Personal History: When I Was a Union Stagehand (Part 3)

Stanley Theater, Utica NY
Photo Credit: Sarah Bord

Independent Theatrical Employees of America was started with a mission to “provide all the good of a stagehands union,” and to correct the evils of IATSE. At least, that’s how I saw it, and I think a few of the others did as well. The obvious drinking on calls was already gone by then, and around that time the workers started being paid through a payroll service, on the up and up. I’d advanced the payroll idea when I brought the union in to Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute during my tenure there. The Institute agreed to allow union stagehands for the first time (!) but wouldn’t pay cash, and didn’t want to add them to its own payroll. I did some research and approached a few companies and everybody agreed on one. The same approach was adopted at The Stanley, prompting several men to resign from the call list – for some, an official record of hours worked wasn’t convenient. In any case, those early days of ITEA were exciting; things got even better once IATSE’s lawsuit against us was settled. Traveling shows would ask for T-shirts with our ITEA logo on them – we’d battled the dragon and survived.

One might think the highest power in such an organization would be the President. In fact, ITEA maintained the same authority structure as the old union – the business agent and house steward at the Stanley were the same person, and his dominion was absolute. This person filled those roles when the previous steward was booted, and to my knowledge he’s held them ever since. The business agent still plays favorites; it’s well known and tolerated like always, because nobody wants to be on his bad side. I curried favor by designing a spreadsheet template to handle the labor billing. A task that used to take hours of calculation (different positions with different rates, minimums in place, special overtime rules, etc.) could now be finished in a fraction of the time, and corrections made without resorting to Wite-Out. My template is STILL BEING USED TODAY. I also created the first web site for the group, and introduced union stagehands to venues which had traditionally been anti-union, such as Munson-Williams. It wasn’t pro-union ideology on my part – I thought it was best for everyone.

Despite my efforts in its behalf, the union let me down. I lost my full time job in 2002 and asked to be moved the top of the stagehands call list. My theatrical knowledge and work history should have been beyond reproach, but the business agent/steward answered, “There’s a lot of guys ahead of you on the list. I can’t bump them just because you want to work more all of a sudden.” At the time, I was one of only a few who was completely unemployed. The business agent didn’t give me work then, and years later he refused to call my oldest son, even on the biggest shows. (My contributions to the union were long forgotten.)

I drifted away from stage work when I started full-time college in the summer of 2002, although I maintained my union membership. In 2006 The Stanley closed for over a year and expanded its stage house, modernized its dressing rooms and added a new stage-level loading dock. After the re-opening, in 2008 Munson-Williams brought in Audra McDonald, one of Susan’s favorite performers. I obtained tickets. A few days before the show, the steward/business agent called to see if I could work the show. “I can’t be there,” he said, “and I need someone who understands lighting.” I already had tickets, I said. Could I work and then watch the show with Susan? “Fine – you’re doing me a favor.” Unfortunately, that wasn’t communicated to the person who would be in charge of the stagehands that day – the acting steward.

It was a crazy day. The Munson-Williams tech representative was brand new; when she found out I’d once held her position she approached me. “I have no idea how to read a lighting plot. Can you make heads or tails of this?” I was flabbergasted. It was the day of the show. I told her we couldn’t hang the plot she was showing me, although we could probably deliver something acceptable. “Great. Can you make it happen?” So I took a few minutes and roughed out a new plot, scaled for the expanded Stanley stage I hadn’t yet worked on. I started instructing my fellow stagehands. The acting steward took me aside: “Don’t think you’re getting paid to do anything except be a stagehand today. YOU’RE not in charge of this crew.” Fine, but we had just two hours before the artists arrived and I didn’t see how else we’d be putting on a show. So I made sure it happened.

Regrettably, Audra McDonald is among the worst divas I’ve worked for. She was late, having travelled from NYC with her musicians in a minivan. From the moment she entered the theater, Audra wanted nothing to do with tech people, wouldn’t speak to or look at any of us; also, she didn’t have a stage manager. I was finally able to get her pianist to provide a setlist, but otherwise I was blind going into the show. Susan arrived and I let her in through the back door. “WHAT do you THINK you’re doing?” demanded the acting steward. I have tickets to the show. I’m bringing Susan to sit with me. “You’re just a STAGEHAND. What you’re doing isn’t KOSHER.” Tell me about it. The entire day felt like a setup.

Audra was amazing – the audience left feeling she was a generous, genuine performer. The lighting was also amazing – moody and colorful and entirely appropriate, my first brand new design in more than six years. (For which I earned “light board operator” pay, silly and ridiculous and probably what happens in places other than Utica; it would have gone down easier if anyone had acknowledged they’d gotten a huge bargain.) Audra left without ever speaking to a crew member, not a “thank-you” or a “good job” to be had. (In fairness, Diana Ross was worse, but not by much.) A few days later, I called the ITEA business agent and said it had been a tough day, and he apologized for not letting the acting steward know he’d asked me to be there in case things got rough. The apology was fake – things soon got rougher.

I’d done one show every single year since I started in stage work, a dance recital for a local school – in one sense my longest-ever employment relationship (it recently ended after 22 years.) When The Stanley closed for renovations, that show moved to Clinton High School. Clinton didn’t have a union contract but I used ITEA stagehands anyway, under no obligation to do so. For the 2008 recital (later in the same year Audra McDonald played the Stanley), I requested my usual four stagehands. I’d checked in advance with two of them, to make sure they would do the show; I asked for them by name. On setup day, only three out of four people showed up, one of them 40 minutes late. None were the two I’d specifically requested. I called the business agent and asked for an explanation. “Nobody wanted to be bothered with your show.” I later found out he’d never called the two people I’d already checked with.

For the same recital in 2009, I didn’t use ITEA stagehands at all. Instead, I used volunteer fathers of dancers, who turned out to be better workers than many stagehands I’d worked with, and a lot less demanding about coffee breaks. Shortly afterward, I received a predictable letter in the mail, indicating I was being brought up on charges by the union I’d helped to start, for hiring non-union stagehands (in a non-union venue – they had no standing.) I responded with my own letter, which concluded:

“…Please accept this as my resignation from ITEA Local One. The organization has not maintained the commitment to excellence it was once known for. Instead, it has grown to resemble its estranged parent, IATSE, in preferring institutional rights over quality service and good faith. Does anyone remember that ITEA was formed in opposition to traditional union mentality?”


In Spring 2010 I received a letter from the Mohawk Valley Ballet. I was asked to take over the technical direction of their annual Nutcracker production at The Stanley (I used to rent them lighting equipment, and their old TD Joseph Rusnock was one of my earliest mentors.) I wrote back, saying I had resigned from the union, and perhaps they’d be better off finding someone more politically acceptable? A couple of months later, they replied: “Please do the show.” So I did. It marked my return to the stage, if not my return to the union.

Since then, I’ve done The Nutcracker four times. I cut an entire day from their setup period, so the theater/equipment rental is only a week instead of 8-10 days. I’ve also designed/tech-directed a show for The Utica Symphony as well as Angels in America for Walk the Boards Productions, hiring ITEA stagehands in both cases. The union still doesn’t stand for excellence. The Stanley continues to use them out of convenience (or ignorance?) but I think the required labor minimums are keeping producers from booking shows at The Stanley. Angels was in for two days, a single performance, and the labor bill alone was $2,000. (I used minimum crews.) As in the old days, a handful of knowledgable people makes sure the show will go on.

Same as it ever was.