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Industry Editor Exclusive: Unions Push Back on 'Closing' vs. 'Hiatus' for MRS. DOUBTFIRE

The decision shines a spotlight on the tense relationship between Broadway producers and Broadway’s 14 unions in these difficult times.

By: Jan. 15, 2022
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Industry Editor Exclusive: Unions Push Back on 'Closing' vs. 'Hiatus' for MRS. DOUBTFIRE  ImageEveryone knows it is tough times for the theater industry. Broadway's indeed thankfully back, but amid rising Covid cases wreaking havoc on casts and keeping audiences away, the return has not been smooth. And now the theater industry has entered the cold winter months, traditionally tough times at the box office. So when the producers of MRS. DOUBTFIRE announced the show was taking a "hiatus" -- as the press release read -- from January 10 through March 14, theater insiders could understand why. But nothing is as simple as it seems. The decision shines a spotlight on the tense relationship between Broadway producers and Broadway's 14 unions in these difficult times.

MRS. DOUBTFIRE is not truly going on hiatus at the Sondheim Theatre. It is technically closing. A quote from producer Kevin McCollum in the press release made that somewhat clearer. It read: "Out of concern for the potential long-term employment of everyone who works on MRS. DOUBTFIRE, and the extended run of the show, we have decided that following the January 9 performance, the production will close for nine weeks, returning on March 15."

A New York Times story released at the time of the announcement stated 115 people would be out of a job during that period, but McCollum said he would offer them jobs again if the show reopened. While he has signed no agreement regarding any right of first refusal, he has restated his promise in interviews repeatedly. He has also said multiple times that the move was necessary to prevent a permanent shutdown.

Since the DOUBTFIRE announcement, two shows -- TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD and GIRL FROM NORTH COUNTRY -- have announced closings and supposed spring re-openings. TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD did something the theater has seen several times before: announce a new, smaller theater and an opening date at the new theater. As a prior example, the current revival of CHICAGO moved from the Richard Rodgers Theatre, to the larger Shubert Theatre to the smaller Ambassador Theatre. But the MOCKINGBIRD move was not handled as precedent would dictate. It is not truly a "move" negotiated with the unions as such; it is officially a closing with a hopeful reopening.

"These situations are definitely closings as they are provided for in our labor agreements," Broadway League President Charlotte St. Martin told BroadwayWorld. "Of course we know that these were difficult decisions by our shows and these are difficult times for everyone."

Each of the unions that operate on Broadway feel a little differently about the news, but one thing is clear -- none is happy with these decisions. Privately, and sometimes publicly, League members have blamed these three closings and the several other permanent closings that have been announced on the union's unwillingness to compromise on wages and other fees. Many productions have undoubtedly been losing millions or are on target to do so if the tough times continue. But members of unions spoken to off-the-record see producers (many of whom have received millions from the government per production) as using this harrowing time to create precedent-setting changes.

There have been some union compromises during this time. In certain circumstances, individuals are waiving, reducing or deferring royalties. But there has been no overarching agreement and therein lies the rub. There is the Coalition of Broadway Unions and Guilds ("COBUG") and sometimes that cohort speaks with a united voice. However, the relevant agreements have been negotiated individually between members of the League and each union.

It appears none of the unions have anything in their contracts that prevent a closing and reopening. There are time provisions in some. For example, Actors' Equity Association has in its contract that, unless certain conditions are met, the closing has to be for a minimum of six weeks. But each show is meeting these time conditions, so that is not the issue.

The issue for the unions include: i) that none of these productions has guaranteed re-employment (or right of first refusal) to anyone; ii) producers are not paying anything to union members during the "breaks"; and iii) the union members who require a minimum number of weeks to obtain health insurance are not accruing those weeks during these times.

Multiple unions have explained there are provisions that both take into account a production's lean times and protect workers, but, according to them, announcements like the one by MRS. DOUBTFIRE are trying to subvert the system.

For example, in the agreement the League has with the musicians' union, Local 802, there is a provision that allows producers to close a show temporarily up to eight weeks during the months of January, February and September only. This requires a producer to justify the financial need for such a step, give musicians two weeks' notice and rehire them when the show reopens.

Industry Editor Exclusive: Unions Push Back on 'Closing' vs. 'Hiatus' for MRS. DOUBTFIRE  Image"Our Broadway contract does allow a show to go on hiatus in a way that protects everyone's jobs and gives audiences the promise that the show will return," Local 802 President Tino Gagliardi said in a statement to BroadwayWorld. "But some producers choose not to follow this route so they can hide their finances from us. Instead, they simply close down their shows completely, with a vague promise of re-opening."

