In 1985, I walked into Pace University, a light plot and section for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof under one arm and an opera score under the other. I waited all day for my turn – I was last — to go into the theatre where I directed a crew to focus sixteen lights and then sat down and wrote nine cues for a scene from Pelleas and Mellisande. A panel of experienced lighting designers who would decide my professional fate sat behind me. I was so focused on the stage, I didn’t realize they were not in the dark. “Aren’t you gonna turn the house lights down,” bellowed Lee Watson; I did. The scene finished, I brought the lights up and left the theatre with Allen Lee Hughes, a panelist and friend, who walked me to the subway. “Don’t worry, we throw out Lee Watson’s score sheets.” A few weeks later I got my United Scenic Artists Local 829 stamp and proudly used it for the next 25 years. For most of those years I benefitted from the collective bargaining agreements my brethren had negotiated with LORT theatres, agreements that protected my rights, my time, and my compensation.
When I started teaching at UW-Madison I no longer relied on the union’s health insurance for coverage, but was happy to pay my quarterly dues and have the theatres I worked for outside of the university (faculty at UW-Madison are not represented by a union) pay into a fund that would support my union member colleagues who did not have the benefits of a teaching position – that is the nature of the collective action that organized labor supports. Now, as an academic administrator in a collective bargaining environment, I may find that I am represented on the opposite side of the bargaining table from organized labor but we are not on opposite sides conceptually; we are all on the side of the students and their success, much as producers and designers are on the same side: that of a healthy and productive American theatre.