by Wally Usiatynski
It’s been my honor and privilege to have been the chair of the Broadway Theatre Committee for the last seven years, a time that I will always look back upon with great reverence. I first served as co-chair in 2009, when Tino Gagliardi became the chair. Back then there was a great divide in the union membership. A number of issues caused polarization and we ended up with two political parties within the union that were at each other’s throats. There’s no need to regurgitate those issues here but it was quite an ugly time in the history of the union. This divide was exemplified in the Theatre Committee. Tino was a prominent Members Party member and I was active with the Concerned Musicians. Our views couldn’t have been further apart. Theatre Committee meetings then were interesting and lively, to put it politely. Discussions often devolved into shout downs as each side tried to outdo the other with incredibly long diatribes and power plays. Robert’s Rules of Order was called upon with just about every breath. For many people, you were either on one side of the fence or the other. There was not much room in the room for anyone who tried to stay neutral!
But it was through this din that Tino and I developed a relationship. One thing that stuck with me was the fact that, regardless of our opposing views on any issue, Tino always consulted with me. He called me religiously every two weeks to go over meeting agendas. He contacted me whenever there was Theatre Comittee business, and he always took my calls. I never felt shut out. So it was natural that, in 2010, when Tino was elected president of Local 802, and I was elected as chair of the Theatre Committee, our relationship and willingness to communicate was already established. In addition, as chair I received mandates from many members that, for the sake of the union, and for everyone’s employment, we needed to turn a page in this political chapter and start working together. There were negotiations coming up and Special Situations requests to maneuver through. It took a little time, but despite some of the residual politics, and with the holistic help of co-chair Jan Mullen as well as the rest of the membership, we were able to start the healing process and get down to business.
Early on we were able to tackle a problem with institutional memory by reestablishing the practice of taking minutes at meetings. That practice had long before evaporated. But now we could keep an accurate record of what was discussed and what was decided on at Theatre Committee meetings. We also reestablished the importance of dealing with health and safety issues. There were smoke and fog issues that were unresolved, as well as problems with temperature and emergency egress. By bringing attention to these problems we were able to make headway in dealing with them. Though the process is far from perfect, we are now able to head off potential problems and in some cases effect real change. We reestablished involvement with the Theatre Musicians Association, the national version of the Broadway Theatre Committee, which represents touring and local theatre musicians across the country. Many of these tours are League tours so there is a close association between TMA and the Theatre Committee. TMA hadn’t had a Broadway liaison for many years until we reestablished that position. It’s important to stay connected with TMA because what happens on Broadway happens across the country, and in some cases, vice-versa.
I’m proud to have created the first ever delegate summit, calling all Theatre Committee delegates into one room and finding out what the membership thinks are the most important issues going into negotiations. The second summit was held last year prior to the latest round of negotiations.
One of our greatest accomplishments was the creation of the BroadwayMusicians.com web site. With our own funding, we created a wonderful site that lists musicians in each running show, and allows for photos, as well as links to personal web sites. With that, we also established the need to maintain the site financially and we are currently working on ways to do that.
Local 802 gives the Theatre Committee a large role in its contract negotiations. While no leaps and bounds were made in either term, it is important to note that very little has changed in terms of conditions and there have been modest annual wage increases for the last and the current terms. In a mature labor contract such as ours, stability is good.
Over the years we’ve seen a large number of complaints about things such as how some work rules are applied, holiday pay discrepancies, how subs are treated, different ways in which subs are approved, and so on. Some of these problems can be handled simply by knowing the specific work rules in the contract. Other problems need a common sense approach and can be solved with the help of simple guidelines that, if followed, will make life better for everyone. I’m happy to say that the Theatre Committee has come up with a set of guidelines that we will discuss at meetings, and a document that compiles work rules from the CBA that are pertinent to our everyday lives – rules that we should all know but are often overlooked. That document will be available to all Broadway musicians.
