Actors' Equity has fired off a letter to the British Council, sharply criticizing the Council's recent report accusing the union of creating a "Kafka-esque climate" in the exchange of actors between the two countries. Equity wrote that it found the report -- which charged the union changed its exchange policy "with neither warning nor explanation in an apparently capricious manner" -- not only "one-sided, but in many instances surprisingly personal."
The letter was only the latest blow in a cross-Atlantic fracas which began when Equity rejected producer Cameron Mackintosh's plea to transfer his London production of Oklahoma! to Broadway. Mackintosh and director Trevor Nunn desired to keep the musical's largely British cast intact. Nunn and Mary Rodgers (who represented the Rodgers & Hammerstein estate) appeared before Equity council in a last-ditch effort to reverse the decision, but in a statement released Feb. 16, the union stood by its previous ruling to block the show.
Mackintosh's wish to retain the British cast apparently hinged on Nunn's schedule. In a January letter to Mackintosh, quoted by the New York Post, Nunn stated his cramped schedule "means that I couldn't be starting work on the show again from scratch... So the only way my production of Oklahoma! can get to New York is if the original company play the opening few months. That way, I would have time to explain to an American production team how the show was arrived at. I could attend final auditions for an American cast to take over."
Mackintosh has said that, if Equity stands firm, the show, which recently won four Olivier Awards (including Best Musical Production) may not reach Broadway for two or three seasons.
American and British Equity control the comings and goings of actors and productions from both countries. There are four ways in which British actors may work in the U.S.: they may be established stars; or actors who provide "unique services"; so-called "unit companies," such as Cheek by Jowl or Out of Joint may appear; or, lastly, companies and plays "of special character" are allowed entry. Over the years, however, the issue has become a thorny one, rankling producers and actors alike and producing a small controversy every couple of seasons.
British Council, which is akin to the U.S.'s National Endowment for the Arts, called American Equity's exchange laws "complex and inconsistently applied." In retaliation, Equity president Ron Silver and executive director Alan Eisenberg questioned what they termed several statistical inaccuracies in the report, which, they said, "undermine the credibility of [the report's] conclusions."
"It should be noted," said Equity, " that many of our members and others in the industry believe that the exchange program favors the actors of Great Britain."
According to Equity, since 1981 (when the first actor exchange occurred), American actors have worked 4,029 weeks in Britain, while British actors have worked 3,842 week in the U.S. This apparently fair exchange, however, has become more skewed over the years, with fewer and fewer Americans working overseas. From 1991 to 1998, said Equity, 54 Yankee thesps worked 1,345 weeks in Britain, while 91 British actors worked 1,527 weeks stateside.
Then, of course, there are the statistics for this coming spring season, which has helped bring the topic of the actor exchange policy to the fore. The coming months will see British productions of The Weir, Amy's View, Not About Nightingales, Marlene and Via Dolorosa. As a result, according to Equity, 17 British performers will appear on Broadway, as opposed to two Americans on London stages.
Equity concluded its letter saying the two unions needed to meet and review the exchange program.
--By Robert Simonson