The email that changed everything arrived in mid-October, two days before the opening of A Bicycle Country.
It was a rule change from the actors' union so in-the-weeds that Gavin Hawk hardly noticed it. He certainly didn't know it would challenge the entire existence of his theater company.
Hawk, 41 and the founding artistic director of St. Petersburg's A Simple Theatre, was preparing his second show of the season. In the staged reading, a row of actors would read from scripts on music stands.
Because of the bare-bones model — no set, no props, only one performance — A Simple Theatre shows have been held in many places such as art galleries and museums. That versatility, plus the ability to offer live theater at $15 to $20 a ticket, has been a key part of the appeal. This one would be held at the Museum of Fine Arts.
The theater's style has been possible because of a provision in Actors Equity Association, the most prestigious union for actors. A Simple Theatre tends to cast a couple of Equity actors in every show — the result, Hawk says, of being able to draw from the largest possible pool of good actors.
Taken at face value, Equity rules make it nearly impossible to put on a staged reading. The union forbids theaters from charging admission to readings with Equity cast members. Nor may they advertise the shows — even on social media — allow the readings to be reviewed by critics, or offer private readings as a bonus to season ticket holders.
In practice, there was an easy solution. Theaters doing staged readings simply had actors sign a form seeking exceptions to these guidelines. Hawk had been doing it for years by Equity's rules, paying actors an extra $50 for each concession.
The change, in effect since May, ended that practice. "In the past we were able to grant concessions against it but now we are no longer able to," Nate Stolldorf of Actors Equity wrote. The union would still grant concessions for A Bicycle Country since Hawk had requested those in April.
New shows, however, would roll off the assembly line like cars without ignitions.
"We were just all really reeling," Hawk said. He protested the changes by email, but said he did not get a reply.
"I took that to mean, 'You're just a small fish and we don't really have to bother with you,' " Hawk said.
Stolldorf did not return a call from the Times. Actors Equity told the Times that the association tweaked its staged reading guidelines to ensure uniformity.
Hawk believes his theater is facing a Catch-22.
"Without getting these concessions, we cannot hire Equity actors under our current business model because we can't get a contract for them," Hawk said. "The only way we can get a contract for Equity actors is if we don't have subscribers, don't sell tickets and don't advertise our shows."
In November, a few days before they were to open The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Hawk and the theater's board cancelled the rest of the season.
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Hawk started A Simple Theatre in 2011 with actor and director Meg Heimstead. The theater opened with Death and the Maiden at the Studio@620. Its founders wanted to start small, a strategy inspired by Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre, which began in the mid-1970s in a church basement. The goal was eventually to produce three full shows in the summer and put on staged readings the rest of the year.
A Simple Theatre found a permanent home in 2013 at Eckerd College, where Hawk serves as a full-time professor. He hired the best actors he could find and top-flight designers, also from Equity, and told them to build the sets they envisioned.
"We really wanted our audiences to be wowed," Hawk said. But costs averaged $10,000 per play. Investors kept the theater in the black, sometimes barely.
Still, Hawk said, "We never got the kind of high-level donations we needed to take us to the next level."
In 2014, after producing Miracle on South Division Street, A Simple Theatre switched to doing staged readings exclusively. It seemed like a fresh idea, bristling with raw purity.
"Gavin is kind of quirky, and that's the kind of stuff he gravitates toward," said actor Bonnie Agan, who appeared in Miracle on South Division Street.
Without a set or high production costs, the company could stage shows in the community, sometimes with performances built around the venue itself. They did The Glass Menagerie at the Duncan McClellan glass gallery; Steve Martin's Picasso at the Lapin Agile at the Dalí Museum; and Bent, Martin Sherman's play about prewar Germany, at St. Petersburg's Holocaust Museum.
"A Simple Theatre has provided a great and unique outlet for plays to be heard that weren't necessarily getting productions," said Stephanie Gularte, the producing artistic director at American Stage in St. Petersburg, "and for actors to play characters and perform in these kinds of one-off situations they might not otherwise be able to do."
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Hawk remains an actor at heart. He recently played an art teacher in The Pitmen Painters at American Stage, and is half of the improv duo Hawk and Wayne. He is also a 20-year member of Actors Equity.
"Equity is a point of pride for me," he said. "I like what the union stands for."
Joining includes a number of requirements, such as logging at least 50 weeks of work in Equity-approved theaters. Hawk doesn't think Equity actors have a monopoly on talent. He counts himself a fan of Stageworks and Jobsite theaters, which rarely hire union actors. He will direct his third show at Jobsite next summer.
"There are wonderful actors in this area who are not Equity," he said. "And I don't want anyone to feel that I consider them less than the best of anybody else."
He pays both union and non-union actors $100 a night for performances, the Equity minimum. At the same time, Hawk adamantly wants to have a choice.
"While we could potentially continue on as a company that hires only non-Equity actors, it would feel artistically limiting to me," he said.
Despite the rule tightening, some theaters still do staged readings with paid Equity actors under contract, including Westport Country Playhouse and the Orlando Shakespeare Theatre. Annie Keefe, former artistic director of the Westport Country Playhouse in Westport, Conn., has directed more than 50 readings with casts composed entirely of Equity members. Keefe said the theater is anticipating renewed negotiations with the association soon, which could include increases in payments to actors.
"Whatever they're doing is to protect the members," Keefe said.
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With the season's remaining four shows cancelled, A Simple Theatre is weighing options. For its part, the association says it's willing to talk.
"If a producer wants to put on staged readings in front of a paying audience, which are advertised and reviewed, we would be happy to have a conversation with him or her, making sure that our members are working on an Equity agreement," Actors Equity spokesman Josh Austin told the Times in an email. "We'd welcome the opportunity to negotiate terms in order for that to happen."
Hawk doubted Equity could offer terms his theater could afford.
"What he seems to be suggesting is that we should produce our staged readings under one of their standard low-budget contracts," Hawk said. For example, he said, Equity's "special appearance agreement" requires a minimum of two weeks' work, at $240 a week.
Undertaking that agreement, at least, for one-night-only readings would be "financially foolhardy," Hawk said.
He said he has not spoken with anyone at Actors Equity since responding to Stolldorf's October email.
"If (Equity) cared so much about working out a solution with us," he said, "why didn't they take a moment to write me back or give me a call?"
Hawk said the theater's board will meet in January "to see if there is a way that we can move forward as a company."
"But we don't know at this time what form that could take."
Contact Andrew Meacham at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.