1992) and artistic director of Glencoe’s Writers Theatre, is out as well. Halberstam faced allegations of inappropriate behavior in 2017 (stemming from a production of Crime and Punishment in 2003) and had attended board-mandated “compliance training and executive coaching” sessions. However, the calls for his resignation on social media (as well as calls for artists to “divest” from working at Writers as long as Halberstam remained in his position) grew in recent months. 

On July 8, Lucy Godínez, one of the cast members of 2019’s Into the Woods (in which Halberstam also performed) sent a letter to the board outlining what she called “detailed, corroborated accounts of harassment, intimidation, and inappropriate conduct” during that production. After Halberstam’s resignation was announced, Godínez shared the letter on her Instagram account. Writers announced Halberstam’s resignation via a press release from the law firm of K & L Gates, rather than their usual publicist. The release stated, “Writers Theatre had received complaints about Halberstam’s workplace comments and conduct. The timing of Halberstam’s departure signals Halberstam’s and Writers Theatre’s desire to preserve the goodwill of the theatre and to continue to ensure a respectful workplace for all.” The firm noted that there would be no further comment from the theater. Bobby Kennedy, the company’s director of new work and dramaturgy, is serving as interim artistic director. Kathryn Lipuma, Writers executive director, remains in her position.

In addition to changes at the top, there are also changes on the ground. Northlight Theatre, which has been angling to return to its Evanston roots for some time, announced that it has formally acquired properties at 1012-16 Church Street in downtown Evanston. The company, founded as the Evanston Theater Company in 1974, and currently led by artistic director BJ Jones and executive director Timothy J. Evans, has performed since 1998 at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie. They had expressed interest in the Evanston site two years ago, but the pandemic put a damper on the necessary fundraising efforts. The ambitious construction plans for the new site include a 300-seat theater in a three-story building that will also house a “community complex” for educational initiatives and events.

And in the “back from the dead” category: iO Theater, which closed presumably for good last June after owner Charna Halpern put the 40-year-old comedy behemoth on the market, citing lost income from the shutdown, will reopen under new owners. (Halpern had faced her own controversies over institutional racism and other issues raised by performers and students at iO.) Local real estate executives Scott Gendell and Larry Weiner bought the iO complex at 1501 N. Kingsbury for an undisclosed sum and plan to reopen it for classes and performances. 

As if all that weren’t enough (and there will certainly be more to say about all these developments in the months to come in one way or another), Actors’ Equity Association (AEA), the union for actors and stage managers, announced a major change in its eligibility rules. Under the new “Open Access” policy, any actor or stage manager “who can demonstrate they have worked professionally . . . within Equity’s geographical jurisdiction” can join the union. If you can show you’ve been paid some amount for your work onstage or as a stage manager, you can now decide if you want to pay the dues and get the union card.

This may actually be the news in this column with the greatest potential impact on the economic justice front, though how it will play out of course remains to be seen. As usual, Chicago theatermakers lit up social media with discussions of the pros and cons and what effect this decision might have on non-Equity venues, whether there will be enough union work to support those who might wish to make the leap to Equity membership (prediction: probably not), and if the move was designed as a “cash grab” to gain an influx of dues from new members.

It can be complicated. But the key point is that, in the past, membership in the union was limited to those artists who worked for an Equity employer, either through direct offer of a contract, by being a member of a sister union (SAG-AFTRA, for example), or by completing the Equity Membership Candidate (EMC) program. The Open Access program aims to put the decision in the hands of the artists, not the hiring producers. (Former members of AEA are also able to rejoin without first getting a new Equity contract, as was the case previously.)

AEA president Kate Shindle describes the new membership plans as part of the union’s examination of equity, diversity, and inclusion. She notes that AEA had conducted periodic surveys examining just who was getting the bulk of AEA contracts in member theaters. “We just updated that last year. And the numbers are pretty much what you might expect. It’s an overwhelmingly white industry with an overwhelmingly caucasian union and the short version is whatever we’ve done up to this point has not worked very well.”

The impetus to change the membership rules, notes Shindle, came about through a working group led by Bliss Griffin, Equity’s diversity and inclusion strategist, and it’s just one part of a “retrofit” for the union. Bear Bellinger, a longtime Chicago actor and a “principal councilor” for Equity from the central region (which represents 16 states), served as one of the team leaders for the working group. In a blog post for Equity, Bellinger, who is Black, noted, “The first thing I noticed when I decided to join Actors’ Equity Association was how difficult it was to join Actors’ Equity Association.” 

