Howard Sherman: Do Broadway casting directors need a union?

Broadway casting directors and their supporters. Photo: Howard Sherman
Howard Sherman
Howard Sherman is a New York based arts administrator and advocate. He is director of the Arts Integrity Initiative at The New School for Performing Arts.
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It wasn’t a picket line last Thursday morning, but rather a demonstration, as Broadway casting directors and their supporters walked back and forth in front of the entrances to Radio City Music Hall. The action was timed to capitalise on the steadily growing interest in the Tony Awards in the run-up to the Sunday event, which was being rehearsed inside.

Casting directors are among the few – in their rhetoric, the only – professionals on Broadway who do not have union representation. In particular, they seek the opportunity to have employer-provided health and pension benefits like their many colleagues on Broadway shows.

Unlike periodic flare-ups over union terms that break into the public eye, including a musicians’ union strike in 2003 that closed down much of Broadway for close to a week, the actions by the casting directors are an attempt to secure official recognition by the Broadway League, representing producers and theatre owners, that they have a valid claim to existing as a bargaining unit. They already have an agreement to affiliate with a local division of the Teamsters, a national union with wide and diverse membership.

The casting directors cite union coverage for actors, directors, designers, stagehands and more in making their case. The League says that casting directors are independent contractors, not employees, and therefore don’t meet the criteria to form a union. Feeling they are on solid ground, the League has urged the casting directors to get a ruling from the National Labor Relations Board, which governs such issues at the federal level.

Unlike the musicians’ union strike, when the union members shrewdly capitalised on the threat of “virtual” orchestras that would rob them of their livelihoods, the role of the casting director is less understood by the public than that of a live musician in a pit.

However, with the advent of social media, labour campaigning has gone online in ever-evolving ways. Following on the success of the #FairWageOnstage campaign last fall, which is credited with helping actors to secure a strong boost in wages for Off-Broadway work, the casting directors launched #FairnessForCasting. The result has been a series of photos from an array of well known names, including Bryan Cranston, Julianna Margulies and Michelle Dockery, holding signs with that hashtag on Facebook, Instagram and the like.

Photo: Howard Sherman

The decision on casting directors’ eligibility to unionise is one for lawyers and the NLRB to argue about and decide upon. They are not likely to be swayed by public campaigns. But certainly some of the characteristics of casting directors operations – having their own offices and employees, working on multiple shows at once – are points of commonality with other Broadway union employees, such as press agents and scenic, costume and lighting designers, rather than points of distinction, as has been asserted by the League.

The awareness effort has spoken vigorously to employer-provided health care, as well as pensions. As the child of an insurance agent and someone currently subject to the vagaries of the threatened Obamacare system, I’m always sympathetic to those who don’t have access to robust, affordable health care plans. I wrote as much when the stage directors and choreographers society tried, unsuccessfully, to get assistant directors included in their bargaining unit and I caught a certain amount of criticism for taking a side.

But we can only make a life in the theatre better for those in it if we are trying to find improvements in the quality of living. Even understanding that many shows fail to recoup their investments, when Broadway is collectively setting new records in income, the case against providing some of its essential workers with benefits that their peers receive seems a hard one to make.

This week in US theatre

Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan’s 1984 opens on Broadway on Thursday, with the arrival of the production widely thought to be intended as a commentary on the Trump presidency. The cast features Tom Sturridge as Winston Smith, 2016 Tony winner Reed Birney as O’Brien and Olivia Wilde in her Broadway debut.

I’ve never seen the film Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion, but I’m not unaware of its place in the pop-culture realm. If the new stage musical version, which opens Thursday at the 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle, makes it to New York, I’ll ultimately find out what some of the fandom is about. The stage version has a book by Robin Schiff, who wrote the screenplay, itself an adaptation of her own play, with a score by Gwendolyn Sanford and Brandon Jay and direction by Kristin Hanggi, who piloted another pop culturefest, Rock of Ages, to success.

It always surprises me how few people realise that Tyne Daly and Timothy Daly are siblings, so different are their stage and screen personae; of course, I’m old enough to remember when their father was famous for his role on a 1970s TV drama called Medical Center. For the first time, Tim and Tyne will share a stage together, in the world premiere of Theresa Rebeck’s Downstairs, which opens Thursday for a brief run at the Dorset Theatre Festival in Vermont.

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