There may still not be any theatrical productions to speak of taking place, Constant Reader – in case it’s somehow skipped your attention, I’ll remind you to take all possible safety precautions and get yaccinated as soon as possible because there’s still a pandemic going on – but it’s been a week full of theatrical news. Last week, the Hollywood Reporter put out its now infamous expose on Broadway producer Scott Rudin. It details a pattern of physical abuse against assistants and staffers, a pattern which stretches back for decades. It’s a story that’s awful in itself, and horrifying in its implications for who’s been gatekeeping our theatrical culture, and just how they’ve been doing it. And it’s caused a predictable avalanche of further stories to come out to corroborate the account, stoking a conversation about just how many more revelations there are to come.
It’s not really a conversation my friends and I have been having, however. (Not that we’ve been having any in-person conversations lately – again, pandemic.) Very few of us have had any direct interaction with Mister Rudin, but just about all of my actor friends are in Actor’s Equity, hope to join at some point, or are otherwise directly affected by my union’s decisions. As such, we’ve been following the virtual Town Hall the union held on April 8, attempting to address concerns about the eventual reopening of theaters in the aftermath of the shutdown (again, pandemic). It seems this town hall managed not to assuage anybody’s fears, instead causing membership to be even more apprehensive and angry at the union. To a large extent, this is because the proposals offered by the union, and the language used to describe them, were so heavily New York-centric as to make the regional theater community feel slighted, as if they’re an afterthought. It may be fun for me to feel like I live in “a bellwether for the nation,” but it comes at the risk of division and acrimony for the nationwide theatrical community.
What nobody seems to have pointed out – either because they haven’t made the connection, or because they’re unwilling to come out and say it – is that these two things are inextricably linked.
Of course the contracts, working conditions, and protocols drawn up by Actors Equity are designed with New York theater in mind – and more specifically, with Broadway in mind. This was true even before the Quarantimes, and it was true even in the most minute of details. The smoke machine you want to use for an effect may create a cool look, and if you’re just doing three shows over a weekend there shouldn’t be any problem – but Equity is looking at the risks of repeated exposure to the chemicals in that fake smoke over an eight-show week of Broadway performances, repeated over a period of several months, and formulating their restrictions accordingly. This is true of the proposed standards for reopening, which are built around the physical and economic realities of producing in Manhattan, and aren’t necessarily compatible with the needs of a regional house anywhere else. This fundamental incompatibility has been true for a while now, and has fueled such conflicts as the fight over Los Angeles’ 99-seat Theatre plans, a fight which has caused any number of non-New York theaters to close.
And it isn’t because New York is actively hostile to these other theaters, or even indifferent. It’s not solely because of Broadway’s large percentage of overall theatrical income, although that certainly plays a role. It’s because any common-sense arrangement we can make will be exploited by Broadway producers. We know, in our bones, that they will pounce at any opportunity to leverage those arrangements into demands for draconian concessions. We know they view those regional houses as places to develop shows cheaply, cutting New York artists out of the development process. We know this, because we know their history of behavior over the past few decades.
But we’ve convinced ourselves they’re an inevitable part of the process. And worse, if we feel that they’re somehow on our side – if their ruthlessness is being used in the service of a show or script we have a stake in – then we look the other way. We figure out what accomodations we need to make with them, even as we craft ever more byzantine rules as a means of keeping them at arms length. We accept all this as the cost of doing business.
And as long as we shield these producers from the consequences of their behavior – behavior, like all behavior, rooted in their taste and values – that’s precisely what it will be.
It doesn’t have to be like this.
Breaking the silence about the whole rotten the way the system’s been (not really) working up until now can’t just be about settling scores with one individual. Getting theater back up and running as the pandemic (hopefully) abates can’t be about getting back to normal. Normal wasn’t working. Not in New York, not in the regional markets, not the offices where these beleaguered assistants dealt with their abusive bosses, not anywhere.
It’s all the same story. And we need to start telling a new one.