The Year of the Stage Manager and a Union Divided

By Sam Houkom

Published April 2021

2020 was a year too hard to describe. On a global scale, what I want to write about may seem small and unimportant, but it is something that affects me and others both personally and professionally. Does anyone remember that 2020 was supposed to be the Year of the Stage Manager? That’s right, stage managers were going to be in the spotlight for just a little while. And as we all well know, that spotlight went out in March, for all of us. Theatres went dark across the country and we were left wondering about what we were going to do. How long would this last? How were we going to make a living? Pay our bills? Would we lose our health insurance if we didn’t work enough weeks? And on and on and on…

On May 15th, AEA (Actors’ Equity Association) issued specific guidelines for reopening theatres, including testing, safe and sanitary protocols, percentage of audience attendance with social distancing, and requirements for the theatres’ HVAC systems. (AEA COVID-19 Information for Producers, updated 3/3/21)  As we moved into the summer and the pandemic continued, theatres began forming more long term plans. How could they make revenue for the fall and the 2020-21 season if audiences couldn’t come back and/or they could not meet all of AEA’s requirements? For many theatres, the standards issued by AEA were too stringent and unattainable. For example, HVAC system upgrades are very expensive.

AEA also granted theatres “remote work agreements” for such things as video or live streaming. It didn’t not take long for theatres to start streaming archival videos from past shows to generate some revenue as a temporary fix. Could they stream live shows over Zoom? Or even better, how about rehearsing a show, recording it, and streaming it on its website? And that is where the trouble began.

Movies, television, and radio are the jurisdiction of SAG-AFTRA (the Screen Actors’ Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists). If it’s “in front of a camera or behind a mic,” it’s SAG-AFTRA’s domain. Theatres were being contacted by SAG-AFTRA letting them know that the theatre would need to sign their contract in order to stream a live or recorded theatrical production. Equity theatres were foregoing their collective bargaining agreements with AEA and signing with SAG-AFTRA. To be fair, many theatres tried and tried to reach AEA to solve this problem but were met with silence. AEA had been reduced to a skeletal staff and emails/phone calls were not being returned. In some cases, theatres felt they didn’t have a choice and went with SAG-AFTRA. This is important for several reasons:

  1. According to the AFL-CIO’s Constitution, member unions are prohibited from raiding work from an affiliate union, especially when an employer has an existing collective bargaining agreement in place. This became a real sticking point in the argument over theatres having an agreement with AEA vs SAG-AFTRA’s jurisdiction of filmed productions. Each side made compelling arguments, but who was right? What were theatres supposed to do? Were they breaking their collective bargaining agreement with AEA by going with SAG-AFTRA or was SAG-AFTRA poaching AEA contracts? Not only were theatres caught in the middle, but so were the Unions’ members. 
  2. No contributions are made toward the AEA members’ health and pension accounts under a SAG-AFTRA contract. (Requirements for actors to attain SAG-AFTRA health insurance is much more difficult to attain in a short period of time.) Not having to make H&P contributions made it cheaper for theatres to go with a SAG-AFTRA contract.
  3. Weaker COVID-19 protections were set by SAG-AFTRA. Many actors were willing to forego the stricter AEA safety protocols for the chance at work and a paycheck.
  4. No stage managers are required or covered in contracts with SAG-AFTRA. And that is where the Year of the Stage Manager fell apart.

I don’t begrudge anyone wanting to work and wanting to get paid. I am not sure I would have the resilience to turn down work if other members of my union were left out of the contract. We were (and still are) in a pandemic and making ends meet was getting harder and harder. Any contract was a lifeline. I get that. Unfortunately, that is not where the conversation ended. 

In October, SAG-AFTRA launched an investigation of AEA’s new Media Committee. Blistering statements were published online and in the media by both unions. As tensions rose and became heated between the two unions, so did the dialogue of their members. Toxic arguments took place on social media over who had jurisdiction over live theatre being recorded. Members from both SAG-AFTRA and AEA supported their unions or were dismayed by their own union’s actions or the other’s. Many actors are members of both AEA and SAG-AFTRA. Should the two unions merge? Would either benefit if they did merge, as if merging two unions was ever easy … or quick. (Why the SAG-AFTRA Merger Might Not Happen)  Then came the rub, what about stage managers

As AEA members continued the discussion, there were comments made by many actors such as, “maybe stage managers shouldn’t be in the same union as actors anyway,” “they could join IATSE (International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees),” or “they could join DGA” (Directors’ Guild of America – the union that includes TV’s equivalent of a stage manager). It seemed so easy for some to casually dismiss their stage manager “brothers and sisters.” Had they forgotten what stage managers bring to each and every day of a production? Did they not understand what our job is even though we are in rehearsals, in tech, and in every performance with them? We aren’t all technicians. We aren’t members of the crew. We aren’t all assistant directors. We are stage managers and we are artists. 

This is when I felt the Year of the Stage Manager go right down the toilet. Not because of the pandemic, not because theatres closed and productions stopped, but because my fellow union members could so casually toss us aside. Let me be very clear, I’m NOT saying that every actor felt this way. It warmed my cooling heart to hear actors from across the country advocate for stage managers. The very idea that stage managers should find a different union, as if that could happen overnight or that it would benefit stage managers in any way felt so dismissive, so apathetic. Ironically, how would it help those same actors when theatres reopened if stage managers were no longer a part of AEA? Would theatres opt for non-union stage managers? Many AEA theatres don’t use IATSE or DGA contracts. What then? 

I get it. Work is work and a paycheck is a paycheck. What I found so upsetting was the callous nature in which some completely disregarded the needs of their fellow members. And I wasn’t alone. Expressions such as “pissed”, “shaken,” and “panicked” were mentioned over and over again by stage managers across the spectrum. Stage managers who had been contracted with a production were getting cut loose and told that either the position was not required under SAG-AFTRA contracts or a non-union stage manager was being brought in instead. Some stage managers were able to retain their position for less money, and under a different title such as Production Manager, Assistant Director, or even listed as “Actor acting as a Stage Manager,” but again, no AEA health and pension contributions were made under this contract. To be fair, there were some theatres that continued to produce under their AEA agreement and retained their stage managers, but they were few and far between. Finally in early November, after much back and forth and finger pointing, an outside mediator was brought in to bring the two unions together to discuss these issues. Would the mediations end with SAG-AFTRA having jurisdiction over streaming content? Would stage managers be left out in the cold? Would we stand together to fight for the right for all AEA members to work – actors and stage managers? 

As it happened, mediations concluded later in November and an agreement was successfully negotiated. Going forward, AEA would have jurisdiction covering work that is recorded and/or produced to be exhibited on a digital platform as a replacement for a live theatre production on a temporary basis during the pandemic. There are a number of parameters involving how a production is filmed and presented, but as far as AEA contracts are concerned, things seem back to “normal” for socially distanced, media-presented theatrical productions. 

There is only a little talk about merging unions now. No more mention of stage managers leaving AEA, although there is a lot of talk about changing the name of the union to include Stage Managers. No more controversy, vitriol, back and forth debate…but we will remember. Stage managers will remember who stood up for them and who didn’t. I can only hope that when all is said and done and we return to the rehearsal rooms and the stages, those that disparaged us will look again and see what the stage managers are doing – for them, for the production, and for the theatre. We cannot and will not be so easily tossed aside. The power is with the membership and we all need to stand in solidarity.

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