At 10:15am on Sept. 22, 2016, the Burbank, CA police arrested Zaccharin Thibodeau, a young theater producer in LA with a string of legal accusations against him by both artists, venues and businesses in the community, on charges of felony theft and fraud. His arrest record shows that he was originally held on a $2,067,261 bail bond (later reduced to $25,000). As reported by the CFR during 2015, Thibodeau owned and operated various theater companies, such as Broadway Theatricals, Music Theatre Riverside and American Music Theatre Conservatory. They are implicated in instances of wage theft, unpaid use of plays and musicals, and selling tickets for performances that never took place.
Several theater artists allege, via social media, that the charges against Thibodeau stem from his theft of several hundred thousand dollars from various payroll companies.
Following up on this lead, the CFR has learned that Thibodeau and a possible accomplice did indeed implement a plan to steal from at least two payroll companies. One of them, Falcon Paymasters, told me that they had contacted authorities in Columbus, Ohio and in LA regarding the scheme. Falcon, according to its page on LinkedIn, “proudly serves as payroll and benefits administrator” for more than 230 union theaters across the US.
The court records I have obtained thus far do not furnish the full context of payroll defrauding scheme allegedly undertaken by Thibodeau, including the names of all the companies involved. However, Tom Allamon, who is President of Falcon Paymasters, did provide me with this statement:
Falcon took on a project that was unique and specialized, where we went above and beyond our typical practices to facilitate things for our client. We quickly found ourselves in the midst of an elaborate scheme [by the accused] to commit fraud against my company.
Thibodeau faces parallel litigation in several additional cases, including one relating to another story reported by the CFR. In that case, a group of actors employed but not paid by Thibodeau won a civil suit that requires him to pay each of them withheld wages of about $373. LA non-union producer David Mack detailed the efforts to bring that case to trial in his own article for the CFR last year.
Further, Dramatists Play Service (DPS) won a suit against Thibodeau in 2015 which requires him to pay $4,254 for his unpaid use of three plays back in 2013: David Auburn’s Proof, Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County and Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie. Contradicting an interview with Thibodeau for an earlier article on Broadway Theatricals, the suit establishes that he owned, operated and was the party responsible.
Thibodeau has been arrested no fewer than three times for fraud and theft since June 2016.
If the Thibodeau saga is, in part, one of an alleged serial criminal preying on the world of LA theater, what remains strikingly absent are any actions, or even a comment, from the labor union Actors’ Equity Association (AEA), the author’s rights holder Music Theatre International (MTI) and nearly all other organizations relevant to this story. (DPS serves as a laudable exception.) Thibodeau, on top of all the other charges, also appears to have violated copyright law and has falsely claimed to belong to various unions and professional organizations. Whether that is true or not, he clearly violated labor agreements and written contracts.
I initially reported in early 2015 that neither AEA nor MTI offered any comment or communication on this matter to their constituents or to the public. Both organizations also declined to comment for this article as well. Interestingly, however, a spokesperson for the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society (SDC) did provide the CFR with this statement:
As reported in July 2015, SDC has an internal process for dealing with these issues as they come up. We have not become aware of any additional instances of Mr. Thibodeau’s misrepresentation of his Member status.
What is this “internal process”? Whatever it is, it remains opaque. No public or legal actions have been taken by the SDC, to my knowledge.
It was the case that I cited earlier — the group of actors employed but not paid by Thibodeau — that ignited my initial investigation and spurred on Mack’s activism. For this group of actors to find justice required three CFR articles, a yearlong consultation with the California Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (DLSE) and finally a civil suit brought by said actors. That’s a lot to reclaim about $373. Legal action in several individual cases remains ongoing via the DLSE.
Society often treats artists as if their work is somehow different.
Where was Actors’ Equity?
Society often treats artists as if their work is somehow different from everybody else’s professional work. Eventually, artists see things this way, too. The cycle self-reinforces: mainstream professionals and organizations treat artists and their businesses as if somehow different from all other businesses, and artists do the same thing. Maybe artists do this to make a statement: they’d rather make their art, whether or not they’re paid for it, or even if they’re not paid for it at all. Maybe they do this to purify their art from the sullying effect of money. Where it leaves us, though, is with uncertainty around the nature of art as work. It’s true that art doesn’t just mean payment, ownership and professionalism; it’s not the same thing as accounting. But when an artist realizes that they do have a right to be paid, and appropriately, they face resistance from the same society that regarded their work as different, as lesser, in the first place. Now even labor unions and major arts organizations seem to behave as if payment for work destroys the art being created. No wonder artists work for free, or for pay that is far lower than the actual value of their work. No wonder artists and arts organizations are taken advantage of.
The model for the business of theater — with artists represented by unions; with professional organizations acting as well as advocating on their behalf—no longer seems to function. We’re left with a grey area around when and how to assert legal protections for art, work, ownership and remuneration, including who gets to make those assertions. It’s this same grey area that allowed Thibodeau to exploit artists, copyright holders and audiences. Thibodeau’s case highlights a lack of vigilance, monitoring and enforcement by unions, rights-holders and service organizations — as well as government agencies, such as the DLSE. After all, the DLSE could have contacted AEA concerning these actors’ payment disputes just as easily. Feigning ignorance of front-page entertainment employment news in their jurisdiction seems tenuous at best.
What choices can the theater community make to clarify that their work has value? Perhaps MTI could act like a professional media company and vigorously prosecute all instances of copyright violation and not just those that garner them headlines. Both Samuel French and DPS, for example, sent cease and desist orders in early 2016 for the use of their properties in Courtney Meaker’s play That’swhatshesaid, despite her work rather classically conforming to the copyright exemption for fair use. Perhaps AEA and its members could agree on whether to treat all member actors as true professionals and require that they be paid at least minimum wage for their work, and not just their work in LA. Perhaps if artists and their institutions agree to treat art as work, then everyone else will have more pressure to do so as well.