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Life Upon the British Stage

George Bernard Shaw once said America and England are two countries separated by a common language. Like most epigrams, there's a strong element of truth in his statement. The British live on the other side of The Pond, drive on the other side of the road, and do things differently on the other side of the footlights (both sides, actually).

Harriet Slaughter, director of labor relations at the League of American Theatres and Producers, learned a little about those differences this winter when she participated in a work exchange with the Society of London Theatres (SOLT), the trade association that represents the interests of theatre managers and producers for the West End. (Another group, the Theatre Managers Association, or TMA, represents grant-aided theatres and regional theatres.)

Sitting in on SOLT and TMA industrial relations—"labor relations" here—confabs, Slaughter watched as SOLT negotiated with the stage technicians and TMA negotiated with British Equity. "I was also interviewing theatre owners and producers to see if there is a difference between the two sectors," she told Back Stage. "What I discovered, of course, is that there are things that are similar, but there are certainly differences.

"For instance, over here the production stage manager holds the book; over there, the first stage manager actually is responsible for the stage in terms of directing all the stage hands and stage technicians as to what work has to be done. They are more in the technician area. The assistant stage manager over there is the one who is on the book and acts in coordination with the director in carrying out the director's intention. The stage manager on plays can also be a company manager; it's very typical, especially with smaller subsidized productions."

Under the technician's contract, there is no prop department, Slaughter said. "The stage managers shop the props, maintain the props, on musicals especially. Stage managers also can, and often do, run sound cues, literally at the board. There is much more crossing over of lines."

In professional theatre in America, Slaughter said, there is frequently the attitude of "Oh, I can't press that button," whereas in England "there is more the feeling of 'Let's get this show on.' "

"We are so delineated here, as to who can do what. And of course, that results in more personnel being hired." And as any producer knows, more personnel means more overhead, and more overhead means higher ticket prices.

With so many more responsibilities, one might assume British stage managers earn more than their American counterparts. Not so, says Slaughter. They make less.

The differences between Americans and the British aren't only apparent backstage, Slaughter said. They're also evident front-of-house.

"Two things struck me," she said. "First, because of the subsidy situation in England, there is a cooperation between the unions and management, an understanding that there is only so much money, and that philosophically the parties work together to try to create employment, rather than trying to create higher salaries. There is so much communication, whether from British Equity or the stagehands' union, in terms of 'What can we do to improve the situation?'

"Also, it seemed to me that it is more of a country of readers. Television does not dominate their society like it dominates us here. Whether you're talking to a shopkeeper or someone driving a cab or working in a hotel, there is an awareness of the theatre and people have theatre as part of their culture.

"Because the price of theatre tickets is lower, it is accessible to more people. It's a part of their fabric."

A member of SOLT will come to America, "probably in the fall," to observe how we Yanks go through the process of negotiating in the next round of collective bargaining.

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