Theatre productions closing without notice leave cast, crew in difficult situations


Jessica Xing

The working world is no stranger to unpredictable layoffs. But the less-than-conventional, often unregulated, world of theatre has become a hotbed of tension over labor rights and ethics as productions close abruptly with little warning.

Laura Emde, news correspondent

Katie Dolce has always been familiar with the world of theatre — her father owns a theatre on Long Island. She knows many actors that have been mistreated in professional productions. Recently, she’s been following the controversy surrounding performers receiving little to no pay in the Broadway production of “Paradise Square.”

“It was heartbreaking knowing that [Kennedy Caughell] didn’t know if she was going to get paid,” said Dolce, a second-year psychology and criminal justice combined major. “This show forever, that could have been really special for her, is always going to be marked in history as this scandal, this scheme.”

“Paradise Square” is just one example of how actors are mistreated in professional productions around the world, far beyond Broadway.

In the world of theatre, audiences, casts and crew members understand that a show will not last forever. On average, a show will run between 331 and 644 performances. However, casts and crews also expect to receive some sort of notice of a show’s closure before the general public. 

Just this year, the cast and crew of “Cinderella” on the West End and the crew of “Beetlejuice” on Broadway found out that they would soon be out of work through social media.

It is not uncommon for someone to experience a sudden and unforeseen layoff. But the personal relationships among cast, crew and producers are what makes these closing announcements an even more uncomfortable experience, according to Jonathan Carr, a theatre professor at Northeastern University.

“This is a business that’s full of people,” Carr said. “We work really closely with each other.”

Finding out about their upcoming job losses in such an abrupt manner can have a significant impact on the cast and crew’s overall morale and attitude toward the show, according to James Sullivan, a Boston Globe correspondent and a journalism professor at Emerson College.

“Transparency is always a good idea,” Sullivan said. “You might as well just face the fact and let everyone in on it rather than trying to keep it a secret until people have to find out different ways. It can definitely turn into a morale problem.”

Some soon-to-close shows, such as “Beetlejuice,” only informed the cast, leaving the crew to discover the news through social media. When a producer makes this kind of decision, it sends a message that the cast is more important than the crew according to Dolce.

“I think people appreciate the cast more because that’s who they actually see the work of firsthand,” Dolce said. “If you don’t know how theatre works, you don’t understand how many people actually go into putting on a production.”

The unexpected closings of shows leave casts and crews with a new problem that is all too familiar to the theatre industry: job insecurity.

Many Broadway productions have a clause in their contracts that prevents actors from auditioning for other shows while performing in their current productions. This creates a serious problem for actors who aren’t informed of their show’s closure, said Ashley DiLorenzo, a second-year media and screen studies and theatre combined major.

“There’s a lot of shows that won’t let you audition for other things while you’re still under contract,” DiLorenzo said. “They don’t want you to break contract and leave, which makes sense unless the show was closing.”

DiLorenzo also noted that this clause in the contract becomes a larger problem when there’s no warning that a show’s about to close. 

The closing of a show can pose special challenges for its cast and crew as employees, beyond its morale and messaging conflicts. 

“We’re really … essentially for both actors and the crew, talking about the loss of health insurance, which is in many ways greater than the loss of income,” said Greg Allen, a theatre professor at Northeastern University.

The mistreatment of performers and crew members, despite the effects it has on them, can theoretically be protected by U.S. labor laws. Theatre workers do not qualify for federal overtime pay, and child labor laws do not apply to minors working in theatrical productions.

There is still hope that social media, despite its often negative role in this dynamic, may help to shed light on the mistreatment of professionals in the theatre industry, according to DiLorenzo.

“I don’t think that means [mistreatment] … never existed. I think it’s just that now more people are talking about it,” DiLorenzo said. “Hopefully the more people talk about it, the more justice people start to receive.”