Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The 2007 Stagehand Strike: When the Machine Shuts Down

I like to think of a Theatre production as something like a machine; it needs several parts to make it run. Without the necessary components, or parts, the productions will fall apart. The essential pieces include the producer, the director, the cast of actors, and the crew of technicians. Now, to break down these parts, the producer makes sure that all the money and rights are in order before the show can actually go on. The director is in charge of making sure that all the actors and crew are in their right places when they need to be. Also, without the artistic “vision” of the director there is nothing, but fumbling actors and technicians running about with no idea of what they are doing; everything is words on a page, there is no life to it yet. Actors are obviously there to show off their talents and the hard work they have done for months on end to make the show not only happen, but make it good as well. Last, but not least, the crew of technicians is there to take care of lighting design, sound effects, any other special effects, costumes, makeup, set design, and keeping the actors on their cues. Without the technicians the actors will be doing their performance naked and not made up in the dark without cues, set, and any effects. As you can see, when any part of the “machine” of theatre is not functioning or out of the picture, the production on a whole suffers greatly.

Any sort of painful effects of a non functioning theatre “machine” became very apparent during the stagehands’ strike back in early November of 2007. According to about 28 shows were closed and were suffering from the striking stage hands. In an article from called “Broadway Stagehands go on Strike” by Jeff Lunden, “At about 10 a.m., the picket lines started appearing in front of Broadway theaters. Charlotte St. Martin, who represents the producers, said the stagehands really knew how to hit Broadway where it hurt. "The first show they chose to strike was How the Grinch Stole Christmas,’ St. Martin said. ‘And we realized that it was just very appropriate that that's the first one that they would do it for, because they are like the Grinch, stealing the magic of Broadway to all the children and families who are here to see Broadway shows and to kick off their holiday season.’”

Yet, the Theatre-goers were not the only victims in this unfortunate situation. Lunden also wrote, “Of course, who the Grinch is, is up to interpretation. Broadway's stagehands — the backstage workers who install and operate the sets, lights and props in theaters — have been working without a contract since July. Negotiations have been tense and have broken off a couple of times. The dispute is over long-established work rules which the producers say are archaic and expensive. Officials of Local One, the stagehand's union, would not speak to the press, but handed out leaflets to Broadway patrons saying ‘theater owners and producers are demanding a 38 percent cut in our jobs and wages.’” The stage hands obviously believed that they had a reason to go on strike. Working without a contract from July to November in 2007 basically meant that they were giving the big-wigs in the world of Broadway the right to walk all over them for much less than they deserved.

Though the stage hands had a good reason to strike, not everyone felt the way they did. The population of Broadway theatre-goers was not sympathetic in the least. Hundreds upon hundreds of people who came from all over to see a Broadway show were left disappointed, angry, and upset by the fact that their show had been cancelled because of the stage hands. The common emotion among the theatre-goers was outrage. Even some producers were upset and even confused by the stage hands’ strike. In Lunden’s article, the producer for How the Grinch Stole Christmas, James Sanna expressed his confusion, shock, and disappointment, “‘We just opened last night,’ he said. ‘We had a fantastic opening, great notices, and we wake up this morning to find out that [there will] be no performances. We have four shows scheduled for today and 6,000 people were coming to the theater and it's very, very disappointing that we have to turn them away.’” As most people can see, the Theatre-goers also had a reason to be upset.

All concerns from both sides seem very legitimate. On the one hand we have the stage hands who have been upset over working with no contract for about five months. It can be expected that they would get upset and want a contract to be instated. On the other hand, we have the anxious directors and producers who have been working on and putting money into their productions; not to mention the other establishments that get money from all the people coming to see Broadway shows. Also, the people who actually go to see the shows who have ordered tickets sometimes months in advance so they could get any seat possible have been told that their show has been cancelled.

For all those who were affected by this terrible and most inconvenient event, my heart goes out to all. However, the stage hands in this were the ones that were being treated unfairly. Though the people that planned on going to see a show were out of luck during the time of the strike they were not the ones who ultimately suffered. They missed a show; the stage hands lost months of decent pay. Their jobs were affected by the fact that they were working with no contracts and a minimal amount of pay. In the end, I believe that the stage hands got the short end of the stick in this deal. Though the strike was resolved and everything is back to normal in the world of Broadway, I still have to hand it to the stage managers; they work very hard every day to make productions work and who knows, it could have been worse.



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