The La Jolla Playhouse. Courtesy UC San Diego
The La Jolla Playhouse will now have a separate staff team, working apart from UC San Diego. Photo courtesy UC San Diego.

UC San Diego’s Department of Theatre and Dance has laid off its entire production team of 21 staff members shared with La Jolla Playhouse in a restructuring that has raised concerns throughout the San Diego theatre community.

UCSD and the La Jolla Playhouse have developed a new staffing plan that separates staff who previously worked joint shifts for both institutions into separate teams, according to a statement from UCSD. This decision was announced to the staff members following Election Day on Nov. 9.

“While we know any change can be difficult we believe that proposed modification will ultimately benefit our students and staff, and allow the university to build on the world-class program it offers,” said the statement.

By January the new staffing plan will be fully implemented, with UCSD’s production staff reorganized to be fully dedicated to either UCSD or the La Jolla Playhouse, no longer sharing time with each institution, according to the statement.

University and playhouse officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the situation.

UCSD Cuts Back Theatre Team, Creating New Jobs With Lower Salaries

However, some laid-off employees have expressed concern that UCSD is taking advantage of the restructuring process to lower their salaries, and consequently reduce the quality of the university’s prestigious theatre department. The employees were encouraged to apply for new positions with less time and lower salaries, according to a letter from the laid off employees.

The new positions will be nine months long with a summer break, rather than a full year of employment. Salaries for the future positions are 25 percent to 45 percent lower than before the layoff, also affecting pension and retirement benefits, according to the letter. This will force staff to undergo “crippling financial losses” if they choose to apply for and accept the new positions.

One laid-off production employee in the theatre department, Will Widick, the lead artisan as well as theatre and dance prop shop foreman, has worked for the institution for 14 years. He said that although the university is offering 21 new positions for the 21 laid-off employees, no one is guaranteed a job.

In the restructuring UCSD will combine the light and sound departments, reducing the staff from six employees to three, explained Widick.

“UCSD is going to lose this core staff that have this unique experience,” Widick told Times of San Diego.

The laid off employees include some staff who have worked with UCSD’s theatre and dance department for as long as 35 years. In Widick’s experience, layoffs of this scale have never happened before in the department.

“We Are Skilled Professionals, Artisans, Mentors, Teachers”

The laid off employees have teamed up in a Facebook Group “UCSD Theatre & Dance — Help Save Our Jobs!,” which Widick helped organize.

Image on Flyer from Facebook Group “UCSD Theatre & Dance – Help Save Our Jobs!”

“To some at the UCSD, in the higher reaches of administration, we are just employees who simply screw flats together, sew seams, hang lights and speakers or put tables and chairs on a stage but to all of the great student professionals who have passed through this great program and the amazing faculty supporters we are skilled professionals, artisans, mentors, teachers and now friends and colleagues,” wrote Widick in the Facebook group.

Widick said layoffs in other university departments would likely not be handled the same way, but the theatre and dance department is being forced to make a profit at the expense of educational goals.

“They basically want departments like theater and dance to be able to bring in as much money as they spend. We’re running institutions so you know how difficult that can be,” said Widick. “People want to donate to La Jolla Playhouse and they don’t even think about donating to UCSD in advance. The expectations are too high for this. So their emphasis is on making money, less on the education aspect.”

Widick noted that other laid-off staff members would like to speak up but remain silent for fear of retaliation from UCSD that may damage their ability to get rehired.

Both laid-off staff members and UCSD alumni who graduated from the theatre department’s program have flocked to the Facebook group, lamenting the possible damage that may result from the staffing cuts such as discouraging potential donors and decreasing the program’s national prestige.

In the Facebook group, the laid-off employees have asked the community to contact UCSD’s Chancellor Pradeep Khosla, or Dean of Arts & Humanities Christina Della Coletta to voice their concern over the department’s restructuring.