Closing and reopening does have its financial drawbacks. For example, a production should need to again put up the financial bonds required for an opening (not roll over those used in a prior production). And unions that require certain minimums upon opening should again. For example, members of the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society receive a minimum fee and an advance for all Broadway productions. For a director, that minimum is cumulatively $75,154 this season. By the agreement, that should now be the minimum paid upon reopening of any show that does reopen. Additionally, some unions, including the Association of Theatrical Press Agents & Managers (ATPAM), have a minimum amount of weeks that a member needs to be employed prior to an opening. That too should now be complied with, absent a future agreement.

And there is at least one other rub. Not all unions are employed by the production itself. Broadway has several unions that operate under the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees ("IATSE") banner and some of those unions have the theater owners as their employers. For example, there is a "house crew" of stagehands, comprised of members of Local One, who work for the theater owner. The costs of them are passed to the production, but the employer is the landlord. (There are also stagehands on something called a "pink contract"--those stagehands are hired by the production itself.) Local One members make money during the run of a show but also during the load-in or load-out phase of a production. In fact, the cost of load-in was one of the major sticking points that led to the Broadway strike of 2007. But what happens when a show, such as MRS. DOUBTFIRE, is not loading in or loading out but is still supposedly closing and reopening?

Inside sources say Local One is also none too happy with the Roundabout Theatre Company, which operates the Sondheim Theatre. As the Roundabout is a non-profit, not one of Broadway's big commercial landlords, they were more likely to strike a deal with a producer of a struggling show. Broadway's big landlords famously don't like to do such things. MRS. DOUBTFIRE's sets and costumes remain in the Sondheim for this closing period, making its situation distinguishable from the other closings. Local One does have a provision in its contract that would allow for some sort of union-approved hiatus in certain circumstances, but, again, this is not being treated as a hiatus. According to sources, the Local One stagehands are, as of now, not being paid the typical load in or out fees or any payment by Roundabout during this period, leading to cries of foul.

What next happens with that remains to be seen -- it is possible all of this could be worked out behind-the-scenes. Many spoken to for this story hope that is what happens in all respects. They think the industry needs to be united and work together to bring audiences back in full force. Public battles will do nothing to help the message that Broadway is operating as normal.

"The unions will paint us as rich fat cats," one producer, speaking on the condition of anonymity, stated. "But we are out there losing millions -- we're paying $30,000 to $40,000 in testing a week, we're bringing in people from tours last minute in order to put on a show, we're cancelling and refunding shows -- and we're not hearing any significant offers of compromise. We need to agree to something or there will be no Broadway."

Of course, while many union heads feel the need for some compromise, they think too much is being asked without any guarantee of benefits ahead. Some emphasize that their members have already been unemployed for over a year and need some security.

"Stopping a show abruptly and firing everyone creates a financial shock to our musicians and the other hardworking theatre professionals," Gagliardi stated. "When a show closes like this, none of the artists have a guarantee of being re-hired when -- or if -- the show reopens. Artists deserve a written guarantee that they will be re-hired. And if artists have to suffer economically when a show does poorly, we should share in the profit when a show does well."

Tickets are currently on sale for a March 15 return of MRS. DOUBTFIRE at the Sondheim. One would assume the ticket sales will dictate whether the show does indeed reopen. If you want to see the show, buy tickets now and invest in its return. Tickets have not yet gone on sale for TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD at its new home, the Belasco Theatre.

In terms of what happens in the future, it's anyone's guess. Right now no agreement with the League fully accounts for these situations, despite some typical 'act of god' language. We are in unprecedented times. The fear that this closing-and-reopening trend could be a thing beyond this year is what must be accounted for going forward if there is to be peace.

The current collective bargaining agreement between Actors' Equity and the League expires in September. Surely this will be a topic of conversation. "A brief pause for the purposes of safety makes sense," said outgoing Equity Executive Director Mary McColl. "Closing a show with a promise to reopen is not something contemplated by the Production Contract. If the Broadway League would like to create a mechanism for a seasonal layoff, we invite them to bring those proposals to the negotiating table."

Author's note: I wish to recognize the sad, and sudden, passing of writer Terry Teachout. Sometimes I did not agree with his take on shows, but I always appreciated the gusto with which he wrote about a variety of topics. He will be missed.

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