Labor strikes tend to be extraordinarily high-stakes pieces of street theater. So it’s not surprising that a recent strike by 27 stagehands at Broad Street’s Suzanne Roberts Theatre very nearly upstaged what was occurring within despite usually shunning the spotlight.
On the sidewalk, the Philadelphia Theatre Company (PTC) workers, brand new to the world of organized labor, found themselves picketing, distributing fliers with a managing director’s personal cell number and inflating the type of ulcer-bellied giant rat that even building-trades unions have lately been dismissing as too aggressive. The dispute got quite heated on both sides — something very out of the ordinary in the usually tight-knit theater community.
It was all very strange for Alyssandra Docherty, who loves her job as lighting supervisor and is slightly embarrassed when she gets a bit choked up talking about the lightning, thunder, flowers sprouting from the floor and other elements of The Mountaintop that are not happening because of the strike.
"We've spoken with a few patrons as they come out — the most common phrase is 'We missed you in there!' I always say, 'We miss being in there.'"
Onstage, things were just as awkward: Unable to find strikebreakers willing to work the sound and light boards despite recruiting from as far away as New York and Delaware, PTC hired actress Cathy Simpson to sit on a folding chair at the edge of the stage and supply dramatic readings of cues like, “Thunder and lightning! CRACK!” A small insert in the program thanked audiences for “using your imagination.”
The messy, months-long conflict between PTC and International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) Local 8 was finally resolved last Friday. But the dispute leaves some enduring questions about PTC — the most recent and perhaps most vulnerable company to upgrade to a shiny new stage during the pre-recession regional-theater boom — and its plans for the future.
The stagehands’ decision to unionize last July was sparked, in part, by worry that their jobs would slowly be outsourced to college kids. “They hired an intern on top of the intern that we normally have — that was a loss of a job,” says Docherty. PTC recognized the union in September, but negotiations got stuck on how many interns could be hired, and a strike began in January.
The conflict sometimes felt like a tug-of-war with the ghost of Martin Luther King Jr. as the rope. The almost-funny clash of Kings was inevitable given the production in question: The Mountaintop, Katori Hall’s imagining of King’s final night at the Lorraine Motel — he mentions more than once that he's in Memphis to support a striking labor union. Plus, one of the last straws that the stagehands found particularly ironic was that PTC wouldn’t recognize Martin Luther King Day (along with Christmas Eve and others) as a time-and-a-half holiday.
On opening night, the union held an assembly at City Hall to listen to “the iconic words of Dr. King, lock arms together (as did Dr. King and the striking sanitation workers of Memphis, TN)” and march back to picket Suzanne Roberts Theater, according to a press release. Producing artistic director Sara Garonzik countered with a statement of her own: “While we are honoring the legacy about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who urged cooperation and consensus, the union is unsuccessfully attempting to disrupt this production.”
But understanding why both sides believed King would have backed them helps explain why the strike turned a bit nasty, and why it took months of negotiations and two weeks of picketing to forge a contract between the nonprofit and its stagehands in a theater community that usually has a you-and-me-against-the-world vibe. King championed people who were struggling — and that’s how both sides see themselves.
The stagehands have the more obvious claim to underdog status, as mostly part-timers stringing together gigs at multiple theaters. They make, on average, between $16 and $19 an hour at PTC, and $10,000 to $40,000 a year total. They often work brutal hours, and very few got health insurance. They unionized in part out of worry that their jobs would be outsourced to college kids.
But the union they joined is less of an underdog. Previously, it represented stagehands of large commercial theaters like the Walnut Street Theater, Kimmel Center and Academy of Music. PTC isn’t in that league. It’s a nonprofit regional theater dedicated to local premieres — a noble pursuit, but not as profitable as, say, Jersey Boys. Garonzik and PTC board president Priscilla Luce argued in an Inquirer op-ed that the union was seeking a “contract comparable to those of organizations that have more than seven times our seating capacity.”
