Under threat of a labor strike, the show goes on for ‘Mean Girls’ in Sarasota

Union performers will meet audience members outside tonight, to highlight their demands for a fair contract.

click to enlarge Equity Member Nicole Olson sharing a leaflet with an audience member in Milwaukee before a performance of Frozen at The Marcus Performing Arts Center this past Friday. - Photo by Michael Courier/Actors’ Equity Association.
Photo by Michael Courier/Actors’ Equity Association.
Equity Member Nicole Olson sharing a leaflet with an audience member in Milwaukee before a performance of Frozen at The Marcus Performing Arts Center this past Friday.
As actors and stage managers in Broadway’s touring production of “Mean Girls” ready themselves for their first performance at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Center in Sarasota tonight, a handful are also preparing to meet with audience members just before—albeit, not in the usual way.

Union performers of “Mean Girls,” alongside local organized labor, will be sharing flyers with audience members outside of the Van Wezel, in an effort to uplift their union’s call for a fair contract that offers sustainable working conditions for touring performers, including pay that’s enough to cover quality lodging on the road.

The performers’ union, the Actors Equity Association (AEA), represents 51,000 professional actors and stage managers working in live entertainment and has over 40 national and local contracts.

About 3,000 of those entertainment workers are affected by a contract the union’s currently negotiating with the Broadway League, including performers and stage managers with the “Mean Girls” Broadway touring production and about 22 others that are on the road across the U.S.

The AEA has been negotiating for a new national touring contract with the Broadway League, which represents producers and theater owners, since January—ahead of their last contract’s expiration in February.

Van Wezel Performing Arts Center in Sarasota, where the “Mean Girls” touring production is performing this week, is not involved in this contract dispute—and it has been informed of the leafleting action before Tuesday’s show.

A spokesperson for Van Wezel told Creative Loafing Tampa Bay they’re hopeful the two parties can come to an agreement.

Since February, union actors and stage managers in shows like “Mean Girls”, as well as productions like “Hamilton,” “Frozen,” and “Les Miserables,” that are covered by that agreement have continued their work according to the terms of the old contract, which stipulate agreements on things such as wages, health insurance, vacation and sick pay, and other working conditions.

But that arrangement can’t continue indefinitely, and the union’s leadership has given the union's executive director and lead contract negotiator the authority to call for a strike across Broadway’s U.S. touring productions, if the Broadway League doesn't come back to the AEA with a suitable deal.

“Equity stage managers and actors on tours have made it clear that a contract that does not meet the needs of touring artists in today’s economy will not pass,” the Actors’ Equity Association wrote in a press release. “They are seeking fair pay, appropriate housing and per diem and sufficient coverage to ensure that the show can go on when individuals cannot.”

And they’re also asking for theater-goers to sign their own pledge not to cross the picket line, in solidarity.

The two parties are returning to the bargaining table Tuesday and Wednesday of this week.

Nearly 90% of the union's stage managers and actors have pledged to walk off the job and go on strike if a deal isn’t met, including about 45 union members with the “Mean Girls” production, as well as hundreds of performers with touring shows such as “Les Miserables,” “Hadestown,” “Hamilton,” “Frozen,” “To Kill a Mockingbird” (currently playing at the Straz in Tampa), and other theatrical productions.

“With pledges growing past 90% and support statements coming in from sibling unions, I think it shows our industry how united all 23 touring companies really are,” actor Ryan Rodiño, who’s currently touring with the Broadway production of Aladdin, told Broadway News. “We’re artists who love what we do. We take great pride in our work. But that work can’t happen without a fair contract.”

If a work stoppage did occur, it’d be the first strike of Broadway shows on tour since 1968, the union told The Inquirer.

Subpar housing allowances for performers: Not very “fetch”

An issue that’s central to the union’s dispute with the Broadway League is streamlining the agreements performers represented by AEA are covered under.

Currently, AEA union members who work on Broadway productions are covered by multiple agreements.

At this time, the union is seeking to combine Broadway's Production touring agreement—for bigger budget productions—and the separate Short Engagement Touring Agreement (SETA) touring agreements—for shows with lower guarantees—into a single contract.

