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December 03, 2003

Equity's Executive Director Alan Eisenberg, Central Regional Director Kathryn V. Lamkey Visit Equity Theatres In Michigan, Attend Detroit Area Membership Meeting
Wagner, Eisenberg, Lamkey

Moderator Brent Wagner (left), introduces Alan Eisenberg and Kathryn V. Lamkey to the students at the University of Michigan.

Meadow Brook Theatre's Managing Director John Manfredi, Kate Willinger Manfredi, and Kathryn V. Lamkey

Detroit Membership Meeting: Council Cargle, Leah Smith, Dee Andrus, Judy Dery, Teri Wertman, Ruth Allen, Susan de Gracia, Kathryn V. Lamkey, Diana Von Fossen, Alan Eisenberg, Mildordean Luster, Mark Murri, Trudy Mason, Susan Marie, Barbara Busby, Howard McCain, John Forman, Deb Gerlach, Andrew Dunn, Greg Olszewski, Terry Carpenter, Bill Boswell, Peggy Thorp, Charlotte Nelson

BoarsHead's Artistic Director John Peakes in PHILADELPHIA, HERE I COME!

BoarsHead Theatre's retiring Artistic/Managing Directors John and Judith Peakes

"We are the future faces of Actors' Equity," say students

Equity Executive Director Alan Eisenberg and Central Regional Director Kathryn V. Lamkey went on the road recently, to visit various destinations in Michigan, culminating in the Detroit area membership meeting on Monday, October 20, 2003.

The first stop was at the University of Michigan/Ann Arbor, for a seminar with students from the University's theatre and musical theatre programs. The event drew a "packed house" of over 150 participants and was coordinated by Kenneth Fischer, the Executive Director of the University Musical Society, a presenting organization celebrating its 125th anniversary season.

"The University Musical Society presents dance, theatre and musical events throughout the year," noted Fischer. "We were delighted to find out that Alan Eisenberg is an enthusiastic graduate of the University of Michigan and wanted to meet with our students."

Brent Wagner, Chair of the University's prestigious undergraduate Musical Theatre Program, served as moderator and introduced Eisenberg and Lamkey, who touched on a variety of topics of interest to the students for almost two hours. Questions ranged from how and when to join Equity, to what are the advantages of having a union, as well as a discussion about non-Equity tours. "The students were completely engaged and eager to learn more from our guest speakers," he said.

"Most of the emphasis in our training is on the development of skills. We don't often have the opportunity to focus so directly on the business aspects of the profession, especially with someone as knowledgeable as Alan Eisenberg. Both he and Kathryn Lamkey brought clarity and detail to career issues which can seem overwhelming to young actors, and the students clearly took note," Wagner concluded.

Asked about auditioning for non-Equity tours, Eisenberg responded that there are "many places and opportunities where graduates can go to find jobs without having to work on non-Equity tours. In fact, there's an obligation not to do that kind of work, so as not to drag down the standards of the industry and make it more difficult for Equity, which is a union that, in all likelihood, you will join in the future."

Noting that the students were "very attentive, very intelligent, and very sophisticated," Eisenberg said he received a number of comments and e-mails from students, all extremely positive:

"I wanted to thank you again for that amazing experience. We are so lucky to have the outlet to see such fine theatre here at school. I asked Mr. Eisenberg a fairly superficial question about finding out if anyone else had my name…he was friendly and personable and offered his phone number and email in case I had any difficulties. I felt his visit put the University of Michigan Musical Theatre on the map. It was like 'Hi, we are the future faces of Actors' Equity."

"I emailed Alan Eisenberg with questions about the non-Equity touring situation, and also spoke with Patrick Quinn. They were both wonderful people and so helpful."

Fischer and Wagner felt that the seminar was "extremely positive and successful, that the students appreciated the rare opportunity to get an inside view of the profession in a forthright and honest discussion." For more information, visit the University of Michigan's Musical Theatre Program.

Eisenberg and Lamkey also attended a performance of TONGUE OF A BIRD at the Performance Network, Ann Arbor's sole professional Equity theatre, under the Artistic Direction of Carla Milarch. TONGUE OF A BIRD was written by Ellen McLaughlin, who penned the recent New York hit, THE PERSIANS. Directed by Performance Network's Interim Managing Director, David Wolber, the production featured Robin Lewis-Bedz, Tiffany Bedwell, Robyn Heller, Henrietta Hermelin and Kathy Kauffmann.

BoarsHead Theater

At the BoarsHead Theater in Lansing, Eisenberg and Lamkey were joined by Business Representative Susan deGracia to see a production of OUR TOWN and bid farewell to retiring Artistic Director John Peakes. John has been at the Boarshead since 1966, when it was founded as the Ledges Playhouse, a summer theater. John's wife, Judith has been Managing Director since 1986. Earlier this year, they announced their decision to retire from theater management and move to Philadelphia - ironically, just after their final production at the Boarshead - a production of Brian Friel's PHILADELPHIA, HERE I COME!

