How Many Stagehands to Screw in a Lightbulb?
"If we could only start again!" The cry that comes at the most poignant moment of James Baldwin's Amen Corner, which opened this week at the Goodman Theatre, might also apply to the Goodman's relationship with its stagehands. They're about to enter the second month of a strike that has the drama on the street competing with the drama onstage. The scene for this stalemate was set a year ago, as the Goodman prepared to open its new $46-million theater, and backstage crews, watching their nonprofit employer go big-time, began to wonder why they were still making a bare-bones wage. They signed on with Local 2 of the Theatrical Stage Employees Union last March.
Carpenter Geoff Pender says his situation is typical of the 17 employees the union represents. An art major who worked on a lot of theater sets, Pender, 29, came to Chicago after graduating from Indiana's Earlham College. He freelanced briefly at storefronts around town before being hired by the Goodman. "Starting pay for a carpenter at the Goodman right now is $11 an hour," Pender says. "I've been here for six years and I earn $12.08. I never thought about this until recently, but I just got engaged. There's no way I could support a family on what I'm earning."
So recent theater patrons have been greeted by a familiar pageant: a dozen or more sign-toting picketers, a man with a megaphone ("What do we want? Contract!"), and propagandists politely pressing reading material into their hands as they approach the door. The union's flyer makes what appears to be a faulty, apples-and-oranges comparison of executive directors' salaries at the Goodman, Steppenwolf, and Chicago Shakespeare theaters. Their point, though, may still be valid: Goodman executive director Roche Schulfer is paid top dollar, while Goodman technicians are paid less than technicians at those other theaters. In answer to management claims that the union is trying to impose commercial rates on a nonprofit institution, the flyer explains, "Fact is: Local 2 has requested wage rates that are 57 percent to 75 percent less than the for-profit theaters."
Once inside, playgoers are handed the opposition flyer. The strikers want a 91 percent wage hike over 40 months and provisions that would "create work where there is no work," it says. Their demands would add more than $2 million to the annual budget of $12 million, resulting in higher ticket prices, fewer productions, and less community service. Comparisons to commercial theaters that charge twice as much for tickets and are often dark are inappropriate, since Goodman crews have steady full-time employment. "The stagehand union's demands would result in Goodman scene shop and stage crew employees earning larger weekly salaries than the actors on stage," reads management's argument.
"The majority of positions are asking for a three-year contract at $18 [an hour] for the first year," says Pender. There's a substantial gap between the wage the union wants and the raise the Goodman is offering, but the real sticking point is what the union calls "jurisdiction"--or who gets to do what. Two weeks ago the two sides got together in the presence of a federal mediator. "We spent a half hour talking to management, myself and three other people," says Pender. "We thought it would help. We said, 'Jurisdictional decisions are up to us.' Their lawyer turned his chair sideways and looked out the window. They think we're going to want to be changing every lightbulb in the theater, and that's not the case." The negotiations came to a halt.
Schulfer says the union's jurisdictional demands "would require stagehand crews to be present at all rehearsals, auditions, classes, meetings, and virtually any other activity taking place within the Goodman Theatre complex, including all the public areas. We can't accept it under any circumstances. We found other people to perform these jobs for the time being, and we're proceeding with business as usual."
"Scabs," says Pender. About 100 sympathetic members of other unions, a 12-foot balloon rat wearing a "Roach Schulfer" name tag, and a brass band showed up for a noisy but orderly rally outside the theater at Monday's Amen Corner opening, but the show went on. According to Pender, FedEx drivers are being met by Goodman management at the curb so they don't have to go through the pickets. And the show's dozen members of Actors' Equity are bound by a no strike/no lockout clause in their contract to cross the line and perform. "So far," says Pender, "we've been able to stave off garbage collection."
Kissing the Goodman Good-bye
The Goodman will soon have a couple of other positions open. Susan V. Booth, the theater's head of new-play development and an accomplished freelance director, recently beat out 100 other candidates for the job of artistic director at Atlanta's Alliance Theatre Company. Booth's appointment was announced this week; she'll start the $170,000-a-year job July 1, and has signed a four-year contract. Alliance Theatre, with an annual budget of $10 million, is the largest nonprofit theater in the southeast. Booth will succeed Kenny Leon, whose 11-year stint at Alliance included the development of The Last Night of Ballyhoo and Disney's Aida.
Booth has been in Chicago since she came to Northwestern 16 years ago as a graduate student. "Russell Vandenbroucke gave me my first Equity directing job, at Northlight Theatre in 1990," she says, running down the high points. Another was "coming to the Goodman in '93." And "the first time Bob Falls asked me to direct at the Goodman. On the other end of that," she adds, "when I codirected the world premiere of Oo-Bla-Dee with Regina Taylor, who wrote the play, on the Goodman main stage two years ago, I felt as if I'd reached a long-aspired-to goal. I've had a wonderful tenure at the Goodman. But there's a difference between making recommendations and making decisions. I was ready to make decisions."
It looks like the Alliance may also have a job for Booth's significant other, Goodman production manager Max Leventhal. They're in the early stages of discussions.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.