Bellinger tells me that he felt stalled out in his move toward union membership because the power to give him an Equity contract, even though he’d earned his weeks, rested with the producers. He mentions a production he auditioned for that had a nearly all-Black cast, except for one white male part. “The show was based on Black culture. Come to find out later that before the director was even assigned to the show, they had given the one white man an Equity contract. So by definition, the show that didn’t depend on this white man, right? They already dedicated themselves to paying him more from the beginning.”

He adds, “The difference now is in folks being able to opt into their own union membership. If you want to have me in your theater, you want to have me in a show, you’re going to have to pay me at an equal level to other people. And you don’t get a choice in that. You don’t get to pick and choose whether you hire me specifically as a nonunion artist.”

Both Shindle and Bellinger note that this move won’t provide more union work across the board. But as Shindle puts it, “That doesn’t necessarily preclude doing this. It’s just so that people can make their individual choices.” 

It’s interesting to note that this move from Equity comes about not long after the instructors at Second City in Chicago, Los Angeles, and Toronto all moved to unionize and with the growth of activism from theater designer advocacy groups such as the local collective On Our Team, who have been fighting for transparency in job announcements and parity in contracts. Reading tea leaves can be tricky, but there seems to be some evidence to suggest that theater artists are fighting back against the politics of scarcity mindset (much as workers in other fields, including the service sector, have been doing by refusing to return to low-paid jobs) and telling producers that it won’t be business as usual as theaters reopen. They’re demanding better pay and that attention be paid to how artists are treated by management. 

What the Open Access program might mean for Chicago’s storefront scene remains to be seen. Says Shindle, who graduated from Northwestern, “I absolutely love Chicago and Chicago to me is an example of a city with a pretty healthy ecosystem. I’m probably not supposed to say this as a union president, but I’m going to. We all did nonunion theater at one point and some people are most comfortable there, right? So people are going to work a day job and they want to go do a show at night and they’re not seeking to make it their entire living. 

“And so I think one of the misperceptions that I would like to correct is that we’re trying to drive nonunion theaters out of business. No. Do I believe that actors and stage managers, even nonunion actors or stage managers, deserve fair wages and safe working conditions and the ability to get access to workers comp if they get injured or god forbid get COVID, for example, in the workplace? Of course.”

Bellinger cautions that Open Access is just one step toward greater inclusion for Equity membership. But as he notes in his blog post, an increase in membership increases the potential power of the union: “If we want to live up to the ideals of solidarity, if we want to walk together towards a safer, fairer and stronger theatrical landscape, this is a strong first step. There are many steps yet to come.”

One sticking point for years in Chicago has been the presence of nonunion theaters that are operating at a budget level beyond the itinerant storefront model (for instance, they own their buildings), but haven’t made the leap to using the Equity contracts. (For Chicago theaters, those are known as Chicago Area Theatre, or CAT, agreements, and they are offered at several tiers, providing flexibility for theaters growing into union status.) 

How long should a company be in existence before it decides to go with the CAT agreement?

For Raven Theatre, the answer is “almost 40 years.” Founded in 1983 by Michael Menendian and Joann Montemurro, the company moved to a two-theater space in Edgewater in 2002, and went through a leadership change in 2017, with Cody Estle named artistic director. Last summer, Markie Gray joined Estle as managing director. And now the company is finally making the leap to the CAT contract program, which means they can hire a limited number of Equity actors and/or stage managers for their productions. 

Says Gray, “When I joined Raven, it was always under the assumption that Raven was going to go Equity with the next season that we were going to produce. And it was a priority of Cody’s when he became artistic director to make the move to becoming an Equity theater. One of the reasons why I was particularly well-suited for this position is that I have experience working in Equity theaters before. And so I was able to sort of help through the transition. We had planned initially on having our first Equity show as an official Equity company in the 2021 season. Obviously that didn’t happen since the 2021 season did not end up occurring due to the pandemic. So now that we have announced our season and we feel relatively confident that we’ll be able to produce again in the fall—you know, knock on wood—it was time that we wanted to make that transition and make sure that we’re taking that step as we come back.”

Gray notes that going with the CAT contract isn’t just about being able to hire actors and stage managers who hold the union card. Being a non-Equity house (even one with the longevity of Raven) “can sometimes be an issue with getting scripts and getting rights to shows. Agents will not want to give especially first productions to what they refer to as nonprofessional theater.” 

Raven opens its first show since 2020 with Joshua Allen’s The Last Pair of Earlies in late October.  v