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Storytellers at a Los Angeles planetarium join the union representing Broadway actors


The union representing Broadway actors added some new card-carrying members this week. They're a group of performers who are not themselves stars, but who tell stories about them. NPR's Andrea Hsu shares their story.

ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: If you grew up in Los Angeles, you likely had a school field trip to the planetarium at Griffith Observatory. Michael Faulkner, a Shakespeare actor, has an unusual job here. He's part of a small corps of people who tell stories about the history of the universe, unraveling the mysteries of the night sky. He's been doing these shows for years, and still he finds it magical to walk out into the auditorium to the soundtrack.

MICHAEL FAULKNER: When the lights go out and the stars appear, the theater erupts in this whoa.

HSU: There are 12 lecturers like Faulkner at the planetarium. They've been talking about unionizing since 2019, hoping for a raise and a voice. But in the pandemic, things got more urgent.

FAULKNER: There was just a whole lot of uncertainty about what the future held.

HSU: The whole observatory was closed for more than a year. As they look toward reopening, Faulkner says he feared the live storytelling might not return. Their employer, the city of LA, was in financial straits due to the pandemic, and other famous planetariums in Chicago and New York City had long been using recordings. When Faulkner saw "Journey To The Stars" at the Smithsonian here in Washington, D.C., it was narrated by Whoopi Goldberg.

FAULKNER: No offense to - I love Whoopi Goldberg, but she wasn't in the room with me. It was her recorded voice. And it's just not the same.

HSU: To his relief, when the planetarium reopened, the lecturers were brought back. Faulkner says that was thanks to the observatory's long-serving director, but he may retire soon. And there are other threats.

FAULKNER: I mean, with the advent of AI, I've even now seen videos that aren't narrated by an actual human being (laughter).

HSU: Al Vincent Jr., the executive director of Actors' Equity Association, says the union has been hearing from lots of different performers since the pandemic who all want the same thing - more protections on the job.

AL VINCENT JR: You know, folks are just like, wait a minute, you know, I matter and I want better.

HSU: Last summer, all 12 planetarium lecturers signed union authorization cards and asked the city of LA for voluntary recognition. It was not a contentious process, but it has taken many months. This week, the Los Angeles Employee Relations Board finally certified the union. While there is no guarantee that their jobs will always be there, Faulkner says having a union to make the case for live storytelling will make a difference.

FAULKNER: It's a dying art (laughter). And having a union contract with the city will codify it as something of value.

HSU: Something they can now collectively fight for.

Andrea Hsu, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Andrea Hsu is NPR's labor and workplace correspondent.