- How to be Indie:The Fight for Independent Theatre Artists to Get What They Need from the Canadian Actors' Equity Association
In the late autumn of 2008, playwright and actor Julie Tepperman and director and actor Aaron Willis were trying to put on a show. Their independent theatre company, Convergence Theatre, had recently had two very successful shows in the Toronto Fringe Festival: Auto Show in 2006 and Gladstone Variations in 2007 (the latter of which also received a self-produced remount in 2008). Both of these shows involved the work of some of Toronto's top theatre artists—both as writers and performers—and almost all of whom are members of the Canadian Actors' Equity Association. Convergence Theatre was starting to make a name for itself and had received an opportunity to present its latest work, YICHUD (Seclusion) in the Next Stage Festival—the juried winter offshoot of the Toronto Fringe.
Tepperman, Willis, and the rest of the cast and crew (again, mainly CAEA members) of the Next Stage incarnation of YICHUD were all content to operate under a profit-sharing model common to most festival or co-operative productions. They viewed the Next Stage Festival as an affordable opportunity to try out their new show in front of an audience, a springboard for potential future productions. So they applied to produce YICHUD under the Equity contract generally used for such purposes: the Co-op agreement.
While scrambling to prepare their show for the upcoming festival, Tepperman and Willis received an unexpected—and unwelcome—surprise: an e-mail from Equity business representative Dennis Lepsi questioning the validity of their Co-op application. Tepperman and Willis had been compelled to fudge a few things in their Co-op application; they didn't want to, of course, but unfortunately their options were limited. The Fringe waiver, a simple form that would have been perfectly acceptable had YICHUD been produced in the Fringe Festival, was not allowed for Next Stage Festival productions. The Independent Artists Projects Policy (the "Indie"), which Convergence Theatre had used to produce the remount of Gladstone Variations, was too expensive and unrealistic for a production that would have only nine performances. "Since neither the Fringe waiver nor the Indie were an option for us, we made up a fake company name and applied as a co-op," wrote Tepperman and Willis in a public note about their predicament that they published in the online Indie Caucus Facebook group.
Why did we make up a fake name? As it stands now, CAEA has a graduated system, which means companies like us who have already produced under the Indie are not allowed to move 'down the ladder' to produce a show under the co-op or Fringe waiver with the same name. So, given our lack of options, we chose, like many other companies in our situation, to submit a co-op application with a made-up name, knowing that all of our Next Stage promotional materials already bore the name 'Convergence Theatre' (Tepperman and Willis).
Tepperman and Willis immediately wrote to the Executive Director of Equity Arden Ryshpan in an effort to ensure that, despite their contractual confusion, their show would go on. (For a time they feared that Equity might indeed shut their production down.) Ultimately, Equity allowed the Next Stage Festival production of YICHUD to proceed as planned, with Tepperman, Willis, and the rest of the company signing a Co-op agreement under a fake name. The production sold out its run of nine performances during the festival. Indeed, YICHUD ended up opening doors for both Tepperman and Willis. A successful remount was co-produced by Theatre Passe Muraille in 2009, and the play is now being published by Playwrights Canada Press. So why would CAEA try to stop such a promising building block in the careers of two of its own members?
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