With so many players and interests and so much intrigue involved, the unfolding drama of Blue Man vs Union Coalition has all the hallmarks of a great theatrical production - an opera, by turns tragic and comic, full of woebegone good intentions and a hell of a lot of wailing.
As the city's traditionally union-run theatre industry stalls without a large summer blockbuster like The Lion King, Blue Man Group opens June 19 at the Panasonic Theatre minus an agreement and marred by a boycott.
Why no deal?
Part of the explanation is that Blue Man underestimated how important it was to get one here. The U.S. Blue Man shows run largely without union help because unions are more fractured and statistically less invested in the arts there than they are in Canada. South of the border unions are happy to make a deal where they can, whereas in our strong labour movement culture they tend to expect one.
But there is another reason. It's a simple case of mistaken self-identity. Matt Goldman, Phil Stanton and Chris Wink started Blue Man Group in 1980s Manhattan as an innocent counterculture experiment. It went big, and the three bought it out and still run it today on good intentions. Shows in Boston, Chicago, Las Vegas and Berlin generate over $100 million annually and pay wages for 500 employees.
Despite their huge success, the trio still talk as though Blue Man were an artist-run collective that happens to be fabulously profitable and unusually endowed with business savvy. It's the old David-became-Goliath-without-noticing-it routine. Good intentions, bad effects.
But you know you're not in bohemia any more when Clear Channel Entertainment (subsidiary of the American radio giant that banned the Dixie Chicks) comes in as a silent partner.
Yet Blue Man's Goldman digs in. "We're artist-owner-operated. We're the artists who started it, created it and still perform in it, direct it,' he tells me on the phone. "Nothing in the law requires us to be a union house, just tradition. So we're a different tradition, a new tradition."
To Goldman, Blue Man's treatment of employees meets or exceeds union regulations, so he considers a collective agreement pointless. "I have no interest in Blue Man being run by the rules of the Canadian Actors Equity Association IATSE [International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees] or TMA [Toronto Musicians' Association]. We spent our entire careers building an organization where people are evaluated on mutual respect, collaboration, safety, contributing to the vibe.'
Moreover, he claims that the show won't work under union rules, citing 50-odd delicate jobs that don't fit the typical union regimen. "Literally, someone is trained for several weeks in the art of making cream cheese marshmallows. I don't know of a lot of IATSE cream cheese specialists. This is not just about punching in and out on the clock."
However, while Blue Man refuses to sign on with a union directly here, the group appears perfectly comfortable working with unions elsewhere. Their Las Vegas venue, the Luxor, has an agreement with IATSE. And in Berlin, Blue Man licensed the show to a European producer who also has union agreements.
Equity's executive director, Susan Wallace, opines, "They seem to believe that it's right to speak on behalf of their employees about an issue that pits their interests against [those of] their employees."
It's fair to say that every show that goes on without a union opens the door a little wider for the erosion of all the hard-won rights and privileges that make being a performing artist in Canada a viable career option.
But before we beatify our unions and associations, Goldman points out that Toronto's theatre community has suffered a slump in recent years, caused at least in part by the sometimes horrendous complexity of dealing with Equity.
Big shows ought to suck it up, but Equity members working at the grassroots level often echo Goldman's accusation. At the Fringe and a few other festivals the rules are lifted, but members shudder at the difficulty of navigating the Byzantine regulations covering minuscule details. The Independent Theatre Agreement runs to 107 pages, riddled with cross-referenced clauses on anything from rules for recording a performance for the archives to whether or not an intercom must be installed between a stage area and dressing room.
Equity does far more good than harm but has a bad habit of protecting its members from themselves as opposed to empowering them.
Nonetheless, the little-show-that-could should check its shiny blue head. There's no good reason why Blue Man shouldn't be a union show. Meaning well doesn't cut it in a large organization where millions of dollars are at stake.
As the June 19 premiere looms, Goldman, Stanton and Wink should consider outsourcing their goodwill to the unions. That's essentially what the labour movement is there to enforce.