The final thing that we accomplished is setting up the practice of welcoming new shows to Theatre Committee meetings. I think it’s important for new shows to be recognized at the committee early on, so that if problems arise down the road, the musicians are familiar with us and can communicate with us sooner rather than later. The sooner we hear you, the sooner we can help find solutions and get the union involved, if necessary. I’d like to welcome the “Sunset Boulevard” orchestra as the first in what I hope will be many more orchestra welcomes!
When I think about what else we would like to have accomplished I am reminded of what President Obama said when he was asked the same question. He answered with one word: “More.” I would like to have visited more shows, to have put a face on the Theatre Committee and to have garnered more participation. I relied heavily on Jan and our business rep Theresa, for which I am extremely grateful. I would like to have reached out to delegates more, particularly those who we don’t see very often. I would like to have restored The Pits, the Theatre Commitee quarterly publication that was very informative and kept musicians up to date even if they couldn’t attend meetings. I would like to see these things achieved in the future.
I think the Theatre Committee is well-positioned today to achieve these things, as well as others things that are difficult to accomplish in times of turmoil or unsteadiness. Audience outreach is an important idea that is too easily overlooked. Talkbacks are extremely easy to do and gratifying. They have such an immediate and wide reaching effect on our young and eager audiences. Yet despite such a tremendous bang for the buck, they are so often ignored by our members. Why is this? Ours is a diminishing industry. It is not expanding. No amount of yelling or posturing will change that. Orchestra sizes keep shrinking (“Sunset Boulevard” notwithstanding!). The only way to increase our numbers is to increase the number of shows that are playing. And, yes, we do have a small amount of control over that. We can nurture young audiences, because they are the ticket buyers of tomorrow. We can accept our role in smaller Special Situation shows, as long as we are not taken advantage of, so that these shows can thrive. And we must increase our visibility to audiences through talkbacks and other outreach programs so that the live aspect of live theatre will always be recognized, and will never be compromised by someone pressing “Play” on a recording device.
But these goals we can only attain with member participation. It is not enough to simply show up to your show anymore. Our livelihoods may depend upon all of us becoming more involved.
The Theatre Committee is a good vehicle with which to become involved. Any thought, idea, problem or complaint can be brought here, anonymously if need be. One member had an idea to host a band on a parade float and was able, through the Theatre Commitee, to become sanctioned by Local 802. Our webmaster was able to get the link to our web site put up on his show’s official web site. This is excellent exposure for Broadway musicians. Right now we are discussing ways to fund and maintain our web site. Other bargaining units assess their members a mandatory annual fee for their finances. We want to avoid that since, unlike other units, we are not employed full time. So we need to find another way to replenish our expenses. And we will need a new webmaster soon as our current webmaster is stepping down.
As I point out ways in which you can become involved, I just want to stress that it is not the committee that needs your help. It is you, the Broadway musicians, who need your help. Because you are the Theatre Committee.
In closing I just want to say that my time as chair has been rewarding, frustrating, rewarding, time-consuming, rewarding, humbling, and most of all, rewarding. Between knocking heads with you all, and making long-lasting friendships, often with the same people, I have been lucky to see change and growth, however slowly that has happened. I feel honored to have served the musicians of Broadway for so long, and would easily do it again if I felt it was best. But I think it is time for someone new to lead, someone more connected to the scene than I am right now. And I cannot think of anyone more connected, more passionate and more dedicated to serving you than your next chair Jan Mullen. Working on a long-running show, Jan has stability and experience, as well as a rich set of ideas and goals. Working with her is vice chair Chris Reza, who has unstoppable strength and resourcefulness, and a fresh set of ideas. To the new chair and vice chair I would say this. Whatever your ideas and goals are, whatever it is that you want to bring to this table, for the betterment of Broadway musicians, pursue them and make them happen. My goals were to bring the membership back together in order to achieve stability and growth. Having accomplished that, I must now turn yet another page and work on another set of goals. We are in the midst of relative calmness, contract stability, and modest wage growth. It is the perfect time to move ahead with more creative ideas on how to make our lives and livelihoods better and more rewarding. So with much reluctance, and with much relief, I would like to turn over this chair to the new chair and vice chair of the Broadway Theatre Committee, Jan Mullen and Chris Reza.
Next article: The next chapter of the Broadway Theatre Committee