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Interview with Pete Donovan, a stage electrician working on Broadway

Peter Donovan

Interview conducted May 5th, 2020

Introduction:

Pete Donovan has been a stage electrician on Broadway since 1993. He currently works on The Phantom of the Opera. Like nearly all other employees on Broadway, he has been unemployed since New York closed down as a result of the pandemic. He is a member of IATSE Local One, where he teaches classes and works with the International Union’s training and safety program. While the pandemic has significantly impacted his family and co-workers, he is happy that the union immediately made mental health care resources available through the welfare fund. 

Full transcription:

Johnnie Kallas: How long have you worked in the field and in what positions?

Pete Donovan: I started working in the theater on Broadway in 1993 primarily as a stage electrician, stagehand, especially lighting and sound but all over the business. In my current capacity, I have been a department head for about six years and before that, I was an electrician for a bunch of different Broadway shows. I did some television work too.

JK: Do you currently work at the Phantom of the Opera? Does that change frequently?

P: For all Broadway productions the way it works there are employees of the theater owner, and that’s me, I work for The Shubert Organization. They are the largest theater owner company in New York. There are people who work at Phantom of the Opera as well that work for the production. Probably 100 people backstage. Some work for the house, some work for the production. It’s a 6-day/week job, but not right now. 

JK: Who does your union represent?

P: I’m a Local One member which is part of the IATSE. If a show runs like that it’s staffed and you will stay at that position until the show closes unless you want to leave or other extenuating circumstances. Generally, as you get work through the local and through your contacts and the union hall. For theater, you do load-ins and load-outs and move the show in and out of the theaters and if you end up staying at the production that runs you’re on for the duration of that show. That is generally the way most of Broadway works.

JK: Have you been a member of IATSE since 1993?

P: Since 1997. You have to meet certain criteria for Local One. An earnings criteria that you have to make for three years in a row that is still in place. I got to do it luckily pretty quickly. I started working and four years later had a union card. In New York State this is an open shop so you can work without a union card as you earn your ticket so to speak. It’s a great thing. We take in 10 new members/month. We are at around 3,200 members now.

JK: Do you have an official position in the union?

P: I have business cards that say, representative. I teach a bunch of classes for Local One. In the International, I am on the craft advancement program which is training and safety. We have been busy the past few weeks giving out some documentation for startup and worker safety and how that is going to work. The new protocols and practices that are going to have to go into place. It runs a gambit because the international represents all entertainment workers unionized through IATSE. Everything from film, television, theater, to trade shows. One of the things we focused on is let’s put a general document out, but then it’s up to people like me or other department heads and representatives to be craft-specific. One of the things we are concerned about is the guy working as a gaffer on a movie set is able to social distance a lot easier than someone who does hair and makeup. I’m somewhat pessimistic about the start-up on that end without more testing or, I hate to say, a vaccine, but the pie in the sky estimates on when that’s coming. Suddenly everyone is an epidemiologist out there.

To be realistic, would you want to go into a theater with 1,800 people right now? Neither would I, and I love theater. 

JK: Can you describe the nature of your work on a daily basis before the pandemic?

P: Phantom has been there for 32 years. I work in other places. This is the great thing about the nature of the business on Broadway. On a normal day at Phantom, it is a performance schedule. We do a preset hour called an hour before half-hour. If the show is at 8 pm, a half-hour at 7:30 pm, we start the preset at 6:30 pm. First thing I do, like I told the students I talked to a couple of hours ago, the first thing you do is take the ghost light off the stage. A light called the ghost light, great tradition keeps everyone from falling off the edge of the stage along with a rope across the stage. Move that light, turn the power on, then do a focus and dimmer check and other effects that need to be tested. Most shows do the same checkout. All of the automation needs to get touched and moved to make sure it is functional and safe. Any preset or props and costumes need to happen. We all work together. There is essentially choreography that happens before and during the show backstage. Same thing every night or it doesn’t work, typical show and performance schedule.

JK: So nobody in your profession is working at all right now?

P: I got a statistic from the President of Local One who said 97% of Local One is not working, that’s a first as far as I know. About 3% of our local is working in essential news broadcast venues. How they are doing that is by different protocols for social distancing, switching and mixing from the studio. Other than that, just about everybody is idle at the moment.

JK: How have you navigated the economic crisis caused by the pandemic?

P: I opened an unemployment claim for the first time in my life. I have been extremely fortunate to jump from job to job for 25 or so years. I was able to open a claim. I am doing okay now and we have been able to save some money. No one wants to see that go away but there are people who have it a lot worse than me out there. A lot of people in New York and New Jersey are having a hard time opening their claims. My wife is an actor and she has to file in New Jersey because she works for a conservatory here and New Jersey is looking for people to program in COBOL. They need COBOL programmers to fix their unemployment system. I remember taking computer science in college and I thought it was insane. We’re in good shape now. The $600/week is a huge amount that helps. I don’t have much to complain about but I do know there are a lot of people who do not have it that well and are living close to the bone so to speak. It has got to be terrifying. I am not anticipating going back to work anytime soon. I am also anticipating that Congress will not extend that $600 benefit. That doesn’t seem to be in the cards for the Republicans. It’s amazing because I think it’s a lot of their constituents so they are going to suffer just as badly. It seems crazy to me.

