Building a Sustainable Theater: How to Remove Gatekeepers and Take Control of Your Artistic Career

Chapter 5: How Artists Went from Being Owners to Employees

So how did we get from Shakespeare, the owner who became wealthy enough to buy the second-most expensive house in Arden when he retired, to the desperate performers begging for a job in A Chorus Line? Well, it’s kind of a long story, and a bit of a tangent, but I do think it’s helpful to understand that the status quo didn’t just appear—poof!—on the streets of midtown Manhattan.

What makes it a hard story to tell is that it concerns a period of history and a practice of capitalism that are often skipped over in histories of America and also of American theater. We don’t like to tell stories of the Gilded Age and the Robber Barons, or as more forgiving historians refer to them, the Great American Capitalists. We’re talking about the Vanderbilts, the Mellons, the Carnegies, the Astors, the Rockefellers — all “captains of industry” who acquired massive fortunes through corruption, monopoly, and rampant individuality. The rise of the Theatrical Syndicate was part of this period of American history.

Many theater history textbooks portray the American theater as having barely existed until the early 20th century, when it apparently sprung, Athena-like, from the high forehead of playwright Eugene O’Neill. Any mention of what came before is usually confined to references to Uncle Tom’s Cabin and possibly few other melodramas. The Theatrical Syndicate, “which, in a brief time, dominated the theatrical business of the whole country,” rarely gets more than a passing a mention.

 Another thing that makes this story hard to tell is that it makes me angry.

The Situation Prior to the Syndicate

Let’s start with a single fact that I suspect will surprise you as much as it did me. According to Bill McKibben’s book Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities:

"In 1900, in the state of Iowa alone, which was then crowded with small farmers, there were also thirteen hundred local opera houses, all of them hosting concerts. “Thousands of tenors,” writes Robert Frank [in his book Luxury Fever], “earned adequate, if modest, livings performing before live audiences.”

One thousand three hundred performance spaces. In Iowa. In 1900.
The same was true across the country. Often, one of the first things that was built in a new town was an “opera house” (i.e., rooms for performances to take place). They weren’t necessarily elaborate, but they were important to townspeople. Music, theater, dance were all important to communities, no matter how small, and performers were able to support themselves providing that entertainment.

Across the country, there were resident stock companies of actors regularly providing their communities with plays. In addition, these companies would often maintain an ongoing relationship with famous actor-managers such as Edwin Forrest, Edwin Booth, Joseph Jefferson, Charlotte Cushman, Minnie Madern Fiske, Richard Mansfield and many others including Eugene O’Neill’s father, James O’Neill, who would often tour his popular production of The Count of Monte Cristo. These actor-managers were stars who would arrive in town to perform plays from their repertoire with the local company. The star, of course, would attract a larger crowd than normal, thus providing additional income for the local performers in addition to a healthy paycheck for the actor-manager, who would then continue on to the next town where he or she had a connection.

In other words, up until the formation of the Theatrical Syndicate, the profession was mainly in the hands of artists, not business men. There were, of course, booking agents who would make arrangements for the tours, but they were hired by the actor-managers and had no hand in decisions of what plays would be done, when they would be done, and who would perform them.

That all changed in 1896.

The Birth of the Theatrical Syndicate

Early in 1896, a group of powerful and wealthy men met at the newly constructed Holland House on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. Each of them controlled a string of theaters in different parts of the country: Charles Frohman in the West, Klaw and Erlanger in the South, Nixon and Zimmerman in Philadelphia and throughout Ohio, and Al Hayman owned the Empire Theater and the Knickerbocker Theater in New York City. These theater men were frustrated. They believed that the “making of routes for theatrical attractions in the United States was in a most disorganized and economically unsound condition.” By which they meant that they found it difficult to maximize profits. Sometimes the touring company would arrive in a town only to find another theater offering the same play they had brought; sometimes they had to discontinue a successful run because another production had booked the theater. Worse still, they felt they were at the mercy of the actor-managers who had the power to force them to pay more for a production than they wanted to.

They decided, according to Daniel Frohman, Charles’s brother, who wrote an admiring account of the formation of the Syndicate in his biography Charles Frohman: Manager and Man, that the “only economic hope was in the centralization of booking interests….Within a few weeks they had organized all the theaters they controlled or represented into one national chain. It now became possible,” Daniel crowed, “for the manager of a traveling company to book a consecutive tour at the least possible expense. In a word, booking suddenly became standardized.” And centralized.

