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Voice Of The Crew - Since 2002

Los Angeles, California

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Set Teachers


Many unsung heroes work behind the scenes in the film, TV and commercial production industry, but few deserve more praise than the on-set teacher, officially known as the studio teacher. These are members of IATSE Local 884, the Studio Teacher-Welfare Worker Union, which has been around since 1926 and has jurisdiction over minors working in all facets of the entertainment industry in the state of California.Studio teachers are “our gang’s most important ally on a working set,” says former child star Paul Petersen, also founder of A Minor Consideration, a non-profit devoted to the advocacy of child entertainers’ rights.“A studio teacher is someone certified by the California state Labor Commissioner to teach school on set and make sure child labor laws are adhered to,” adds Polly Businger, IATSE Local 884 business representative.California is currently the only state that has such stringent laws regulating child entertainment labor as mandated under Title 8 by OSHA, the Department of Labor and Department of Health and Welfare. Other states simply hire tutors to be on set with kids. These tutors are not necessarily even credentialed teachers, nor must they be welfare workers or child labor law specialists. New York State is the exception; a child working in entertainment within New York is required to have their three hours’ schooling per day by a credentialed teacher. However, this teacher need not be a child labor law expert nor a state-licensed welfare worker.The studio teacher is “the only person on set totally focused on the kid,” says Businger. “They can intercede on behalf of the child. They are the voice of reason on set.”“When I was a studio teacher in Japan on the set of The Bad News Bears Go To Japan,” recalls Adria Later, studio teacher on E.T., Indiana Jones and other Spielberg movies, “not all the kids were California residents, nor were they all SAG.“However,” she continues, “because my authority as a credentialed and licensed Local 884 studio teacher allowed me to implement the laws concerning the California resident child actors’ maximum time spent on set, time worked before mandatory lunch breaks and the protocols of language and safety as they relate to a minor on set, the other child actors benefited as well.” Later is currently Angus Jones’ set teacher on the TV series Two And A Half Men.So although some of the filming did not take place in the US, let alone within the state of California, because at least some of the kids fell within the legal jurisdiction of the California Child Labor Code, those standards were applied to the rest of the under-18 cast. These regulations are generally referred to as Title 8 and contain provisions for a minors’ health, safety and morals while working in entertainment. California laws also apply to out-of-state children who work in California.Maintaining a civil level of language on set is part of a studio teachers’ duty. Later recalls one director who could not refrain from repeated use of foul language in the presence of minors, even cursing over loudspeakers after several polite requests to curtail his language. “The parents, a number of whom were on set with us, approached me and asked me to do something about it. After the loudspeaker incident, I rounded up all the kids, put them on a bus and sent them all back to their hotels with their parents. That was a Friday afternoon. We didn’t arrive back on set until Monday morning. There wasn’t another swear word uttered on set by that director for the rest of the shoot.”Studio teachers are the final authority on the set with regard to their minor charges. They are not only educators with mandatory elementary and secondary credentials, but are also licensed by the Board of Health and Welfare—hence they are California state-licensed welfare workers. They are required to pass a test on child labor laws in order to be licensed and must renew their license every three years.“Yes, we are labor law representatives on set. However, we also have the opportunity to develop special relationships with the kids we work with, [including] educator, friend, advisor, mentor and guidance counselor,” explains Later, who recalls Drew Barrymore sitting on her lap on the set of E.T. and then years later, on the set of Charlie’s Angels, running over to give her a big hug when she’d heard she would be on set that day.“When I first worked on the set of Full House, it was for the pilot,” Later reminisces. “Mary-Kate and Ashley (Olsen) were just babies. There wasn’t a lot of teaching involved, initially, for those two; mostly it was for the older kids. But I was expected to work with them during shooting, getting them to crawl in a certain direction or look up at the camera. That was more akin to coaching or baby wrangling.”On the set of The Suite Life of Zack and Cody, Sissy Torrance, who is the studio teacher for Cole and Dylan Sprouse, works with the boys’ dialogue coach and their guardian on set to make sure they get their required three hours’ school time every day. “Usually I’ll liaise with the 2nd AD or sometimes the 1st AD, depending on the set and depending on whether it’s a film or TV shoot,” says Torrance, who first worked with the Sprouses on the set of Big Daddy. “The 2nd AD, generally speaking, is my point person on the set.”Torrance, a mother and former schoolteacher in Redondo Beach, admits to her current students’ exceptional intelligence, “[Zack and Cody] can spend just a few minutes looking over their new script and go straight into rehearsal,” she says. “What they have a hard time understanding is why they only get a half hour for lunch when the crew gets an hour to an hour and a half, but we need that hour for school. That way I can let them go home when their work day is over rather than keep them that extra hour in order to fulfill the required three hours of schooling on set each day.”For a robust 13-year-old boy, a five-hour work day combined with the requirements of a Los Angeles School District grade-appropriate course curriculum, makes for a full and disciplined program. Actor Jones of Two And A Half Men, also 13, releases some of his teenage energy by shooting hoops and playing basketball on the Warner Bros. lot with his trainer and other studio employees, thus fulfilling his P.E. requirement. He also practices rock ’n’ roll songs on his electric guitar. The Sprouses relish their mandated daily hour of rest and recreation, when they can listen to music on their ipods or simply run around outside or in the hallways.Torrance agrees that a studio teacher can and should be a child actor’s greatest advocate on set. “I have the authority to stop a shot and take the child off the set,” she points out, if she perceives that the child’s rights are being impugned. As a licensed welfare worker in California, the studio teacher has supreme authority over the child. “If I see something on set that violates the Labor Code, I can issue a notice of violation, or, in serious cases, I can bring up a claim to the state. The production then risks having their permit to employ minors revoked, they can be fined or even face jail time,” she explains.On the set of The Amityville Horror, Torrance recalls the shooting of a scene with the female child actor required to walk across a rooftop. “She was harnessed; there was no way anything could have happened to her,” says Torrance, who had been called there to make sure all safety requirements for the child’s wellbeing were met. And though the child’s parents may be present, they are not state-licensed welfare workers, nor expert in the labor code as it applies explicitly to minors working in the entertainment industry.“Parents sometimes are intimidated to speak up, not wanting to be perceived a
s troublesome,” explains Local 884 representative Businger. “And kids are often gung-ho to try anything, not necessarily having the discrimination to discern whether it might be a hazard or not.”Asked whether she thinks crew members feel that having children on the set is disruptive, Torrance assures, “The crews I’ve worked with really seem to like having kids around. They’re like having puppies around on the set.”

Written by Paige Donner

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