Monday, November 26, 2007

My Local One Union Brothers on Strike

A stagehand friend of mine sent me this story about a typical Broadway stagehand, who's on strike. It reminded me a of great period in my career as a stagehand, and got me thinking about this crazy career.

Back in the summer of 2000, I went to New York to learn how to operate the automation for the LA version of The Lion King, which was built by Hudson Scenic. The New York version of the show was still running at the New Amsterdam Theatre, home to many great shows including the Ziegfeld Follies. We spent our days at Hudson's shop in Yonkers, and at night we went to the show where we watched and learned backstage. I'll never forget the tour Drew Sicardi, the head carpenter, gave us of the theater above the theater, known as the Roof Garden Theater, where a racier version of the Follies, the Midnight Frolics, played, starring Fanny Brice. It was just a concrete shell of a theatre, but I was amazed at the sense of history and the grooves in the floor where blocks of ice were put to cool the big theater downstairs.

I've been a stagehand for 20 years, but being backstage on Broadway welled up a sense of history and awe. Mostly I was amazed at how small the theaters are. Working in LA, space is usually never a problem (I say usually because I spent the last few years working in the Mark Taper Forum, where space is always a problem). But in New York, especially on a show the size of The Lion King, I was amazed at how they got so much in such a small space. As if working backstage on a Broadway show isn't hard enough. Depending on the show, people scurry all over the place trying to do things at precisely the right moment. Traffic patterns, technical problems, actor variations, and many other variables make each show an adventure. The stress is enormous. So is the sense of accomplishment.

I got to know a lot of those IATSE Local One guys. Many of them came out to LA and helped install our Lion King at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood. These are some of the hardest working guys in the world, and they have a very specialized set of skills. People don't really understand what stagecraft is all about. The hours are awful. The work--a combination of the worst aspects of movers, riggers, mechanics, electricians, technicians, and construction workers--is extremely hard. Perhaps the worst part is that usually the only time anyone notices a stagehand is when they screw up.

For this production--the strike--hopefully people are noticing the stagehands for a better reason. And when you hear from some anti-labor people how much the "typical" stagehand in New York makes, remember what they do and that they live and work in New York. It's all relative.

Hang in there guys. You've earned the respect you deserve.

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