JK: What has your union done in response to this crisis?

P: There have been a couple of great things. First and foremost they opened up the pension plan. We have a really good pension welfare program, and I am extremely fortunate to be a member of Local One. It’s a great union and a great local. The executive board of the local met with the trustees of our annuity fund and opened up a certain number of loans against your annuity if you want. There is an extended period to pay it back. The great thing about borrowing against annuity is you are taking out of your retirement fund but you are paying it back to yourself. I think they waived the interest payment for this. Local One got on this right out of the gate because there were people who could not get by and wouldn’t be able to file right away. Another thing that they did is that our business managers and executive board immediately went into negotiations with the company I work with and they negotiated for the company to continue to pay into our medical benefits and extended our salaries for a couple of weeks. It doesn’t sound great but they aren’t having any income. Theaters are dark. They were able to agree to extend salaries for a few weeks and I thought that was remarkable. Nobody likes being furloughed but the fact they were able to get that done was impressive.

JK: Obviously Broadway is in the last phase of reopening. What does the return look like and what needs to happen for you to feel safe to go back to work?

P: I hate to say a blanket statement that it’s a vaccine, but I listened to Danny Meyer last night talk about restaurants and they are sort of in the same boat. He has never heard of a restaurant that could survive at less than 80% capacity. A lot of these shows are similar. A responsible musical budgets that in the perfect world for an 80-90% capacity to make money. Everyone has floated these ideas that we will fill every sixth seat and bring people in. That’s not economically feasible. I think it has to be to the point where through testing or vaccination people will feel safe. I hate to even put that out there but it’s just being realistic. I can’t imagine that audiences would want to come back not knowing something. I’m anticipating that. It’s no longer a unicorn and it seems like there are a lot of smart people working on that. I still see it being an extended period of time when our theaters are dark, unfortunately. You don’t want to sicken an audience member or a colleague. We’ve lost some people at Phantom and that’s terrible. It’s where we are and it’s a tragedy. I think jumping the gun, as much as I’d love to go back to work, is even a worse solution than being out of work for a while.

One of the things that Local One has also done is, and this is critical to me, they immediately made counseling and mental health available through our welfare fund. They got ahead of something that a lot of industries are hopefully acting the same way. When you have an entire workplace at home there are people who are going to have anxiety, people who have existing problems with mental health or addiction in every workplace. If you can’t get help out of them then more problems can occur. We have been really good at getting ahead of that. I am not hearing any horrible stories about this isolation we are all facing. 

I’m in New Jersey. I lived in the city for years. We talk to friends every day and I don’t know how they are doing it. I can’t imagine it. You either have to do yoga for eight hours/day or freak out. We’re in an area where I can get out, put a mask on, and walk for a couple of miles without even seeing anybody. I did drive into the city to check some things in the theater for my employer. It was fairly early on, about four weeks ago, I was shocked at how many people I saw but then you remember it’s a living city. You can’t stockpile toilet paper in a 600 square foot apartment. That’s called hoarding at that point. I can’t imagine.

JK: Do you anticipate a stronger labor movement both in your industry and in general coming out of this crisis?

P: I think we are already seeing it. I hope we see it further. I know that we will come back stronger. Local One has been extremely resilient through the years. I have all of the confidence in our leadership and our members. I don’t want this to return to normal and have people forget what they are seeing. You have had a top-down system that does not seem to be working when you see it quickly break down. One of the best analogies is that the argument against the “welfare state” falls apart when you watch how hard it is to implement one-time crisis. When you are looking at Amazon workers who are marginalized all of the time, trying now to organize, everyone in the labor movement and people in good government need to get right behind that. In the long run, the argument falls apart that this is bad for business. Right now is about as bad for business as you can get. When you have a healthy labor force compensated well and taken care of you are not going to run into the tragedies that happen when this efficient streamline system we have falls apart in two weeks. I anticipate a greater labor movement and a return to organizing as a way to keep workers safe and collectively bargain.

All I would say is I am extremely proud of the people I get to work with every day. I am a very proud member of Local One. It’s great to see how our leadership in Local One and IATSE stepped right up and have not stopped working. They are working probably longer hours than before this all happened. I am very grateful to be a member of a strong union with the benefits that carries from years and years of people who came before me. I’m seeing it happen. I’m extremely grateful for that. It’s something that everybody in the labor force should strive for.

Peter Donovan with Camera
Peter Donovan backstage.

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