Virginia Stage Company makes an internal shift to highlight more local talent
By Rashod Ollison
September 17, 2017
Regular theatergoers might have noticed that the Virginia Stage Company left the League of Resident Theatres two years ago. But it’s quite possible they didn’t.
Observers differ on the value of league membership and the impact it has on what appears onstage.
Some members hail its benefits. Mary Gould, leader of the Daniel Island Performing Arts Center in South Carolina, told the Charleston City Paper that a LORT designation “is the highest that can be received by a regional theater, opening the venue up to compete for regional Tony awards and partner with Broadway production houses to incubate shows before they head to the Great White Way.”
For its part, the VSC hopes the split from LORT will allow it to showcase more local talent without restrictions from the theater association.
“Union membership does not define theater professionals,” said Tom Quaintance, producing artistic director for VSC. “There are both union and non-union theater pros, but we certainly work with more union members than any theater in the region.”
David Byrd, managing director of Virginia Stage Company, said the major perk for theaters is that it streamlines negotiations with the unions. “So rather than every season going to each union to figure out your agreement for that year, it’s done collectively with a host of theaters across the country.”
Under LORT, theaters are locked into the terms of the union agreements for a period , currently for five years. Quaintance said the decision to leave LORT was “driven both by a desire to work with more local artists and by financial concerns. As our current contract is a letter of agreement that references LORT, the only real difference in our relationship with Actors’ Equity is in the number of Equity contracts we are required to have on each show.”
This translates to cutting costs for VSC. Each member of LORT pays a share of its expenses based upon its budget size. Neither Quaintance nor Byrd would provide the amount of that payment, calling it a “minimal figure,” maybe a few thousand dollars a year. The split with LORT two years ago came as VSC had streamlined its administration and renovated the Wells Theatre. A few years before that, the theater had hit its biggest deficit in years at more than $985,000. The deficit is now “$40,000 and will be retired within a year,” Quaintance said.
Leaving LORT allowed the theater to use more nonunion theater professionals, offering a potential cut in overall costs for productions.
Quaintaince said the budget is just over $2.6 million.
Since the split from LORT, VSC’s two seasons have included productions of perennial regional theater favorites like “Oliver Twist,” “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “A Christmas Carol,” and “The Wiz,” whose cast in April was dominated by students from Norfolk State University’s award-winning theater department, nonunion actors. That production was a strong seller for VSC.
“Any show we did that had a cast larger than four people, all shows except ‘Grounded’ and ‘Venus in Fur,’ included more local nonunion actors than would have been possible under the LORT contract,” Quaintance said. “Under the LORT contract these seasons would have looked very different, with season selection reflecting smaller cast shows.”
Barter Theater in Abingdon has been a member of LORT since its inception in 1966. Richard Rose, Barter’s producing artistic director, said having a unifying organization to work with theater unions is beneficial, but he echoed Quaintance regarding the drawbacks.
“At times, the larger urban theaters control negotiation for their own benefit and do not fight for what is needed by the smaller, more rural theaters,” Rose said. “It can cost theaters some unnecessary expenses belonging to LORT. It is not for the benefit of every theater to belong to LORT. There is some attitude between the haves and have-nots of LORT. It is not as diverse an organization as it should be.”
Jennifer Bielstein, LORT’s current president, said that there isn’t any pressure for theaters to belong to the association.
“There are other union agreements that theaters may work under depending upon their operating model and location,” Bielstein said, “so it is hard to generalize about challenges.”
For VSC, reducing costs while it highlights local, nonunion talent is a progressive move for the theater.
“We also have excellent relationships with the top professional training programs in regional colleges and universities,” Quaintance said. “Last season’s ‘The Wiz’ was an excellent example of putting top professionals side by side with the next generation of theater professionals. We are also hiring more local professionals than ever before, both union and nonunion, with projects like the upcoming ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ which will employ over a dozen local actors and designers. We like to think the exceptionally high standard of our work speaks for itself.”