Canuck unions blue over group

Performance troupe lacks collective agreement, draws protest

TORONTO — The Blue Men and the Blue Collars finally faced off last week.

On June 19, when Blue Man Group opened the latest outpost of its franchise here, audience members were greeted by nearly 300 protestors outside the Panasonic Theater.

The demonstrators were largely from Toronto’s three major live production unions: Canadian Actors’ Equity Assn., the Toronto Musicians’ Union and Local 58 of IATSE.

At issue was the fact that Blue Man Group “has never been a signatory to a collective agreement with any union,” says one of its founding members, Matt Goldman.

Since opening in 1991 at the Astor Place Theater, the Dada-esque performance group has known great success in New York, Chicago, Boston, Las Vegas and Berlin, all without the benefit of unions.

Chris Wink, another founding member, insists that “American Equity never considered what we do to be under their jurisdiction because we’re under the performance art tradition,” which Actors’ Equity spokeswoman Maria Somma verified.

But Susan Wallace, executive director of CAEA, didn’t care. “This has always been a union town,” she says, “And it’s going to stay that way.”

She got the TMA and IATSE to join with her and, on March 31, after running into a brick wall with Blue Man, they began a highly publicized boycott of the show.

Negotiations of a sort continued for months, with Blue Man offering to pay any out-of-pocket dues or fees the unions demanded, which the organizations seemed to think missed the point.

“They thought we were greedy bastards out for a buck,” says IATSE’s Kevin Mahoney. “They didn’t understand that the important thing to all of us was principles, not money.”

The Blue Men went before the Ontario Labor Relations Board, charging harassment and asking that the informational pickets outside the theater be declared illegal.

The OLRB decided in favor of the unions, and most of the press coverage around the opening centered on the demonstration rather than the show.

Reviewers were largely lukewarm, with Robert Cushman of the National Post summing it up when he wrote that “the show is by turns charming, annoying and boring.”

As for the box office, Manny Igrejas, Blue Man head of PR, was claiming a C$650,000 $527,000 advance before opening. Although he insists that’s a record for Blue Man shows, it certainly seems small by Toronto standards.

The whole thing will play out over the next few months, and whether Clear Channel’s enormous investment will pay off remains to be seen. As Goldman prophetically said a few months ago, “At the end of the day, we want to let the people of Toronto decide.”

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