(Michael Paulson’s article appeared in The New York Times, 3/23; Photo: The Dallas Theater Center actors (from left) Chris Ramirez, Sally Vahle and Tiffany Solano took issue with their union for stipulations that scuttled a planned production of “Tiny Beautiful Things.” Credit…Cooper Neill for The New York Times.)
A dust-up in Dallas and a 2,500-person petition signal that many performers believe their representatives are keeping them from getting work.
The play was announced: “Tiny Beautiful Things,” an improbably moving stage adaptation of a wildly popular advice column. Four actors were chosen: members of a company that had worked together for years. And the producer, Dallas Theater Center, had developed a 45-page plan to keep the actors safe, in part by filming and streaming their work, with no live audience.
But after weeks of back and forth, Actors’ Equity, the national labor union, introduced what the theater saw as a new wrinkle. The cast would have to take 80-minute breaks every 80 minutes to make up for what the union viewed as inadequate air filtration in the rehearsal and performance halls.
The theater’s leaders gave up. Early this month, just five days before rehearsals were to begin, they canceled the project, at least for now.
That would have been the end of that, one of scores of abandoned theater projects during this pandemic, but for one unexpected development. The cast, furious that their own union, which represents actors and stage managers, was making it impossible for them to do the show, spoke up. One of them took to social media to express his anger. And, when he did so, actors from around the country chimed in.
“The reason I spoke out is that something is deeply wrong with our union,” said the actor, Blake Hackler. “When every other industry has adapted to keep going, why are we stuck here?”
Now the 51,000-member union, which for the last year has barred almost all stage work in the United States, is in the cross hairs, under fire from some of its own members as it tries to navigate a path that keeps them safe and helps them earn a living.
Quietly simmering frustrations erupted publicly last week, when more than 2,500 union members signed a letter, circulated by a Broadway performer and signed by Tony winners and Tony nominees, plaintively asking, “When are we going to talk about the details of getting back to work?”
The union’s leadership, while proud of its performance during the pandemic, is acknowledging the concerns.
“I don’t mind people being frustrated — I’m frustrated too,” said the union’s president, Kate Shindle, an actress who, like most of her members, has been unemployed for the last year.