When things shut down in March 2020, Portland Center Stage had just opened one show and was in previews for another. As managing director Cynthia Fuhrman (she/her) looks back now, the company was at that point heading into what was supposed to be their most profitable quarter—a good thing, since, as Fuhrman recalled, it would be coming on the heels of having burnt through the bulk of their expenses. Then the actuality of those coming weeks and months quickly shifted.
“Our financial reality was, we didn’t have payroll in two weeks,” said Fuhrman. “We really had to immediately make some big choices on cutting back on costs and expenses.”
The ensuing process of paring down staff was a painful one. PCS moved from a staff of around 100 down to 27 “almost immediately,” Fuhrman added. Now that PCS, like many other organizations around the country, are finally ready to rebuild their staffs, there are new questions about who’s being brought back—and who is not—as well as concerns about what a return to “normal” means.
When things originally shut down in 2020, PCS furloughed staff members they weren’t able to keep on payroll, with the expectation that they’d be brought back. After all, at the time, PCS was like many theatres around the country, who expected the shutdown to last weeks, not years.
“Once the reality of how long we were probably in this for came to task, we had to convert those to layoffs,” said Fuhrman. “Once you convert it to a layoff, technically, you’re basically telling that person, ‘You’re no longer employed here.’”
In such a situation, she continued, there’s no real promise about when, or if, you will be rehired. Legally, once those former staff members had been moved from furlough to laid off, PCS no longer had an obligation to bring them back. In the case of PCS, as it nears a return to the stage in October, restaffing has been a deliberate, phased process. It began around June, Fuhrman said, as they put together a timeline of when jobs would be posted, how much time they needed to set aside for searches, and when they would reach out to former employees in the area who they expected to be able to bring back.
“We’ve never had this many open positions at once,” said Fuhrman. “We actually have the opportunity to really make that a focus.”
Even though, thanks to federal support, PCS is able to approach restaffing on a larger scale than they otherwise would have, Fuhrman did note that PCS won’t be back with as full of a staff as they had when things closed down. Other things about the company’s reboot will be different too, she noted.
“Our first approach was saying, ‘Well, what does coming back look like?’” said Fuhrman. “What is the scope and scale of our season going to be compared to what it was before we closed? What kind of staffing levels are we really trying to get back up to?”
The harsh reality of layoffs and rehiring has sparked much confusion and pain among theatre workers, especially the technicians whose shops have sat empty for over a year and a half but now need to be filled with skilled practitioners able to mount productions for what will hopefully be a return to full capacity and vitality as fall seasons open. In an industry that regularly trumpets the ideals of being a family, many who spoke to me said they felt cut off and disregarded, if not downright disrespected, by their home theatres.
“We love our people and we were hoping that we could bring all of them back,” said Fuhrman. “The scale of our operation is such that, for the coming year, we can’t bring everybody back. So part of our process was not only looking at what positions would come back, but would they be the same positions, or would some positions morph into something else based on the scope of our work?”
As an example, Fuhrman noted that most of their staff had been on year-round contracts. With a shortened season upcoming, she said that’s no longer a reality. She and other institutional leaders also said they’re approaching the restaffing of their institutions as an opportunity to diversify, not simply return to the white-male-dominated demographic that has for too long been the industry default. For PCS, this has resulted occasionally having to extend application deadlines to make sure the pool of applicants is as diverse as possible.
“We’ve never had this many open positions at once,” said Fuhrman. “We actually have the opportunity to really make that a focus.”
Similarly, at Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, R.I., executive director Tom Parrish (he/him) said that Trinity Rep was taking time to rethink the organization and figure out how to build back “a stronger, more equitable and inclusive organization.” Parrish added that the company went from 120 full-time equivalents pre-pandemic down to 28 by last September.
“We committed to paying technicians for a period of time,” said Parrish. “We committed to paying their health insurance for a full year through March of ’21. But by the time we got to September, I was thinking this could go on for years. It is inhumane for people to be struggling, unemployed, thinking and waiting for us to come back. So we made the choice in September to actually end the employment relationships. We said, ‘When we come back, anyone can reapply.’”
At the time, he said, it felt like the most humane decision, a way for workers to make decisions in their own best interest, including finding new jobs elsewhere rather than being tied to an uncertain commitment. This arrangement, of course, also freed the theatre from its obligations.
“You only get one shot to build it back again,” said Parrish. “The reality is, the organization today is a very different organization than it was before the pandemic, just by virtue of all the work we’ve been doing in terms of EDI and restructuring how we make theatre and the skills that are needed to do that.”
