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Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte joins Actors’ Equity

Theatre of Charlotte edges to national stage, offers casts professional wage

For the first time in almost eight years, Charlotte has a year-round theatrical company that will pay all its actors professional wages. Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte is doing “God of Carnage” under its new, permanent contract with Actors’ Equity Association.

This means the company will pop up on America’s theatrical radar as a place performers around the region or even New York need to know.

It means actors will be guaranteed a minimum of $280 a week to perform throughout the run of the play. That’s not enough to live on, but perhaps it’s enough to keep actors in town if they find other work.

And it means audiences will see new faces supplementing old favorites – though not supplanting them because workers aren’t compelled to join any unions in North Carolina.

But Equity veterans such as Rob Kahn, who ran a theater company in Los Angeles, will enter the mix. Kahn will star as artist Mark Rothko in the Tony-winning “Red” next month.

“I’ve been a member for 21 years, have worked in national tours and three big cities – Chicago, L.A. and New York – and had Actor’s Theatre not gone Equity, it wouldn’t have been on my radar for ‘Red,’ ” he says.

“Wilmington is a film and television hub. Charlotte has the ‘Homeland’ and ‘Banshee’ series. So I could see the region becoming a destination for actors.

“I came to Greensboro with my wife (who’s in graduate school) and was lucky, as a union actor, to book a couple of gigs in the first month. If I can teach a little, someone like me can stay in North Carolina,” Kahn said. (He opens in Charlotte Shakespeare’s “Opus” next week.)

ATC executive director Dan Shoemaker and artistic director Chip Decker have considered this move for a while, especially after the Charlotte Repertory Theatre died in 2005.

“This was the next step in our evolution,” Shoemaker says. “We’re in the black, we have a strong subscriber base, we’re getting national and regional grants. Now was the time.”

Says Decker: “Years ago, one of our first conversations was that we should have our own building, and we moved into it in 2004. We should do new works, which we do. And we should become an Equity company.”

What ‘pro’ means

The Equity SPT 3 designation (as in “small professional theater”) sets minimum pay for actors and stage managers based on four performances a week – they earn more for five shows, limits rehearsal time to 30 hours a week and requires certain conditions, such as showers in dressing rooms.

At least three-fifths of a cast must belong to Equity. Non-Equity actors will be given a chance to join through ATC. Prior to this contract, an average salary was $200 a week, or $1,200 for the run of a six-week show.

Allison Lamb Tansor, a local Equity member in “Carnage,” envisions good, young actors using ATC as a springboard: “In New York, I saw how many more opportunities there were for friends with Equity cards to get taken seriously,” she says. “They got far more money than I did and had insurance benefits I didn’t have. When I got my card, a secret world opened up; I could meet casting directors I had never been allowed to see. In other cities, though, it made less difference whether you joined.”

She came here with husband Patrick Tansor five years ago from Washington, D.C., and says, “People would kill to get out of New York to do a ‘Carnage’ or ‘Red’… (in a place with) beautiful parks and a gorgeous clean downtown and nice people.

“This will up the ante for local actors who have gotten comfortable. When this opens up a new talent pool, we’ll have to work harder than we used to. The audience will get the benefit of that work.”

Maria Somma, a spokesperson for Equity, could not confirm that Charlotte was the largest city in America that did not have a theater with an Equity contract. (ATC leaders think it was.) Equity did confirm that Asheville, Flat Rock and Greensboro all have SPT theaters. Companies with a higher LORT (League of Regional Theaters) designation, based on box office and pay obligations, operate in Chapel Hill, High Point, Raleigh and Winston-Salem.

Somma explained that Equity doesn’t encourage indiscriminate expansion: It tries to help every company find the designation that suits it best.

“We expect a theater to have a solid business plan that can ensure it continues to be a strong part of the community,” she says. “Whatever the size, an Equity theater seems to be a mainstay of that community.”

Changes in the wind

What other effects might Somma foresee?

“Members look at auditions around the country, and a buzz will start about a new theater in a nice town,” she says. “When a not-for-profit applies for grants as an Equity theater, it has a little more caché.

“On Arts Advocacy Day, Equity members talk to elected officials about a variety of subjects, including theaters in their districts. They remind officials what those theaters contribute to the cities they’re in.”

ATC’s budget has gone up, of course. It rose to $776,000 this season, an increase of $96,000, though Shoemaker estimated only $20,000 will go to higher actor salaries. Tickets went up $2, so about one-fifth of the increase – maybe 40 cents a ticket – is due to this Equity tie.

If there’s a downside to this partnership, ATC officials don’t see it. Decker expects it to “strengthen our brand” in the company’s 24th season.

Says Shoemaker: “Equity tells me 500 members live in the Carolinas. This is a way for them to stay here and pay taxes and keep their kids in schools, and a way for us to keep creative talent in our community.”

Toppman: 704-358-5232
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