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May 22 2022 5:58 PM ˚
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‘Why are we stuck?’ stage actors challenge their union over safety

From left, the actors Chris Ramirez, Tiffany Solano and Sally Vahle outside the Dallas Theater Center in Dallas, March 22, 2021. (Photo: NYTimes)
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The play was announced: “Tiny Beautiful Things,” an improbably moving stage adaptation of a wildly popular advice column. Four actors were chosen: members of a company that had worked together for years. And the producer, Dallas Theater Center, had developed a 45-page plan to keep the actors safe, in part by filming and streaming their work, with no live audience.اضافة اعلان

But after weeks of back-and-forth, Actors’ Equity, the national labor union, introduced what the theater saw as a new wrinkle. The cast would have to take 80-minute breaks every 80 minutes to make up for what the union viewed as inadequate air filtration in the rehearsal and performance halls.

The theater’s leaders gave up. This month, just five days before rehearsals were to begin, they canceled the project, at least for now.

That would have been the end of that, one of scores of abandoned theater projects during this pandemic, but for one unexpected development. The cast, furious that their own union, which represents actors and stage managers, was making it impossible for them to do the show, spoke up. One of them took to social media to express his anger. And when he did so, actors from around the country chimed in.

“The reason I spoke out is that something is deeply wrong with our union,” the actor, Blake Hackler, said. “When every other industry has adapted to keep going, why are we stuck here?”

Now the 51,000-member union, which for the last year has barred almost all stage work in the United States, is in the crosshairs, under fire from some of its own members as it tries to navigate a path that keeps them safe and helps them earn a living.

Quietly simmering frustrations erupted publicly last week when more than 2,500 union members signed a letter, circulated by a Broadway performer and signed by Tony winners and Tony nominees, plaintively asking, “When are we going to talk about the details of getting back to work?”
The union’s leadership, while proud of its performance during the pandemic, is acknowledging the concerns.

“I don’t mind people being frustrated — I’m frustrated too,” said the union’s president, Kate Shindle, an actress who, like most members, has been unemployed for the last year.

But Shindle defended Equity’s intensive focus on health.
“How many people on ventilators would be OK? How many people with lifelong, career-ending lung damage would be OK?” she said. “To me, the answer is zero.”

But with film and television production underway, vaccine distribution speeding up, and gathering places from schools to restaurants and sports arenas opening, many performers and producers say the union has been too slow to adapt.

“What appeared to be a well-intentioned initiative to keep their membership safe has turned into a unilateral, nonresponsive and opaque process which has expanded its jurisdiction far beyond any reasonable bounds,” said David A. Cecsarini, the producing artistic director of Next Act Theatre in Milwaukee.

Citing air conditioning system requirements that “are more stringent than those of hospitals,” he said the union “continues to move the goal posts of safety protocol, requiring more radical standards with each edition of its guidelines.”

Cecsarini is among a number of theater leaders, particularly from small and midsize theaters outside New York, who throughout the pandemic have had difficulty working with Equity. And, after a year in which many were afraid to voice their concerns publicly, they are now speaking up.

“From the beginning I’ve been pretty disappointed in Equity’s ability to pivot with the rest of the industry,” said Ethan Paulini, the producing artistic director of Weathervane Theatre in Whitefield, New Hampshire, and associate director of Out of the Box Theatrics in New York.

David Ellenstein, the artistic director of North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach, California, said his theater had made streaming work during the pandemic under contracts first with the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists and then with Equity. When Equity assumed jurisdiction, “the demands were above and beyond what SAG-AFTRA asked us to do,” he said.

Ellenstein, who has been an Equity member for four decades, said he is hopeful that relations may be improving but that some of the union’s safety requirements are “over the top.” Like what? “Having to have special air purifiers in apartments where actors are staying by themselves,” he said, “and the implication that people working with the theater should not associate with anyone else while they’re working on the play. I don’t know of any other business doing that.”

Actors have become unusually willing to speak up, worried that their union is lagging.

Davon Williams, an actor in New York, said the union is facing an “uprising” in part because its efforts stand in contrast to what’s happened with other entertainment industry unions.

“People are antsy,” he said. “When you look to your left and your right at our sister unions, these people are working.”
Elsewhere, actors say they are worried that the difficulty with negotiations could endanger theaters, especially outside New York.
“I know for sure theaters are putting proposals out there and not getting responses,” said Kurt Boehm, an actor in Washington. “To me our producers and our theaters are not our enemies, they’re our friends, and if they don’t survive there’s no union to be had.”

Several actors said that by refusing to OK theater productions with detailed safety protocols, the union is forcing them to take jobs that are even more dangerous. Boehm is working as a salesman at a Williams-Sonoma store; Kristine Reese, an actress who moved from New York to Atlanta during the pandemic, is teaching.

“They say they don’t want anyone to get sick doing a musical, but because I can’t do a very high-protocol musical, I have to do another job, and those jobs are way riskier than doing a show would be,” Reese said.
The union has agreed to schedule a national town hall in response to the recent upset; the petition signers, led by Timothy Hughes of “Hadestown,” are asking that they be allowed to moderate the virtual conversation.

In a joint interview, Shindle, the union president, and Mary McColl, the executive director, said they would strive to be clearer about what the union is doing. But they also said that until actors and stage managers are vaccinated, vigilance is warranted.

“The vaccine is the thing that is going to get us back on our feet,” McColl said, “and back on the stage.”