Podcast Episode 20 Transcript – James Claffey

Ken: You’re listening to the Producer’s Perspective Podcast. This week, the show is sponsored by Hand to God, the most Tony-nominated new American play on Broadway. The New York Times calls it “flat out hilarious” and the Huffington Post raves “It’s the best play of the season.” For tickets, visit Telecharge.com. And now, on with the show!

Ken: Hello, everybody. Welcome back to the Producer’s Perspective Podcast. Before I introduce my next guest I want to tell you a little story, back from the days of the ’90s . . . 1993, when I witnessed my first tech of a Broadway show. It was Grease, I was the production assistant, which meant I got everybody coffee. As you know, tech is a very arduous process where the cast and the physical elements of the production finally come together. We actually had a lot of moving parts on that show, lots of scenery, props, a billion Vari-Lites, and cues to go with it. It took us a couple of weeks to get through teching the show, and when we did I remember the PSM saying, “Okay, now let’s run it from the top,” and I remember thinking, “This is going to be a disaster.” I had never seen a Broadway show come together but, still, I knew after two weeks there was no way we were going to get through it. Then we started and we got through it, just like that. We only stopped, I think it was twice, and it was because the cast had questions. The crew did not. After the dinner break I went to the stage manager and I said, “Is this typical for a Broadway show or is this a fluke? Was this an easy show?” and he said to me verbatim, “Ken, that’s what happens when you have the best stagehands in the world working on your show.” And today, I’m talking to the leader of those stagehands, James Claffey, Jr., the president of Local One, the stagehand’s union. Welcome, Jimmy!

Jim: How are you? Thanks for having me.

Ken: Jimmy has a long family tradition in Local One, including five brothers who are members of the union. I hope you didn’t have to lobby too hard for their votes.

Jim: No, no.

Ken: He’s been a member himself since 1982. As a stagehand he has worked at venues all over the city, including Radio City, Madison Square Garden and, of course, most of our Broadway houses. He’s studied labor and negotiation at both Cornell and Harvard. Never heard of it. And has been serving as an officer of Local One since 1996 and was elected president in 2004, and is now on his fourth term. So, Jimmy, before you were president, back when you were a stagehand, which I love, you worked yourself up through the ranks, tell me a bit about the process of how you became a stagehand in the first place.

Jim: Well I became a stagehand because I followed in the footsteps of my father. It’s not unique, there are a lot of fathers and sons and nephews and cousins in the industry. That doesn’t preclude others from getting in the business but I’m proud that I came in through my father. My father had five of his sons that he trained personally at City Center, which is the dance theater over on 56th Street. He trained us all for years, we became members and then we all branched out. I happened to be at City Center for quite a while and then I branched out to Madison Square Garden, I branched out to television, a portion of our jurisdiction, through the networks. My brothers went through various locations, Radio City, Broadway. We all kind of branched out. My father did a good thing for us.

Ken: Was he a carpenter, an electrician?

Jim: My father was the head electrician at City Center for about 15 years.

Ken: And you were an electrician as well?

Jim: I was an electrician at City Center, later on. That’s why we like to say we’re a jack of all trades, because later on I moved over, at Radio City I was in the property department, I worked at ABC television on One Life to Live in either the carpentry department, prop department or electric department. I think that our most successful stagehands are probably the ones that are well-rounded. I will suggest that there are stagehands that are far more talented, as far as technical skills, but having a general knowledge in every area will serve you well.

Ken: What was the first project that you worked on at City Center? Do you remember?

Jim: I do. It was The Music Man with Dick Van Dyke. That was unusual because City Center is a dance house so, for 13 years, I was the head spotlight operator for a lot of the dance companies . . . Alvin Ailey, Joffrey Ballet, a lot of the incoming ballet companies from around the world and around the country that came in. I got really exposed to the dance world. The Music Man was a musical but it was not typical at City Center because it was a dance house, but it was fabulous. It was a terrific experience, coming right out of high school, for a guy who wanted to be a baseball player who became a stagehand, and to experience that was something that was really quite remarkable.

Ken: You were how old?

Jim: I was 18.

Ken: 18 years old.

Jim: Yeah, right out of high school.

Ken: Were you nervous backstage?