A large part of coming back, Parrish explained, has been aiming for more equitable hiring practices. Similar efforts at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis have meant finding new places for outreach to applicants for open positions, and specifically telling any consultants or search firms they work with that they have a goal of diversifying their candidate pool.
“We reference that we don’t move forward with any search until we have a diverse and qualified pool,” said James Haskins (he/him), managing director of the Guthrie, about the theatre’s listings. “We’re now stating salary ranges openly in our job postings, which is something that we hadn’t done in the past.”
But a more open discussion of salary introduces two problems: that many pay rates, as dramaturg Lauren Halvorsen’s Nothing for the Group newsletter has recently been pointing out, are below what can be considered a living wage in the city in which they’re posted; and that many technicians and former employees of these theatres are now staring at job listings with entry-level salaries below what they had been making pre-layoffs after years at the same institutions.
When asked about salaries, Parrish said Trinity Rep has committed to paying at least “in the 50th percentile, which we were not before.” The company, he continued, is now benchmarking salaries against the national and local labor market as well as similar positions within the company. “For the most part,” he added, “anyone that’s coming back is going to be making more than they did before.”
For their part, Haskins said the Guthrie is looking to bring people back at their old salary, or even a higher salary, as part of the institution’s efforts to enhance its compensation philosophy and create consistent salary grades throughout the organization.
“There are no decreased salaries for any of our positions,” said Haskins. “We wanted to make sure that we were being very consistent, equitable, and transparent in how it is that we are compensating and how we’re communicating. So we have established a sort of a baseline for all employees, and any employees who were not at that baseline have been brought to that baseline.”
However, Haskins acknowledged that this is not the case for roles that were “terminated,” and hence no longer even available within the organization. The Guthrie, he noted, has naturally evolved and grown over the years, with increasing budgets and size but a staffing structure that has remained relatively the same. This has been a rare opportunity for them to examine the structure of the organization as part of the restaffing process.
As a result of this pause of in-person productions, and the looming constraints on just how many people institutions can bring back for their return, multiple companies I spoke with are looking at restructuring, adjusting responsibilities for certain roles, and determining what they want staffing to look like moving into the future. The unpleasant result of these changes, though, is that many former employees are left treading murky waters, trying to find where they fit in the future of institutions with positions available that are similar but not identical to their prior posts.
Fuhrman said PCS instituted a process of reaching out to those who had been laid off to stay abreast of their intentions. Some had moved away, leaving town to be near family or take on new job opportunities in other industries. But as part of that back and forth, Fuhrman said, PCS was looking to see how former workers might fit within the company’s new staff plans, whether that’s envisioning them in a similar position to their old one, or in a reconstructed job that fits their qualifications.
As some long-tenured artisans sit waiting in the wings, there’s a distinct fear that theatres may be using the pretext of diversification as a chance to clean house.
Alley Theatre managing director Dean Gladden (he/him) said that the positions that have seen restructuring in the company were ones that “needed to be more efficient.” This has been a chance for the Alley—which, according to Gladden, was able to keep about two-thirds of its staff employed through the pandemic—to redefine some job descriptions. While Gladden added that the Alley has made the decision to open hiring up to “the marketplace,” making all positions available to everyone as part of an effort to diversify staff, he was tightlipped on whether former employees would be able to return to their former salary and benefit level. “We’re looking at that on an individual basis and then determining what we think is appropriate based,” he said.
Understandably, this case-by-case mindset has raised some concerns. As some long-tenured artisans sit waiting in the wings, there’s a distinct fear that theatres may be using the pretext of diversification as a chance to clean house—to let go of employees they wouldn’t have otherwise have a legitimate reason to fire.
One such former production department head agreed to speak with me on the condition of anonymity due to her former employer’s requirement that she sign a separation agreement, including a non-disparagement clause, in order to receive her severance. She told me she had historically witnessed a lack of transparency from the theatre’s leadership, and her negative experience at the institution has left her looking for new and better opportunities.
“I am leaving theatre,” she said. “I’m not going to get another theatre job, mostly because I’m opting to switch industries to one where I can find a positive work culture, where the leadership actually values and respects the contributions of the staff. I feel like, at many theatres, that’s missing.”
When her company was looking at what she referred to as “strategic layoffs,” she and the other department heads were asked to evaluate their departments and make recommendations as to who should be laid off. She called this “one of the worst things I’ve ever had to do as a boss.” The real, cutting surprise came after an all-staff meeting on a Friday, after which she joined a department-only meeting over Zoom.
