This is my last review for Fringe 2019. The shows only live on in our collective memories at this point. I'm ending with "Equity Rules"
For those of you who don't know, "Equity Rules" is a very short play by Jason Sherman, one of the country's most lauded playwrights, written during the height of his playwriting career in the mid-1990s. The play deals with nudity in auditions, which Brian Morton claims is based on an incident where he was the casting director. (All of this is available on YouTube, including a complete version of the short play by a different production team.)
Morton's version of the play is done well, and the actors (Cortnee Pope, Joshua Perry Fleming), but the reason to see this play is of course that it is put on by Brian Morton, who is purportedly the inspiration for the play.
Is this play a sincere apology by Brian Morton for actions he took thirty years ago, or a exploitative cash grab...or both.
I had an email interview with Morton, and his responses are below. I've cut nothing, so feel free to read at your leisure.
I hope that this year's Fringe has made you laugh and cry and given you a lot to think about. It certainly has for me. Until next year...but you don't have to wait until 2020 to see powerful Hamilton theatre...
Bryan Boodhoo (BB): Why this play now, given that it's been 30 years since the incident and more than two decades since it's been written.
Brian Morton (BM): The idea to do a production of Jason Sherman's play sprung from a conversation I had last summer with local playwright Erika Reesor at the Fringe beer tent. She told me the story of a particular moment in her life that was painful to her. She was angry that a playwright had heard a story about what happened to her and then had written it up as a stage play. She felt ownership of the story, and that no one else should be able to tell that particular story except her. (I won't describe the details of what she told me, as that is her story to share or not share publicly).
I countered with the story of "Equity Rules" and a quick version of what happened back in July of 1989. So we had that in common that both of us had some part of our lives turned into a play by someone else.
I had a full length project that I wanted to do for the 2019 Fringe but we did not get past the lottery. There was still the opportunity to get a 20 minute slot, so I applied and got in.
I had just finished a short play that pilloried Doug Ford for HamilTEN that was my "plan B" for the slot, but in the end, it took just a few days to get the performing rights to Jason Sherman's play. Also, I feel a certain resonance about anniversaries. For thirty years people have been telling a version of the events of July 1989, often a very inaccurate version of those events. I thought it was time to publicly acknowledge what had happened and make some amends for it.
BB: Is there anyone to corroborate that the play is actually about your actions, given that you do not have a relationship with the playwright?
BM: As I keep saying, "I believe" that the incident at Theatre Terra Nova in July 1989 is the real life inspiration behind Jason Sherman's play. But as Sherman and I have never had a conversation about it, I can never know for sure.
I asked him, through his agent, to write me a short program note, and this is what was sent to me.
Many years ago a friend of mine told me about a recent audition experience of hers: she had been asked by a director to prove her mettle for a particular role by exposing her breasts. My friend declined the invitation, pointing out that there were union rules around such things, and that asking her to remove her shirt and bra on the spot (and with only her and the director in the room) ran counter to those rules. Rumours soon began to circulate that the director was at it again, only this time with non-union women, to whom the written code of conduct did not apply. I wrote the play, in one outrage-fuelled session. It came out whole cloth, and I haven't changed a word since. Sadly, I haven't needed to.
- Jason Sherman
From what he wrote, I can only assume that his friend was one of the seven women, or three men, who were part of the callbacks for "Unidentified Human Remains", in late July of 1989.
Another reason why I believe that I am the real life inspiration behind the play has to do with my production of Marlene Meyer's play "Etta Jenks", on the stage of the Tarragon MainStage in June of 1993.
Jason Sherman was the playwright in residence at the Tarragon, at the time. I was in and out of the building for three and a half weeks and always thought it likely that someone told the story to him at the time.
Also, "Etta Jenks," a feminist play about pornography, was sexually explicit, and we went to great lengths to cast it correctly, and without a repeat of the mistakes that I had made back in 1989. The one thing that I have never, ever repeated was asking anyone to disrobe as part of an audition for a play.
I now think it grossly unfair to ever ask someone to do that, unless you have actually cast them in the play. I do not like holding auditions in general, and prefer to just reach out to actors that I know and have worked with before or actors that I have seen in a production that I liked. Being a local drama critic means that I get to see quite a few productions every year.
In fact, to this day I still put "No one will ever be asked to disrobe as part of the auction process" on the bottom of every audition questionnaire for plays that I direct. Despite this, actors often come in to audition for me with a great deal of trepidation.
The Globe and Mail published an article in June 1993 about Nudity in the theatre as a trend. Both Sky Gilbert and I were interviewed for the that article. There are a few references in Sherman's play, that seem, to me anyway, to be sourced from that article.
Finally, there is the timing of the play. It debuts as part of the Tarragon Spring Arts Fair in March 1994 as an "office play" performed in Andy McKim's office. That is nine months from when I had been working in the Tarragon Space. I did not see it, although Trevor Copp mentioned that he had attended that production in 1994. That cast ended up being a part of a short film adaptation of the play that Sherman directed for BRAVO a few years later. It is up on youtube if you want to see it. It is much shorter then the stage version, which I think magnifies its impact, when you watch it.
