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Gateway Playhouse suing Actors Equity for understudy benefits

The Gateway Playhouse in Bellport and four of

The Gateway Playhouse in Bellport and four of its actors are suing Actors Equity Association after being stripped of health and retirement benefits. Credit: Randee Daddona

The Gateway Playhouse in Bellport, which has been closed since March due to the coronavirus pandemic, is embroiled in a real-life drama against Actors Equity Association.

The Gateway, along with four of its performers, has filed suit against the actors' union as well as the Equity League benefit funds, which administers the health and retirement funds for union members. According to the lawsuit, the actors have been stripped of their health and retirement benefits and are being asked to repay more than $200,000 in incurred medical costs.

At the heart of the case is the union's allegation that the four actors were not considered "proper understudies" when they performed on Gateway's stage because they were not listed in the playbill as performing a specific role.

Understudies are in a very "loosey-goosey" position, said Gateway executive artistic director Paul Allan, in that they often are asked to perform at a moment's notice if an actor becomes sick. Allan said that Gateway "followed all the rules as far as understudies" — the performers were contracted, given a script and had access to the director.

At issue is the union’s allegation that Gateway signed some employees who are not vested actors to Actor’s Equity contracts. Allan denies those claims. "One of the employees has been working at Gateway on a union contract for over 25 years," he said. "In other cases, some of the employees who are plaintiffs in the suit have performed at Gateway and many other theaters throughout their entire careers."

According to Allan, attempts to resolve these issues were rejected by the union. "They wouldn’t talk to us about it and we could not come to any kind of agreement," he said.

Meanwhile, Actors Equity Association is holding firm. "Equity has reviewed the allegations in the complaint against it, believe they are completely devoid of merit, and is confident it will prevail in this lawsuit," said Brandon Lorenz, a spokesman for the organization, in a statement. "As it has informed the court, in October it will be moving to dismiss all of the claims against Equity." Gillian Costello, the attorney at Spivak Lipton LLP in Manhattan who is representing the Equity League funds, said in a statement that "the funds believe the claims in the lawsuit are without merit."

In a statement, Gateway's attorney Bran C. Noonan of Manhattan-based FordHarrison LLP said "Actor’s Equity has engaged in a long-running scheme to defraud their members, including the four individual plaintiffs, leaving them to believe that they were entitled to health and retirement benefits."

Allan said that Gateway and Actors Equity had previously had an amicable relationship and he hopes that they can continue to work together in the future.

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