On artists making a living and artistic directors that could make a difference but don’t

Ethan Lipton

Saturday night I went to Joe’s Pub to see playwright-lounge lizard Ethan Lipton & His Orchestra perform  his new work, No Place To Go, about a playwright-lounge lizard that must decide whether to relocate or stay in the ‘the city’ when the company that has provided him with a steady ‘day-job’ (part-time no-benefits employment) for a decade decides to relocate to Mars.  It’s funny, satirical, and poignant. As you might have inferred, the piece is inspired by events in Lipton’s life.

Some of my friends who are actors, playwrights, composers, or directors are able to make something close to a living alternating between paying gigs and unemployment (if you can call having a gross income just above poverty level and no health insurance ‘making a living’); but many of them have (like Lipton) been able to pursue their careers as artists only by working day jobs (many of which have become harder to obtain or hold onto during the rather brutal current economic climate).

There was a time when one of the first principles of resident theaters in this country was that they would hire a company of actors and then cast them in multiple productions throughout the season in a combination of large and small roles. I recently re-read a speech given by W. McNeil Lowry at the Ford Foundation in which he mentions that Ford started investing in theaters in the 1960′s in part to improve circumstances for actors. While ‘acting ensembles’ still exist they are mostly in the form of ‘artist-driven collectives’ that produce shows but operate with a bare bones administrative budget. There are exceptions, but by-and-large, and for a variety of reasons, resident theaters lost their resident acting companies decades ago.

Over the same period of time, however, the administrative staffs of these same theaters became quite substantial to the point where  NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman has recently questioned whether we need “three administrators for every artist” in America. I’m not familiar with the research that underpins that question/statistic, but it certainly seems that artists with salaries are generally artists that have become arts administrators.

The past year or two I’ve begun to hear artistic directors express dismay at the fact that we give administrators salaries but we hire actors, directors, designers, and writers on a ‘contract’ basis. Unfortunately, these conversations never seem to go anywhere. I don’t hear anyone going so far as to suggest that theaters try to ‘get the acting company back together again’ or even that theaters should be paying higher wages to artists to compensate for the fact that they no longer provide stable employment.  They all seem to shrug their shoulders and shake their heads as if to say, “I wish I could do something about this”. It’s like they’ve forgotten that they are the leaders of these organizations and responsible for setting the priorities and values.

I’m no artistic director, but I can think of a few things larger theaters in the US might do for actors short of reconstituting their acting companies and their repertory models:

  • What if theaters maintained a minimum ratio between ‘wages or fees paid to artists’ and the total operating budget?
  • What if investments in the buildings, administrative budgets, and salaries of full-time staff of theaters were matched with a relative increase in artistic budgets and, specifically, wages or fees paid to artists?
  • What if LORT A theaters paid wages to artists comparable to a Broadway production contract?
  • What if, in consideration of the fact that an actor must begin working on a role before rehearsal begins and often needs time to find employment after a show ends, actors were paid a minimum of 12 weeks of salary at any LORT theater (even though they were working at the theater for only 8 of those weeks)?
  • What if theaters opting to do a play with 5 or fewer characters doubled the weekly wages of the actors?

I know …these ideas are preposterous.

I remember hearing Michael Halberstam at Writers’ Theater in Chicago speak at a TCG conference (at a brilliant session with Mike Daisey discussing his insightful and rather incendiary work How Theater Failed America) and learning that Writers’ Theater had long ago made a commitment to invest in actors (and local ones at that) and pay wages comparable to the wages paid by larger theaters. It sounded so right when I heard it, and it was clear that in this room filled with artistic and managing directors from around the country that Michael Halberstam was considered a radical for doing this.

Why is it an outlandish idea to pay as much as you can to the artists and to keep administrative or other production costs as low as possible in order to do so?

And why do we accept this strange idea that doing a play with more than 5 characters is going to bankrupt a theater with a $5- or $10- or $15 million operating budget?

