At a time when playwrights and actors are demanding to be treated as “arts workers” crucial to the economy, along comes this new book by Christin Essin, a former professional stagehand turned theater professor, arguing that stagehands and hairstylists and dressers deserve respect for their artistry. “Working Backstage: A Cultural History and Ethnography of Technical Theater Labor” (University of Michigan Press, 286 pages) attempts to unearth the little-known history of blue collar theater unions, but it mostly advocates for the current-day backstage workers of Broadway.
“Even though invisible to audiences and underrecognized in the industry,” Essin writes, “their work is essential to New York City’s entertainment brand and its value in a global marketplace.”
Essin, Associate Professor of Theatre History at Vanderbilt University, expresses her advocacy for Broadway’s backstage workers in several ways. Most effectively, she re-creates the goings-on backstage in three musicals to show just how essential they are: 1. most persuasively, in “A Chorus Line,” where she focuses on the three electricians who with great skill and choreographic grace operated the followspots on the dancers, from berths located forty feet in the air; 2 in “Newsies,” both the followspot operators and the soundboard operator; 3. Most surprisingly, the child guardians in “Matilda,” where she makes the case that they are not, as the stereotype would have it, baby-sitters. “Their responsibilities include updating child actor’s scripts and blocking notes during rehearsals, communicating rehearsal and per- formance schedules with parents, cueing each child actor’s stage entrance and meeting them for each exit, and keeping them engaged and quiet while not onstage.”
Yet, like all backstage workers, child guardians are not just dismissed; they’re demeaned. One of them vividly recalls what somebody in “upper management” said to her when she asked for a raise: “I’m only talking to you because I like you. But I could go out on the street right now and hire a homeless person for twenty-five dollars a week to do what you do.”
This was before the child guardians were unionized, becoming members of Local 764 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), the oldest of the theater unions, which began life in 1886 (some three decades before Actors Equity) as the Theatrical Protective Union.
Essin offers examples of positive depictions of backstage workers in magazine and newspaper features she labels human interest stories, and describes and analyzes at greater length theater tech characters in various documentaries and plays, most notably “The Dresser” by Ronald Harwood, “10 out of 12” by Anne Washburn, and “Bernhardt/Hamlet” by Theresa Rebeck. But she devotes a whole chapter to the way that producers and journalists alike have consistently portrayed theater union workers, especially members of Local One, the stagehand’s union, in a negative light –overpaid, often unnecessary, and lacking passion for the work they are doing.
Essin tries to combat these accusations by profiling individual workers, especially from Local One, the oldest and most powerful of the locals, whose members are specialists in carpentry, electrics, properties, and sound. Yet, among the profiles are the five Fedigan brothers and their two brothers-in-law, all of whom are members of Local One, as was their father and grandfather. The local is so much based on family connections, that those Local One electricians who don’t have any relatives in the union are called “orphans.” And we learn that Local One denied membership to Black stagehands until 1937 then restricted their benefits until 1955, and that it admitted its first woman only in 1979. Essin maintains that the workers in the union are committed to opening up its membership. This would be more convincing if she had provided specific demographic statistics – not just of gender or ethnicity, but of what percentage of the Local One membership are “orphans.” Indeed, although “Working Backstage” is written like an academic book, the scholarly research in it doesn’t go very deep, or very far afield. She relies for much of the history of Local One on the research conducted by a stagehand named Jene Youtt for the union’s 100th anniversary commemorative program, and watched a stack of videotapes that were shot (but never used) by the union, in order to write, rather pointlessly, an excruciatingly detailed account of Local One’s 100th anniversary celebration at the Metropolitan Opera in 1986.
Still, if Essin is extremely clear where her sympathies lie, this makes “Working Backstage” something of a tonic. It’s always baffled me, in an industry that boasts of how collaborative it is and how progressive, that so many theater people see stagehands and the other backstage workers as roadblocks, and treat their unions as the enemy.