To put it in business terms, their solution was to create a monopoly. And not just a monopoly within a single city; it was a national monopoly. They formed a “combination corporation” that included all of the theaters they each controlled, which were booked centrally through Klaw and Erlanger. They then quickly bought up additional theaters across the country, forming a circuit. As theater historian Landis K. Magnuson writes in Circle Stock Theater: Touring American Small Towns, 1900-1960, this was a crucial move:

"The image of the “circuit” is misleading when called upon to describe the true strength and backbone of the Syndicate, however. Rather, the image of a passage through a narrow corridor is somewhat more helpful in reconstructing the Syndicate’s methods, because the Syndicate put to use its holdings in theater property in a way unlike any other management organization of the period. Although the Syndicate controlled the bulk of first-class theaters in the major metropolitan centers, the fact that it controlled the theaters in communities located between such theater centers provided its true source of power. Without access to these smaller towns, non-Syndicate companies simply could not afford the long jumps from one chief city to another. Thus the Syndicate actually needed to own or manage only a small percentage of this nation’s theaters in order to effectively dominate the business of touring theatrical productions–to monopolize 'the road.'”

It is important to emphasize that the economics of theater in the late 19th century were different than now. Long runs in New York were not the major source of income that they are today, when travel is easy and tourism provides much of the Broadway audience; at that time, the real money was to be found on the road. You brought the show to the people.

The Resistance

As you might imagine, the actor-managers quickly recognized the threat the Syndicate posed. Francis Wilson was one of the staunchest and most vocal “stars” to speak out. “How did these managers, this Syndicate, obtain footing in the theatrical profession,” Wilson demanded, “which was once, not long since, in possession of the actor and the actor manager? How came they in a profession in which they are really unnecessary?” The answer, of course, was money. “To my mind,” Wilson continued

"the [Syndicate] managers had determined to wipe out of existence the control of any company by an actor, because such control was inimical to their plans. It was evident to me from the beginning that, with the Syndicate in control, the receipts of all companies must satisfy the greed and caprice of that organization, or the companies would be abandoned. They would have no theaters in which to play. It was a forgone conclusion that the kind of play produced would be that which drew the most money, irrespective of its quality or character. There would be but one thought as to that. The receipts were the thing. It was an easy step to the conclusion that the financial returns from the smaller cities and towns throughout the country would ultimately fail to satisfy….I did not foresee the complete abandonment of the smaller cities and towns, as to dramatic amusement, which has come to pass, except for moving pictures."

Actor-managers who signed with the Syndicate no longer controlled where and with whom they could perform, nor what plays they could do. “Henceforth,” continued Wilson, “he must appear only where he would be allowed!...It was lamentable to be obliged to appeal to any one at all for the privilege of pursuing my profession, but there it was…[This was] an assault upon my profession by a band of commercial exploiters.” In case you missed it, Wilson and most other leading performers were outraged that they had lost control of the means of production and were having to ask permission of businessmen to practice their art. Wilson continued:

"The Syndicate went on unhindered for years, doing as it pleased, making things easier for itself and more difficult and intolerable for everyone else, actors, dramatists, and other managers outside its ranks. It decided when and where a play should appear, or whether it should appear at all, and even what monetary share it should have in the play. It decided what changes a play should undergo after acceptance, no matter to what well-meant but ignorant maltreatment it was subjected. It decided that a season’s engagement should last but a few nights, and were brutally frank about it. It paid what it pleased, when it pleased, and where it pleased, and under conditions and agreements so one-sided, so far as the actor was concerned, as to be laughed out of court when, as occasionally happened, they reached there."

In 1901, a journalist named Norman Hapgood wrote a book entitled The Stage in America, 1897-1900 that echoed Wilson’s assessment. “The trust [i.e., The Theatrical Syndicate] grew out of the love of money,” he wrote. “It is wholly commercial.” The Syndicate “must aim only at overwhelming success.” See if his description of situation at the turn of the 20th century doesn’t bear a striking resemblance to that of the 21st century, and not just in theater but in movies as well.

"Moderate returns are usually the reward of really high-class plays, so this situation [i.e., the dominance of the Syndicate] means the survival of the mediocre….Nothing does more than the existence of this powerful association to prevent the growth of American drama. Charles Frohman, who almost alone supplies [the Syndicate] with plays, avoids risk by accepting only dramas already tested abroad or the work of playwrights already established….The Syndicate managers, however, do not try to reproduce the successes of Sudermann, Hauptmann, or Ibsen, or to encourage in any way the sterner aspects of the drama in America. They dread anything austere or tragic. It means to them the same as unpleasant or dull. Obviously, therefore, actors are kept from showing talent in some higher lines as surely as are playwrights.
A few famous actor-managers saw the writing on the wall and immediately signed on with the Syndicate, accepting lucrative contracts because the Syndicate saw them as important jewels in their crown that might persuade others to follow suit. But a handful joined forces to resist. Sarah Bernhardt, for instance, refused to allow herself to be controlled and toured America performing in tents! Others rented independent theaters and made impassioned curtain speeches prior to each performance informing the audience of what was happening. But one by one, they all were forced to give in. The last holdout was Minnie Maddern Fiske."

The New Model

The Syndicate toured entire productions cast in New York. Gone were the days of local stock companies providing a season of plays that occasionally included a visit from a touring star. Now theater managers in towns across America were provided a series of productions booked by Erlanger and Klaw. If you didn’t want to sign on with the Syndicate, they would book another nearby theater and run you out of business. Nobody could compete. You either gave in, or went out of business.