This is meant to simplify and streamline their arrangement with the Broadway League, but it’s also meant to address a stark wage disparity issue.

Minimum salaries for actors and stage managers between the two agreements can significantly vary.

The lowest-paid actors and stage managers earn $600 to $700 per week under the SETA agreement, while actors and stage managers covered by the Broadway Production contract can earn upwards of $2000 or more per week.

Some of the bigger names in the theatrical universe who earn higher-end salaries, such as actress Stephanie J. Block—who’s currently touring with “Into the Woods”—have publicly spoken out in solidarity about the conditions that some of the lower-paid performers face.

That includes “per diems” (essentially, a daily allowance that’s meant to cover food and lodging, currently ranging between $58 and $86 daily, according to Playbill) that haven’t kept up with inflation and higher housing costs.

“It’s not enough,” Block shared, in a video posted to Instagram. The 50-year-old actress has toured with Broadway productions since 2005, when she starred as Elphaba in the “Wizard of Oz”-inspired musical “Wicked. “

Since the early aughts, she says, minimum salaries and per-diems haven’t changed much, but inflation and hotel room prices have.

If you’re an actor who’s earning pay on that lower end, it’s difficult to find a place that’s comfortable and safe, said Block. A place that is decent, clean, that has a kitchen under circumstances where, in some cases, you might have to stay there anywhere from a few days, to a couple weeks, or even a month.

Some hotels they’re put up in might not have a refrigerator in their rooms, a microwave, or laundry onsite, she added. “You cannot care for yourself, let alone care for a family in that way,” said Block, who’s a mother herself.

“Sitting in my place of privilege, knowing that my paycheck perhaps looks different,” Block said, “I do want to use my voice for those that will be going out on the road, that will be offered the minimum salary that perhaps don't have as much of a voice.”

The union is also asking the Broadway League for better coverage for illness or injury on tour.

Meaning, if a swing, understudy, or stage manager becomes sick or injured, they need a better alternative—a better solution to what they currently have—to pushing through and continuing to work if they don’t have a substitute.

“We are not asking to tour at an unreasonable level of luxury,” union members wrote in a joint public statement. “We merely want conditions that enable us to do our work successfully without struggle.”

Strike? Not yet: ‘hardwired’ to make sure the show goes on

But a labor strike by Broadway touring actors isn’t guaranteed. It depends on whether the union can reach a deal with the Broadway League.

Actors Equity Association president Kate Shindle told CL that disrupting their performances through a strike action is not ideal, and they’re hoping they'll be able to reach an agreement that prevents such an outcome.

“We are so hardwired to make sure that the show goes on,” said Shindle, a seasoned actress who’s starred in various theatrical productions over the years, from “Cabaret” and “Legally Blonde to Fun Home.”

“Fun Home” is a musical theater adaptation of Alison Bechdel's 2006 graphic memoir of the same name which (fun fact) made its final stop during its 2017 National Tour at the Straz.

Shindle, who starred as the character Alison on that tour, emphasized that her fellow union performers care deeply about bringing their shows to local communities across the country, and they don’t want to sully that experience for theater-goers in Sarasota or anywhere else.

“We don't want to let audiences down,” said Shindle.

The actress acknowledged that, for folks who don’t have thousands of dollars to throw down on a trip to New York City, these touring productions might be the only chance they ever get to see a Broadway show.

“Not everybody is going to be able to pick up and go to New York and see their favorite show on Broadway,” she said.

Audience members, Shindle added, “really depend on these tours to bring not only the, you know, cultural benefits of live theater, but also the economic benefits of live theater to their city.”

Touring Broadway contributes a cumulative $3.8 billion to the metro areas that host the shows, according to data from the League.

The risk of a strike affecting shows scheduled at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Center is unclear, but if the League doesn’t come back to the union with a fair offer by Thursday, a work stoppage could occur within days.

The stakes are high for touring Broadway performers, who put their blood, sweat, and tears into cultivating a theatrical experience that brings joy to the lives of thousands of audience members each year, uprooting their lives to live their dreams on the road.

It’s the experience of a lifetime. It’s a “dream job,” one performer in the touring “Mean Girls” cast, who requested anonymity, confirmed to CL.

