Theatrical Sound Designers and Composers Association

by Michael Roth

Please note: Originally written in early December of 2016, revised March of 2017.

Like many TSDCA members, I have many friends and colleagues who have been involved with La Jolla Playhouse (LJP) and UCSD. I’m very proud to have worked at La Jolla many times, starting with its rebirth in 1983 (for a time as resident composer) and to have worked as guest artist at UCSD often as well. And, like many, I first became aware that there was something troubling involving the production staff of both institutions back in November, 2016, when a flood of Facebook messages erupted into the world.  I have many friends involved with both institutions and frankly care about them all – institutionally and personally. Troubling times for institutions are troubling- for the institutions and for colleagues who work there, for all concerned.  And tough times for friends and colleagues at both institutions are, well, troubling.

Out of concern for my friend, TSDCA member Joe Huppert, the audio and video supervisor at LJP and the UCSD theatre department for 9 years who was directly affected, in December, 2016, I asked if he would be willing to share some information and thoughts about what happened. Whatever the mission of TSDCA as a young organization, and the experience of our various members, it’s clear what happened at UCSD, La Jolla, and Joe is relevant, important, and sobering too.

A pianist who spent 15 years with Second City in Chicago and became a sound designer after study at De Paul and Yale, Joe is also a disabled veteran. He worked in Army Intelligence in Germany for two years. It’s perhaps relevant to add, in today’s America, that as circumstances in La Jolla will lead to an ending of his health benefits from those institutions, he will now get them from the Army.

These are edited excerpts from Joe, compiled from e-mails, Facebook postings, a lengthy phone call, and Joe’s summary and timeline, sent to me and others. 

Finally, since a few months have passed since Joe and i talked and we put together this article, I asked Joe if he would provide us with an update, and he has, which follows this article.

Production department heads are UC (University of California) employees under a joint staff agreement with LJP (La Jolla Playhouse), as are other key members of the production staff. There are also UC only and LJP only employees, all of whom work on shows for both institutions as needed by supervisors. Department heads had been working to at least have their compensation in parity with other supervisors in similar positions, as promised by the administration. The pay a supervisor receives to support both a full year round season at LJP and a 9 month season at UCSD in five venues is less than many supervisors around the country and on other UC campuses who only support one theater department or one regional theater.


July 2014: When supervisors advocated for equitable pay, administrators for both institutions said it was deserved, but the theater department is in an ongoing budget crisis and can’t afford it. Knowing that UCSD production funds are short, supervisors suggest several solutions, including revising the LJP production calendar to mesh better with the UCSD calendar, stricter adherence to design deadlines to maximize efficiency, and a review of the sharing deal to make sure that it remains equitable. This arrangement was made before LJP went to year round production, and a small adjustment to reflect LJP’s increased production tempo might support the funding the department desperately needs to continue producing student shows. Administrators from both institutions opposed any review of the sharing arrangement.

August 2014: LJP hires a new production management team; in order to increase efficiency and lower costs, the new team explicitly says it favors conflict as a management technique. Unfortunately, the team lacks experience working in a shared production department or an academic institution. Production management wants exclusive attention to LJP shows, ignoring the staff’s obligations to the theater department which are mandated in their employment contracts.

September 2014: A UC management consultant is brought in to assess the issues with budgets and workload in the shared department. He also takes over management responsibilities for the theater department for several months.

October 2014: A joint staff member and other staff resign or are let off contract and are not replaced.

December 2014: Consultant report is completed, the first outside look at the state of the department and the relationship with LJP. UCSD theater department management suppresses the report.

January 2015: “Darrell Hammond Project” goes into tech, LJP production management decides that deadlines for load in are earlier than scheduled, and tries to discipline staff for not meeting new deadlines they didn’t know about or plan for. Actual deadlines are still met – but trust is impaired.

March 2015: UCSD administration denies knowing that several open UC staff positions had not been filled for 6 months. They promise to fill them, but two days later, LJP confirms that it will no longer hire any joint staff positions, and positions remain unfilled. Production departments are prevented from hiring to restore the full complement of staff. The Dean orders the release of the consultant’s report about the financial state of the department and its relationship with LJP. Shortly thereafter, two administrators are reassigned. The Dean’s office announces an across the board small percentage increase for supervisors, which doesn’t fully cover increases in employee contributions to benefits, rather than an equity increase as promised.

July 2015: LJP production management sits in on performance evaluations of supervisors, as has been the case for years, but slams them with fictional or misinformed complaints, revealing a lack of knowledge about how the production department operates. Supervisors report this to UC, and the evaluations are immediately rescinded and reevaluated with the usual superior performance marks by UC production management. UC starts saying that LJP production management is a “work director” rather than a “supervisor,” beginning a campaign to make UC and LJP not appear to be legally joint employers and indemnify UC from the adverse personnel actions by LJP against UC employees.

October 2015: LJP tries to replace a joint staff associate supervisor position which they’ve held vacant for a year with their own LJP person, bypassing the shop supervisor and UCSD. UCSD instead interviews candidates found by LJP and candidates found by UC, picks the most qualified candidate and hires on a 9-month full time UC rather than joint staff or LJP contract. UCSD denies responsibility for actions or inactions by LJP. UCSD supervisors are helpless to support their staff without backup from the administration. LJP has also been steadily refusing to adjust compensation for staff employed by LJP or support any hiring by UC, and puts in place a punitive wage freeze which lasts over a year, preventing any increases for LJP production staff even in cases of promotion to additional responsibilities. LJP management later denies that this wage freeze was ever implemented. The staff holds a vote for union representation in order to get protection that supervisors can no longer offer, and it succeeds in a landslide. Union negotiations, which will last for over a year, begin.

