Thursday August 16, 2007

Let's cut the Coconut Grove Playhouse some slack

coconut grove playhouse Miraculously, the Coconut Grove Playhouse appears to be on a slow road back to solvency. A foreclosure was avoided yesterday, and many of the major debts are repaid, including all the back-pay owed the former employees and actors. But:

Money owed to Actors’ Equity for salaries, pension and health insurance has been repaid, but because there are penalties outstanding, the theater and Mittelman remain on the union’s default list — meaning no Equity actor or stage manager can work at the theater until that debt is eliminated.

I say it’s time for Actors’ Equity to cut the playhouse some slack. “Promoting the theater arts” is central to AE’s stated mission, and with regional theaters all over the country struggling and/or closing, here’s their chance to put their money where their mouth is. If they drop their fines, they forgo some potential profit, but they help hasten a theater back to its feet, where it can employ their members again. The playhouse is doing the right thing, and a show of confidence from AE would be a welcome gesture. If you agree, let them know: here’s their contact page, and here’s a sample message you might send; feel free to cut-n-paste and modify to your liking:

As a theater fan in Miami, I support the Coconut Grove Playhouse. The playhouse has been struggling to pay off its obligations and reopen, and it has paid everything it owed to your members. Yet it remains on your organization’s default list because of unpaid fines for shortfalls during its most troubled period. Please help the Coconut Grove Playhouse get back on its feet — and begin to employ your members — by forgiving its outstanding debts to your organization. You’ll be helping to strengthen the theater scene in Miami, and sending a positive message of encouragement.

Photo by ImageMD.

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  1. Steve    Thu Aug 16, 09:38 AM #  

    I have a better idea. How about the playhouse just ignore Actor’s Equity altogether? Screw them and their fines and just use non-union actors and staff. This would not be the first time (or the last time) a union bites off its nose to spite its face.

  2. alesh    Thu Aug 16, 11:08 AM #  

    It would be pretty impressive if they did that. As a child of communism, I have an innate distrust of unions, and I think they especially don’t make sense in a field like acting, where there is so much differentiation between one person and the next. (I suspect they persist because they set up a system for how much everyone is paid and it saves people the uncomfortable trouble of negotiating.)

    That said, I think unions are pretty entrenched among professional actors, and if they were to do that other unions might well boycott, and I don’t know how many professional non-union actors there are around. So you’re at community theater, which is great, but probably won’t support the CG Playhouse.

  3. Christopher Jahn    Thu Aug 16, 07:23 PM #  

    I work in at ANOTHER professional theater in town, and I have some insights about being a regional theater, and dealing with Actors’ Equity Association (AEA).

    First, AEA is scrupulously fair in their dealings in South Florida, and has always been willing to work with producers to solve problems. They know that the most important thing is paying work for actors. A closed theater doesn’t pay anyone.

    Second, the Grove was run very badly. These problems did not crop up overnight, and the board -despite their protestations – was aware of most of the problems. And knowing what they knew, they should have suspected the rest. It took several years to generate a debt that big, and the only surprise to the rest of the theater community is that it took so long to bust the theater.

    AEA won’t give on this issue because the Grove’s board hasn’t earned the break. They have dropped the ball with AEA and with their own employees and with their creditors again and again and again. This isn’t about a single violation, or just the last few months; to get AEA this worked up, the Grove had to have spent YEARS racking up violations.

    The incompetent Grove board has mis-handled this crisis at every single turn. As bad as their problems were and are, there were other options that would have prevented a full closure. The board simply didn’t want to do it that way.

    The board’s tenure is up in a month or so; and if the idiots serving on it now are given the boot, I predict that AEA will be willing to work with a new board and a new management team on the remaining debt.

    The sad fact is that simply paying out the debt doesn’t begin to get the Grove open again; once the debt is forgiven, you have a structurally unsound building with a leaky roof that has been sitting unattended without air conditioning for over a year and half. To simply occupy the building, all the carpeting, seats, drapes, and other water-soaked materials will have to be removed. That’s a couple of million dollars right there, and you still haven’t addressed the structure, or begun the process of producing plays. Two million just to clean out the mold.

    At this point, the AEA debt is the least of the problems facing the Coconut Grove Playhouse.

    Losing the Grove has been a blow to South Florida theater; reopening it will be an arduous venture. Focus your rage where it belongs: Mittelman and the current board.

  4. Peter    Fri Aug 17, 12:33 AM #  

    The South Florida Theatre Scene Blog didn’t spell “theatre” wrong. The spelling “theatre” refers to the art, “theater” refers to the building.

