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Broadway Casting Directors: No Benefits for Our ‘Sweat’ Is ‘Indecent’

June 10, 2017 
By Steven Wishnia

New York, NY - On June 8, three days before the annual Tony Awards at Radio City, about 100 people marched around Radio City to demand that Broadway theatre owners and producers give casting directors a union contract.

Chanting “Fairness for Casting,” they paraded from the loading dock on 51st Street past the brass doors under the Art Deco marquee on 50th Street.

“First, we’re trying to get simply recognition,” said Teamsters Local 817 President Tom O’Donnell. The about 40 casting directors, who began organizing with Local 817 last year, are virtually the only nonunion workers in the Broadway theatre industry, which means they get “zero health care, zero pensions.” 

Hired by show producers, the casting directors work with playwrights and directors to find and audition actors, and once the show has opened, they’re “in maintenance mode,” finding understudies and replacements, O’Donnell says. They often don’t get paid on time, he adds, and are often asked to create lists of possible actors before they’re on the clock to get paid.

Casting directors in the film and TV industries won a union contract 12 years ago. But when Local 817—whose 1,700 members include transportation workers in the film, TV, and live-entertainment industries, film location workers, and film and TV casting directors—asked for the same thing on Broadway, they got a “flat no” from the Broadway League, a trade association of theatre owners and producers, O’Donnell told LaborPress. The league said the casting directors “weren’t an eligible unit for bargaining.” 

“We… do not believe it would be appropriate,” the Broadway League said in a statement released May 25, “to recognize a union as the bargaining representative of professionals who are not employees of our productions.” Like advertising agencies, accountants, and lawyers, it argued, casting companies and their workers “are engaged as independent contractors; they are separate businesses with their own employees and typically work on more than one show at a time within and outside our industry.”

Broadway casting directors aren’t employees, O’Donnell responds, because that’s how management chooses to engage them.

Casting directors work more than one show because they have to, says Cindy Tolan, whose credits in a 29-year Broadway career include Avenue Q, the revival of Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge, and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which won the Tony for Best Play in 2015. “One thing is winding down, one is coming up, and you have to pay rent,” she says. 

Designers and choreographers also work multiple shows, she continues, but as nonunion workers, casting directors have to negotiate their pay individually, typically less for small-cast dramas and more for musicals. Would it be better with collective bargaining? “Yes,” she responds.

“We are creative theatre artists and we just want health insurance,” Tolan adds. “Broadway made $1.5 billion last year. The cost of one Broadway premium ticket is significantly more than the cost of one casting director’s benefits for one week.”

According to a Broadway League announcement May 23, the 2016-17 season, which ended May 21, was “the highest grossing season in Broadway recorded history and second-best attended season on record.” Total attendance was 13,270,000 people, the third year in a row it has topped 13 million, and Broadway shows yielded almost $1.45 billion in grosses.

“We love this business and we just want to be treated fairly by it,” says Will Cantler, casting director for the Tony-nominated revival of Noel Coward’s Present Laughter. He calls the Broadway League argument that casting directors are more like lawyers and accountants than set designers or music directors “shocking” and “insulting.” 

“We feel we’re a vital part of the creative process,” says Merri Sugarman, who helped cast School of Rock, Miss Saigon, and Jersey Boys. “Every other Broadway worker has benefits, from the ushers to the scene designers. And they all deserve it. But so do we.”

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