Will Actors’ Equity Crash Tony ‘n’ Tina’s Wedding?

Chicago theater critics have blessed Tony ‘n’ Tina’s Wedding, but producer Tony Tomaska doesn’t know if or when that will translate into big profits for the $700,000 environmental theater production. The show’s chances for a successful run may hinge in part on the outcome of the battle Tomaska is fighting with Actors’ Equity, the national actors’ and stage managers’ union. Equity is attempting to unionize Tomaska’s 32-member non-Equity company, which eight times a week re-creates a wedding and dinner reception in an elaborate wedding chapel and banquet hall set newly constructed inside Piper’s Alley.

Tomaska is blunt about his perception of what Actors’ Equity is trying to do: “They’re killing us.” Tad Currie, central regional director of Actors’ Equity, maintains his union’s activities are not intended to close the costly production, which Tomaska says opened about 30 percent over budget. “Our desire is to make sure [Tomaska] survives,” says Currie. “Shutting him down would be counterproductive.”

But the union is playing hardball. If Tomaska does not agree to an Equity contract, Currie is threatening to take further action, including barring Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) members from appearing in the show (the cast presently includes five SAG members) and picketing the theater. Equity representatives met with Tomaska two weeks ago to propose a contract similar to one used at other dinner-theater-type operations in the Chicago area and gave him five days to respond. The deadline passed with no response. “They are being very heavy-handed, but they are not going to dictate how I run my business,” says Tomaska. Other producers, including Robert Perkins of Perkins Productions and Michael Leavitt of Fox Theatricals, have reacted with concern to union attempts to organize Tony ‘n’ Tina’s Wedding. Notes Leavitt: “This is a very expensive endeavor for the producer, and if the unions press too hard it could jeopardize the production.”

The proposed Equity contract calls for eight cast members and one stage manager to be phased in beginning in early September, by which time Tomaska will presumably know whether the show is doing well enough at the box office to ensure a reasonably long run. Currie says the proposal does not call for major adjustments in salary (actors in the show are believed to be earning between $200 and $300 a week); the major additional cost, he claims, would come from health and pension payments. But in agreeing to operate his show as an Equity production, Tomaska might also be forced to abide by specific Equity regulations about understudies, rehearsal times, and so on. The one he’s really worried about forbids union members from serving food. “It’s ridiculous,” notes Tomaska, “because all of my actors serve food at one point or another in the show.” Equity business manager Kathryn Lamkey said the union waives such restrictions for certain productions.

The heat Tomaska is feeling from Actors’ Equity is part of what looks to be an aggressive effort to ensure that more of Chicago’s non-Equity operations toe the union line. Currie says he knows of three or four non-Equity companies that operate with annual budgets large enough–from the union’s perspective–to employ at least one or two union actors in every production. He suggests that Equity is primarily concerned with providing benefits to actors that are hard to come by in most nonunion operations. The union offers health insurance that would be expensive to obtain through other means and a pension plan that Currie insists is “one of the best in the country.” Currie says non-Equity producers often tell him that all their available money goes into production expenses. “The money may be on the stage,” he says, “but it certainly isn’t going into the actors’ pockets.”

Meanwhile, Tomaska is not rushing to respond to Equity’s demands. Adds the concerned producer: “We’re doing OK at the box office, but it’s still much too early to say we’re going to be here for a long run.”

Pinching Pennies at the Shubert

The Nederlander Organization’s efforts to cut costs at the Shubert Theatre have resulted in the abrupt departure of general manager Ken Shaw. Margie Korshak Associates is also no longer being retained as the Shubert’s official press representative. Shaw had managed the 2,000-seat Loop theater since it reopened in the fall of 1991; Lou Raizin, a vice president in Nederlander’s midwest office, will handle Shaw’s duties until a replacement is named. Sources close to the situation say the payroll cuts are a hard-nosed attempt to curb financial losses at the theater, which has not been operating in the black even though the Nederlanders have brought in significantly more bookings than the previous owners, the Shubert Organization. But many of these bookings (Camelot, An Evening With Peter Ustinov, Lettice and Lovage) had not racked up long runs or high ticket sales, and none of the productions announced for next season have real blockbuster potential with the possible exception of the Guys and Dolls revival to be directed by Jerry Zaks. Raizin said the Nederlanders had no plans to close the theater or sell the real estate.

Fair Face-off

The 1994 Chicago international art fair scenario changed last week with the news that David and Lee Ann Lester were dropping out for 1994, leaving only Tom Blackman’s and John Wilson’s fairs now scheduled. Blackman used to oversee the operations of Wilson’s International Art Expo, but last spring he jumped ship to start his own fair, Art 1993 Chicago: The New Pier Show. The Lesters’ withdrawal means many of the most prestigious dealers are now forced to choose between appearing in the Blackman or Wilson fairs or not participating at all. Instead of a 1994 fair the Lesters plan to present a four-day art symposium for critics, curators, and collectors just prior to the announced May dates for Blackman’s and Wilson’s fairs and also just before a new fair they will launch in New York. The Lesters say they plan to organize a fair at Navy Pier in the fall of 1995. Sources say that in recent weeks the Chicago Art Dealers Association had been trying to convince Blackman and the Lesters to merge their fairs next spring, but apparently neither group was willing to work with the other. They also say the Lesters’ cancellation caught many Chicago art dealers by surprise.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Mike Tappin.