Jim: No. You know, I was the boss’s son, that probably made it a little bit easier, but when you’re backstage you really have to know what the heck you’re doing or you’re not going to be successful because you can’t be in the way. City Center is much bigger now. It’s been renovated and they have a larger offstage space, but back then you had some smaller wings and if you’re not in the right place it can be dangerous, but my dad taught us really well.

Ken: It’s funny you said being in the way, because on that same production of Grease I ended up subbing as a stage manager, and it was at the O’Neill, which doesn’t have a lot of wing space at all. And I literally, after about two or three times subbing, running the deck, I was like, “I don’t want to do this anymore.” We talk about choreography onstage.  There is as much or more choreography backstage, and I just kept getting in the way of stagehands, who very politely told me perhaps backstage is not the best place for me, go in front of the proscenium.

Jim: At least they were polite.

Ken: Yes. Tell me a little bit about the apprentice program for those people out there who are listening that would like to be a stagehand, who would like to get involved. You do have an extensive apprentice program.

Jim: Absolutely, and I appreciate that you brought that up. We have an apprentice program that we’re very proud of. It’s administered by a state organization so we really don’t have control over it, but what we try to do is reach out to all different areas, all different demographics, any forms of communication, and reach out to anybody at all that wants to take our apprenticeship program. It’s about every two and a half to three years that we offer it because there’s only a certain amount of apprentices that we have to fill positions for, and we negotiate in our contracts for apprentices, but anybody that can do well on a test, typically we’re taking the top 40 out of maybe a couple of hundred folks that take the test, and those top 40, we will place them per the order of their aptitude, how their scores are. We also have our Replacement Room, which is open to the public, so we encourage folks to come in and if they can gain some experience, if they have some sort of knowledge, then we can help them with a Replacement Room and place them when there are cancellations or additional hires. That room is open to anybody and everybody that can come in and provide good service.

Ken: But it’s very competitive because you are the top. I mean this is the best of the best.

Jim: I have an ego about it. I say we are the premiere stage craft local on the planet. We are the oldest entertainment union in the United States of America, for folks who don’t know. I say I have an ego but I carry that with great pride and I appreciate you saying that.

Ken: It’s like the Actors’ Union as well. We have the best people in the world on the stage. I don’t care what London says, don’t tell them.

Jim: I’m with you.

Ken: Did you go to the theater a lot when you were a kid?

Jim: I did not. My whole life I wanted to be a baseball player, so I was playing baseball. Occasionally I would go to see a concert but I was not a theater goer, and especially I was not a big fan of the ballet until I sat there and I watched it and I became a very big fan of the ballet and modern dance and so on over the years, because it’s good for a crew to have a presence at their opening nights and it’s good for our employers to see me represent my local. I’ve gone to more productions and I have a greater knowledge and a greater respect from seeing it out front, rather than backstage where I was for so many years. So, yeah, it’s wonderful. It’s a wonderful, wonderful business.

Ken: So after a number of years working as a stagehand you decided to start to work out of rooms like the one we’re in, administrative rooms. What drew you to the other side of the stage?

Jim: I was elected, not even by my own choice, as shop steward at City Center and later I was elected as shop steward at Radio City Musical when I moved over to there and, frankly, I was pushed by some of my friends who maybe saw a little bit more in myself that I didn’t see. It was never my dream to be the president of Local One, it was not. I was making a good living and I had a good lifestyle and I was proud of what I was doing, but my brothers and my sisters had said, “Well we would really like you to go ahead and make a shot at it and try to win an election.” And I was very, very surprised at my first election. I ran for chairman of the board of trustees . . . actually I ran for trustee but I was elected as chairman, to my surprise. It was a very good experience and from there I was pushed further and, finally, I didn’t have to push myself. I thought, “You know what? I could help my local,” and I ran for president.

Ken: I hear this a lot from people, actually. “I never thought I would produce this.” “I never thought I would direct this.” You just said “yes” along the way.

Jim: I did and, you know what? I found my niche. I care about my members, I care about the labor movement, I care about my employers who we have to provide a good service for. I think I’m better at what I do now than when I was actually on the stage. I bet some of my brothers and sisters will say the same thing but, you know what? Everybody has their niche and I try to represent them well.

Ken: They’d rather see you in here.

Jim: Yes.

