BRUNSWICK — It’s been seven months since Maine State Music Theatre announced the cancellation of its 2020 season, and with seven to go until the curtain rises on next year’s season, theater officials are determined that despite union, state, and financial roadblocks at every turn, the show will go on.
The cancellation of the 2020 season was a “devastating” move that artistic director Curt Dale Clark said carried an estimated $4 million loss— 80% of the approximately $5 million annual budget. It was the first time any show, let alone four, had been canceled in the theatre’s 62-year history. It was a particular blow ahead of what promised to be a banner year, with “Titanic,” “Mamma Mia!,” “The Sound of Music” and “Something Rotten.”
The financial losses were further compounded by a difference of opinion with the Actors’ Equity Association, the nation’s primary union for actors and stage managers.
Equity negotiates the wages, working conditions, health insurance, pensions and now COVID-19 safety precautions for more than 51,000 professional actors nationwide.
According to Clark, when the pandemic hit the union refused to acknowledge the event as “an act of God,” which would have essentially dissolved the contracts, and argued that the theater should have been prepared.
Instead, the theater was forced to pay the full contracts, more than six weeks before the start of the season. Clark said that if they had just been allowed to pay the pension, health insurance and dues, MSMT would have been left with “a huge pot of money to sustain us.”
But instead, the hits have just kept coming.
Clark is not against the union. In fact, he’s been an Equity member since 1989 and his “entire pension is locked up in the union.”
However, “I think they’re making the situation worse instead of better,” he said. “They’re doing what they can to protect the union but what they’re doing in the process of that is making a lot of mistakes.”
Union employees get their health insurance based on the number of weeks they work, but the union’s list of safety requirements for a company to be able to put on a show are making it “impossible” for them to do so.
The process is so “laborious and cumbersome that few have gotten through it,” he said.
The union’s 22-page producer worksheet outlines rigorous testing protocols, personal protective equipment and sanitizing requirements, an onsite, train infection control specialist, a COVID-19 – trained security detail outside of actor housing and more.
“There’s no way to budget that and make it work,” Clark said, keeping more actors off the stage.
“Any employer who wants to begin theatrical productions needs to have a comprehensive plan in place that protects not just the actors and stage managers, but ensures that everyone who works in the theater has a safe workplace,” Mary McColl, executive director of Actors’ Equity Association said in a statement. “Equity will use all of our available resources to ensure that no one is asked to work in an unsafe environment.”
Some theaters have said enough is enough, and cut ties with the organization in order to put their own safety measures in place.
But Clark, despite losing his own health Equity-sourced insurance earlier this fall, isn’t ready to join their ranks.
Maine State Music Theatre has worked with Equity since 1959 and uses 14-18 Equity contracted actors per show.
“The major benefit for that is the quality of the shows,” he said, and many MSMT favorites are union people.
For the organization to cut ties with Equity, “the world would have to be in an insanely drastic place,” he said, adding that he will do everything he can to keep that from happening.
That said, it has been talked about among other theaters, and his personal interests aside, “I have to protect MSMT first and foremost.”
The struggles go beyond just the union.
MSMT has long been self-sustaining and Clark said he usually only has to “beg” for about 20% of the annual budget. This year he’ll be asking for almost 100%.
State aid provided $100,000, but “$100,000 doesn’t really move the needle,” he said, and given what the company puts back into the economy (he estimated roughly $15 million per summer season), the state “should want to take care of us,” he said.
If state regulations allow MSMT to perform but the company doesn’t have the funds to put on a show, “it’s a huge hit to Maine and the Brunswick economies,” he said.
“We’re not going to close,” he said, but “it should not be this hard.”
The last few months have not been without bright spots.
The lifeline campaign has lived up to its name thanks to a loyal audience and community and several “vigilante programming” ideas have also gotten off the ground, including a pint-a-thon at Gelato Fiasco and several drive-in movie nights at Fat Boy Drive-In.
Looking ahead, Clark said they are in a holding pattern, waiting as long as possible before making any final calls about the 2021 season.
One or two-person shows are currently not an option, but there may be the opportunity for concert-style shows, perhaps with fewer people and set pieces, but the same elaborate costumes and high caliber performances as before.
Or, Clark suggested, the theatre may be able to move outdoors— he is currently looking into possible venues.
Maine State Music Theatre announced the main stage series in September— a full line up that includes “Kinky Boots,” “Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella,” “The Color Purple” and “Jersey Boys.”
“I think that the electricity that will happen when (live theatre) is allowed to happen might be worth waiting for,” he said. “But hopefully we won’t have to wait too long.”
Efforts to reach the Actors’ Equity Association were unsuccessful.