Not too long ago, Equity ratified a LORT contract that added jobs for stage managers for the first time since the 1990s. When SPT was re-promulgated shortly thereafter, NO jobs for stage managers were added despite the fact that many of the contracts based on this promulgated agreement attempt to add jobs for actors every negotiation. (SPT is a template contract used by our reps to negotiate something for an individual producer. So the ratio and salary tier are based on those individual negotiations.) So I ask myself a question: Why, as a union, do we value jobs for stage managers less than jobs for actors? Is it because there are fewer of us? Is it because we devalue the role of the assistant stage manager? Is it because we’ve all had such wonderful non-Equity assistant stage managers that we are blind to the fact that these folks deserve benefit of a contract? What’s going on here? And more importantly, WHY DO WE NEED CONTRACTED ASMs?
First of all, some background: I like to read George Lakoff. He is a cognitive linguist who believes the way arguments are framed can change the political tide. (Full disclosure: my husband is a forensic linguist so I have a cheat sheet into this world.) Lakoff believes, for example, that we have Trump, at least in part, because the Democrats are generally worse framers who present facts instead of moral arguments. They repeat the ideas of their opponents while attempting to negate them–a tactic which actually reinforces the ideas they are trying to disprove. (This is incredibly simplistic, please visit https://georgelakoff.com/.)
I am fascinated by the idea of framing and how we can use the way we talk about things to shift people’s thinking. I think we saw a little of it with the Fair Wage Onstage movement in the fall. That was an example of brilliant framing. Who can argue against a “fair wage”–I mean, linguistically–“I want an unequitable paycheck!” So what I’m presenting to you is a frame about ASMs, contracts in our union that I believe are severely undervalued by membership. This is a frame that I think is useful to us as union members.
When this issue of ASM arises, there are always several arguments about non-union stage managers being better than union stage managers, or as good as. Which makes sense. We can all agree that an Equity card doesn’t guarantee the quality of the stage manager just as it doesn’t guarantee the quality of an actor. You could even say it doesn’t guarantee the quality of an Actor (cheeky). As in all fields, there are varying degrees of experience and talent. There is also no accounting for taste. One producer’s favorite stage manager might be in another’s “never hire again” folder. So, while it’s true that you may have a favorite non-Eq ASM, you may know PAs who make more than union wages; being the member of a labor union is like getting a vaccine. It’s not just about you not getting sick, it’s about the herd. And what is good for the herd is an ASM on every production. Read on.
Through my frame of building better contracts, I see the oft-cited idea that your awesome non-Equity ASM deserves to be on a union contract. Please remember that the union cannot require that anyone join. So this does not force Awesome Non-Eq ASM to join Equity, but rather affords them the protections of schedule, working conditions, etc. that the union mandates.
But how do we determine when an ASM deserves a contract? I would like to present the radical idea that it is not actually our job as a labor union to assess the quality of work being done by our members, with some carve outs for things like safety. As a labor union, it is our job to provide PROTECTIONS to our members including more job opportunities, higher wages, safe working conditions, etc. Even if you really don’t care for that stage manager who calls breaks at 83 minutes instead of 80, or the one who insists on baking 7 dozen cookies every day and shoving them down your throat, yes even they deserve a contract and MORE ACCESS TO JOBS.
Through this frame, I say: WE MUST HAVE AN ASM ON EVERY CONTRACT.
Take a breath.
Okay, so now take a moment to think of that time you did the show where there were no actors, only a copy of the Mona Lisa hanging upside down and a cockroach crawling back and forth across the floor. Or where one person entered at the top of the show FROM THE BOOTH and touched nothing except the stage floor for the entirety of the show which was only 22 minutes long and then exited THROUGH THE BOOTH at the end. The stage manager was right there, what could possibly happen?
Have you thought about it? Had all the memories about how just fine it was with one SM? Or maybe even thought about how you didn’t need to be there as the ASM?
Fantastic! Moving forward.
We can share anecdotes like this all day. I take issue with these anecdotes when they create a negotiation between Equity members about how contracts should be argued. I will say it again. WE ARE A LABOR UNION. WE EXIST TO PROVIDE MORE EMPLOYMENT OPPORTUNITIES TO OUR MEMBERS. Every single example you just thought of could appeal to the union for a concession, have the SM committee bat it down on principle, and then have it head off to the contract committee for a decision. And not for nothing, people complain all the time about other unions (in our field, ahem) and how they have minimums of hours and number of humans and how sometimes they get paid to do very little for a very short amount of time. DON’T YOU WANT SOMEONE TO COMPLAIN ABOUT YOU?! Especially if the consequences are in your bank account and very possibly in your health insurance card?
I’m being silly. But everyone everywhere has days at work that are simple and days at work that are hard. The person who enters in Act 5 and says three lines very often gets paid the same as the one who never exits from top of show. Stage managers don’t get paid more to call 3000 light cues in 45 minutes, or to take blocking for a cast of 25, 23 of whom were under the age of 6 or animals. Being the ASM on a one person show COULD BE simple. Or it could involved 450 props, 72 costume changes, and a running car.