Garonzik is accustomed to her role as head of a “small nonprofit,” and is no stranger to overcoming odds. In one of the great arts-org success stories, she miraculously led PTC back to solid ground after the company’s 1989 season had to be cancelled because it had six-figure deficits and no money to pay its actors. In a 1990 Inquirer piece on the company's resurrection, she’s quoted: “We will never borrow again.”
But $25 million theaters don’t build themselves — particularly when they break ground in 2006, at the height of the real-estate bubble. PTC’s previous home, Plays & Players, was rundown and not wheelchair-friendly; aging theatergoers were specifically citing the theater space as a reason for cancelling their subscriptions. A new space seemed essential to avoid a slow death by suffocation. And so, while much of the funding came from grants and donors such as Suzanne Roberts, PTC borrowed to build.
More unlucky timing: Suzanne Roberts Theatre opened as the recession set in. PTC’s tax filings show deficits that jump from $40,000 over the 2007-’08 season to more than $2.5 million for their first season at Suzanne Roberts, and more than $1.5 million in each of the past two seasons. These deficits were expected, says Garonzik. “The move to the new space represented a shift from renting a theater only when we needed it to owning and operating a building year-round,” she says. She foresees breaking even this year.
Garonzik blames the shortfalls on “the recession” — though the Wilma and Arden theaters, both nonprofit regional theaters in the same weight class as PTC, were in the black last year. The three theaters followed similar paths from scrappiness to respectability, but with a key difference: The Wilma and Arden built their new theaters in the '90s.
This history and current financial situation may shed some light on the exasperated tone of PTC statements like “Philadelphia Theatre Company is a small non-profit group that is working to meet the financial challenges it faces in a tough economy, just like many non-profit arts organizations in our region. The Company’s stagehand employees voted [to unionize], which did nothing to change these facts or address the challenges we face.”
But such statements, in turn, did nothing to ease the impact of the strike, evident in the public reaction to PTC’s jury-rigged staging of The Mountaintop. Aside from one short write-up on philly.com, half of which talked about the strike, the play went unreviewed. And at a Wednesday matinee, City Paper watched 10 patrons take a refund and leave. That’s a loss of $460 — “More than they would have paid the entire crew to work this show,” estimated a frustrated Uel Bergey, a electrician who just graduated from apprentice to full stagehand six months ago. (Garonzik says PTC issued about $5,000 in refunds.)
Meanwhile, the dispute got personal. “The people in the office have been told not to speak with us,” said Bergey. As of that matinee, Garonzik hadn’t attended the negotiations and was communicating mostly by chilly press releases. The union began parking the rat outside the homes of board members and giving out those handbills with a director’s cell-phone number.
But in person, the stagehands just seemed to miss their jobs. At that matinee, Bergey, Docherty and a few others were passing out handbills when a PTC employee came out to say hello, looking as if he were biting back the words “before you catch your death.” The greeting became a group hug. “You are my grandchildren! Do you know how distressing this is?” PTC is like a family, he explained; he’s sure his “kids” didn’t come up with the idea of printing a personal cell-phone number. “It doesn’t sound like them.”
“That was my decision,” confirms Mike Barnes, the IATSE Local 8 rep. When asked why, he pulls a Willie Sutton, dryly saying, “That’s the best way to get ahold of a person.” He says it wasn’t just to turn up the pressure — he genuinely thought better communication was the answer. After all, both sides claimed they simply wanted to put conditions that had been standard for the last 20 years in writing. They just remembered those 20 years differently.
That may explain why the strike was resolved the first time both Garonzik and stagehands met face to face. “She came into the room and confirmed a lot of the past practices that we’ve been asking for,” said Docherty. “In those first few minutes, we knew things were better already.” It still took 11 hours for lawyers to reach a compromise, involving health-care contributions and limits on interns.do
Docherty is back at work. But for continuity, her original lighting design for The Mountaintop will never be seen. The end of the play will continue to be a woman on a folding chair saying, “Blackout. End of play.”