Off-Broadway Shows Buoyed by Stagehand Strike

Off-Broadway shows had a great weekend as Broadway went dark because of striking stagehands. Tourists and regular theatergoers found their way to off-Broadway theaters, packing those smaller houses.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

The stagehands strike on Broadway has shut down more than two dozen theaters, but it's actually helping some smaller shows in New York, as Jeff Lunden reports.

JEFF LUNDEN: Carol Weisberg(ph) got up early on Saturday morning to come in from Allentown, Pennsylvania to see "The Drowsy Chaperone" with her two daughters. But when she found out the show was cancelled by the strike, she went over to the half-price tickets booth to see if there were any other shows playing.

Ms. CAROL WEISBERG: Somebody recommended "Forbidden Broadway" or "The Perfect Crime." I know nothing about either one. I'm just taking recommendations from people.

LUNDEN: Both of those shows run off-Broadway, in theaters of between 100 and 499 seats scattered around Manhattan. And with over two dozen shows shuttered by the stagehands strike, many more tourists are discovering them.

Ken Davenport is producer of "Altar Boyz," which plays just a few minutes away from several Broadway theaters.

Mr. KEN DAVENPORT (Producer, "Altar Boyz"): This weekend we expect it to be a decent weekend anyway because it was a holiday weekend, but what we found is we sold out a lot faster. We found that tourists were calling to get their tickets as fast they could because they wanted an alternative, live entertainment alternative in Times Square.

LUNDEN: Davenport's experience was typical for last weekend.

Beverly MacKeen, executive director of New World Stages, an off-Broadway venue with five theaters, says they played host to a lot of people who never would have ventured off-Broadway.

Ms. BEVERLY MacKEEN (Executive Director, New World Stages): It was interesting, especially the Brownie group from New Hampshire that had saved money from the Girl Guide cookies to try and come and see a Broadway show, so we gave them lots of attention. The Brownie group ended up seeing "The Gazillion Bubble Show." They had a great time.

LUNDEN: And they saved their cookie money. While Broadway tickets can cost as much as $120, off-Broadway is still something of a bargain, with tickets going from $20 to $75 full price, says Ken Davenport.

Mr. DAVENPORT: Everything that we have, to be honest, is a little bit smaller than Broadway. Our houses are smaller than Broadway. Our casts are smaller than Broadway. Our advertising budgets are smaller than Broadway.

LUNDEN: Off-Broadway shows use union actors and musicians, but non-union stagehands.

George Forbes, president of the League of Off-Broadway Theatres and Producers, says there's a lot of overlap.

Mr. GEORGE FORBES (League of Off-Broadway Theatres and Producers): This is a very small community, and there really is no differentiation between the off-Broadway producers and the Broadway producers, the off-Broadway actors and the Broadway actors. All of the people in the theater work crossing this border, this imaginary border, if you will, very regularly.

LUNDEN: And producer Ken Davenport says there is always the possibility that theatergoers can discover a show before it moves to Broadway.

Mr. DAVENPORT: "Spring Awakening," "Avenue Q," "Rent" - all of those shows began their life off-Broadway.

(Soundbite of song, "Mama Who Bore Me")

Ms. LEA MICHELE (Broadway Actress): (As Wendla Bergman) (Singing) Mama who bore me, Mama who gave me.

LUNDEN: Davenport hopes tourists don't cancel their trips to New York because of the strike. Instead, he hopes they'll take in an off-Broadway show.

Mr. DAVENPORT: Work stoppages are not good for anyone, but for the moment the little brother is getting some attention. And we think it's a tremendous opportunity for audiences to see that that little brother has got a lot to say.

LUNDEN: Most of Broadway remains dark and no further negotiations have been scheduled. But one producer's pain is another one's gain.

For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

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Q&A: The Backstage Story on the Broadway Strike

Broadway's marquees went dark Nov. 10, when stagehands went on strike after months of bitter contract negotiations with theater owners and producers. The walkout shut down 27 Broadway shows, from the long-running Les Miserables to the still-in-previews The Farnsworth Invention.

And though the parties hope to settle the strike by Thanksgiving — a new round of talks is scheduled for this weekend — there's no guarantee the pickets will come down anytime soon. Here's a primer about why the show's not going on.

Who's striking? Against whom?

Broadway's stagehands, represented by Local One of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, are the backstage workers who install, operate and maintain the sets, lights and props for Broadway shows. At any given time, approximately 350 to 500 members are employed on Broadway. The union has been in existence for 121 years; this is the first time it has struck on Broadway.

On the other side is the League of American Theatres and Producers, a trade organization for the industry. Its 600 members include theater owners, producers and presenters across North America.

What's the dispute about?

The union has been working without a contract since July 31 and labor negotiations have broken off more than once. At issue: a set of decades-old work rules determining how many people are needed for backstage crews, for loading and unloading sets, and for extra functions like rehearsal calls.

The producers claim the union has successfully institutionalized "featherbedding" — in other words, that the work rules force producers to pay for stagehands who aren't needed or pay hours of overtime for small, easily performed tasks. According to the producers, the current average salary for a stagehand is $150,000.

Local One counters that the producers — who are coming off a record-breaking $939 million season at the box office — have made an offer that would mean a 38 percent cut in jobs and salaries. It would also compromise safety backstage, the stagehands argue. They say they're willing to make changes in the union rulebook if the producers offer an equal exchange.

The union disputes the producers' salary figures, saying the average is $67,000 annually. And they argue that work rules are necessary in an unpredictable industry: While some stagehands work for years in long-running shows, many work only for weeks or months in shows that flop. It's here that both sides agree — according to the league, only one out of every five shows that opens on Broadway goes on to turn a profit.

Why did the stagehands walk out?

In mid-October, the producers implemented new work rules in its Broadway theaters without the union's consent. A week later, the local voted to authorize a strike. The president of the international, Thomas C. Short, sat down at the negotiating table with producers in early November. When those talks reached an impasse, he directed the union to set up picket lines on Nov. 10. All the members of Broadway's other trade unions — actors, musicians, box-office personnel, ushers and press agents among them — have honored the picket lines.

Are all Broadway shows affected by the strike?

No. Twenty-seven shows have been shuttered by the strike, but eight continue to perform: Cymbeline, Mary Poppins, Mauritius, Pygmalion, The Ritz, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Xanadu and Young Frankenstein. These shows perform in theaters that operate under different contracts with Local One.

In addition, off-Broadway and off-off Broadway shows continue to perform. The industry publication Playbill recently published one list of what's still running and what's gone dark.

I bought tickets to a Broadway show that isn't playing because of the strike. How can I get a refund or exchange my tickets?

If you purchased your tickets with a credit card, your card will automatically be credited. If you purchased tickets with cash, you will have to write requesting a refund — the box offices are closed, remember. For further details, check the producers' official Web site.

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