  5. alesh    Fri Aug 17, 03:00 PM #  


    Thanks for the background. That all makes sense, especially if the board is the same group of people that was there when the mismanagement took place. If they’re due to be replaced soon, then it makes perfect sense for the AEA to wait until after the change to do whatever they’re going to do.

    I also agree that the mismanagement is a tragedy. I do think the people there now deserve some credit for trying to make things right; they could have just walked away. But your points are well taken.

    Above all, though, this highlights the difficulties of running a cultural organization, especially in this place and time.

    PS. I have no rage! Love only!


    See the ongoing debate at the other thread.

  6. Dave    Wed Sep 5, 03:38 PM #  

    Chris definately has a point – the board at the Grove Playhouse was asleep at the wheel. Whether or not they felt they needed to defer to Mittelman makes no difference – boards should always be independent whether in the non-profit or private sector. On the union issue, not sure there’s a strong reason to keep it a union house – could easily put on high quality non-union productions at a third of the cost of union ones – just to turn the lights on in some of these theatres requires 5 union guys – it’s a joke. As for talent – a group out of Miami put on a non-union production of “Annie” last year at the Gusman and pretty much blew away most of the local productions outside of the Broadway Series at the Carnival – tickets were $15 -$40, the set was award winning and the shows were packed……so much for unions….

  7. C L Jahn    Sat Sep 8, 11:47 PM #  

    There are several unions involved, and not all unions are problematic. Describing a theater as “union” or “non-union” isn’t actually as cut and dried as Dave seems to think.

    AEA (Actor’s Equity Association) is the actors’ union, and only handles actors and stage managers.
    IATSE (International Alliance of Theater Stagehands and Electricians) is the technician’s union, and handles stagehands, electricians, drssers, equipment operators, and audio engineers.
    SSD&C (Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers) is the director and choreographer’s union.
    USA (United Scenic Artists) is the designer’s union.

    Not all professional theaters in South Florida deal with ALL these unions. In fact, most of the “Producing Houses” (theaters that produce their own shows) in South Florida are AEA theaters, but not IATSE theaters. The other unions only apply if a particular director, choreographer or designer is union. So in South Florida, a “Union” theater means “AEA,” and not IATSE.

    That said, all the “ROAD Houses” (theaters that book in tours, or book shows produced by companies from outside Florida) are IATSE. ANY show in the Carnival Center, The Gusman Center, the Broward Performing Arts Center, and the Parker Playhouse, must use IATSE technicians to run their shows. (It is my understanding that Kravis Center dropped its IATSE exclusive contract, but I could be mistaken on that point).

    Actors’ Playhouse at the Miracle Theater is a professional company, and we use union actors and stage managers, but not ALL the actors will be AEA members. We do not use any IATSE members, and only occasionally use USA designers or SSD&C choreographers or directors. Ticket prices run $39-$45, but you can get student RUSH tickets and children’s tickets for as low as $15.

    The “non-union” production of Annie was produced in two “Union” halls: both the Gusman and Carnival center have contracts with IATSE, and all technicians must be supplied by IATSE. It’s a non-AEA production, but IATSE was pushing the scenery and hanging the lights. Their ticket prices for their “non-union” production were more or less the same as the “union” production at Actors’ Playhouse.

    Why do the professional theaters deal with AEA? While talent isn’t a requirement to get your union card, you do have to demonstrate a certain level of discipline and professionalism to get into the union. AEA provides the actor with a benefits package regardless of what theaters the actor works at. AEA also sets a standard for both the actor AND the producer; it makes business dealings with actors much easier when you have ground rules in place. And as I’ve said before, AEA works very closely with producers.

    An frankly, the level of excellence we require is difficult for a non-professional to maintain. Without the union, all area actors would have to have full time jobs to get benefits; that leaves little time to continue training in all the disciplines necessary for professional theater. Having a full-time job also interferes with availability for the 3 week period of rehearsing 48 hours a week.

    So why aren’t we IATSE? Frankly, it’s because they’re skewed to the film industry. That’s were the money is, and that’s how their rates are developed. The Grove only went IATSE because Grove management treated their production staff like shit.

    No one was more shocked than I that the Grove actually signed an IATSE contract. In discussing the issue with my counterparts at the Grove, I pointed out that the economics theater in South Florida won’t support an IATSE producion theater, and that the Grove wouldn’t last much beyond two years as an IATSE house. Sadly, I was exactly right.