While on the Zoom meeting, she received a phone call from the theatre. Stepping into another room while the Zoom meeting was still ongoing, she learned that the call was from the theatre’s general manager and HR manager, informing her that she herself was being permanently laid off. This “came as a real shock,” she said. Later that day, she found out that the theatre had laid off half of its production department heads, the most senior half of those positions. When probing into why it was only half, she also learned that it was because the “artistic director felt that we didn’t support his vision.”
Later, when the position was relisted, she was told she could reapply, but was also informed separately that she wouldn’t be rehired because the artistic director “didn’t want us there.” She wasn’t planning on applying anyway, she told me, because the position had been relisted as paying $13,000 less than what she had been making before she was let go. To add insult to injury, during this time, or at least until she brought it up to the theatre, she was still receiving phone calls from the institution asking for donations.
When asked for advice to give to former employees, many of whom are worried, waiting, and potentially facing the challenge of reapplying for jobs at theatres where they used to work, the most common response from institutional leaders was: Be open to relocating. Haskins encouraged theatremakers to have an open mind about new theatres and communities that they might not have considered before. With so many opportunities opening across the field, he said, this might be the best time to experience something new and different from their former home theatres.
“My best advice is to apply everywhere that you’re interested in and see a job opening so that you cover your bases,” added Gladden, “because you never know if that same job is going to be there or if perhaps you want to move to another opportunity in another city. Leave all your options open so that you can make the best decision.”
For one West Coast artisan, who spoke with me on the condition of anonymity, this prospect of open options wasn’t a welcome one. When things shut down at her theatre, she and other production staff were furloughed but kept on health insurance. At the time, they were allowed to keep their shop keys and even told they could use the shop for personal projects, if needed. They received emails from the company talking them through how to apply for unemployment as well as informing them of grants the organization was applying for and receiving.
But by mid-April 2020, the company told her that she’d be laid off and would lose health insurance through the company. As the pandemic began to drag on, the theatre wasn’t able to tell the state’s unemployment offices that they had the intention of bringing people back “soon,” so they converted their furloughs to full layoffs. As she reflected on that time in a phone call, she noted that the production staff in particular was hit the hardest by these layoffs.
This artisan did say that she received a personal phone call from the director of production at the time to find out her plans and keep tabs on her. But as time passed, she heard less and less from the company until she received an email saying the company was restructuring and it no longer had a position for her in the new plan. She’d gone from furlough to layoff to full position termination over the course of a year, culminating in a send-off email she said felt like it was copied and pasted, even though she’d know the person she received it from for years. What’s worse, she said, were cases where the restructuring resulted in an associate level title being upped to a director level title. “That was a gut punch for me to see that people were getting promoted during the pandemic,” she said.
Following a struggle to find an alternative field to successfully pivot to, she said she got a job at a museum in a sort of shop manager role. She has now been working there for a year.
“It’s been a pretty intense pivot for me,” she said, “because I devoted all of my 20s to working in theatre. Landing at a full-time regional theatre as their lead prop artisan was the dream. That was all I had spent my 20s trying to get, and then to just sort of lose it and pivot to this different field where I didn’t build anything and I’m not doing this thing I trained myself so intensely to do has just felt so wrong.”
One worker went from furlough to layoff to full position termination over the course of a year, culminating in a send-off email she said felt like it was copied and pasted.
Throughout all of my conversations, with institutional leaders and theatremakers alike, a ringing constant has been the need for transparent communication during this time. Haskins said that, in conversations with colleagues, open communication has been called “most critical” as theatres are making difficult decisions that affect the lives and livelihoods of many.
“I think we just need to be clear about the decisions that we’re making and what the impact is going to be on others,” said Haskins, “and in some cases, encouraging people to take care of themselves and not necessarily wait on us, because we don’t know when we’re going to be able to hire some positions back.”
Complicating matters is that for some seasonal staff, distinctions weren’t made between when a theatre usually lets people go for the summer, with the intention of bringing them back for the fall season, and permanent layoffs. One East Coast theatremaker, who had been with her former company for seven years before the pandemic hit and who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity, pointed out that this uncertainty left many out-of-work theatremakers in a bad position.
This East Coast theatremaker, who had worked both as a full-time employee as well as a seasonal one, noted that, depending on the state, workers run the risk of losing unemployment benefits if they’re not careful. Those on unemployment who hope to return to their previous jobs can’t simply turn down interviews or potential other offers of employment in the hope that they’ll return to the theatre, because that can result in the loss of their benefits. The exception, she continued, is in cases when the theatremaker has an offer of employment or a return-to-work date—so far not been given by the theatre.
