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Acting Out

A group of local professional actors have taken matters into their own hands.


Firehouse Theatre, the new Essential Theater and Barksdale Theatre/Theatre IV occasionally employ Equity artists for a reduced rate under special arrangement with the union. The University of Richmond hires two Equity actors per year as guest artists.

"Right now, if you're an Equity actor in this town you have a problem," says David Sennett, who has been an Actors' Equity member for the past 30 years. "Most of us depend on other forms of income. … There is not another theater [in town] that provides a living wage, benefits, pension and specified working conditions."

Sennett is determined to change that. He has spent the past six months immersed in an effort to re-establish a professional Equity theater in Richmond. He is the producing director for Richmond Ensemble Theatre, a company he conceived nearly a year ago as a pipe dream.

Sennett moved here from New York in 1997 to do a theater fellowship at Virginia Commonwealth University and later began working with TheatreVirginia, where he became an associate artist. He and his wife, Eileen Cowel, fell in love with the city and decided to make it home. But last summer, even before TheatreVirginia closed, Sennett began to question the lack of employment options here.

"There was not enough work [here] to keep the professional theater community in business," he says. "I started talking to my wife and asking, should we stay here? Can we afford to stay here with only one union theater?"

Among his theater friends, he casually began tossing around the idea of forming a second Actors' Equity theater. While nearly everyone agreed it would be a huge undertaking, they also agreed it was something that could be done — or was worth trying. After all, many cities have more than one Equity theater: Louisville, Ky., has four; Cleveland supports nine. With the demise of TheatreVirginia, Sennett's idea suddenly took on new urgency.

Several former TVA professionals announced their intentions to leave the business, and others already have moved to other cities in search of work. Without an Equity theater in town, "No professional actors will come here because there will be no place to work," Sennett says. "Younger actors who are trying to train and get their Equity card will have to go elsewhere. … I really feel like I have to make this effort for me, my family and the theater professionals."

Since January, RET has staged two public readings, with a third planned for May 19. It is awaiting approval of its 501c3 designation, which it expects to have by midsummer. Until then, the School of the Performing Arts in the Richmond Community has agreed to serve as an umbrella organization for RET's fund-raising efforts. The company also has just secured a venue for its 2003-2004 season, striking a deal with Richmond's Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Facilities to perform in the 200-seat theater at Pine Camp. Sennett estimates RET already has about 30 active volunteers. It also has a board of directors that met for the first time in March.

Richmond Ensemble Theatre will launch its first subscription season in September, with four staged readings and two concert versions of musicals.

"I think readings are one of the most valid forms of theater there is," Sennett says. "You are forced to invest your imagination." He also sees these bare-bones productions as a great way to build an audience, discover local talent and gauge the audience's reaction to a wide variety of works.

Board President Dan Stackhouse says one of the biggest challenges the company will face will be getting professional artists to initially work for less than they're worth. "We will have to get artists to take leaps of faith with us. Hopefully, they will see the benefit of making an investment in the future of Richmond theater."

Sennett estimates it will take a budget of $125,000 to produce a season of fully mounted plays. He hopes the theater will reach that goal by fall 2004, but acknowledges it won't be easy. He says RET will raise money through ticket sales, in-school programming, benefits and fund-raising events and by asking the community for direct contributions.

"The closing of TheatreVirginia has made some people skeptical about giving money and purchasing subscriptions to theater," Sennett says.

RET will begin operations under an Equity Developing Theater Agreement with Actors' Equity, which will allow it to hire about 50 percent nonunion talent. Nonunion actors will be paid the same as union actors, but will not receive benefits. "That means nonunion talent should not feel they will not be able to participate in Richmond Ensemble Theatre," Sennett says. "They will, and we will need them." In fact, for RET's April staged reading of Shakespeare's "Measure for Measure," only four of the participating 11 actors held Equity cards.

Richmond Ensemble Theatre also plans to offer an apprenticeship program that will enable actors to earn Actors' Equity membership.

Sennett acknowledges that membership in the union is not for everyone, especially in a town like Richmond. "Some actors don't want [an Equity card]," he says. "It can limit your opportunities to work elsewhere. But we hope a union card becomes a valuable tool, because we hope there will be numerous Equity theaters here someday."

Within three years, Sennett hopes RET will be able to move up the Equity ladder to a Letter of Agreement contract, which will mean it can negotiate a better wage for actors and directors. Then he hopes within seven years to be at the LORT level TVA operated under.

Daryl Clark Phillips, an Actors' Equity member who directed RET's staged reading of "Measure for Measure," supports that aim and points out that, "Even in the professional theater world most people would find the kind of contract we're aiming for laughable. We're not asking for the moon."

RET also aims to produce a broad range of plays; foster the development of new audiences through outreach and education; and rejuvenate Richmonders' hunger for professional theater performances. By professional, Sennett means Actors' Equity.

If RET isn't successful, Richmond will still have live theater, he acknowledges, "But I wouldn't hire a nonunion, nonlicensed plumber to fix my plumbing," he says. "There is a qualitative difference when you're working with nationally certified theater professionals." S

Richmond Ensemble Theatre will present a staged reading of Beth Henley's "Abundance" at Pine Camp Arts Center May 19 at 7:30 p.m. Free, but donations accepted. Call 278-8749 for reservations.

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