    The loss of Coconut Grove Playhouse has hurt the theater industry in Miami. The rest of us often hired moonlighting Grove staff to help mount our productions, and many of us worked changeover at the Grove to make ends meet (at least before they went IATSE).

  8. mkh    Sun Sep 9, 09:21 AM #  

    Excellent overview of the situation, CL!

  9. alesh    Sun Sep 9, 08:45 PM #  

    Wow, yeah, that’s super-interesting, CL.

    Roughly, how many AEA members would you say there are in Miami-Dade? 500? 5,000?

  10. Dave    Wed Sep 12, 11:57 AM #  

    At the end of the day, while there may be different groups who are represented by union (actor’s, stagehands, ect) it is pretty cut and dry when it comes to whether a theatre is “union” or “non-union”. Some “union” theatres allow “carve outs” in the contract where the theatre is “allowed” to put on productions using anyone (regardless of affiliation with unions) – this normally occurs when the theatre has gone through economic difficulty and needs financial breathing room. With regard to AEA – Chris makes the argument that it requires a level of excellence that is difficult for non-professional to maintain. Interesting that Chris also clearly states that “talent is not a requirement to get your union card”. I know a 9 yr old kid who had a 4 seconds cameo in a 30 sec national commercial – and he was offered his union card – was the only thing he ever did. Chris says that without the union, all area actors would need to have full time jobs – perhaps in New York or LA Chris but I can guarantee that most (that being the majority) of AEA actors in Florida have jobs outside of acting. So – is there any difference between doing a AEA performance or non-AEA performance in Florida – from the AUDIENCES point of view? Other than cost, no – there’s lots of talent that is non-aea and there’s even talent that’s AEA that’s willing to do it for free. Chris – perhaps in New York there is difference where good actors can consistently find work (and I even question this) but in Miami that’s not the case. That production of “Annie” at the Gusman was actually less “union” than you may think. Had the opportunity to speak to the producer who happens to be a young Columbia business school grad from New York – his stage crew was high school students – they even did the lights themselves. At the end of the day they used 3-4 union people for the show (a steward, her sidekick, and a couple of flymen) – a “union” show of this caliber would have had 3x as many union people. They also used a couple AEA actors who did it for free – tough to find stage time here in florida (shhh! don’t tell AEA). He said – the union was furious with him about his use of “non-union” people, but he seemed to have a better understanding of the politics of the new Gusman board than they did. Anyway – when I asked him what Miami needed to do for theatre to be successful – he said 1) develop your audience – that means for every one person “play” that draws maybe 50 people – there needs to be 2 or three shows that people will actually want to see – he believes the the high brow artists don’t get this concept and that’s another reason the Grove playhouse went out of business and the Coral Gables Actors playhouse has difficulty growing their audience. 2) use non-union – large scale musicals that will attract people in south florida that are produced in south florida need the flexibility that only non-union allows. This kid isn’t the artistic type but he seems to tackles each production as if it were a business school operations case and so far it seems to be working well. He sent me a link of a production he produced in December (a couple thousand people showed up). Not too bad – see link below.

  11. Christopher Jahn    Wed Sep 12, 07:10 PM #  

    No offense, Dave, but since I work in professional theater, it should be very apparent that I know far better than you what actors are doing to support themselves in South Florida, thank you. And since I have spent 22 years working professionally in South Florida Theater, I also think that I am far better qualified to describe what is or isn’t a union theater in South Florida.

    I put on shows for a living. The shows I produce win awards and critical praise, I’ve sent two shows on to Broadway, and sent one out on a national tour, so it’s pretty clear that I know what I’m doing.

    Don’t believe me? That’s fine. Call any of the professional theaters down here and ASK. They know me.

    I have worked Equity and non-equity. I have worked on excellent non-Equity shows, and shabby Equity productions. But by and large, the AEA contract shows really are stronger, and for the reasons I described earlier. I’m not currently a member of AEA, or of any union; I have no stake in it. In fact, most Union reps will tell you that I’m very critical of the unions. If I believed for a second that we’d be more successful with non-union actors exclusively, I’d be saying just that. But I know better.

    And by the way, Dave, you might have missed an important fact: while Actors’ Playhouse is an Equity theater and employs more Equity actors than any other South Florida Theater, we also employ more NON Equity actors than any other theater in South Florida.

    Your buddy has done one show in Miami; When we open URINETOWN in October, it will mark my 162nd show on a Florida stage. And I assure you, a sizable number of those didn’t involve any unions at all. I’ve designed sets for MADCAT and JUGGERKNOT, I’ve acted in shows at the old Florida Repertory Company, and I’ve stage managed at the old Actors’ Rep.