As a result, casting became increasingly centralized in New York, where the productions originated. Performers making a modest living in towns across America suddenly found themselves out of work. If they wanted to continue in their chosen profession, they had to move to New York City in order to try to get cast in a touring production. Gone was the possibility of a stable home in a community—their life was on the road.

 If all this sounds familiar, it’s not surprising—little has changed since 1900. Theater is still controlled by risk-averse commercial producers and theater owners who are interested only in using theater to make a tremendous profit through the production of shallow, pleasant plays, most of which have already been successful in other media or other places. And theater artists are pressured to live in New York in order to have a hope of making a living, because regional theaters across America do most, if not all, of their casting there. Artists are thought of and think of themselves as employees who must ask permission (i.e., audition or interview) in order to do their art, and are told who they will work with, when they will work, and where they will work.

If your first impulse is to shrug and say “that’s just the way it is,” that might be because over the past 125 years theater artists have internalized the values of the Syndicate to the point where we romanticize the lack of control. If Klaw and Erlanger had written a musical to celebrate their triumph, it would have been A Chorus Line, an entire play based on desperation, anxiety, and anonymity. Every theater artist is now Cassie, a talented dancer begging to be chosen, whose most passionate line points the way toward a powerful truth now lost: “God, I’m a dancer, / A dancer dances!” And an actor acts, a director directs, and a designer designs. But the phrase she says most often during the course of her song reflects her desperate reality: give me. Ten times she says this phrase, and others that are similar: give me, help me, put me to work, use me, choose me. That’s the life of the theater artist in the world created by the Theatrical Syndicate.

Until we become owners, we’re all Cassie.

When I say that it is time for the theater artist to “take back the means of production,” I’m using a term used by Marx to differentiate the social classes, and I’m using it in exactly the same way he did: to reflect the individual’s (or the group’s) relationship to ownership and control. In an industrial model, owners (bourgeois) possessed and controlled the factory (place), the technology (machines), and the materials (steel, cotton, etc.); the workers (proletariat), having no access to the means of production, sold their labor for a wage or salary. It’s this economic model that the Theatrical Syndicate instituted in theater in 1896.

The Syndicate purchased the theaters (places); the scenery, costumes, lights (technology); and the plays (materials); the artists (actors, directors, designers, stage managers, etc.) sold their labor for a wage or salary. We need look no further than the formation of the Actors’ Equity Association in 1913. The AEA is a traditional labor union, and as such it tacitly accepts this class division. The purpose of Equity was not to restore control to the artists, but rather to make sure that the wages paid to their members were reasonable and the working conditions were humane. This was no different than the AFL, the CIO, the UAW or any other worker’s organization being organized at that time. Equity membership accepts that artists are employees (i.e., laborers/proletariat), and embraces the belief that the only power they have, like any other unionized worker, comes from the ability to withhold labor (strike), which is what they did in 1919 and 1929 to force the owners (producers) to hire only union members and follow union regulations. (It is also what the Writers Guild of America, the Screen Actors Guild, and the American Federation of Television and Radio Actors did in 2023.) 

The thing that differentiates Actors Equity from other unions, and that makes the job of the leaders of Equity much more difficult, is that unlike most workers, theater artists genuinely love their jobs, so it is extremely difficult to get them to exercise their power to strike, which have been almost non-existent since 1929. (The recent strikes in Hollywood notwithstanding.) On the contrary, they will often revolt against their own union if they feel that a rise in wages will result in the owners putting on fewer productions and thereby reduce the number of opportunities to use their talent.

Actors, for instance, have fought hard for the right to work for nothing or next to nothing in 99-seat theaters across the country. In 2015, according to Playbill, “Members of Actors Equity Association in Los Angeles…voted 2,046 to 1,075 against their union’s plan to require the city’s 99-seat theaters to start paying actors a $9 hourly minimum wage. Most actors at those theaters currently work for far less, or nothing, but many oppose the pay plan because they fear the union demand will stifle the theaters and result in substantially less work.” [italics mine]

There is one crucial difference between someone who works in the theater and someone who works in some other industry: they’re artists. The wage or salary they receive, while important for providing access to the basics of life, is secondary to the joy of creativity. The reward is the satisfaction of doing the work itself. The thrill of being in a hit play isn’t about making a salary longer, but about being able to continue to do the work as long as possible. The intensity we see in the characters of A Chorus Line is only partly driven by economic considerations, it’s the desire to be allowed to create. That is the driving force. Again, Cassie: “To have something that I can believe in. To have something to be. Use me. Choose me.”

And that’s never going to change. Artists love their art. It’s what sets them apart. Which is why they will never fit into an industrial economic model of owners and workers. It drives them crazy. It drives them to vote against a $9/hr wage because it will reduce their creative outlets.

It is why artists must be in charge of the means of production.

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