Ken: Maybe a few ballerinas are happy about that as well. So, tell me, you’re now the president of Local One, what does that mean? What is your role and responsibility as the president of the union?

Jim: My role is, one, to make sure that the more than 3,200 members of Local One are served, and the other is to make sure that our employers are served. I have an executive board. We’re the leadership and are elected by the membership of Local One. I have four business managers who, frankly, enforce our contracts with employers but also make sure that we’re providing good service and I oversee the negotiations of every employer’s contract. We have negotiations, we have grievances, we have issues, but I’m also supposed to be the lead promoter of the local. I’m supposed to be setting policy, I’m supposed to be a reflection of their sophistication and their honor and that’s every day, that’s something that I take very seriously.

Ken: I think a lot of us, again, mistakenly believe that Local One is just Broadway stagehands but it’s not, as you said, it’s television, it’s concerts, it’s industrials in certain venues.

Jim: That’s right. We can’t overlook the Metropolitan Opera House because, frankly, I have an equal amount of stagehands and shop workers at the Met Opera as I do on all of Broadway combined.

Ken: Wow.

Jim: Folks do not know that.

Ken: I did not know that.

Jim: The Metropolitan Opera House is the number one theatrical employer of not only Local One, but of the country, so 350 stagehands at the Met, it’s a 24 hour operation. They come down a little bit in the summer because the American Ballet Theater goes in there instead of a traditional opera schedule, but we have 350 stagehands there. And on Broadway, whatever the show is, it could be a greater amount of stage crew on the show, depending on how much the needs are. It could be less, but the load ins and load outs are a large part of our employment, and then the shows scale down. But the Met has as many as all of Broadway combined. Then you have the Lincoln Center, all of the industrials surrounding that, Radio City, Madison Square Garden, and we service every television network, and cable, so we’re pretty broad out there.

Ken: I can’t imagine the issues are the same in each media.

Jim: Totally, totally different. Even trying to explain that . . . I sit on the Central Labor Council, where predominantly they’ll say “Our contract’s up.” Like the NTA, “Our contract’s up with the city.” There are 75 contracts, so every venue, every space has its own contract. We actually have a benefit with the Broadway League where they represent 31 theaters with us where we can negotiate . . . the Nederlanders, the Shuberts, and Jujamcyn can negotiate a master agreement. But everybody else has their own individual agreement. They all have to be individually bargained and it’s ongoing. I have 12 open negotiations right now.

Ken: 12?

Jim: 12. We have to get a deal on each and then we have to move to the next set. That’s why we have four business agents as well.

Ken: It can’t be an easy gig for you, keeping members of the unions that’s at the opera and on Broadway happy.

Jim: Very true. It’s the same with employers, employers are comparing their contracts with everybody else and our members are saying, “Why are we not getting more or less?” It’s a delicate balance. We try to please everybody.

Ken: You’ve seen a lot of changes, I would imagine, in our industry over the past couple of decades. What’s the biggest change that you’ve noticed in your work?

Jim: For the union itself, the biggest changes are, one, the automation, which has reduced some of our crews for the shows like I was talking about, and the healthcare crisis has affected arguably every union and every organization across the country. With automation comes greater challenges because of the technical aspects, and we say this with respect, we’re no longer an industry of box pushers. Everybody brings a talent, everybody has added knowledge or added skill, and automation has increased requirements on the loads in on the tech periods, but when you get to the show, we break down into a smaller crew and that means that some of those folks that run the load in in the tech period are looking for work elsewhere. Again, as a matter of respect, even to our employers on Broadway, we’re now at a really successful period of time where there are shows in the theaters and there are folks backed up, waiting to come in. Some of our members would say, “Let’s wait for this show to leave and bring the next show in, because we have a load in period where we can actually be employed,” so that’s contrary to some of our producers, obviously, because they want their show to run for as long as possible, so it’s a balance that you have to deal with. The healthcare crisis, everybody’s dealing with it and we’re part of that as well and until somebody with a white horse comes across this country and changes something we’re all going to be dealing with it and our employers have, for the most part, acknowledged it and helped us with contributions.

Ken: Yeah, we’re all going through it. I have a healthcare crisis! I’m an ATPAM member, which is covered by IATSE now, but as a business owner, with my employees, we have an issue.