"We decided that after being here for so long (38 years), it would only be fair for my successor not to have me around," joked Peakes, in a recent phone interview. "I'm just retiring from management. I'm going back to acting and directing only."

Drawn by his family and the vibrant theatrical community, John has already done several productions in Philadelphia - playing Gloucester in KING LEAR at the Philadelphia Shakespeare Festival, for which he was nominated for a Barrymore Award. "Next, I played Barbantio in OTHELLO, and my daughter-in-law played my daughter, Desdemona. My son and his wife have thriving careers in Philadelphia - in fact, Ian (Merrill Peakes) just won a Barrymore Award as Chris in ALL MY SONS. Ian also won the F. Otto Haas Award given to a prominent emerging theatre artist."

Peakes got into the theatre after getting out of the Navy, describing himself as a "late bloomer " - "At the age of 27, I started a theater career in Boston, then went to New York, got my masters from Tufts and a PhD (ABD) at Iowa. I was a professor at Tufts before deciding to abandon teaching and run a year round theater in Michigan."

Commenting on his legacy at Boarshead, John said: "I wish we had had the money to do more new plays - we did about 40 new ones through the years, and many of them have gone on to successful runs in other theatres - not on Broadway - but elsewhere in regional theatre. I am very proud of that. Unfortunately, most of them didn't draw as well as more established works, and so finances kept us from doing more world premieres. But we did a lot of second and third productions of less-heralded, but new works from the regionals. For instance, we were the second company to produce Dan Sullivan's now popular INSPECTING CAOL, and Jeff Daniel's ESCANABA IN DA MOONLIGHT. My other accomplishment was to bring some really great people from our business to the Lansing theatre scene - folks like Douglas Campbell (a co- founder of Canada's Stratford and co-founder of the Guthrie) who directed for us five times. I'm also proud of actors like Anthony Heald, William Hurt, Dann Florek, Mary Beth Hurt, among many others who did a good portion of their training here at BoarsHead . Having folks like that come through here - knowing that we had something to do with their careers - is a very, very rewarding thing. Also, getting to do plays with playwrights like Jeff Baron (VISITING MR. GREEN), Michael Folie and Jeff Daniels, leaves a good feeling."

"The biggest challenge at the BoarsHead was money. Every three or four years, we would have to weather a poor financial season. Lansing, with a population of about 175,000 (300,000 including suburbs) is too small to sustain a regional theatre. So when it came to the crunch, we have had to call on our patrons, who are truly our friends. For us to have stayed alive all this time shows that they respected us, and came through for us when we needed them."

Judith noted that fundraising always came down to a nickel and dime effort, because BoarsHead was too small to attract national funding, and there wasn't any major corporate sponsor in the area. "But our real support came from the artists, actors, playwrights, designers, directors, who are willing to come to a place where they know there is good theatre, and work for barely breakeven pay," they both emphasized.

"I'm also very proud of my wife Judy, who single handedly, has kept this theater financially afloat. I'd also like to acknowledge the good graces of Actors' Equity, Kathryn V. Lamkey and Susan deGracia, who always responded when we needed help. We feel that BoarsHead always got a fair shake, that Equity stood up for the actors, of which I am one, but understood some limits that theaters have no control over."

Oh, yes, "The show must go on!" Two weeks ago, Peakes had an unfortunate accident, and fractured his right ankle and tore all 4 quadriceps in his left knee. "It killed me," he said, " because I had four auditions lined up in Philadelphia, and I was getting ready to start rehearsals for PHILADELPHIA, HERE I COME in Lansing with my returning-to-Lansing son and daughter-in-law, and with my wife directing. Right now, I'm wearing a full cast, so needless to say, we've adapted the part so that I perform in a wheelchair." Just one more old man role for the departing "Old Man."

The torch is being passed to incoming Artistic Director Geoffrey Sherman and Managing Director Kevin Kruse. For more information see the Boarshead web site.

Meadow Brook Theatre Ensemble - Alive and Kicking!

The next stop for the Equity crew was Rochester, MI, where Lamkey and de Gracia visited the resurrected Meadow Brook Theatre Ensemble. The Meadow Brook, one of Michigan's most prestigious Equity theatres, lost the support of Oakland University this past spring, jeopardizing the very existence of the 38 year old venue, which employed a permanent staff of 30 actors, stage managers and theatre technicians. A public outcry ensued, generating an enormous grass roots effort by local Equity members and theatre supporters to "Save the Meadow Brook."

In June, at a meeting filled with over 200 concerned artists and community members, the Board of Trustees of Oakland University voted to approve a proposal submitted by the Meadow Brook Theatre Ensemble, a new entity headed by Artistic Director David Regal. Regal tapped a new Managing Director, John Manfredi, who headed the Creative Arts Center of North Oakland County, and previously managed the Jewish Ensemble Theatre in West Bloomfield.