As a result, she fears the pool of applicants that the theatre is hoping to use to diversify may be self-narrowing, as ongoing employment uncertainty lends itself to individuals financially secure enough to wait around for theatres to settle on next steps. It also lends itself to those who can act quickly, pick up their lives, and work on a truncated timeline to get the theatre back up to strength. This same worker noted that positions for her former theatre’s planned October season were only recently listed, which would be a dramatic foreshortening of the usual production schedule.
Fuhrman said that part of PCS’s efforts to stay in touch with those who had been let go was the desire to make sure those former employees still had some sense that they were part of the company, and some hope for coming back in the future. Once the company’s plans for moving forward were in place, though, Fuhrman said it felt almost like having to do a second wave of layoffs, as she had the task of telling some workers that PCS no longer had a job for them to return to.
And now, suddenly, there is a new element of uncertainty in theatres’ plans to return, as COVID’s Delta variant breathes down the neck of the upcoming season.
“A month ago, we were all super confident that, come mid-October, we’re going to be reopened—protocols are going to be easy, we’re not going to have pandemic nonsense to deal with,” said Fuhrman. “With the Delta variant, I think what reopening looks like will be different than we thought it was even a month ago.”
The company has had to readjust their thinking as a result. Though she said PCS is still looking to reopen, and public sentiment in the area seems to be in favor of returning to the theatre, she acknowledged that the pandemic moment still isn’t over, and there’s always the lingering possibility of more variants around the corner.
With all that uncertainty, a new fear has emerged: Could those looking to return to jobs at these theatres, and hopefully some semblance of stability, be in for another round of layoffs?
“The most important thing is that, when we bring people back, that we’re not going to be laying them off,” said Gladden. “It’s our intention that, once they’re back, they’re back with full employment. We’re not going to hire more people and then lay them off. So we’ve been very careful about making sure that we’re looking at the long term, that when people take these jobs, they know that we are in a strong financial position, that they’re not going to be laid off again.”
It is a still changing landscape, added Haskins, with theatres still trying to keep up with and follow the latest recommendations and regulations from the CDC and national, state, and local governmental bodies, regulations that aren’t always in agreement. Haskins said that they’ve even gone from originally lifting their internal mask mandate at the theatre to reinstating it as the COVID tide continues to shift.
“As we continue to work our way through this unknown, we were all in a real position of hope for the future,” said Haskins of conversations over the last month or so. “That’s certainly been quelled by the Delta variant, and it feels like it’s forced us to backtrack a little bit on the progress we were making.”
But Haskins said the company is continuing to push forward. He expressed gratitude for the federal funding that has given them the opportunity to rebuild. Parrish even said that Trinity Rep has been able to conserve resources through the pandemic. The hope here is that, should another COVID wave knock theatres back out of their in-person commitments, they’ll be in better shape to withstand the impact.
“At this point, we have the reserves to get shut down again, if that were to happen,” said Parrish. “But we’re not going to rebuild and then take it back down, restaff again. We set very specific trigger points to say, ‘This is a go/no-go place and we have decided that we are going to go.’ So we’ve started the restaffing process.”
There’s hope, despite the ongoing pandemic, that theatre can return to some level of stability. But as the field works toward that goal, I want to emphasize that the stories of employees who feel spurned by this unfolding process in this article are only a few of the many calls and emails I received. The level of secrecy and opacity behind many of these decisions has damaged, in some cases irrevocably, the relationships between theatre institutions and their production artisan workforce.
There’s a distinct feeling among many workers that, even allowing for institutional needs to prioritize diversity and flexibility in returning to the stage, many organizations take their production workers for granted. Many look at the last year and see an area of the field that is too easily cast aside to save money, without a true appreciation for the amount of work and effort these staffs put into productions. It seems clear enough now that theatre will not return the way it was at the beginning of 2020. But no one seems to know what new forms it might take. In the meantime, the loss is real.
“At this point, after how I was treated, I could never go back or trust them,” said the West Coast artisan turned museum employee. “I had wanted to be an artist my whole life. When I was an undergrad, I discovered that I can work in theatre and I can be this collaborative artist and I can make things for a living. That’s so intensely what drives me and drives so many people that I know. The loss of this has been devastating.”
Jerald Raymond Pierce (he/him) is associate editor of American Theatre. firstname.lastname@example.org
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