Jim: It’s a struggle.

Ken: One thing I’ve noticed about you is that you’re a very hands-on president. When I was a company manager and a general manager I would see you backstage, talking to people. As a producer, I remember having an issue on Godspell . I e-mailed you and you e-mailed back right away, we settled an issue with the business rep. Do you have a style of management that you would describe?

Jim: I appreciate you acknowledging that. My style is I get 110 e-mails a day and I try to respond to every e-mail in a moment’s notice because I know I’m going to get the following ones following. I’m sure you have the same thing. I get 90 phone calls a day, like somebody who has a leadership role. I try to tell my members, “You make a phone call, I’m going to return the call that day, because you need me if you called me that day.” The same thing with our employers because I respect their needs as well. My style is just to deal with it now because it’s not going away, and don’t deal with something later that you can take care of now. And I’m very, very sincere that I have to provide a service to both our members and to the employers and I need to do that with honor and I live by that.

Ken: I have a two minute rule, if I can respond or solve the problem within two minutes I have to do it right then. That’s what I tell me employees.

Jim: Well with us, I think I responded to you at midnight and you responded back. It was like, “Wham!” and, frankly, that’s the best time to get it done because you’re so much on the go. It is what it is.

Ken: Do you like dealing directly with producers? When producers e-mail you and say, “Hey, there’s an issue, can we talk about this?”

Jim: I’ll deal with anyone if it’s going to have a productive result. Frankly, there’s not a lot of producers that contact me directly. I’ve had producers that have contacted me and I’m glad to do that. I’m not going to say no to anybody if it’s going to have a result, I’m really not. First and foremost, I’m going to be available.

Ken: Who are your favorite producers and who are your least favorite? I’m kidding, you don’t have to answer that. I may know the answer to that question anyway! You were president during the one strike in the union’s hundred-plus year history in 2007. What was it about that time that made things come to such a head that they had never been at before, for both sides actually?

Jim: My view on that, I’m going to be honest and some of my friends on the other side of the table might not appreciate it, but I think it was a time where the producers were becoming more vocal and more demanding and the theatre owners in the past . . . and my job is to review the past and see the history . . . controlled our negotiations in the past and I saw a turn where the producers had more involvement. Frankly, it’s their money on the productions and they have demands and they want to see results and I saw that change. With the strike, which was unfortunate because nobody wanted a strike, I can tell you our own internal problems with our international was part of it. I’m going to say it. I think maybe our international at the time, because it’s totally different now, might have created politics that shouldn’t have been. We didn’t have the relationship back then that we do now. That’s actually healed really well. I’ve had relationships with folks in the Broadway League in the past and, you know what? They didn’t apologize, they wanted cuts, they wanted serious cuts, and it’s my job to protect the money that our folks are making. Again, we try to find that balance. They want to give us less and we want to make more and we try to find the middle ground. It was unfortunate that it came to that. I’d like to think that I matured out of that as well and try to get a better understanding and a better relationship with the same people.

Ken: That’s actually my next comment, after that strike, there have been one or two negotiations since that.

Jim: 2007 and 2010, so there’s been two. Actually, no, it was a five year deal so there’s been one. We go back to the table this summer.

Ken: I didn’t hear anything about the first negotiation, I haven’t really heard anything about the second, so it does feel like things have quietened down on the relationship front between the two parties.

Jim: It was very fragile right after the strike, and we all knew that. But I think everybody had a little bit of relief because, you know what? The result of that negotiation was we gave and we got and the Broadway League, they gave and they got, and both sides suffered. At the same time, I think there was also a bit of added respect for both sides and I’d like to believe that. Since then, we had a negotiation and it was very cordial. It was uneventful, frankly, but even since then, now I think the relationship has grown much, much better. Like I said, I’d like to think that I learned as much as maybe the other folks did and that we all figured that out a little bit better.

Ken: Looking ahead to the future a little bit . . . I ask your opinion on this really as an audience member as well as the president of the stagehand’s union . . . what do you think about telecasting? Broadway shows being shown in theatres around the country, like it is at the opera where they have a deal.

