Broadway is gearing up to celebrate the best of the season by handing out Tony Awards to directors, designers and performers. Many have argued that casting directors, those savvy women and men who find the talent for Broadway plays and musicals, should be recognized in a new Tony category – Best Casting. But casting directors are currently seeking another kind of acknowledgment – the right to unionize.
Workers on Broadway have long been member of unions. Actors, stage manager, directors, choreographers, technicians, ushers, and even press agents are represented by 17 Broadway unions. The inspiration for many of these unions came from exploited workers wishing to prevent producers from taking advantage of them. There are now limits to the number of hours an actor can rehearse and who owns the rights to a play or musical a producer helps to develop, all because actors and playwrights are represented by strong unions and guilds.
Casting directors who work in film and television have only recently been provided protection by the Teamsters union which negotiates contracts for them. When a casting director casts a movie they receive benefits like health care coverage, pension plans and a decent wage. About a year ago, 40 Broadway casting directors took a nod from their film and television counterparts to become members of Theatrical Teamsters Local 817. They asked the Broadway League, the bargaining organization that recognizes all of Broadway’s unions, to recognize them. The League declined, stating in a letter that casting directors were “…independent contractors…separate businesses with their own employees and typically work on more than one show at a time within and outside our industry.”
Yet, the Broadway League depends heavily on casting directors who usually become involved in plays and musicals at the critical early stage, when a shows development rests on getting the best actors on the team. Casting directors are the conduit between producers and celebrities, those unionized stars who can guarantee the financial backing of a production.
During the 2016/17 season almost 13 million people attended Broadway shows which grossed almost a billion and a half dollars. It was the highest grossing season in Broadway history and the second-best attended season on record. So why is the Broadway League pushing back against adding the all-important casting directors to the list of unions the League negotiates with?
Right now only 12% of the musicals on Broadway are directed by women – members of the stage directors union. There is just one women out of the eight nominations for a Tony for Scenic Design and two women out of the eight nominations for Best Lighting Design. Broadway designers are represented by United Scenic Artists. There are zero women nominated for Best Orchestrations whose nominees are all members of the Musicians Union. About half of the 40 or so Broadway casting directors seeking recognition from the League are women. In an industry notorious for its lack of women in top positions, it makes sense that the occupation with no benefits and low wages, the casting director, would have 50% women employed. When you think about it, these casting directors are presenting producers with an opportunity to creep towards greater gender parity on Broadway.
The Tony Awards are co-produced by the Broadway League and the American Theatre Wing. As you watch the actors, directors and designers accept their Tony Awards on Sunday night, remember they all have a strong labor association behind them. Perhaps there has never been a Tony for casting because it would force producers to acknowledge the value and input casting directors have on their continued success and, like the other nominees, recognize and negotiate with the union which represents them.
By Donna Kaz aka Aphra Behn