Trouble in Paradise | Backstage crew members at Oregon Shakespeare Festival attempt to unionize

Here’s an interesting note of trouble from the usually placid Rogue Valley.

According to the Ashland Daily Tidings (in a story published appropriately enough on May Day), backstage crew at Oregon Shakespeare Festival want to unionize.

If there’s any institutional structure that stands on the opposite end of the spectrum from the kind of entrepreneurial arts spirit that America needs more of and that created OSF, which is now one of the great theatres of the world, it’s the union.

The mindset of owners everywhere, and of artistic risk takers and visionaries in the theatre specifically, is “what can I build”. Whereas for unions, it’s all about “what can I take”. For union members, the “I just work here, time to make the donuts” mindset is anathema to innovation and collaboration.

Collectives of innovator/operators have skin in the game. If they do something that works, everyone benefits. If something doesn’t work, everyone shares in the downside as well.

Unfortunately the theatre world is lumbered with the outdated union model, especially at the high end. As we saw with the circus in Los Angeles recently over Equity’s decision to install minimum wage pay for actors in 99 seat theatres, inserting bureaucracies and rules in between individuals and producers is the last thing anyone wants – except apparently the union “leaders”, i.e., just the kind of management layer unions were built to oppose.

It would be no surprise to comrade Marx that the theatre, like any other environment, is influenced by the nature of its economic relationships. The reason why some of the best theatre is often at the smallest end of the organizational spectrum is because collectives of young people come together to create something together. Everyone is an “owner”. You feel this in the work itself. It cannot be faked.

Then once a theatre is successful and grows larger, there comes that fateful day when there’s a knock on the door, and it’s the union. Ultimately you end up in a barren environment like Portland’s PCPA, where everyone’s punching the clock and the audience has to sit through generic crap that pays the bills – but delivers no art.

Talk to any business owner who has created something from nothing – like Noble Coffee in Ashland – and ask them if they’d like a union to get involved to make sure their employees are taken care of. You’d get a perplexed, uncomprehending stare. What? At good companies, one of the reasons people want to work there is because of how employees are treated.

When you have good management, as OSF surely seems to, the last thing you need muddying the waters is a union.

It would be a shame if higher costs and more bureaucracy start to erode the special OSF experience and intimate connection with the audience. As soon as anyone starts viewing the work they do at OSF as just another chance to extract a pound of flesh, it’s the beginning of the end.