League of Their Own: Broadway Casting Directors Unionize

Says Tara Rubin, "Casting directors should enjoy the benefits and basic rights that other workers have in this country."

Donna Kaz is a multi-genre writer who joined the Guerrilla Girls in 1997. Using the pseudonym Aphra Behn, she has spent the last 20 years traveling worldwide with performances and street theater actions created to address gender parity, reproductive rights and an end to violence against women. CFR Editor Devra Thomas, as part of the Marbury Project, interviewed Kaz when her book, Un/Masked, Memoirs of a Guerrilla Girl on Tour, was published in 2016.

Kaz’s close friend, it turns out, is legendary casting director Tara Rubin, who founded her eponymous firm in April 2001, following a 15-year stint with another storied agency, Johnson-Liff Associates. A quick scan of Rubin’s name on the Internet Broadway Database (IBDB) reveals nearly 50 Broadway credits. During the 2016-17 Broadway season alone, she worked on five the revival of Cats, A Bronx Tale: The Musical, Dear Evan Hansen, the revival of Miss Saigon, and Paula Vogel’s Tony-nominated Indecent. Rubin also serves on the board of the Casting Society of America (CSA).

On May 20, the New York Daily News ran a powerful story about a group of prominent and influential Broadway casting directors — Rubin, Bernie Telsey, David Caparelliotis, Cindy Tolan and Will Cantler — who joined Theatrical Teamsters Local 817. Situated below a dramatic headline (“Broadway casting directors who are least protected workers in theater fight to unionize”), it was also revealed that Thomas O’Donnell, president of the local, wrote to the Broadway League — the national trade association for the Broadway industry — requesting recognition for casting directors in their union. Led by a former hotel management executive, Charlotte St. Martin, the League refused, and steadfastly continues to do so.

Kaz suggested to the CFR that she interview Rubin about what casting directors want, why the League is resisting their right to union representation, and what happens next. This was their conversation.

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Donna Kaz: Tell me about the Broadway casting directors and Teamsters Local 817.

Tara Rubin: Last fall, we started by trying to educate the theatergoing community about the fact that casting directors are not unionized, which was a surprise to most people. One of the ways we did it was by handing out leaflets on opening nights. It was interesting how many people looked at us with shock and disbelief because most casting directors are members of the CSA and many people believe CSA is a union. One agent actually said to me, “I’m pretty sure you get benefits through CSA.” But CSA is a professional organization, not a union. So clearly we had a lot of educating to do. The casting directors who work on Broadway are the only workers [in this part of the industry] who do not have benefits. We don’t have health insurance and we don’t have pension or welfare benefits or any of the other benefits that wardrobe people, ushers, directors, choreographers, playwrights and press agents do. We are represented by the Teamsters Local 817.

DK: What are you asking for?

TR: The film and TV casting directors joined the Teamsters over a decade ago, and that has worked out very well for us, so the casting directors who also work on Broadway joined Local 817. What we are asking for — at a time when Broadway is celebrating a $1.4 billion season — is the same type of benefits the film and TV industry provides casting directors: health insurance, pension plans and other benefits I’ve talked about. I should mention that there are about 40 casting directors who are making this request.

DK: What does CSA think about this?

TR: We all have the full backing of CSA.

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DK: What do you want the Broadway League to do?

TR: We want the Broadway League to recognize the Teamsters Local 817 as our representatives and negotiate a contract for us as the film and TV industries do. The way I look at it is this: having the League recognize us makes being a casting director for Broadway more of a viable career. A young person going into casting would look at the benefits of the job, and having things like a pension and health benefits, and certainly find it more attractive to them. So many casting directors have no health benefits. One of my colleagues, David Caparelliotis, told a really moving story in the Daily News last week. He thought he was having a heart attack and he had to stop and think about whether or not to go to the hospital because he didn’t have health insurance. He was in the middle of casting four Broadway shows, yet he had to make a medical decision based on the fact that he did not have health insurance. It is really important for me to tell the next generation of casting directors that, yes, this profession is financially viable. You won’t get rich being a casting director; it is not that kind of a field. But casting directors should enjoy the benefits and basic rights that other workers have in this country.

DK: Casting directors are an important part of the creative team of a Broadway show — billed right there on the main page of every Playbill, right next to others who belong to unions.

TR: Yes. We feel we are collaborators with the directors, actors, stagehands and other workers on Broadway, all of whom are unionized.

DK: When did you begin these efforts and join the Teamsters?

TR: When the film and TV casting directors were successful in unionizing, we all began thinking that we could do the same. It took some time to figure out where the Broadway casting directors fit in. It made sense, since the film and TV casting directors are already with the Teamsters. We could pay into the same funds they do. So we began to talk with them about it seriously. Tommy O’Donnell, president of the New York Teamsters, is a very reasonable, fair leader and he has been working tirelessly since we began communicating with the Broadway League to recognize us.

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DK: Why don’t you take a nod from Odets’s 1935 Broadway play Waiting For Lefty and strike?

TR: The casting directors and the Teamsters together would love to settle this without a work action.

DK: What is the current status of O’Donnell’s efforts to represent you to the League?

TR: We are still waiting for the League to recognize us.

DK: Didn’t the League offer to negotiate with you through the National Labor Relations Board?

TR: We received a letter of support from COBUG — the Coalition of Broadway Unions and Guilds. They stand behind us 100%. It is our hope that the Broadway League and our union can speak reasonably to each other without a job action or an outside arbitrator.

DK: Do you think anyone will mention your efforts during the Tony Awards on Sun., June 11?

TR: Wouldn’t that be wonderful?

DK: I am sure that the actors, whose jobs depend on your efforts, would support you.

TR: Actors’ Equity, a member of COBUG, is behind us.

DK: What can the average theatregoer or theater artist do?

TR: Write to the Broadway League and express your support for us. We also have a media campaign called “fairness for casting” — or #fairnessforcasting.  Please take a selfie with #fairnessforcasting and post it on social media. Even better: take one backstage if you’re an actor, or holding a playbill if you are a theatergoer or in front of a theater or on line at TKTS.

DK: Will do!