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 Chicago AEA to say that they expected to step fully into the SPT a Small Professional Theatre agreement, taking us to 14 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 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. The Central Regional Director told us to hire anyone as the SM, pay their salary, dues, health and pension and the candidate could join Equity if they chose.
Near the end of August, MET's Associate Artistic Director, Todd Lanker, contacted Theresa Bailey to receive permission for James Paisley, an experienced non-equity 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. Between August and November of 2018 our first two productions, we contracted 4 union actors and 2 stage managers.
In late November, we learned that the major sponsor for AEA contracts for the preceding five years had a funding shortfall and could not continue supporting MET (or many 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.
MET then appealed 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. Karen Paisley and Bailey Steinke, went to Chicago and appealed in person to the Central Regional Board. 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. 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.
The MET Board of Directors voted to pause the relationship for the balance of the year in order to save the company and secure it financially. Seven Guitars, The Shawshank Redemption and City of Angels were all produced without union representation.
MET reached an agreement with Equity Health and Pensions office in New York to pay the six contracts that were not hired. This financial debt was paid in full in late October, 2019
We reached out to Chicago 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. The union firmly stated again that it will not compromise.
By August 2019 it was clear that the escalating costs of contracting union members was not sustainable on our budget. With no contract signed for the 19/20 season, Equity actors and SMs cannot accept employment from MET.
AEA placed MET on the do not work list last September, barring their members from taking employment with us. In late October, AEA issued a statement warning all non-equity actors that taking employment at MET would disqualify them from joining their union.