Why is MET on Equity's do not work list?
Like many theatres, our season selections were made in February of the preceding year and budgets for the coming year completed and approved. Our selections and budgets for our 2018-2019 season was completed by May 1, 2018. During the preceding year, we had done 1 AEA contract per production. We had had no communication from AEA requesting an increase in contracts by that time or during June or July of 2019. As with many theatres around the country, revenues were tight, budgets were flat. We budgeted accordingly.
Productions planned for 2018-2019 included: The Odd Couple, the trilogy Orphan’s Home Cycle, The Cherry Orchard, Seven Guitars, The Shawshank Redemption and City of Angels. It’s A Wonderful Life, our Christmas show is a radio play staged reading and was not considered a part of our regular season.
On Tuesday August 14, as we started production on the first show of the 2018-19 season, Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre was contacted by AEA to say that they expected to step fully into the SPT a Small Professional Theatre agreement, taking us to 15 contracts from 6 for the season underway. We had expected to add contracts and were prepared to do so, but not for this level of increase. After discussion with the AEA Business Rep, Theresa Bailey, on Tuesday August 14, we reached a verbal agreement on 12 contracts (6 actor 6 SM, leaving the script in hand holiday performance alone without AEA actors). Since rehearsals were beginning, we contracted Equity SM Susan Proctor to come on board for The Odd Couple. Three days later, August 17, we were informed by Theresa that the agreement had been cancelled by the Central Regional Director, Christian Hainds, and we were back to 14 contracts. No reason was given for why the original agreement she had made was cancelled.
Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre contacted Chicago and requested a conversation. The communication became very heated. We found it shocking to have a verbal agreement pulled after the fact, as this had never occurred in our 13 years relationship. The Central Regional Director demanded that all 7 productions include 2 contracts, increasing from 6 to 14. We explained that the budget did not allow for that and that this information would have needed to be in hand several months previously to balance this increase and select productions accordingly. No compromise position could be reached. As the first play was to open in 3 weeks, we had no choice but to agree to the demand. The Odd Couple would have been cancelled otherwise.
We immediately began contacting other AEA stage managers for the next production, reaching out to Susan Proctor, Tony Beasley, and Jim Mitchell. None were available. Bob Paisley contacted Sarah LaBarr to learn who others might be. Of the list we received, all were unavailable during the window of the next play. The Central Regional Director told us to hire anyone as the SM, pay their salary, dues, health and pension and the candidate would be immediately offered the chance to join Equity if they chose.
Near the end of August, Todd Lanker, contacted Theresa Bailey to receive assurance that it would suit AEA for James Paisley, who was an experienced stage manager and technician, to assume The SM position. Theresa assured Todd that that would be fine. Todd and Susan agreed to mentor James to prepare him for working on The Orphan’s Home Cycle. James returned from San Francisco to Kansas City and joined began rehearsals in late September. Between August and November of 2018 our first two productions, we contracted 4 union actors and 2 stage managers for The Odd Couple and The Orphan’s Home Cycle.
In late November, we learned that the major funder for our AEA contracts for the preceding five years had a funding shortfall and could not continue supporting MET (or any other local arts companies) for the remainder of the season. This represented a loss of approx. $25K-$36K. We contacted the AEA Business Rep. Theresa Bailey immediately to alert her to the problem. She suggested that we write and request relief due to financial hardship. On Dec. 8 we did so, asking to proceed with AEA stage managers to weather the short fall. On Dec. 10, that request was denied. The MET board was informed of this, and it was suggested that we write again, explain the situation in detail, and offer a more specific outline of the solution.
On Thursday, Dec. 13 at 5:27 p.m., Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre requested a special allowance for the third time. MET offered the following compromise: hire non-union actors and AEA stage managers for the next three productions, A Wonderful Life, The Cherry Orchard, and Seven Guitars. Rationale: The short term solution of using an AEA SM only for the coming 3 productions would have saved enough to be back on track by season’s end and meeting the goal of two contracts in the last two productions of the year.
The following morning, on Friday Dec. 14 at 9:14 am we were contacted and denied again. The letter Bailey had sent was not mentioned at all. We do not know if the AEA Theatre Development Committee or Central Regional Committee was ever presented with that request. MET was told the next step in the process would be to appeal to the Central Regional Board at their meeting on January 14, 2019. The timing of this decision directly affected long term outcomes in that two of the productions addressed in the compromise (Wonderful Life and The Cherry Orchard) occurred between the receipt of the email and the date of the meeting, obligating Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre to fund the full 4 contracts they required rather than the 2 requested. Doing this drained what little cash there was on hand.
Nonetheless, we persisted and moved to appeal directly to the AEA Central Regional Board. The goal was to make sure that AEA understood that we took this situation seriously and to demonstrate our commitment to the relationship. Using travel miles, Two MET staff members, Karen Paisley and Bailey Steinke, went to Chicago and appealed in person to the Central Regional Board. Financially speaking, the compromise originally suggested was no longer workable by this time as 2/3 of the productions involved were completed or in progress. We modified our request.
During the meeting on January 14, 2019, MET requested assistance from AEA to manage what was now a very urgent situation. Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre estimated that once Cherry Orchard closed, we would be down to only $347 in cash. In this dire situation, several suggestions were vetted: Doing only 1 SM contract for the balance of the season or being exempt for 2 shows, then being back on track for the last production was also discussed. We departed, and the meeting continued.
We learned the outcome via email the following day. Once again, no compromise was accepted or offered by AEA. The Central Regional Board of AEA stated that two union members would be required for all remaining productions that season, taking the total to 16 contracts, 2 more than originally required.
As we had already borrowed $17K to fund contracts for Wonderful Life and The Cherry Orchard that had occurred during the preceding weeks we had no funds available sufficient to fund additional AEA contracts. Recognizing this, the MET Board of Directors voted to pause the relationship for the balance of the year to save the company. Seven Guitars, The Shawshank Redemption and City of Angels were all produced without union representation.
In doing so, we violated the terms of the Collective Bargaining Agreement.
We reached out to AEA again in the spring and in the summer to try to find a compromise and to bring the relationship back online once we could see where the fiscal year landed at its close on June 30, 2019.
By August 2019 it was clear that the escalating costs of contracting union members was too steep for a small company producing on our budget. Unless sustainable funding could be found, we could not proceed in a relationship with the union. With no contract signed for the 19/20 season, Equity actors and SMs cannot accept employment from MET.
As a result of this dispute, AEA placed MET on the do not work list last September. This bars their members from taking employment with MET.