But it’s also hard work. Not only that, it also requires sacrifice: uprooting your life, leaving your friends, family, and home base to travel to cities that you don’t know.

Places where you don’t know where’s best to buy groceries, to replace toiletries you accidentally left behind on your last tour stop, let alone any other unique quirks (or charms) of the community.

“Touring can be really draining,” the anonymous performer shared. But it’s still the dream, and they’re just looking for conditions from the League that are able to help them perform in a way that’s sustainable.

“We have a lot of fun doing it, and it’s an uplifting show,” they said. “Especially, I think, in a pandemic, or post-pandemic world, a lot of people needed to laugh again.”

Solidarity from local organized labor

Other labor unions in the entertainment industry, such as the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees (IATSE), have publicly voiced their support for AEA as well.

Locally, a small group of union members affiliated with the West Central Florida Labor Council of the Florida AFL-CIO are planning to join AEA members outside of the Van Wezel, about one hour before showtime on Tuesday night, to leaflet with cast members of the show.

The goal: to inform them about what’s going on behind the scenes of “Mean Girls” and other touring productions, and what audience members can do to help.

“As a Central Labor Council, our role is to ensure that our union brothers and sisters have a fair contract that addresses the needs of their unique industry,” Cheryl Schroeder, executive director of the local labor council, said in a statement to CL.

“Our unionists from the automotive and film industry and from our public schools are taking action today to educate audience members who enjoy the fruits of these workers’ labor. A fair contract between the parties makes good business sense and ensures a quality workforce now and in the future.”

The AEA is affiliated with the national AFL-CIO, the largest labor federation in the country.

The purpose of leafleting, the AEA affirms, is not to protest, but to inform—while, at the same time, giving audience members the chance to meet the cast somewhere besides the stage door.

Touring performers elsewhere in the U.S. began leafleting outside of their own productions this last weekend, at Into the Woods in “Philadelphia,” and “Frozen” in Milwaukee.

“There were definitely some spectacular ‘fan moments,’” Shindle, who leafletted outside of “Into the Woods,” told CL, in good humor.

This week, that action will continue at theatres in Durham, North Carolina (“Beetlejuice”); Richmond, Virginia (“Hamilton”); and in other cities throughout the week that the union didn’t want to share, lest it give producers too much of an advanced heads-up.

Shindle did want readers to know that their beef isn’t with the Van Wezel (a facility where a lot of IATSE union members do behind-the-scenes work, actually, according to Schroeder).

Nor is the union necessarily at odds with any other local theaters on their touring schedules.

It’s the Broadway League they’re in negotiations with. “The league's argument is that times are tough,” Shindle explained. “Theater is still rebounding from COVID.”

During the 2018-2019 season, the Broadway League grossed $1.6 billion from its touring productions—a figure representing the most recent data the Broadway League has shared publicly.

But the pandemic, and necessary closures, did disrupt Broadway significantly. Nonetheless, today, Broadway shows in New York City at least are raking in tens of millions of dollars per week.

None of the union performers want to put touring shows out of business, said Shindle.

But while ticket prices for Broadway productions over the years have skyrocking, pricing out working class folks who’d love to see a Broadway show even more, that extra dough isn’t necessarily going into the pockets of the performers.

“I would like to think that as people in the performing arts industry, and in the theatrical industry, that we can come up with creative solutions to find something that works for everyone,” the “Mean Girls” performer told CL.

From theater attendees, and anyone else who wishes to support the union’s call, the AEA is using the hashtag #UnitetheRoad on social media to uplift their demands of the Broadway League.

They’re also asking audiences to sign a pledge to not cross the picket line in the event of a strike, or to physically show up to be there alongside them if they do end up on the picket line.

According to the union, upwards of 9,000 people have signed the audience member solidarity pledge so far.

UPDATED 04/11/23 4:30 p.m. Updated to remove names of cast members who signed strike pledge. The names were not public.

About The Author

McKenna Schueler

McKenna Schueler is a freelance journalist based in Tampa, Florida. She regularly writes about labor, politics, policing, and behavioral health. You can find her on Twitter at @SheCarriesOn and send news tips to [email protected].

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