Is paying your dues enough? Not if you're sitting on the sidelines, it isn't. As reported in the fall, the Board of the League of American Theatres and Producers ruled to keep non-active members of the League as "adjunct" members, with fewer privileges than regular constituents. More than 100 members were affected by this decision, which, among other things, deprived them of complimentary tickets to the season’s Broadway shows.
Several of the newly-designated members asked for copies of the League’s corporate records. When the League refused, Gail Berman-Masters, Seth L. Schapiro and Stephen Wells filed suit in New York State Supreme Court. As reported by Variety, judge Jeffrey Atlas ruled that the League had to turn over last year’s membership and voting lists. “I do not think this is a frivolous request nor one that is intended to harass,” the judge wrote, March 2.
“We thought it was a matter of law that they do provide this information,” producer Wells told Playbill On-Line (March 15). “The key documents we wanted were last year’s Tony voter list (to show some violations of League bylaws) and last year’s complete membership lists (to show who exactly was disenfranchised), and various notes of subcommittee meetings. In the decision, we got everything except legal costs, which we didn’t expect anyway.”
Asked why he thought the League was reticent in turning over the documents, Wells speculated, “I guess the League felt our demands exceeded the scope of the legal statute (section 621 of NY State not-for profit law).”
The next step? “We’ll examine the documents,” said Wells, “and we’re finalizing a major complaint, via the firm of Winne, Banta, Rizzi, Hetherington and Basralian. To file the initial complaint -- an article 78 petition -- required that you be a current member of a corporation so there were only three of us. The subsequent complaint will include the people who aren’t members this year but were last year. We expect thirty people on this complaint, with many more contributing anonymously to the legal fund. They’re anonymous because perhaps they fear reprisal in the industry... But we all feel this is immoral. And it’s not about free tickets; it’s about an insult to one’s professional standing and using a non-profit corporation improperly. If this were really about giving away free tickets to shows, the League and Wing would have met and come up with a uniform policy for all members of all organizations. This was not a general change in criteria; it was an action taken by League management against League members -- one that cost them over $100,000 in dues.” Asked why he thought the League changed the policy, Wells replied, “I think it has to do with control. They want fewer independent people in the League and more with `road’ interests -- to influence Tony voting. The way things are going, they’re going to be called the `Phony Tonys.’ People wouldn’t be this outraged if it weren’t such an affront to seasoned professionals and to the organization itself.”
Wells declined to put a figure on how much pursuing the matter legally would cost. “We don’t anticipate any problems in that regard; a lot of affluent people are involved in this.” A the same time, Wells said that from the beginning, it was hoped a settlement could be reached “but the League wouldn’t sit down and talk to us.”
Though the distinction about adjunct membership has been in the bylaws for some time, this is the first year the League has acted upon it. Until this season, all League members had the right to vote for the Tony Awards (and, as such, attend every eligible Broadway show in a given season). From now on, however, a producer who hasn't had some kind of major Broadway or touring production within four years becomes an "adjunct" member, no longer entitled to a Tony vote. Adjuncts must still pay the same annual dues -- $1,000 -- as active members.
Several of the 127 affected producers refused to renew their memberships with one, David Landay, sending a $1,000 check with the proviso that it not be cashed until the League reverses its decision. "If I'm going to continue to be disenfranchised from Tony voting, please return the check," he reportedly wrote to Jed Bernstein, President of the League. The League has returned some of the checks, along with a form letter, dated Sept. 23, explaining the reasons behind the new policy. The letter stressed that League membership is meant for active producers with recent or current "first class" productions, and that the change was done hewing to "standard procedure and according to the by-laws." Bernstein also noted that those who wished to remain members would be entitled to buy set-aside house seats to the season's Broadway shows.
Producers reached by Playbill On-Line tended to agree with the League's position and saw the move as a way of clearing out dead wood. The late Irving Siders, whose credits include Dancin', Dreamgirls and a recent Dreamgirls road tour, told PBOL, "People have been on [the League] list for 20 years and haven't produced anything. A lot of them should have been thrown out years ago. Just paying your dues doesn't mean anything; they're paying $1,000 to get free tickets at Tony time, but they have as much right to vote for the Tonys as I have to fly to the moon.
"If you don't have a show up for five years or so," continued Siders, "you should be taken off the list. As soon as you do something, you say, `I wanna join the League,' and they put you back on. Period."
Brent Peek, a co-producer of Epic Proportions (at the Helen Hayes Theatre) and thus, like Siders, not affected by the bylaws change, was less inclined to take sides. "If I were in a position where I weren't producing or managing for five years, I'd be out of business anyway," he told PBOL. Peek, who sent in his renewal, admitted he didn't notice the bylaws revision. "I didn't realize there would be a problem. Still, I'd hate to see something like this just across the board. When you have, say, a veteran producer, who's really contributed a lot over the years, he's a valuable member whether or not he's produced anything in the last five years. There should be a way to take that into account."
Producer Wells told Back Stage he wrote a six-page letter of dissent to the League and stressed that many of the affected adjunct members are "People who inspired me to become a producer in the first place. As Tony voters, all of them are seeing a lot of things they don't want to have to see -- often a couple of dozen plays in a six-week period.... They do it out of a sense of duty.... It's not about the money."
Eric Krebs, a new League member -- thanks to Electra and It Ain't Nothin' But The Blues, said he was too new to the organization to have an informed opinion regarding the structure of its membership. However he did say that "active and adjunct membership is worth exploring, if it's done fairly and logically. $1,000 is not an unfair amount if you're actively involved in producing. But there are `active' members who haven't been involved in theatre in many years. They're only paying the annual fee to get free tickets."
Producing artistic director of Florida's Coconut Grove Playhouse, Arnold Mittelman, told Playbill On-Line that while "certain and exemptions and modifications may be necessary...bylaws are there for a reason; if you don't enforce them, what's the point? Ultimately, members should take an active voice in figuring out what's best for the organization." Mittelman, whose theatre helped bring An Evening With Jerry Herman to Broadway and will be the first stop for the Broadway-bound Finian's Rainbow revisal, comes to New York six or seven times a year to fulfill his obligation as a League member and Tony voter. From his perspective, the issue not yet properly dealt with by the bylaws is regional theatres who develop shows that eventually wind up in New York.
"Maybe there'll be a need for a category for regional theatre directors whose theatres have been instrumental in the development of Broadway bound shows," said Mittelman. "The bylaws really need to take into account regional theatres that have created significant productions and made huge financial contributions to Broadway. It's a lot more than just being a presenter of something that just comes to town for a couple of weeks."
-- By David Lefkowitz