    Believe what you like, Dave. But I know what I’m talking about.

    BTW, that 9-year old kid who had the cameo on the commercial? He wasn’t offered an Equity card, because commercials aren’t under AEA contracts. To get an Equity card, and actor must have 40 weeks of DOCUMENTED professional work to qualify. An average show runs 8 weeks including rehearsals, so you do the math. Commercials are covered by the Screen Actors’ Guild (SAG). And to keep THAT card, the kid will have to work a minimum number of hours a year. IF he doesn’t, he loses his SAG status.

    If an actor has been a SAG member for a few years, it means that he’s been good enough to get cast enough to keep his card, and that has some worth. Surviving in the arts takes more than talent; it takes discipline and a lot of sweat.

  12. Richard    Thu Sep 13, 04:58 PM #  

    Hello Chris. Interesting thread. Certainly no one is questioning the extent of your experience or quality of your work – 22 years and 162 shows is quite admirable indeed. When I was a part of that “Annie” production at the Gusman it was a real eye opener – afterwards I was able to truly appreciate the personal effort, stamina and sacrifice needed to continue much less be successful in this medium. I don’t doubt your talent nor the various awards and commendations your work has achieved –but I don’t want to digress from what the original discussion was about – the “Grove Playhouse” . The Grove Playhouse also was “renowned” for it’s work and won many many awards and praise – but the fact of the matter is Chris – a shelf full of Carbonell’s didn’t stop the theatre audiences from dwindling year after year and that’s the main point Dave seems to be trying to make. Mittleman was probably around as long or longer than you – but that didn’t mean that what he was doing was sustainable. Sure he won awards and was well regarded by his peers (well, some of them) – but did that help the playhouse? Did he grow his audience? It can be debated about the pro’s and con’s of union’s but if you’re going to measure success, shouldn’t we also be looking at attendance? Theatre attendance in florida outside of the few shows with the Broadway Series at the Carnival Center is stagnant at best and declining (senior citizens make up big %) at worst. The bigger question is: what is necessary in order to develop a thriving and growing public interest in the theatre here in South Florida? Is it the union? The type of shows? Even more gov’t subsidies? It’s an interesting concept – thinking out of the box and asking under what framework will you (ie:theatre/producer/community) be best able to facilitate the development of a theatre audience. As someone hoping to continue to develop and produce theatrical productions down here, I continue to ask myself these questions. One further note on actor’s being able to dedicate themselves full time to the profession. Forgetting about the small sample of actors I’ve come across (yes, “Annie” was just one show) who all had full time jobs – in 2006 according to AEA only 43% of their members were employed and the average weeks worked were 17.2. So basically, more than half of actors have no work and those that do make on average about $400/wk. Maybe they don’t have fulltime non acting jobs but they most definitely have part time jobs. Here’s the link to the AEA Theatrical Season Report: Earnings, Employment, Membership and Finance:

    On Joining AEA, SAG is a sister union:
    An individual may join Equity upon signing an employment contract with a producer or theater under any area of Equity’s jurisdiction. Eligibility is also available by virtue of one’s membership in, and employment under, any of the sister unions (known as the “4As”). Applicants joining Equity by means of their 4As union affiliation must be members in good standing of the sister union for at least a one-year period and must have been employed under the jurisdiction of the sister union as a principal performer (or for at least three days work comparable to an “extra” player).

  13. C L Jahn    Fri Sep 14, 09:19 AM #  

    Richard, the bottom line is this; the problems faced by the Grove had absolutely nothing to do with its status as an Equity theater. The unions didn’t suck it dry, adhering to union policies didn’t drain its resources. AEA didn’t drive its costs sky high, and while IATSE increased their fabrications costs somewhat, those costs pale against the entirety of the debt that Arnold built.

    The real problems at the Grove stem primarily from poor management and non-existent fiscal oversight. They made the classic blunder of focusing on star power and Broadway productions instead of simply producing excellent plays that fit their resources. Some of those big names were paid tens of thousands of dollars for their month in the sun. But their rates were not determined by a union, they were negotiatied exclusively by Arnold Mittelman. Mittelman blinded his board with the promise of star power. Then he bamboozled them with the promise of Broadway success, getting them to flush millions of dollars into productions that should have been limited to budgets appropriate to a regional theater with an anemic subscription base.

    The Grove absolutely needs new management. But it’s dishonest to do what Dave did, and suggest that “the unions” were in any way a part of the Grove’s problems. The Grove went under because it had incompetent management and an inept board of directors, period.