Theater Workers Build Mutual Aid Networks During COVID Crisis: ‘My Extended Family’



Janet Cadmus/IATSE

Theater Workers Build Mutual Aid Networks During COVID Crisis: ‘My Extended Family’

Nationwide, members of IATSE are using their skills and resources to help each other out as industry shutdowns drag on




Paul Arebalo was finishing his latest national theatre tour when the news hit: national guidelines by the Center for Disease Control in response to the COVID-19 pandemic were forcing stage productions on Broadway and across the nation to shut down.

“It was really frightening to just see all the jobs vanish,” said Arebalo, who has worked for several years as an assistant carpenter and flyman on theatrical crews. “My tour of ‘Miss Saigon’ was one of the last to end. There were still construction jobs that I could apply for but there’s no guarantee that those jobs would have been safe with the virus still spreading.

Arebalo is one of more than 135,000 members of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees that has found themselves out of a job because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Even as states attempt to reopen the economy to varying degrees, that’s little comfort to these workers as advisories against large public gatherings like stage plays are likely to stay in place at least through the end of the year. In New York, the Public Theater’s annual run of Shakespeare in the Park has been canceled for the first time ever, and its Los Angeles counterpart in Griffith Park has been forced to do the same.

But Arebalo and other IATSE members tell TheWrap that if there is any silver lining to be found, it is in the relationships they have built with fellow union members through mutual aid programs that have helped provide different forms of relief during the shutdown. Prior to the pandemic, Arebalo had been involved with the communications team for IATSE Local 205 in Austin, in which plans quickly fell in place to create a Facebook group in which members could share information on the unemployment and stimulus check application process as well as volunteer opportunities to help provide each other with food, face masks, and other essential goods.

“We had one member who had access to a 3D printer, and he was asking members to leave out recyclable plastic bottles that he could pick up and use to create face shields for hospitals,” Arebalo said. “We also have over 45 members who are making calls to our entire local checking up on them to see if they need anything.”

Similar programs have been launched by other locals and by IATSE’s national leadership. The union has created a volunteer program aimed specifically to aid retired members who are particularly vulnerable to contracting the virus. The program, IATSE Young Workers, allows retirees to request grocery and medication deliveries from a fellow union member in their area.

Greg Reeves, vice president of Local 728 in Burbank, has also launched a version of that delivery and phone call support program in Los Angeles. He’s networked dozens of members in need to those who can provide food and other resources, and it has gotten to the point where the supply has outgrown the demand.

“I think what’s been really moving is that I have gotten more calls from people asking what they can do to help than calls for help. Even those who really need assistance want to help others first,” Reeves says. “It’s actually become a process to get people to understand that it is okay to ask for help as well if they are in bad need of it.”

Some workers have even been able to use their job skills to provide aid. Janet Cadmus, a member of IATSE Local 28 in Portland, has worked as both a costume ager and dyer for film and TV productions and as a designer of hats and other accessories for shows on Broadway. Her wide-ranging costume work has taken her across the country, most notably as part of the national tour of “Wicked” for over six years.

But the pandemic hit at the worst time for her. She was planned to move across the country to Pittsburgh, where more jobs may have been available. With theaters shut down, she was left wondering where her next source of income could possibly come from.

“I recently sold my house so I’ve been able to rely on the funds from that, but I’ve been forced to really keep an eye on my budget. I still haven’t gotten my stimulus check in the mail,” she said.

But despite her struggles, she took time to join her local’s volunteer program that organized costume workers to make face masks for members as well as medical caps and gowns for nursing facilities. Some of the material Cadmus used was bought herself, while some was also provided by her fellow volunteers.

“So far, I’ve made around 130 masks,” she says. “But there are times when it becomes very overwhelming. Even when I’m listening to a podcast, I’m still working on something that keeps my mind on this terrible situation. So there’s times where I just have to stop and step away from the sewing machine.”

For now, Cadmus is continuing to make masks whenever she can as she steadily makes her way across the country to Pittsburgh. In the meantime, the relationships that she has made through her union and through her years on stage productions has helped her hold on through such a difficult time.

“I don’t have deep roots anywhere, but I have little roots everywhere through my work,” she says. “They have become my extended family.I have leaned on them through illness, through family deaths, through so much. I feel like I have a nationwide network of people who have helped me through this time.”

Reeves has known for a long time how important a union can be on a personal level. He faced financial struggles like this during the 2007 writers strike in Hollywood, which shut down many TV productions that he relied on for work as a lighting technician. Through the union, he was able to find financial help through organizations like the Actors Fund and the Motion Picture and Television Fund.

“You never see a pandemic as an opportunity but it is one to see the value of being in a union,” Reeves says. “Usually we’re all working and we don’t really talk to each other. But this period where we are not working has shown how we can step in to help, especially when we are all facing unemployment, which can be so isolating. This is why we pay the dues, so that when we face such widespread uncertainty, we don’t have to face it alone.”






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