Jim: They do have a deal. I’m going to tell you, I don’t know if I have an educated guess. My opinion is that whatever promotion we could possibly do to sell tickets is a good thing, at a price that the audience can afford. Our concern at the Met was that the market was being challenged because of that, and until I see some sort of statistic I can’t really give an educated guess on that. At the end of the day, if we can get the shows out there and folks can see them, if it’s going to bring them into the theater, that’s a good thing. I don’t know if I’ve actually seen that at the Met, though, and that’s the only thing that I can really lead an example for.

Ken: I actually don’t know the answer to this question . . . Broadway doesn’t have a deal in place to do this. If we wanted to do this, if I was producing a Broadway show and I said, “You know what? I want to show this in movie theatres,” there’s some precedent there from shows that have done it, but there’s no formula for it.

Jim: There was an organization, this had to be 13-14 years ago, there was a Broadway television network that tried to bring up that concept and I think there was one example, a show years ago, Carol Burnett was in it, and they broadcast it. But that deal has since expired because it was untested and it wasn’t really something that worked. Pretty much now, if you did a broadcast, we would negotiate a buyout fee, as all the other unions would, for the folks who have creative involvement in the show but, no, there is no general agreement in place and, frankly, we’ve become accustomed that, if that came up, we would just sit down and we would negotiate a deal.

Ken: I joked about your favorite and least favorite producers but, all jokes aside, you’ve worked with a lot of them, you’ve seen a lot of them, you’ve negotiated with many of them, you’ve been at opening night parties with many of them, charity events. What are some of the qualities that you think make a great producer today, in this market?

Jim: For myself, I’m going to tell you, and I don’t know if it’s going to be a cliché, but a producer is just like anybody else.  If they’re creative and they have respect for the product they’re producing and the folks who are making that product and they’re prepared and they’re willing to acknowledge everybody’s input, to me, not only a producer but anybody in our industry, I’m going to appreciate that person. And I’m also going to respect them if they say, “Listen, there’s things that you can help us with.” I’m willing to listen to that. Again, it’s only what my authority can grab, at the end of the day. If I’m asking them to allow input I’m going to say, “Hey, why don’t you give us input as well?” Anybody who respects anybody’s opinion and involvement and allow creativity, I’m onboard with that.

Ken: You said you were interested in the labor movement as a whole, not just on Broadway.  Where do you see labor going in the next 20, 50 years?

Jim: You know what? New York City is the number one labor city in the country, if not the world, so the same struggles that are around the country right now are not necessarily existing now but they could come here. For folks who don’t care about the labor movement, versus somebody who maybe leads a labor organization, the challenges across the country, where states are trying to eliminate the ability for collective bargaining . . . and I think collective bargaining, overall, is a right that folks have to say like what I just said. Come to the table, talk about what each other’s requirements are, talk about whatever each other’s needs are and try to come to a mutual agreement. I thought I’d never see in my lifetime where there would be states suggesting that collective bargaining wasn’t a right for anybody in this country, or even the right to choose a union to represent them, and if it can happen in Wisconsin and it can happen in Indiana, it might take a whole lot of time but it could happen here as well. So unions as a whole are under attack. And maybe a lot of it is justified and I’d like to think, in the cases where I believe some locals are sophisticated and honorable and doing the right thing, providing a good service, I don’t think that’s right. To each their own, but I’d like to think that we’re more successful than most.

Ken: There are lots of jokes about producers out there and you made a comment that, “We’re not a union of box pushers anymore.” Are there any myths about stagehands that you’d like to dispel? What’s the biggest myth? When you’re like, “Not the ‘How many stagehands does it take to screw in a lightbulb?’ joke!” What irks you about some people’s perception of the powerful, almighty stagehand’s union?

Jim: The biggest thing that irks me, and it irks some of our members, is when it comes out in the press . . . it’s all fair game, and it comes out in the press . . . how much our stagehands earn. Usually it comes out before major negotiation and it’s all fun.

Ken: I wonder how that happens?

Jim: Again, that’s part of the process. It’s all love and war. That’s a small group that will earn that kind of money, but even when they put that kind of money in the paper it’s not telling the whole truth. So when they put in there that they’re making certain hundreds of thousands of dollars, that’s inclusive of their welfare coverage, their pension fund contribution, their sick day amount, and it’s kind of unfortunate because it’s very misleading. I’m not going to suggest that anybody from our crew is eating cat food at Carnegie Hall, but I will tell you that some of our members who are not coming close to those earnings are disturbed by the whole myth, which is a good word, that everybody is making that. Because I have a lot of members that are trying to get by and I have a lot of members that are in the median of earnings and I have a lot of members who are more fortunate than others making more. It’s just a general generalization that those making money at Carnegie Hall, which is still an expanded number, is not typical of everybody else. But, you know what? It’s all fair in love and war and you do what you’ve got to do.

