by Gwen Everett
July 9, 2020
More than 3,000 actors, light technicians, makeup artists and other stagehands lost work when theaters went dark during the spring, according to state layoff notices.
With Broadway not reopening until next year, workers are left in an incredible lurch. Having already endured lost income, they face more months of the same. Their skills are niche and, unlike other industries, remote work is largely impossible.
All that translates into near-full unemployment for the heavily unionized industry.
“It’s probably 98% unemployment,” said Randy Anderson, director of contract affairs for the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society, a major Broadway union with more than 1,600 members.
“To say that this is an existential crisis is probably an understatement,” said Adam Krauthamer, president of Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians. The local has around 1,300 members who work on Broadway.
“The arts are at a critical juncture where they could be left behind," Krauthamer said. "Because we cannot go back to work until it’s deemed safe to have crowds of people.”
Workers facing no steady income for the coming months—the Broadway League said productions would start Jan. 3, at the earliest—and with expenses to pay may be forced to look elsewhere for work.
“I am really concerned that people, and I would never fault them for this, would turn to another industry, because they need to pay their bills,” said Matt Ross, a publicist, producer and member of the board of directors at the Association of Theatrical Press Agents and Managers, another major Broadway union.
At the same time Broadway’s ultra-powerful unions are themselves facing challenges. Working dues, which unions collect out of the wages of their members and use to finance operations, have plummeted to zero, Anderson said.
Without work, benefit plans suffer because they do not collect any employer contributions, which they desperately need, Krauthamer said.
Even when Broadway does return, it’s by no means clear how it will be able to afford putting on a production, and what that will mean for its workers.
Broadway operated on a prohibitively expensive cost structure before the shutdown, with productions costing from $15 million to $25 million, said award-winning Broadway producer Stephen Byrd, who runs Front Row Productions. It will be a long time before Broadway is able to sustain those costs profitably, he said.
“I think it is possible, though we don’t know that yet, that there may be more dark theaters when we open,” said Charlotte St. Martin, president of the Broadway League. “I think it would be unrealistic of us to assume we’d come back at the same pace that we’ve been at the last two years.”
Fewer productions would mean fewer available jobs.
The expense profile of plays may also mean something else has to give—such as wages rates. That’s what happened after 9/11, St. Martin said, adding that Broadway workers are the best and most expensive in the industry. Wage rates may temporarily decline to allow for theaters to recover, although no formal negotiations have begun, she said.
Unions, for whom those wages have been long fought, unanimously told Crain’s they would resist a reduction.
“I don’t think pay reductions, in their simplest sense, make sense,” publicist-producer Ross said. “If you have workers back and they’re doing their job … I don’t see why they should be paid any less.”