June 2016: LJP advertises the job of LJP Sound and Video Supervisor for four days without notifying the person who is still in that job or UCSD, and explains that they want their own full time supervisor, and were just looking for resumes (although clearly they intended for only a specific person to apply). Production explicitly tells supervisor to be replaced (Joe) that a younger person is better suited to the job. Although it is now indisputable that a divorce is imminent, LJP and UC won’t say anything about how this would work, and no one is talking about it to staff or faculty. Staff concludes on their own that it would be crazy to do the separation before April of 2017, so as to coincide with the LJP fiscal year and the end of the academic year. Staff also conclude that it must not be coming soon since no one has consulted them about how to it. It seems obvious that such a big shift in two production departments would need the input of the people who manage them.

July 2016: Two faculty members abruptly resign, leaving the department short in video and with no sound design faculty at all. Department still accepts a new MFA candidate in sound design.

August 2016: Production manager gives two week notice and takes another job, leaving the associate production manager running the department, while a search is done in the midst of union negotiations and the upcoming divorce from UCSD. UCSD announces a major funding deal with the Chancellor and the EVC that appears to solve the department’s budget problems for the next five years, relieving stress on the staff. Simultaneously, UCSD and LJP begin requesting inventories and other paperwork from shops clearly related to an upcoming reorganization, but still refuse to discuss anything with staff or faculty even under direct questioning.

September 2016: Staff find out via social media that LJP has hired a personal friend of the former PM into the sound and video shop with no input from UC or supervisor, but LJP won’t discuss it or say what position is being filled or created. Eventually the PM verifies that the new person will start in November, without addressing what their job will be. This implies that the breakup might happen in November, but supervisors still can’t believe that and conclude that only the sound supervisor will be replaced involuntarily.

November 2016: UC announces layoffs of the entire UC employed production staff. Not just joint staff, a specific category of employees whose compensation is agreed to be funded 50% by LJP and 50% by UC, but also UPTE union staff unaffiliated with LJP. Due to the severe financial consequences to UC of this split, they also demote the union positions they still need, and will reopen immediately, by an entire pay grade. This both reduces costs and avoids the appearance of age discrimination and retaliation that a layoff of only joint staff members would have created. UCSD also explains that the funding deal announced in August was contingent on this reorganization taking place. This means UCSD and LJP knew since at least August and probably for much longer that the reorganization would take place in November, and decided not to involve staff or faculty in the process. LJP has no reaction. No public comments, no coordinated layoff/rehire/employment assistance information for laid off staff, some of whom had worked for LJP for 20-35 years, no plan for how they would continue to produce under the new structure. A month after the layoffs, LJP had still not put forth any plan, offered any public comment, or made any offers to long term staff. This, despite the fact that the layoffs were mandated by LJP refusing to pay their share and the punitive timing was imposed by LJP to coincide with the expected finalization of the yearlong IATSE negotiations. It appears that UC pays for the layoff and hiring costs. UC then puts out press releases blaming the joint staff supervisors and LJP for the split.

Summing things up personally, from Joe’s first e-mail to me:

LJP wanted their own staff, instead of sharing with UC, and opted to make it happen in probably the worst way possible, after trying to fire me for two years, and hiring a much younger, less experienced guy (though very nice, and I’m sure he’ll be fine) to take my position before the layoff was even announced. They haven’t offered their supervisor jobs to any of us though, I think they want to replace all the supervisors, and everyone who decides to apply for a job at UC or LJP to replace their old job will be demoted.

It doesn’t not make sense, sharing is hard to do, and I wasn’t able to devote full attention to playhouse shows during the UC season – though they could have made an effort not to schedule them to all happen at the same time.

But for me personally, I was going to leave the playhouse anyway, it’s just gotten too unpleasant. I was hoping to teach, but UC declined that offer (though their sound and video design professors both quit, and they don’t have new ones – I don’t know how that is still an MFA program). So this layoff is actually a better scenario than quitting without severance and so on.

We’ll be fine.

An update from Joe, March 2017:

After a month or more of tense negotiations with UCSD, most of the laid off union positions were restored to the original wage level, though still reduced to 9 months from 12 and in many cases with substantial added responsibilities. Union and staff pressure forced UC to come up with a new plan, and LJP’s IATSE contract was finally ratified making them meet IATSE standards.19 of the 21 laid off staff members were rehired by either LJP or UCSD, though many had to wait more than a month to even find out what jobs they were applying for (I was one of the two who was not considered for any position, due to speaking out about the issues). As the layoffs took place at a terrible time to find a job, several people took the positions but will leave, or already have, when they find better full time jobs.

I’m glad to be out of the LJP nightmare and excited about the future, though i will miss my colleagues, the amazing artists I worked with at LJP, and the students who were so inspiring at UC.

For more information, all are encouraged to read more online, including the Facebook page devoted to it, which contains links to various articles and a petition as well

Back to News