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Q&A with Edward Pierce, the Newly-Elected President of United Scenic Artists Local USA 829, IATSE

Michael S. Eddy • February 2021The Callboard • February 3, 2021

This past fall designer Edward Pierce was elected president of United Scenic Artists Local USA 829, IATSE and was sworn into his three-year term. Pierce, an active member of USA 829 for 25 years, has previously represented members as a national trustee for 12 years and pension trustee for nine years. He takes over the role from Beverly Miller, who had been president since 1995. Stage Directions spoke with him recently about his new presidency at Local 829.

What are some of the priorities you’d like to accomplish as president of 829?
We’re building on decades’ worth of great leadership and hard work that’s made our union strong. We have solid contracts, great benefits, and I’m looking forward to building from there. Using that foundation, and looking ahead with so much of our industry still shuttered and still crawling back to work, we’re trying to use this time to look inward, at this point of transition between administrations, to fix some of the operational issues that we have the time to fix now, and to also build a new scaffold for member engagement. 

This past summer our members showed more engagement than they have in many, many years, which has been a silver lining of this entire pandemic. It’s allowed our members time to think about what this union is and what it means to them, and how they can help make it better. The Zoom phenomenon has been amazing for our general membership meetings. We would only get a couple of dozen people at a meeting at a hall. Now we get several hundred people at a meeting on Zoom. So, it’s been great for the members to see each other and for the business office and the boards to see so much engagement. There’s a lot of interest from many of our members to be more actively involved in the governance of the union and committee work. So, right off the bat, we set up a whole new structure of committees, which we were really lacking at the board level for many years. This is going to offer an opportunity for members to really have their voices heard and to collaborate on ideas with other members; to really move us forward. I’m excited about that.

Talk a little bit about how 829 can support its membership during these difficult times.
That’s done in a multi-faceted way. From a financial point of view, we initially set up a Sick and Benefit Fund. We took reserves from our Sick and Benefit Fund and created a relief fund that is operated by The Actor’s Fund on our behalf. Our members, for really any reason, can approach The Actor’s Fund and get some financial relief. We offer a Sick and Benefit Fund that the board manages, but the thought was that this would be an extraordinary time and the requests might be many and that it could be handled more efficiently through The Actor’s Fund.  Our members, just as many others in the entertainment industry, can use the resources that The Actor’s Fund offers. We also try to steer our membership there for mental health issues. 

We are working on other ways also like if they’re going to lose their health insurance, ways to help protect that, and so forth. We’re part of the IATSE National Benefit Fund, and although we don’t hold a seat on that board, we’re one of the larger locals that are part of that fund. That fund has been able to provide some relief to the membership in terms of helping to offset out-of-pocket premium payments. 

In addition, the union itself, this past year, has waived several quarters of dues to help provide relief. In one quarter, we waived all our IATSE per capita dues. For one quarter last year, 829 paid on behalf of the members and did not bill the members. So, anywhere we can, every little bit counts financially. The Pension Fund is doing a number of things that it can do as well. Our business office has been incredibly busy. They’ve been slightly short staffed, because of course we’ve had to reduce staffing through this time, but they’ve been actively engaged in getting all the safety protocols and all those agreements for different venues and different producers in place. We’re constantly monitoring the working conditions and the COVID safety protocols. We are trying to be on top of things in every which way we can to support the members. 

Tell me about the equity, diversity, and inclusion efforts of 829 moving forward?
That’s high on our list of work that we’re doing. What was great about this last election is that we actually have representation of some diversity on our boards, which we were incredibly lacking for many, many years. Our national board now includes five new BIPOC members, which is fantastic. It’s about a third of the national board now, which is only of course, a start. Earlier this summer, the board initiated some listening sessions and some anti-racism training that was provided to the board. We’re just about to launch a member wide anti-racism training program put together by the business office and our training fund that will continue the conversations and the learning, which is so important. One of the things we all know is that there’s never enough learning and there’s never enough training. A huge aspect of Local 829 is its safety and training initiatives. 

At the national board level, we’ve created a number of board-specific committees outside of the standing committees that will be having member engagement. It’s in these committees that we’re starting to really dissect our internal governance, looking at our constitution. Really opening up all the books on our organization and looking deep within and looking at our budget and trying to ensure that our budget reflects our values. It’s in all these ways that diversity and inclusion efforts need to be done. It’s not just statements, it’s actually action. 

Talk a little about the role 829 has throughout the regional market in terms of supporting theaters as they reopen.
That has definitely been important work of the business office for months now. They have been collaborating with LORT, the League of Resident Theatres, and their members individually to review safe reopening protocols. Every theater that’s a member of LORT, or otherwise honestly, will need to have a safe restart program filed with the union, one that’s been reviewed and approved. We now have special riders to all our contracts that create a relationship with all of the theaters around the country so that we are all on the same page about their requirements with regard to safety protocols. That’s one aspect, safety; the other aspect is of course helping these theaters financially. We know that’s going to be an important part of the process. 

We have agreements with many theaters to support their efforts in streaming some of the content that they might already have in their archives to be able to share that as part of their seasons. There’s arrangements and contracts in place to support the inevitability, that they may not be able to have audiences, but they still want to share work that they have done—or are doing. We have relationships with theaters across the country to be able to support that work as well. The next step, of course, is some of our larger contracts. Those are important conversations to have and speaks to the larger industry. And of course, as Broadway starts to regroup and get itself ready to restart again later this year, quite certainly we’ll be sitting down with the Broadway League and collaborating with them on what needs to happen to bring back the industry safely and economically. 

You mentioned streaming, how do you see streamed live and live captured performances and Zoom theater affecting your membership?
In the early days of Zoom shows, people, including many of our members, just wanted to collaborate. People just wanted to not let the process of live storytelling disappear. It’s kind of an evolving beast, to be honest. There are the more traditional ways of doing streaming, where we have had instances of a theater company producing a show on a stage in a very safe and organized way for the sole purpose of capturing it and then being able to stream it to their subscription audience, done with an agreement with our union, of course, that our designers would be compensated for their work. 

We are already beginning to set up tent posts of how this work may need to happen and be compensated in the future. Perhaps there’s going to be some kind of hybrid. I think it’s a great way to support getting theater into schools. Who knows, we may see streaming as a component that would be a wonderful development, if we can introduce school children earlier to theater. Even if it’s not live for them, but at least they can understand that it is different than what you see on TV or film. Build an audience so that they’ll want to go to the theater and see it live eventually. We’ve always been happy to help with that type of initiative in any way. I think it will be challenging but also exciting to work on a range of initiatives in the coming three years on behalf of all the members of Local 829.  

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