Striking stagehands - and friends - march down Broad Street

Scenes from a strike:

A nighttime projectionist set up in the middle of Broad Street, beaming anti-management messages onto a building. Protesters with strike placards facing the plate-glass windows of a theater lobby while staring down customers inside. A labor dispute in which both sides appropriate the messages of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Philadelphia may be used to strikes at construction sites and outside corporate corridors, but this one is different. For one thing, the workers in question have already resigned themselves to an almost comical raise: an additional 25 cents per hour.

It’s more complicated than that, of course, which is why the strike by stagehands at the Philadelphia Theatre Company that earlier looked like a tidy one-act labor dispute has gone on for a week now.

Wednesday evening it intensified. About 100 strikers and other friends in organized labor marched from City Hall to the theater at Broad and Lombard Streets. They will picket businesses of PTC board members, they say, and are demanding the board’s resignation. No talks are currently scheduled.

The strike has disrupted the theater’s run of The Mountaintop, Katori Hall’s 90-minute imaginary account of the hours just before King’s martyrdom at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. The opening night preview performance at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre was canceled, and subsequent shows have used vastly scaled-back stagecraft, sound and lighting. In the play’s moment of reveal, where the interior of a hotel room is supposed to spin around on a turntable to show King standing on the motel balcony, the set stands still, while, an actress reads stage directions aloud to let the audience know what they were supposed to be seeing and hearing.

“Thunder and lightning crack,” she read at one point. “Blackout. End of play,” she said to cue applause.

What is lost by the diminished audio and visuals was hard to gauge for Tuesday’s audience, but playright A. Zell Williams said he didn’t find it any less of an experience.

“What it does show is that the play is really powerful, and it highlights that Katori Hall has an amazing voice,” he said.

Others, however, declined to put themselves in the position of gauging whether damage was being done to Hall’s work. Ruth Rovner, a retired college English teacher, had tickets for Thursday’s performance, but said she would not cross a picket line.

“I believe strongly in the rights of workers to strike lawfully, whether college teachers or stagehands. And a strike isn't successful if picket lines are violated.”

Rovner has been attending PTC shows for more than 10 years, and said she was “deeply disappointed” that preview performances continued. Management has asked critics not to review the show until the strike has ended with stagecraft restored. For this scaled down version, the theater is charging a flat $46 per ticket. Absent the strike, tickets would have been priced between $25 and $59, said managing director Shira Beckerman.

“I find this an affront to the memory of Martin Luther King, who was in Memphis to march in support of workers’ right,” said Rovner. “It’s quite an irony to presumably honor him with this play - but violate one of the guiding principles of his life. It also creates a conflict for theatergoers who have tickets but don’t want to cross a picket line.”

Beckerman said anyone who wants to exchange tickets for another night, or receive a refund, may do so.

A few audience members Tuesday night said it had not occurred to them that they had crossed a picket line, despite the strikers and the standard effigy of management perched outside – a large inflated rat.

The collective bargaining agreement would be a first for stagehands at PTC. The 27 parttime and fulltime workers who handle scenery, lights, sound and props have several goals, said Michael Barnes, business agent for Local 8 of the International Association of Theatrical and Stage Employees: they want committed to writing in a contract certain rights and conditions they have enjoyed at the theater prior to organizing; and they would like management to contribute about $4,000 each year per employee to a health and welfare fund.

After giving up on an initial proposed raise to $29 per hour from the current $16 to $19 per hour, the union has settled (though certainly nothing is official) for a proposal on the table that calls for a raise of 25 cents per hour in the first year of the contract, 50 cents in the second year, and 75 cents in the third.

Most important, Barnes said, is getting the theater to agree to not hire non-union workers to perform the same work by the recently organized unit.

Theater leaders, while saying they would not comment on specific aspects of negotiations, said the union had been offered “across the board” increases.

“We believe we have been fair and our offers will result in an improvement to union members,” said board president Priscilla M. Luce.

Stagehands at PTC make less money than those in larger theaters, such as the Academy of Music, said Barnes and others, and the stagehands are comfortable with that, since PTC is a much smaller house. What their $16 to $19 an hour amounts to annually depends on the individual wage and how many shows a stagehand works, but it comes to between $10,000 and $40,000, he said.

“But the majority make between $10,000 and $20,000” at PTC, said Barnes. “They piece together a fulltime jobs working for multiple employers.” PTC has four productions this season, each running about a month (with additional work weeks for rehearsals).

“We still love this company and believe in the work we do, and none of us is asking PTC to pay our fulltime way,” said production electrician Terry M. Smith, 33, who has worked for PTC for 12 years. He says he makes an average of $16,000 a year from PTC, about a fifth of his total income patched together from work at corporate meetings, car show and conventions.

Said Barnes: “The tone of negotiations has been clear - the PTC board is [angry] that the workers voted to be represented by the union. So proposals are punitive in nature.

Luce said there has been “no emotion” attached to negotiations on the board’s part.

The board “accepts the vote of the employees” to be represented by the union, “and we have proceeded in negotiations in a manner that is professional.”