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Casting Directors On Broadway Seek To Unionize

Sep 4, 2017
Originally published on September 4, 2017 3:50 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

One of the ingredients a successful Broadway show needs is a talented cast. That starts with talented casting directors, the people who can see a Tony-winning star in the making, say, when a performer walks into an audition as a college student named Audra McDonald.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "CAROUSEL")

AUDRA MCDONALD: (Singing) His name is Mister Snow, and an upstanding man is he.

SHAPIRO: Casting directors are essential to New York's theater industry. They are not represented by a union or guild, though. Jeff Lunden reports they are trying to change that, and producers are pushing back.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: Cindy Tolan has been working in New York and Hollywood for three decades, and she says it's time for Broadway producers to give a little back.

CINDY TOLAN: Broadway grossed $1.5 billion last year, and it's the highest in history. And we are 40 casting directors, 40 people who want health insurance and a pension. And you know, one week's benefits for a casting director is significantly less than the price of one Broadway premium ticket.

LUNDEN: So Broadway is casting directors approached the Teamsters union to help them organize. And on a recent Monday morning, the buildings in Times Square reverberated with the sounds of dozens of members of the Broadway community.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Fairness for casting, fairness for casting, fairness for casting...

LUNDEN: The casting directors were joined by some of their already unionized colleagues like actor Michael Malanga.

MICHAEL MALANGA: Many of my friends and teachers and the people that have helped me get a start in my career in the casting profession - so I think it's only fair that I support them when they need it in a time like this when they're striving to get equal wages and healthcare benefits and things like that.

LUNDEN: But the Broadway League sees it differently. The League represents producers and theater owners and refused to speak with NPR. In a statement, they said the casting directors are independent contractors who work on more than one show at a time. Casting directors counter that that's exactly what lighting designers and set designers do. They all work on multiple shows, and they're unionized. Twelve years ago, casting directors joined up with the Teamsters to organize their film and TV work. Cindy Tolan says they faced the same pushback from producers.

TOLAN: The same argument that we were independent contractors, yet the same people who have a presence on Broadway - Disney, Fox Theatricals - recognize us in one medium but are refusing to do so in another.

LUNDEN: Tolan says the threat of a strike helped TV and film producers change their minds. Thomas O'Donnell was part of those negotiations. He's president of Teamsters Local 817, and he says the Broadway League won't even sit down with him.

THOMAS O'DONNELL: Right now we're trying to do it as friendly and as nice as possible. But the last campaign took us a year and a half. So we're 14 months in now. I'm not fazed by it, you know? We'll do whatever it takes.

LUNDEN: The Broadway League says it's encouraged the Teamsters to take their arguments to the National Labor Relations Board, or NLRB, and will abide by its ruling. But Cindy Tolan points out the board's members are appointed by the president.

TOLAN: Currently the President of the United States, of our country, is Donald Trump. Yes, of course they want to put it in front of the NLRB board - obviously know what the outcome will be.

LUNDEN: So for now, Broadway's casting directors are getting the word out through rallies and social media and hoping that it doesn't come to any sort of job action. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE SONG, "WHAT GOES AROUND... COMES AROUND") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.