The Jungle Theater and IATSE Local 13

by Bill

I first met Bain Boehlke, Founding Artistic Director, about a week before the Jungle Theater’s Premier production, Only You in 1991The Jungle was being carved out of a storefront next to Thurston Jewelers on Lake Street and Bain needed someone to light the Opening Gala. We talked about the possibilities, Bain elucidating his vision of the Gala, the Jungle, and the Lyn-Lake neighborhood at once. I didn’t have to drink any Kool-Aid, I was hooked by Bain’s voice and his vision.  With some resources borrowed from the Guthrie, the Jungle Opening Gala was a smashing success and our collaborations continued through many future shows.

Some years later the Jungle relocated around the corner to their present home on Lyndale Avenue. During rehearsals for the 1999 production of Under Milk Wood, Bain was complaining about the construction crew from CDR.  They were house builders and didn’t understand the specific needs of scenic construction. I told him that IATSE Local 13 and I could easily build “real” scenery, but we’d need to sign a contract. Bain was curious (and a bit doubtful) that I could make good on my claim, but the trust we shared as collaborators drove us forward.

That conversation led to me to talk with the Business Agent (BA). At the time, Local 13 didn’t have a presence in any “local” theatres, and nothing close to the meager annual budget of the Jungle. The BA didn’t think we should bother with someplace with less than 500 seats let alone 140, but I was welcome to try. I voiced my hope for an eventual Metro Area Small Theatre Agreement. (“Yeah, good luck with that.”)  I decided to meld conditions from our Area Standard, the Guthrie, and the Children’s Theatre Company (CTC) collective bargaining agreements. The BA gave me his “blessing” and set me off to see what could be accomplished.

The “cost of union labor” was paramount in Bain’s reasoning not to use Local 13. Barry Browning, Production Manager and resident Lighting Designer, was also at the negotiations and brought with him all the details on production costs. Though not a member of Local 13, Barry was friendly and fair in all my dealings with him. Without him, the Jungle contract wouldn’t have happened. He was the ally I didn’t know I had with all the figures justifying my work and he had an incredibly deep understanding of what it took to operate the Jungle. (For example, every trip in the elevator, regardless of which floor you went to, cost $0.32.)  In order to compete with their regular house-builder gigs, the Jungle was paying the CDR crew $15.75/hour as independent contractors. I insisted that we be paid as employees. The Local 13 “Area Rate” at the time was in the $19/hour range. The Minnesota Opera, CTC, and the Guthrie were hovering around $17/hour. I also wanted an additional contribution from the employer into the Local 13 401-K in order to entice quality workers.

Barry crunched the numbers and we settled on employee status with $15/hour plus 4% into the Local 13 401-K for the hands, (basically $15.60/hour) and $19/hour for heads of departments (at the time, I was the only head). After wages and benefits were settled, we took up working conditions. We agreed to a 2 week pay period, overtime after 40 hours in a week, holiday pay (time and ½ all day), minimum calls (2 hours, down from the area standard of 4 hours), and a standard work week of 35 hours (so we could, if need be, work another 5 hours before getting overtime). Both parties agreed to “one-off” status for the first show, thereafter a 2-year contract term was established. As they do, the Jungle contract has grown and expanded, with Health & Welfare benefit contributions added in a few years as well as wardrobe and performance crews.

The Local 13 BA allowed me to call a crew on my own, not going through the Local 13 referral list and call stewards. The first show built under Local 13 contract was Silver Lake in 2000. Designed by Sasha Thayer, it was an interior with a 15-degree angle to the side walls for forced perspective (the previous crew had problems with corners that weren’t right angles).  There were some growing pains; Bain held tightly to the concept of using 2×4 and sheetrock walls for the authentic “door slam” sound rather than use “scenery.” Sheetrock was the bane of my existence at the Jungle: the dust was everywhere, it was heavy, it wasn’t strong, etc. Eventually Bain saw the cost, health, and efficiency savings of classic theater flats and we were off to the races.

Then came the day Bain told me my walls weren’t straight, I almost lost it. Square, level, and plumb are the bywords of scenic carpentry, so I immediately grabbed “Mr. Bubble” (a 6-foot long spirit level) and slapped it up against my wall. The scenery was dead on. The proscenium arch, built by the CDR crew, was nearly 1/2” out of plumb making my walls look like they were leaning. The Jungle, and Bain in particular, was pleased with the result.

Local 13 has been a part of every Jungle production since then: eighteen years and counting. Local 13’s involvement at the Jungle has grown to include wardrobe and performance crews. I’m proud to have been a part of the growth of stagehands at the Jungle and their careers throughout the Twin Cities.

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