Ken: All fair in love and labor. It’s funny, I never thought about that. You may get calls from producers saying, “I can’t believe these people make so much money!” but you also may get calls from members going, “I can’t believe they’re making that much money! I’m nog making that much money!”

Jim: Yeah, and they necessarily wouldn’t. Even the average member that makes a certain amount . . . if somebody makes $60,000, you’re not putting in the press that they’re making whatever it costs for their healthcare, so you add $10,000 on top of that, whatever their pension contribution is, you add another $10,000, whatever their sick day value is. No, the wage is the actual wage that they’re taking home each week and they’re adding at the end of the year. It’s unfortunate that the press cumulates all of the different contributions because it’s very misleading. Again, I’m not suggesting that some of our folks are not doing well, but not as well as people think.

Ken: Okay, my last question . . . I want you to imagine that the genie from Aladdin comes to your office, knocks on the door and says, “Jimmy, you’ve been a great president. You’re now on your fourth term, you’ve made a great commitment to Local One and to the labor movement. I’m going to grant you one wish. You can change whatever it is in our industry that drives you crazy, that upsets you, that keeps you up at night, whatever it is that really bugs you.” Answers to this have varied from sippy cups to ticket prices, so it can be just the one thing that really gets in your craw about this industry that, with the snap of a finger, that genie would change instantly. What would that one thing be?

Jim: I’ve got to come back to that. I’m going to think of something. Is that the last question?

Ken: That was the last question.

Jim: So you stumped me on the very last question. I’ve got to think about that. It’s interesting, because I’ve never really thought about that.

Ken: It could be all Sundays off so that you could spend time with your children.

Jim: If you want to know the big thing . . . New Year’s Eve. I don’t think that anybody should be out on New Year’s Eve. So, yes, if I’m really thinking about something that’s probably the thing that bothers me because I think that it’s dangerous out there. That’s unfortunate. But I also think that it’s a challenge for folks to get home. But what I’m thinking is that if that’s the only thing I can think of, things aren’t so bad, are they? Things are not so bad. I’m sure if I had some time I could think of something else but if that’s the only thing I can think of I think we’re doing okay. We’ve actually talked to the Broadway League about adjusting the schedule and trying to negotiate something because they recognize it as a problem.

Ken: It used to be that everybody did shows on New Year’s Eve, like everybody. When I was at Show Boat we had a champagne toast at midnight, it was a big deal. Now it’s much, much less.

Jim: It’s been addressed because, like I said, it’s unfortunate, but it has become pretty dangerous out there.

Ken: You get holiday pay for New Year’s Eve, right?

Jim: Not really.

Ken: No, New Year’s Day.

Jim: New Year’s Day, which is rare.

Ken: So we can work New Year’s Day.

Jim: We can work New Year’s Day. It is what it is.

Ken: Jimmy, thank you so much for spending time with me and the listeners today. Before I asked you to do this I told one of my peers that I was hoping to get you on the podcast and one of my peers literally said, “He will never do it.” And as you indicated before, you responded to my request to do this faster than anyone else I’ve asked and you said, and I quote, in that e-mail, “If an interview will help promote our industry I will gladly do it.” So thank you, Jimmy, for spending time with me today and for reminding all of us that, even  though we’re on opposite sides of the table sometimes, as a whole, we’re on the same team, all rooting for the success of Broadway. Thanks to all of you for listening, thanks for being here. Don’t forget to subscribe to the blog and the podcast. Fun guests are coming up, including an actual Tony nominator. Tune in next time!

Ken: You’ve been listening to the Producer’s Perspective Podcast. This episode was sponsored by the Tony-nominated play Hand to God. New York Magazine says “Hand to God is irresistible, intelligent and heartbreaking. It’s Broadway’s unlikeliest new must-see play.” Get tickets to Hand to God at Telecharge.com.

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