Labor negotiations only tend to break into the news when they concern large public sector unions or when things are going badly. This does not concern the former or, so far as I know, the latter. But there is an item on the table in the current negotiations between The Broadway League and the Stage Directors and Choreography Society (SDC) that I find of interest, even if it is rather inside pool for the theatre industry, and even more specifically, Broadway.
SDC has put forward a proposal asking that, with their new Broadway contract, the Associate Directors and Associate Choreographers who work on Broadway shows be included as part of the bargaining unit for the first time. The goal is not to establish minimum salaries, but to seek health and pension payments for the associates during the term of their employment, which, with a successful show, can extend for years.
Because the term ‘associate’ is often confused with ‘assistant,’ and I’ve made the mistake myself more than once, it’s worth understanding the title. Associates are typically the people who remain with a show week after week to maintain the production, whether it’s notes for actors as productions roll along, rehearsing understudies and even “putting in” new cast members. Associates may travel with shows as they tour, and in some cases on shows with numerous subsequent incarnations, an associate may rehearse the cast for several weeks before the director or choreographer arrives to handle the final phase of the staging. I’m skimming the surface here. But in short, we are not talking about people who run to get the tuna sandwiches for lunch.
The position has evolved over the years, as shows have run longer and productions have become more technically complex. Some of the work I’ve mentioned cursorily was traditionally the sole purview of the production stage manager, and on some productions, it can certainly remain their responsibility. (There are superb stage managers out there and nothing I’m saying here should in any way be construed as minimizing their essential roles in maintaining shows as well.) But on the bigger shows, engineered to (hopefully) last for years, associates are much more de rigeur. Certain directors and choreographers of note tend to work with the same associates for long periods of time, because of the trust developed that allows those artists to reliably delegate tasks and productions, secure that their vision will be sustained. It’s important to note, however, that while directors and choreographers have significant say in who they want to work with, and on a practical basis the associates work for them, legally all associates are employed by the production, not the artists themselves.
The only reason I’ve heard about this topic in the current negotiations is because the associates have been organizing themselves on Facebook, and in my wide circle of “friends,” so many of whom I’ve never met, some are Broadway associates – and some are the directors and choreographers themselves. It was only yesterday that I saw the associates’ campaign for recognition move beyond a private Facebook group and onto SDC’s own Facebook page. There’s been no press release, no phone calls soliciting support.
But it came as a surprise to me that with the many unions establishing work rules and compensation minimums on Broadway, somehow the associates have slipped through the cracks, despite the responsibility and skills that the position now requires. Some of this surely stems from how the role has evolved over the past 30 years or so.
Is being an associate a training ground for the next generation of directors and choreographers, something we all should care about? It can be: a cursory look at the IBDB shows me that Marc Bruni, director of Beautiful, was associate director for nine Broadway productions before getting the top gig with the Carole King show; Warren Carlyle was the associate choreographer on two shows before he started creating the dances – and directing – Broadway shows on his own. But there are plenty of associates for whom that may well be their particular calling, who find perpetual satisfaction and success in their expertise at channeling directors and choreographers to keep shows fresh and tight, as we now see productions running for 10 or 20 years or more.
I understand why the producers of the Broadway League may be reticent about this; after all, I’ve been a theatre manager, and sat in union negotiations representing producers (albeit not-for-profit ones). There’s always the belief that when a new union comes in, or when new disciplines are added to an existing bargaining unit, the inevitable result is to drive up costs and perhaps create limitations on employee responsibilities. Even though the request right now is only for health and pension contributions, and salaries are entirely negotiable, I’m sure the producers are concerned that once assistants are in the bargaining unit, there may be additional requests in future negotiations.
It’s worth noting that associates working on productions like The Lion King and Aladdin are afforded these benefits, because Disney negotiates its own union contracts. All of its workers are corporate employees of Disney, and participate in standard Disney employee benefit programs. Of course, other producers, who are primarily independent, may say that Disney can afford to do this precisely because they are a large corporation, not a limited partnership formed to mount a single production. But Disney shows still have to balance expenses against income, like any other show.
I have to say that I look at the current situation not as an avowed ally of either the associates or the producers, but rather as the son of an insurance salesman, as well was someone who traded in my bar mitzvah savings bonds at age 16 because I realized I could get a better rate in a mutual fund. I also look at it as someone who had no opportunity for a retirement savings plan, let alone an employer contribution, until I was in my 30s, and who has had to buy health insurance on the open market for the past several years (and I say with genuine appreciation, thank you, President Obama).
My voice doesn’t really matter one little bit, because I’m not at the table or directly connected to the interested parties. But I don’t think its unreasonable for enterprises which may be grossing anywhere from $500,000 to $2 million a week to give long-term employees who are surrounded by countless colleagues who do receive health and pension benefits the same level of security. And while audiences may never realize it, it matters to them too, especially if they’re seeing a show after the first couple of months on Broadway or in a subsequent sit-down company or on a tour.