I first encountered the play when it was remounted as part of the 1999 Summerworks Festival in Toronto. There was a preview about it in NOW Magazine and I was shocked to discover that it seemed to be retelling the story. I saw the play, which was performed at the Tarragon Extra Space. I sat in the third row and basically had a mild heart-attack while watching it.
But all of these years later, if someone was going to write a play about a painful moment in my own life, then I am grateful that the writer was someone as talented as Jason Sherman is. There are many layers to the script, and while it does eventually come down on one side of the issue, it presents more than one point of view on the scenario.
Why should we do Canadian plays from twenty five years ago? Hopefully, because the still have something to say about the present day. I was the artistic director of a theatre, that only did the work of Canadian playwrights. I have read a huge number of scripts by Canadian writers, particularly those who were active in the 1970s and 1980s. Thos[e] plays are rarely staged anymore, which I think is a real loss.
BB: How did you get the rights to this play, given that you are the real life inspiration for the villain character?
BM: I got the rights to the play the same way that anyone else would get the rights to it. By emailing the author's agent and presenting a production proposal listing the number of performances, the specific dates, the seating capacity of the venue, and the proposed ticket price. That leads to "a quote" for what it would cost, which I accepted, and then you write them a cheque. You sign a contract that details billing and what must go in the program.
I am legally obligated to always include Jason Sherman's name next to the title of the play - i.e. "Equity Rules" by Jason Sherman. There is a $500 penalty if I fail to do that. I also cannot make any changes to the official text of the play. So what I presented, as part of the Fringe, is Sherman's version of what happened, which in the end is a work of fiction.
The decision to "out" myself, as the "asshole" director in the play came much later, when we started promoting the production and I recorded a video for the CBC. I was hesitant about playing the role of "Bill" myself, although I toyed with the idea for a bit. In the end, I think it was a much better idea to give the opportunity to Joshua, who did a lovely performance of it.
That script for the video then became the core of the 90 second commercial at the Fringe launch. I also talked at length with Carissa and David on the Notapom Podcast about this. I have made the decision to be as honest as I can, about all of this, although it is not easy for me, and at times I have gotten quite emotionally overwhelmed while doing it.
BB: How does the fact that you're staging this play make things better for women in the industry?
BM: I think is a valuable play for women in the industry to see, as it allows you to ask yourself what would you do in that particular situation. Also, as since the Harvey Weinstein scandal last year, there was been a very important conversations going on about male privilege and the control of casting authority in the industry by men. There are relatively fewer female directors, particularly in the film industry. Anytime you deal with projects that involved nudity or sexuality, these conversations about what is and what is not acceptable come up.
ACTRA puts out a "survival guide to Nudity" for its members. As a film is a permanent record, it is perhaps more vital that people have knowledge of what to expect.
BB: Why should you ultimately be rewarded with ticket sales, if indeed you were the impetus for the play?
BM: I am the easiest person in the world to get a comp out of, so believe me, this project was not about making money. We were the very first company to share an artist password to the closed Fringe productions group, as I wanted people to see the work.
I suspected that certain members of the theatre community would choose not to attend the production, and I found them to be the exact same people who did not attend "UNDER THE APPLE TREE" last year up at the Zoetic.
We were the second highest grossing production in the Hamilton Fringe festival in 2018; only B!TCH ISLAND outsold us, and there are no prizes for second place.
I have some insight, as a result of these experiences, of how poorly actors can get treated. The play is a "cautionary tale", a warning, if you like.
None of the six productions in the Tourism Hamilton space, an all-new venue for the Hamilton Fringe, did very well. MY BREAST SELF, which won best in Venue, and Mark McNeil's HAMILTON FOR BEGINNERS, based upon anecdotal evidence, did the best. But I think all of us played to smaller houses than we would have liked.
I brought in my own sound, lighting and curtains to make the space more theatrical to perform in. I think it helped the other productions in the space.
I put the lack of audience down to a few factors. So I did not think that anyone objected to the content of the play itself.
There were 58 shows in the festival in 2019 - so there was lots of competition for an audience. Also the Fringe raised the prices on the mini-series shows to $9, from last years $8. I am Scottish, by cultural background. So if a regular hour long show is $12, then a 20 minute one should be $4, in my mind.
I know the Fringe organization just wants to help artists make money, but in this case, I think that it may have pushed people away from these smaller shows. I would like to see an $18 one day mini-series pass that gets you into all of the shows in a single performance day.
I have not seen a final box office talley for the show, but I know that it did not meet its production expenses. There was a small loss ($300?) in producing it.
My best guess at this point is that 75 people saw "Equity Rules", an average of about 10 people per show. I will contrast that with just a single performance of "UNDER THE APPLE TREE" last summer that had 185 people in the seats.
BB: Did you consider donating the profits from the show?
BM: Again there must be a profit in order to donate it to anyone. Had there been any profit, it would have gone to my two actors. I am so grateful to Cortnee and Joshua for taking on this project, I literally could not have done it without them.
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