New York City has always been the best place to advance new art. Starting in the 1990s, the festival circuit here began to grow in many genres – film, music, dance and theatre. The New York Musical Theatre Festival – which celebrated its 10th anniversary this year – was still in its infancy in 2005, but obviously, even early on, the work the festival was doing was directly related to Local 802’s membership. Many Local 802 musicians were playing at this festival. While NYMF was dedicated solely to presenting new and developing musicals, there were other theatre festivals, such as the New York International Fringe Festival, which also presented new musicals as part of their lineups. Developing relationships with these festivals, both established and emerging, presented a singular opportunity for organizing within the theatre community.
In 2005, the staff of Local 802’s theatre department, in conjunction with the Broadway and Small Theatres Committees, began the Theatre Festival Initiative. The Theatre Festival Initiative serves a twofold organizing purpose. First, it provides a chance to support our current members in that often unappreciated creative endeavor: the developmental stage. It also allows us to reach out to new musicians – a/k/a future union members! – who may be at the beginning of their careers.
Secondly, our theatre initiative gives us first contact with the producers involved with these shows. Think of it as the ground floor of the union/theatre producer relationship, as more of the shows continue to make their way to Broadway or Off Broadway houses.
Finally, on a financial level, Local 802 supports both NYMF and the Fringe as a sponsor.
In addition to attending the shows and meeting the musicians, we also sponsor our now-famous Meet and Greet event for festival musicians and all new members. At this event, musicians get to network with each other and hear a panel of experienced theatre professionals.
The inaugural year of the initiative in 2005 focused solely on NYMF, but with an eye toward expanding to other festivals. Primarily rank-and-file members with a few Local 802 staff attended 31 musicals with over 100 musicians playing in the festival. The Meet and Greet was held in October 2005 with over 60 musicians from the festival attending, as well as Local 802 officers and staff, and a professional panel of musicians, contractors, conductors and orchestrators moderated by then-Executive Board member and current president, Tino Gagliardi. There was even an award given to the rank-and-file member who had attended the most festival shows! (Way to go, Bill Rohdin!)
In 2008, the initiative finally expanded to include the Fringe.
Eight years later, the Festival Initiative is still thriving. This year, staff and members attended close to 40 shows between the two festivals, with well over 100 musicians performing. The festival outreach segment of the initiative remains steady and strong, as does the Meet and Greet.
On Sept. 25, Local 802 held its eighth annual Meet and Greet, which was attended by over 80 people. This year’s panel included:
- Tony award-winning orchestrator Michael Starobin
- Music contractor John Miller
- Broadway and Off Broadway cellist Vivian Israel
- Broadway and Off Broadway bassist and orchestrator Charlie Rosen
- Transport Group Artistic Director Jack Cummings III
Theatre Committee co-chair Jan Mullen served as the moderator.
Panelists began by describing their experience in the theatre business. Michael Starobin talked about the evolution of wanting to be a classical pianist to now working as an orchestrator. Vivian Israel, whose father was a violist, described her experience as difficult because of having a parent who was in the business. She said that she took different types of work in order to gain name recognition. Currently, she is working on the Off Broadway production of “The Landing,” which is playing at Vineyard Theatre. Charlie Rosen spoke about getting his first Broadway gig, “Thirteen,” after graduating from high school. He has since played in “Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson” and “One Man, Two Guvnors” and has been orchestrating for his big band and musicals around the city. Jack Cummings III describes his love of musicals, especially experimental ones. Transport Group plays and musicals are done mostly Off Broadway and they have had one show, “Lysistrata Jones,” that moved on to Broadway. Cummings said that because of his love of live music, Transport Group hires as many musicians as possible for their musicals.
The Q&A session was extremely lively and informative. Here are some of the insights that came up:
- When musicians create their own Web sites or utilize social media, it is important to include visual and audio.
- A pleasant demeanor is crucial, because musicians spend hours during rehearsals. Attitude can make or break a pit.
- Musicians should network with each other and be each other’s contractors. Although it is important to network with Broadway and Off Broadway contractors and musicians, it is equally important to get to know musicians from various fields.
- Perform various types of work and learn various types of music (Afro pop, Irish music, etc.)
Once the Q&A was over, the networking began. Musicians got to speak with the panelists and also each other. One of the goals of the Meet and Greet is for musicians to understand that there is no direct route to Broadway and to stay open to various types of work experience. Most importantly, continue networking with musicians.
THE FUTURE LOOKS BRIGHT
The Theatre Festival Initiative remains an important instrument for organizing in the theatre community. Perhaps, though, it’s time to do a bit of re-tuning. There are definite possibilities for how to achieve this. We began with NYMF in 2005 and added the Fringe in 2008. It might be time to augment our reach. The Midtown International Theatre Festival – which, like the Fringe, presents both plays and musicals and has been around for 14 years – is an appropriate and obvious target for the 2014 festival season.
We might also look at adjusting our focus. Currently, we see most of the productions presented at NYMF (anywhere from 30 to 40 shows), but we are only able to attend about half of the musicals presented at the Fringe, which means we only see about 10 out of the 20 or more shows. As has been the case in previous years, about 60 percent of the musicians performing at NYMF are already members of Local 802, while at Fringe that percentage is more like 10 percent. It seems as though we are ready to further develop our commitment to the Fringe and reach out to the large pool of potential members.
The future of the Theatre Festival initiative remains strong. As we look to 2014 and even 2015 – which will be a decade’s worth of organizing under this yearly campaign – we should continue to think about growing and improving our reach and our commitment. The possibilities are there. Let’s take them and run!
If you are a musician who plays in theatre festivals, please contact us and let us know about you! We’d love to get you more involved and networked. Call the Theatre Department at (212) 245-4802.
This article was written by Lynne Bond, Theresa Couture and Claudia Copeland.