By Rosalind Lacy
It may have been raining on the streets of New York but the Broadway stagehands’ strike didn’t dampen our spirits. Troupers all, the theatergoers who followed Joel Markowitz to Broadway over Veteran’s Day weekend didn’t waste a minute of time before we all found alternatives in off-Broadway theaters, at the Lincoln Center, at the Met, at Radio City Music Hall, in the not-for-profit theater productions. And for me, even in the 42nd Street subway station.
Six of us sat on the stage where our reactions could be seen during the Broadway show Xanadu at the Helen Hayes Theatre. That’s right six of us on stage! So now that I’ve been “on Broadway in a show,” so to speak, I feel I somewhat better understand exactly what’s going on with the stagehands strike.
Perched on an elevated platform, one technician pushed buttons on a computer keyboard to raise and lower stage props, suspended by wires, hidden in the gridiron flies, like Pegasus, the mythical flying steed in Xanadu. Or the push of a button lowered and raised the actors on a stage center platform. Challenged to the max, this stagehand had to stay on his toes every second to do everything while flipping pages of script to follow the dialogue for cues.
Xanadu has its own contract with its technicians, who were not on strike. So does Lincoln Center, where I saw The Glorious Ones (Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens), on Saturday night. A wonderfully performed, charming but flawed musical that seems to crystallize what we were living at the moment: All of life is a glorious improvisation. You have to adapt to the flow.
Missing Tom Stoppard’s Rock ‘n Roll and Sater and Sheik’s Spring Awakening, however, left a yawning pit in my stomach. I felt hit hard with disappointment. But we were in New York, where improvising is a way of life. I thrust myself into the middle of the street life, and ended up in the middle of a group of strikers asking questions. Here are some of the answers I got:
Theatre owners and producers, who have built a $20 million fund from ticket sales to the public, are demanding a 38% cut in stagehands’ jobs and wages. Here’s the way their street handouts put it: “Broadway is a billion dollar a year industry and has never been more profitable than now. Cuts in our jobs and wages will never result in a cut in ticket prices to benefit the public, but only an increase in the profits for producers. Unlike the producers, we are not fighting for our second or third homes; we are fighting to keep the one that we have. We ask for your understanding in our efforts to defend ourselves and protect our families.”
My take on the situation is this: Corporate management, the producers and theater managers want multi-tasking. They want fewer electricians, carpenters, and techies backstage standing around idle. Conversely, to eliminate the number of personnel backstage means these guys appear to be fighting for their very existence, for their identity, for recognition that they deserve to exist. The stagehands claim they are experts in what they do, setting the lights, maintaining sets, changing sets and lights, making sure props are in the right place at the right time, and even though their skills aren’t in demand every second, they do plenty to merit the pay they receive.
Safety is an issue, a house manager at one of the Broadway theaters told me. “Actors moving around in the dark backstage need guides to keep them from tripping over cords or falling. Safety is a real issue.”
Out on the street, an electrician and a carpenter chimed in to tell me: “We are too talented. We can cover for each other. One man can do all the backstage jobs. We can run props, change sets, set lights. The producers know that and are taking advantage of us. It’s all based on greed.”
I asked one picketer how long he expected this strike to last. “There is so much animosity on both sides, I think it will last through the holidays.” In other words, until management feels the pinch in their pockets. Or until theaters start to go bankrupt or maybe some shows just don’t open at all, another New Yorker said. It seems to be an irresolvable dilemma.
When wages came up over dinner one night, there was a lot of confusion among us about how much stage hands actually take home from their paychecks. Estimates ranged from $1600 to $1800 a week gross, to six-figure incomes, that mean a much lesser net after benefits and taxes. With the cost of living high in New York City, wage cuts appear to be unthinkable.
Happily along the way to the World Trade Center, where the twin towers fell on Sept 11, I discovered the Elianto Classical String Ensemble, five accomplished young Juilliard string players performing Mozart and Bach, below street level in the 42nd Street subway station.
A disgruntled by-stander told me: “I’m a concert pianist. I know how tough it is to find venues. That they have to resort to this is terrible and disgusting. Our society forces young classical musicians underground. They have no concert stage.” He walked away angry. Another by-stander. “Hey, no not at all, man, this is what it’s all about. Performing Mozart and classical music for the entire world.” I agree. Let Mozart and Bach be heard anywhere and everywhere, like the sound of healing.
After fifteen years away from New York, I find the subway scrubbed clean, painted white and well-lighted, a pleasant place to be, with Bible verses posted instead of graffiti. I want real life, even in the fiction, in the novel I’m now writing.
And I loved the Radio City Music Hall Christmas spectacle. I remember the look of awe in the eyes of my children at their first experience with the Radio City Music Hall Christmas Extravaganza. There’s no other show on earth like it and it’s uniquely American.
I took the chance and climbed on the Vamoose Bus to New York last Friday. The strike happened Saturday morning, and hey, look, I’m happy. New York is still New York only better, with opportunities around every corner, especially in the theater district. Joel took us to a fantastic buffet with really good live jazz at The Iridium Jazz Brunch, (Broadway and 51st St.) on Sunday morning. I got the chance to see Frankenstein, the Musical, the closest and truest to Mary Shelley’s original novel that I’ve ever seen. I loved the way a young actor named Steven Blanchard played the “Creature,” (a.k.a. the monster in other versions) as a suffering outcast human mortal. (I wept at one point.) I loved seeing the Radio City Music Hall Christmas spectacle again. And my appetite is whetted to return again and again for more off-Broadway shows.
I’ve got to see My Mother’s Italian, My Father’s Jewish & I’m in Therapy. There’s a show called Fuerzabruta, that looks intriguing. There’s Mauritius, about two half-sisters who inherit a stamp collection, by Theresa Rebeck, a Pulitzer nominee last year. There’s Shakespeare’s Cymbaline at Lincoln Center. The list goes on and on. I simply ran out of time; I must go back.
Editor’s note: Good news. My Mother’s Italian … opens Feb 21st for a 5 week run at the Bethesda Theatre.