As a very smart stage manager recently pointed out, the number of people involved is only one factor that dictates the difficulty of the show. And if we’re not going to be paid more for more complicated work, there’s nothing wrong with being paid the same amount for less complicated work. Hell, there have been certain shows on SPTs with more people, cues and moving parts than certain shows on Broadway and no one thinks Broadway should pay less. (RIGHT? NO ONE THINKS THAT, RIGHT?)
In the grand scheme of an operating budget, it costs the producer VERY LITTLE to add an ASM no matter what the contract (I know because I read the 990s obsessively). And if, for some reason, it does, see above re: concessions. And again I will say: IT IS OUR JOB TO PROVIDE EMPLOYMENT OPPORTUNITIES TO OUR MEMBERS.
The employers (our bargaining partners) will take care of negotiating the other side. And they are very good at that. We recognize the need to move our negotiations towards closing the Equity shops (closed shop = place of work that only employs people on union contracts). This needs to extend to stage managers. We are talking about one contract (for now–once we’ve achieved this I’ll be back for more, don’t you worry).
“But Erin!” you say, “We must think about what the partners we bargain with and those employers who use the promulgated agreement will say in response! We have to be ready to give things up!”
Well, sure. We would be obtuse to think that we could sit and make one-sided demands without consequence. But being aware of what the other side MIGHT COME BACK WITH and sitting on a social media board or in a room telling each other stories about that time we didn’t need an ASM or how useless the ASM on our last show was, or how we had a stuffed unicorn instead of an ASM last year and it turned out just fine is NOT A USEFUL FRAME ABOUT ASMs IN OUR UNION–but it can be a damn lot of fun. This is similar to talking continually about theatres with an operating budget of $200K who are in danger of closing must be supported (and they must!) while ignoring the juggernaut crouching behind them paying a similar salary and pointing at them saying, “But they might close!” This is not a useful frame for fair wages. The useful frame here is: An ASM will always contribute something to a show and earn their pay. Let me say that again: AN ASSISTANT STAGE MANAGER WILL ALWAYS CONTRIBUTE SOMETHING TO A SHOW AND EARN THEIR PAY.
Do you need another moment to think about the time you had an ASM who contributed nothing or the time that you contributed nothing as an ASM? If you do, I encourage you to remember the moment that ASM noticed the preset on a chair in Act 4 changed by 10.5” and you didn’t and an actor didn’t fall on their ass because they had a blindfold on, or that you, the ASM, had that pre-show chat with an actor who was feeling snarly and helped level the emotional tension before it got out of control. I have a hard time believing most of us have had an experience where the ASM contributed NOTHING even if they were a Ken doll or a goldfish. And frankly, if the situation is that bad, the solution is outside the realm of this conversation anyway.
Personally, I believe that stage management tasks don’t actually change much from show to show. (You may drop one completely here and there based on bizarre circumstances like having no light cues at all because you’re doing a show in a warehouse with the house fluorescent lighting. See above about: Sure, some shows are simpler than others.) The degree to which certain tasks are necessary, and the difficulty of execution can change, but every show has actors who need support, requires that blocking be taken, needs tracking of props/costumes/people, needs someone to be on book, etc. ASMs should be the available staff backstage in case of any emergency, large or small. As another smart stage manager rightly pointed out recently, they serve as a second Equity stage manager should something happen to the first. They could keep a show from being canceled! They should be the first source for the actor who is stepping off stage. Which brings me to my ULTRA FRAME of why we should require an ASM on every contract: TWO HEADS ARE ALWAYS BETTER THAN ONE.
There is very little work in the world that requires only one set of eyes from start to finish. ANOTHER smart stage manager (I know, so many smart stage managers) said: Stage managing is a team sport. And when it comes to the safety and security (and I mean security as in “security blanket”) of our members, I will ALWAYS say, yes, the employer should pay one more salary to ensure that two heads are on your stage making sure that everything happening on it is safe, that the integrity of the artistry AND of the contract are being upheld. And those two heads should have the benefit of union contracts. One person in a booth or tethered to one side of the stage CAN and DOES miss things.
Furthermore, stage managers are members of our labor union. And they have been woefully underrepresented in terms of gaining more contracts in negotiations for a very long time. I hope that LORT was the beginning of the climb and that SPT was simply a step backwards on our way to the top. Stage managers need more jobs too. AND, when we add ASM contracts, we are disproportionately adding jobs that largely go to WOMEN. As we saw in the recent data dump, men work more than women on Equity contracts. Two birds, one job.
So until we, as a union, begin to re-frame these intramural negotiations and to repeat:
WE ARE A LABOR UNION.
WE EXIST TO PROVIDE MORE JOB OPPORTUNITIES TO OUR MEMBERS.
WE VALUE ALL OF OUR MEMBERS–STAGE MANAGERS AND ACTORS ALIKE.
TWO HEADS ARE BETTER THAN ONE.
WE MUST HAVE AN ASM ON EVERY CONTRACT.
Well, I’ll be here to say so. Because we must climb this mountain together.