A Fine Balance: The Role of the House Contractor
Volume XCIX, No. 9October, 1999
The position of designated – or house – contractor on Broadway is one of divided allegiance and uncertain authority. In most instances the designated contractor was not the hiring agent for the show, yet most of the ongoing, day-to-day problems associated with employer/employee relations fall into his or her lap. Of course, this calls for the utmost diplomacy, deep understanding of human nature, and great negotiating skills. In other words, a perfect human being.
The responsibilities of the designated contractor cover a wide range of services to the producer or theatre owner, the union and the musicians working on the orchestra. Put simply, the job requires the designated contractor to implement the policies of the employer and the union (in accordance with the Broadway CBA) without jeopardizing the interests of either.
The duties as an employer representative are generally more visible, because much of the contractor’s time is spent administering the orchestra payroll and at the theatre on the job. However, when conflicts or disagreements arise it usually falls to the house contractor to try to keep the lines of communication open between and among the musicians in the orchestra, the conductors, the other workers on the job, the stage manager, the orchestra personnel supervisor, the musical supervisor(s) and, if necessary, the union or the employer.
While the nature of the sometimes fragile relationships among these various entities can lead to misunderstandings or ill feelings, most house contractors have been fairly successful in their efforts to prevent small problems from escalating into large ones.
This effort often takes the form of forwarding concerns expressed by orchestra members who are sometimes unwilling to come forward themselves to raise an issue with management representatives. The process demands a high degree of sensitivity, judgement and tact. Several of Broadway’s house contractors have the benefit of many years of experience and have been particularly helpful in keeping things running smoothly. It is, of course, not the contractor’s place to overrule company or union policy – but everyone is usually grateful for common-sense advice on how not to exacerbate a problem, and for a third party who is willing and able to speak frankly.
It should be evident, I hope, that in order to effectively walk this tightrope, these individuals need to be granted a certain measure of autonomy by both the union and the employer in performing their duties. Should either party (union or employer) seek to dominate a contractor’s activities, that person’s effectiveness as a mediating agent between the employer and employee would be at an end. Trust is a key component and is easily eroded when unwarranted or ill-advised pressure is brought to bear by either union or management.
Both the producer and the union benefit immeasurably from the work of an effective house contractor. It is in both of their interests to give the house contractor as much freedom as needed in matters of employment policy, interpersonal relationships, contract inquiry and workplace deportment for that position to be fully effective for all concerned.
Where that freedom is not granted – as is currently the case in several Broadway pits – the inevitable result is frustration on the part of the musicians and a continually deteriorating employer-employee relationship for management to address. ð