Associate directors and choreographers on Broadway and on tour are nearing an agreement for employer-backed healthcare and other protections for the first time.
The development comes after associates asked the Broadway League for voluntary recognition of the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society as their union. Associate choreographers and directors have been one of the rare non-unionized groups on Broadway. SDC says voluntary union recognition has been granted.
“We have engaged in a productive dialogue with SDC regarding associate directors and choreographers and look forward to those discussions continuing,” said Charlotte St. Martin, president of the Broadway League.
The League had no further comment on the agreement or the discussions.
The League and SDC are currently working to finalize an interim agreement, according to SDC, which would include employer healthcare and pension contributions and set safety standards for associate choreographers and directors working full time to maintain Broadway productions. That agreement would be retroactive to November 2021 and would cover 27 associates. The parties will then work to negotiate a comprehensive agreement.
The idea of representation for associates has been brewing since about 2015. Spurred by the Broadway reopening, a group of associates created a formal organizing campaign this past summer, leading to associates on nine Broadway shows signing union authorization cards. Associates began talks with the Broadway League in August and later presented a petition signed by associates on more than 40 productions.
“Union protections are essential to creating a more equitable workplace,” said Laura Penn, executive director of SDC. “Minimum terms and conditions must be in place as the industry opens its doors to historically underrepresented workers, and it’s time to provide protections to those who are well into their careers without benefits.”
The job of associate director and choreographer can include rehearsing understudies and swings, conducting auditions, maintaining long-running shows, helping launch multiple productions and generally acting as a conduit between the creative team and other departments. The demands of the roles increased this season, as long-running productions and new shows opened after the theatrical shutdown and as the industry grappled with new health and safety protocols.
At “Hadestown,” for example, associates helped director Rachel Chavkin juggle tech week for the Broadway show, while also starting rehearsals for its national tour.
“It would be impossible to maintain a long-running show, or even really mount a limited run without an associate,” said Chavkin, who is also an SDC board member. “They do totally critical work and are really part of the team, along with stage management and dance captains, to keep the building running.”
As associates re-entered the workplace during the pandemic, health care coverage became a particularly critical issue, said Katie Spelman, former associate choreographer of “Moulin Rouge!” and co-chair of the organizing committee for associates. In the past, associates were not guaranteed health care coverage from theatrical employers, but could negotiate on an individual basis. This led to unequal representation and tended to favor more experienced associates.
“I think that they deserve to be on equal footing with everyone else in the room, especially given all the growth the industry has had and the conversations the industry has had around equity,” Spelman said.
Working as an associate can be a first step to becoming a director or choreographer. Spelman hopes introducing set minimums encourages more asocciates to enter the industry.
“I think it’s going to open up the doors to folks that may have financially or healthwise been trepidatious about moving into it,” she said.