The Theater Industry Is the Problem With Theater

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"...for all the struggling and fundraising and budget-crunching I've had to do in my three seasons here, we are very fortunate compared to a lot of our peers."
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It pains me to say it, but after the reaction to my last post on apparent-scam theater in Los Angeles, the theater industry is the problem with theater. The Stage Directors and Choreographers Society, Actors’ Equity Association and the licensing company Music Theatre International all declined to comment in a substantive way on the story then, and, with one exception, still decline to comment now.

To recap: Zaccharin Thibodeau, a producer and director, has been accused of falsely claiming to be a member of AEA and SDC, of violating the working agreements of union actors in his productions, and of tampering with the intellectual property managed by MTI. Over the past five years, from the Inland Empire to Palos Verdes, theater professionals and audience members have accused Thibodeau of a series of scams, and I set out to uncover what’s true and not true, and why such a situation could exist in the first place. To his credit, Thibodeau spoke with me on the record, and I published what he said.

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Zaccharin Thibodeau. Via

At issue, in part, was a specific production of the musical Rent presented by his company, called Broadway Theatricals. Since I published the column, the company’s website and most other information about it have been taken down. We know, though, that actors were cast, rehearsals held, tickets sold and a variety of spaces booked for that production. We know, or have been told, that spaces were never paid for, that the actors discovered Thibodeau did not actually secure the rights to Rent, and the show, in fact, never opened. I discovered that Thibodeau has at least started work on many productions, under a variety of company names, only to scuttle most of them before they open. Those productions that do finally make it to the stage are of, it seems, questionable quality at best; if the allegations are true, they are linked to fraud. It remains unclear if tickets sold to various unopened productions were refunded. We also know that if any or all the allegations are true, Thibodeau has never been held accountable. And that is on us as an industry.

So desperate are we to “make it” in theater that we take on work we know is too good to be true. Or even too bad to be true. There are reports that Thibodeau held auditions in the parking lot of a Taco Bell. That is how professional artists expect to be treated? The “victims” of his supposed machinations should not bear the responsibility for his actions, right? But here is why I say that theater is the problem: all of the professional organizations cited up above were contacted at some point about Thibodeau, and not just by me.

While AEA did not respond to repeated requests for comment, and while MTI declined to comment, SDC did give me a quote. Here it is:

All SDC can do is confirm that Mr. Thibodeau is not a Member of SDC.

When pressed further — when asked whether any action is being taken to protect their members or their integrity as an organization — they responded:

SDC does have a course of action to take when someone claims to be a Member and they are not.

What that course of action is, or whether they are pursuing it against Thibodeau, remains unclear.

In stark contrast to AEA, SDC and MTI, Dramatists Play Service President Peter Hagan did give me a statement:

Although Broadway Theatricals did license Proof through us, in April the group claimed that performances had been cancelled. Back royalties are owed to us for that play, as well as productions of August: Osage County and The Glass Menagerie.

Hagan added that action is being taken against Thibodeau:

The matter has been sent to our collections agent.

So with the notable and encouraging exception of Dramatists Play Service, this lack of action, this lack of reaction, is wholly inadequate. AEA, SDC and MTI have made it clear that they are unable, or unwilling, to protect their members and their clients, or in fact the very concept behind their own importance. What good is a licensing company whose job is to protect the interests of authors if tampering with scripts, if appropriating a title, isn’t met with any consequences? If anyone can impersonate a SDC member without recourse, this in effect makes membership meaningless at best and a red flag for artists at worst. If impersonating a union actor doesn’t merit a response from the actors’ union, why should actors bother to go through the exhaustive and expensive process of becoming an actual member? If AEA remains silent as its members face violations of their working agreements, then why would an actor want to become a member in the first place?

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I’m making it, everything is great! Via

We are ignoring the elephant in the room. There is an increasing trend of these organizations — notably AEA — not responding to very serious and public issues. During the spate of injuries sustained by AEA actors during the Broadway run of SpiderMan: Turn Off the Dark, it appeared to be largely silent, even as whole careers were prematurely ended. In the one example of a public response from AEA that I found, the union actually criticized its own members for criticizing the union, and of asking it to take a more active role in preventing future injuries. And then more serious injuries occurred in SpiderMan after that. It would be easy to see all of this as a typical scheme of valuing the interests of those with money in the industry over those who work in it. But then, why is AEA having similarly inadequate reactions to a large Broadway production as well as a minuscule operation in Southern California? If your mission is to protect actors, aren’t you supposed to protect actors? If AEA and other organizations aren’t serving their constituents, or those with money and influence in the industry, who are they serving?

If these organizations are toothless relics, it is because the theater as an industry and as an art allowed and even encouraged them to become so. AEA members voted down proposals earlier this year to enact greater protections for their members and to guarantee actual pay in L.A. theater. When AEA moved forward with its proposals anyway, but in modified form, the L.A. Times published this:

National leaders of Actors’ Equity Assn. on Tuesday imposed a $9 hourly minimum wage for members who perform in Los Angeles County theaters with fewer than 100 seats, overriding a recent vote by rank-and-file union members in L.A.’s stage acting community.

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Who’s been “discovered” in a Taco Bell parking lot? Besides members of Congress… Via

That has connotations of a draconian order oppressing the artists who want nothing more than to work for free. It seems more likely that artists are so desperate to “make it” that we agree to sub-par conditions and compensation.

Most, though not all, of Thibodeau’s accusers ignored red flags about his productions. Very few of them have pursued further action against him, possibly because they believed that after contacting industry organizations that they would handle such matters. I have so far confirmed a grand total of three groups pursuing substantive action against Thibodeau. Two reported him to the police. Investigations were apparently briefly launched and then closed, with the complainants being told that this was a civil and not criminal matter. Police departments in question told me that they could not possibly comment on, or confirm the existence of, an investigation. The third is a group of actors suing Thibodeau. They declined comment as the legal action is currently ongoing.

Three groups and one industry organization have attempted substantive action against Thibodeau despite five years of alleged fraud, misrepresentation and damage to the theater industry. In those five years, The Clyde Fitch Report was the only outlet to report on these activities. If, as an industry and an art, this is the best that we can do, then it, and we, deserve whatever Thibodeau is accused of. Declining audiences, subscribers and funding can hurt the theater. Desperately ignoring the fire burning our industry to the ground will kill it.