Last week, Drama League President Julia Hansen presented actor Patrick Stewart as the host for her organization's annual award luncheon with the qualifier, "unaccustomed as he is to public speaking."
The joke was not lost on the 50 honorees on the dais, nor the four hundred or so members of the audience, as Hansen delicately referenced Stewart's controversial post-curtain statements to his audience following recent Saturday performances of Arthur Miller's The Ride Down Mt. Morgan. While Hansen sought to deal with the controversy quickly and put it behind her, Stewart must take a different road, and will face an Equity review panel convened after a complaint was filed by the Shubert Organization on behalf of all the producers of the show in connection with his on stage remarks.
Having accepted a reduced fee in return for a share of the show's proceeds, Stewart began work on the Arthur Miller revival, but apparently became frustrated with unsatisfactory box office results and at what he believed was the cause: a lack of commitment to the show's advertising and promotion by his producer/partners, the Shubert Organization. Claiming that he represented the views of both himself and playwright Miller, Stewart shared his feeling with his audience following the Saturday shows.
Stewart's statements made subsequent news headlines and Shubert Organization board chairman Gerry Schoenfeld in turn filed a complaint with Actors' Equity Association.
The speculation surrounding Stewart's comments -- which were alternatively interpreted as a stand against the status quo or an inappropriate exploitation of the performer's relationship with the audience -- extended to the annual Tony Awards. At the Tony nominations announcement ceremony on May 8 at Sardi's, The Ride Down Mt. Morgan was nominated as Best Play, and actress Frances Conroy was nominated for Best Performance by a Featured Actress. Stewart, however, was not nominated. At Sardi's, Jed Bernstein, president of the League of American Theatres and Producers was asked about the Mt. Morgan controversy and told Playbill On-Line, "I wasn't in the room with the nominators so I have no idea what they might have been thinking, but I think it's surprisingly free from politics; [although] everybody loves to impute politics to it. But they liked that show [Mt. Morgan] and gave it a nomination. And [they] were not as favorable about his [Stewart's] performance as they were about five others, so I don't think there was any great [debate]. They awarded [a nomination] to Frances Conroy who's a supporting person in that show."
On May 11, while many of Stewart's peers in theatre, television and film will be busy sticking together during the ongoing commercial strike by SAG and AFTRA, the star of Mt. Morgan, Broadway's A Christmas Carol and Paramount's "Star Trek: The Next Generation" will essentially be on his own as he steps into Equity's theatre district offices.
Approached immediately following the Drama League luncheon on May 5, Stewart had nothing to add to the story and would only tell Playbill On Line that the hearing was scheduled for this Thursday.
The Equity peer review is still being assembled as of May 10, according to Robert Bruyr, Equity's executive assistant for communication and education. A former stage manager who has been on the Equity staff continuously since 1981, Bruyr administrates the review process and explained it in some detail.
"The reason he [Stewart] wouldn't give you any additional information is because it's an internal union disciplinary proceeding," Bruyr told Playbill On-Line. "There is a small panel comprising two members of Equity's Eastern Regional Board (who are coincidentally members of Equity's National Council) and three members at large."
There are more than 80 members of the Equity council, Bruyr explained, and the selection of the review panel is done arbitrarily, by lot. "The panel is never the same twice," Bruyr said. "The important thing is that it is members dealing with issues of members -- the [Equity] staff has no say or part in the panel's decisions. The process remains in-house and is conducted entirely by members."
Bruyr said that Stewart is guaranteed a peer panel by virtue of Equity rules. Only actors can be elected to the Equity Council and the council is elected by the Equity membership. Though producers wield tremendous influence on Broadway, Bruyr said that only Equity actors and stage managers are eligible to attend Equity meetings and participate in elections and other functions, including the peer review panels. A producer's influence, therefore, does not extend into the union.
And while there would seem to be no shortage of actors available for a review panel, Bruyr points out that the arbitrary selection process makes it difficult to form a quorum, even in a high-profile situation like this.
In fact, as of midday May 10, Patrick Stewart's five-person review panel was still being assembled due to late cancellations.
"The selection is done out of my office at random," Bruyr said. "My function is to act as a facilitator for this process and to find that panel. It really is a random approach, but when your first, second and third selections are unavailable, you just keep going until you get a panel. Even now, I have a situation where someone agreed to serve, but then they got a job and now they cannot sit on the panel." Bruyr stressed certain aspects of Equity's peer review process, including the fact that it is membership run, that neither side is allowed to be represented by lawyers and that whoever brings charges appears before the five neutral members of Equity together with the member for an airing of the grievance.
After the facts are laid out, Stewart and producer Gerry Schoenfeld (and or his fellow producers) will be excused while the panel deliberates privately, before rendering a decision.
"Once they reach a decision," Bruyr said, "I will inform the parties."
Bruyr said the Equity staff has no say in the matter and that all parties involved in the process are subject to strict rules of confidentiality to ensure the privacy of all concerned. "Nothing will come out of these proceedings from Equity," Bruyr said. While there are serious penalties that can be levied on a member by the peer review, it is possible that the compliant will be ruled baseless.
"If the panel decides there should be no action and they don't uphold the complaint, it will be as if it never happened," Bruyr said. "There will be no record, as if it [the entire matter] doesn't exist. The only time it does exist on record is if the panel decides that the charge has validity and they instruct their member to do whatever is preferred, whether it's a fine, expulsion or a public apology."
Bruyr added that the record of the review remains sealed and that one of the only ways to determine that the charge was upheld is if there is a public apology.
There is also a full appeals process, Bruyr said.
In a lighter moment at the Drama League luncheon last week, Patrick Stewart poked fun at himself, pointing out to his fellow British honorees on the dais that, as a 20-year resident of the United States, his accent was fading, perhaps offering some evidence that his American assimilation was nearing completion.
If so, the popular actor has wasted little time in testing the limits for and accepting the precious burden of a most fundamental American right——free speech.
-- By Murdoch McBride