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Stage Management Grievances in 1942

Jennifer Leigh Sears Scheier • Stage Management History • February 28, 2018
The February 18, 1942 cover letter from Actors Equity regarding the "Committee to Consider Stage Managers’ Memo to Council"

The February 18, 1942 cover letter from Actors Equity regarding the "Committee to Consider Stage Managers’ Memo to Council"

Stage Managers Ban Together to Fight for AEA Stage Management Contract

On December 18th, 1941 and January 15th, 1942, a delegation of stage managers met with the “Committee to Consider Stage Managers’ Memo to Council” (yes, this was the committee’s official name), which was a special Actors’ Equity Association (AEA) committee specifically formed to consider their requests.

In February, the committee wrote a recommendation to the AEA council, commenting on the stage managers’ desires. The council met on March 2, 1942 to review their entreaty and to write a report for the executive council. At the time, the contract between Equity and the League of New York Theatres was to set to expire in August 1943, which meant any changes agreed on by the committee and executive council would not go into effect unless the League voluntarily incorporated them, or if the petition was negotiated into the next agreement.

The stage managers’ primary request was to ask the League to consider the possibility of a separate stage manager contract. They argued that stage management had become a specialized field, focused on the technical aspects of the show and heavy on organizational work, which they contended was much different than the labor of the actor. Therefore, the SM delegation reasoned that the stage managers’ contract should reflect the duties required of them, should be trained in stage management, and should be employed on every production. The stage managers also described the modifications they sought (these would only apply to the stage managers’ contract, they would not apply to any assistant stage managers):

1. The stage manager should not be called upon to act in the show. Although, with safeguards, he or she may be required to understudy.
2. A stage management minimum salary should be high enough to secure talented and experienced men or women.
3. This minimum salary shouldn’t be reduced for any reason.
4. Pre-production should be one week for plays, two weeks for musicals. The stage manager should be fully paid for rehearsals, but should expect to participate in auditions and pre-production without payment.
5. The producers should be prevented from circumventing the clause that dictates full pay for rehearsals. (They noted that producers paid them $50 for rehearsals and then raised the pay to the real salary once in production. The stage managers were requesting that their salary be the same for both rehearsal and production periods via a mandate in the contract.)
6. There should be further investigation and possible regulation of the salary payments for stage managers who directed road or revival shows.
7. The stage management delegation requested that AEA and the League agree on obligatory apprentice periods to train future stage managers. The delegation reasoned that stage management required certain training and proficiency, and therefore should require proof of qualifications before signing a stage manager’s contract.

After meeting with the stage management delegation twice, the committee recommended that AEA should contact the League to begin negotiations for a separate stage management contract.

Fun fact: the authors of the committee’s memo included a few details about the British counterpart at the time: The British AEA were in negotiations for a SM contract, which would dictate that the SM would earn about three times the actors’ minimum and was to receive additional compensation for any additional jobs performed (understudying, etc.)

The Council’s Response
On March 2, 1942, the council responded to the memo written by the “Committee to Consider Stage Managers’ Memo to Council.” In their written response, they divided their reply into two sections: one to address the reasons for wanting the separate contract, and the second to discuss the requested changes. Interestingly, the council members who signed the response included three film stars and two of Equity’s lawyers.

The council begins by reiterating the three explanations on why stage managers should receive special contractual consideration as put forth by the committee. In response, the council wrote, “we are of the opinion that these conclusions are basically and fundamentally founded on a wrong foundation and are dangerous to the welfare of the American Theatre as well as of this association.” Their greatest concern was that, if granted, this would be the beginning step towards an independent stage manager’s union. They argued that it was vital that competent stage managers should also be experienced actors as historically some actors began their training as stage managers, and other actors had later in their career become stage managers. The stage manager’s work and the actors’ work was so intertwined, that it necessitated the inclusion of the stage manager into the acting profession and that the stage manager was as much a part of the production as the actors. They wrote: “In other words, we do not believe that stage managing is a separate craft or art that has little to do with acting. Equity in its early days had to fight to have only Equity members as stage managers and rightly so because they belong to Equity since their interest lies with the actors and the actors’ interest would be jeopardized if the stage managers were not with them.

Next, the council responded to the recommendations:

  1. The council was against adopting recommendation #1, wherein a stage manager would be prohibited from acting in a show they stage managed, because the council felt it was not their place to damper the individual’s ambitions.
  2. The council stated that they were against recommendation #2 for the same objections that they had when the actors argued for minimum salaries: that minimum salaries would become maximums. “Stage managers should be protected in the same manner and to the same extent as other actors and should be paid for their work according to their ability and individual bargaining power. If we establish better working conditions for the stage managers than the actors, … [this] will create a very important schism in our ranks.”
  3. The council argued that recommendation #3 was already in effect.
  4. To recommendation #4, they wrote against a pre-production period, stating that they wanted to keep the working conditions between stage managers and actors as similar as possible. Since the Equity contract stated that the employment began with the first rehearsal, establishing an earlier point of employment would be counter-productive.

5/6. The council agreed that recommendations #5 and #6 were valid concerns, however they did not agree with the course of action recommended by the stage management delegation or the committee. Instead, stage managers should individually negotiate for the payments and terms that they sought. This included rehearsal/production pay, as well as negotiating for additional payment for extra duties.

  1. To recommendation #7, they wrote “in our opinion, we should not even consider working out ‘specifications as to preliminary training and experience which should be fulfilled by an individual qualifying to receive a stage manager’s contract’ anymore than we do for actors.”

The council ended their letter with “if stage managers find there is some particular abuse in the working conditions which ought to be remedied, we should of course try to do so, but we cannot over-emphasize how dangerous the very premise of this committee’s report.”

As a historian and stage manager, it is interesting to look back at how far we have come, as most of these issues have since been addressed in many of Equity’s contracts. It is equally fascinating to see all three parties contend with the proof of qualifications. Although today we have the EMC program, this does not necessarily demonstrate proof of technical training or proficiency in the field. What do you think? Should there be specific qualifications that a stage manager must meet before working on an Equity production?

*Contextual note: The memo, report, and response pre-date the Stage Directors and Choreographers Union (est. 1959), so at the time directors, choreographers, actors, and stage managers fell under AEA’s purview.

A June 21, 1947 Newspaper Article on stage managers setting up their own Association

©Jennifer Leigh Sears Scheier. All Rights Reserved.

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