Manfredi noted: "At the end of June, a new not-for-profit corporation, the Meadow Brook Theatre Ensemble, was formed, which took over the management of the 584 seat venue. Our first challenge was to raise money, backed by a major grass roots effort by the community, which had rallied to save the theatre. The operation was born and started to produce under a new Equity Letter of Agreement with the generous support of the Central Regional Board." John also thanked the Chicago Equity staff for helping the theatre to transition to a new operation.

"Our first production was THE GRAVITY OF HONEY, by Bruce Rogers, which was a critical success. For us, it was the perfect first show, because it showed that the quality of the Meadow Brook was still there, and that we were ready to take on different subject matter (in this case, a new play about a priest who has lost his faith, and a nightclub singer who might just be a living miracle). "Two of our local actors, Thomas D. Mahard and Lynnae Lehfeldt, got rave reviews."

About starting the new theatre, Manfredi reflected "The road has been bumpy because of the uncertainty about the theatre's future, but the ball is totally in our court now. Part of the challenge is that we're a new management group; we're not an anchor in the Michigan community. But the theatre retained nearly all of its previous staff, even although members had to take a pay cut."

The next production is A CHRISTMAS CAROL, which is opening on November 28th with a cast of 18, plus children. "Our director is Terry Carpenter, who has been the resident stage manager at Meadow Brook since the early 80s. We thought it would be nice to reward his hard work and longetivity, by giving him a show. We save money, because everything is done in house: for example, the prop mistress and her husband, the shop carpenter, also serves as graphic design team. Every little bit helps."

Coming up at the Meadow Brook is GREATER TUNA, which will be directed by Manfredi. "Thanks to Actors' Equity, the Meadow Brook is back in the business of presenting professional theatre." For more information visit the Meadow Brook Theatre web site.

Detroit Membership Meeting

Later that evening, Eisenberg, Lamkey, de Gracia and Equity Internal Organizer John V. Fahey attended the Detroit area membership meeting at the Detroit Repertory Theatre. Because Dana Gamarra, Chair of the Detroit Area Liaison Committee was unable attend, the meeting was lead by Liaison Committee Vice Chair Peggy Thorp.

After welcoming everyone, Ms. Thorp reported that the Equity and Friends Fight AIDS had begun its annual fundraising efforts at local theatres, colleges and universities. Judy Dery, Chair of EFFA, reported that the Committee is hoping to increase participation from professional theatres, as well as local community theatres. "One of the ways that theatres can help us is to put a donation form in their programs or in their lobbies. Last year, EFFA raised over $9000.00 and is hoping to top that this year. Although official fundraising goes through Worlds AIDS Day, some theatres continue throughout the holiday season." To make donations, call 313-893-9187.

A member asked about starting a resource library, and it was suggested that Equity hook up with other unions who might have space. New member Susan Marie volunteered to investigate this matter further.

Ms. Thorp welcomed several other new members to the meeting, including Leah Smith and Greg Olszewski, and extended a welcome to John Forman and Deb Gerlach, both long time Equity members who recently moved back to Detroit.

Next up was John V. Fahey, who has been traveling to various cities to do his highly effective PowerPoint presentation, "Crisis on the Road." The presentation shows the impact that non-Equity tours have had on Equity tours; explains what Equity is doing about it; and offers ways that Equity members can help.

Fahey pointed out that " in the Detroit market, for example, Clear Channel owns, operates or books 18 houses, including the Fox, the Majestic, the Masonic Temple Theatre, and the Detroit State Theatre. They also own 11 radio stations, which means that Clear Channel dominates the market, as they do in many other major US cities. How do these impact local Equity theatres? The reduction in Equity workweeks, due to encroachment by non-Equity tours, impacts health and pension contributions. Presenters are diluting the Broadway brand, by packaging non-Equity tours with Equity tours that are paying full production salaries, without telling ticket buyers. Equity tours as well as local Equity theatres are being forced to compete with non-Equity tours that pay far less than prevailing Equity minimums."

Next, Eisenberg delved into the upcoming Production Contract negotiations. "The members seemed to understand how the crisis on the road affects everyone, not just the "New York" actors, said Eisenberg, who will be Equity's Chief Negotiator. "Work weeks, local wages, health contributions, the union's finances - everything is being negatively impacted by the incursion of non-Equity tours."

Eisenberg urged members to provide Equity with their current e-mail addresses. "This is going to be a seminal negotiation-and there could be a bumpy patch next June when the Contract expires,' he warned.

Ms. Thorp complimented Fahey and Eisenberg on their presentations. "We always get lots of questions from our members: "Why should I join Equity? What's Equity doing for me?' Their presentation was a wake-up call, and we were very appreciative about the information that they presented."

"The Michigan theatre scene is remarkably vital," said Equity's Central Regional Director, Kathryn V. Lamkey. "There is so much more to see than our short trip would permit. One of the best parts of this job is meeting our members and experiencing the wealth of talent that is present throughout the country. I am pleased that in addition to seeing two wonderful productions, we were able to bring the Michigan membership and Alan Eisenberg together to discuss the major issues facing Equity today."

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