Pffff.

Ethan Lipton is clearly a talented artist. As much as I’d like to hope that he will suddenly be able to make his living fulltime as an artist in this country, realistically I know that I should probably hope that he gets another part-time day job that will let him continue working as an artist.

This makes me sad. I bet it makes many artistic directors sad, as well. But we need to do more than shake our heads when we discuss that arts administrators can make a living wage in this country and that even really talented actors (and musicians and dancers) too often cannot.

We want to tell ourselves that it is not possible to do more for artists but this is simply not true.

At large institutions across this country, of course more can be done.

I welcome other outlandish suggestions …

 

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Comments

  1. mhari sandoval says

    Great posting!

    Two ideas and a comment:

    How about pegging the number of new staff hires to artist weeks/hires/wage hikes or contracts? For example, if a theater decides to hire a new person in development, they would do something of equal value for the artists they contract. (Anything from higher fees or wages, to hiring assistant directors/designers etc. — giving young and emerging artists wages instead of sticking them with unpaid internships.)

    What about “Mini” companies? A theater could determine roles that could be played by the same actors, then hire individual actors to do 3 or 4 of the shows. It would simplify the work of the company manager, possibly reduce shipping costs because actors might leave some of their stuff at the theater between shows, and would also give actors the chance to know what their salary would start at for the year as well as knowing their schedule up front.

    Lastly, I thought your choice of 12 weeks pay for an 8 week contract to be an interesting number. 12 weeks is what is required to qualify for 6 months of health insurance.

  2. GreeninNYC says

    Great post. You’re addressing an issue that’s of vital importance, and I would encourage you to keep pursuing these questions.

    I believe the situation you’re describing is in part a result of the incentives inherent in an institutional arts environment. I don’t have the data to back this up, but I’ve been observing this phenomenon for several years and I’m trying to understand it.

    There’s a longer and more nuanced argument to be made, but here’s the gist of what I’ve observed: The artists in the institutional system (writers, actors, musicians, etc.) are no more than migrant workers. They have almost no influence on institutional theater. It’s the administrators – the people who are there day after day, year after year – who determine the direction and priorities of the theater (such as who gets hired and what work gets produced).

    And the incentive for administrators is to promote the sustainability and growth of the institution above all else – even above a theater’s core mission to produce great work.

    (As a quasi-facetious through experiment, consider two ways in which an administrator might justify his or her salary to the theater’s board:

    1) “Under my tenure, this theater’s budget has increased from $4.5 million to $7 million and I manage a staff of 30 full-time employees. If we compare ourselves with companies of a similar size and budget, $175,000 for a top administrator is a very reasonable figure.”

    2) “We’re broke, but we produced a Lear people will be talking about for generations. Isn’t that worth $175,000 to you?”)

    Work which exposes an institution to financial risk is discouraged. And when financial risk is discouraged, artistic directors become indistinguishable from commercial producers (except that financial pressures encourage commercial producers to keep their operations lean and focused. Just compare a commercial producer’s office space to that of a top non-profit admin’s).

    Promoting sustainability and great work are not mutually exclusive goals, and I don’t think administrators are consciously making the choice to avoid risk. But the incentives and non-profit culture seem to steer them in this direction.

  3. Ann Marie says

    What if artists (meaning directors, designers and performers) could share in the “profits” of a successful show?
    This query is related to a frustration that I often have is that non-profits are not in a position to truly maximize the benefit of a successful show, either because they are scheduled within an inch of their life, or because they don’t have the operating capital to invest in an opportunity to extend, remount or send a show on the road.

    • Alex says

      Most non-profit theater loses money. Every show costs the theater company to produce it and ticket sales don’t even come close to paying for half of the production. Donations (which Arts Administrators have to go and get) provide the costs of the show. There is no “profit” look at any theater company’s books.

  4. Joanna Woronkowicz says

    Lovely post. I think your suggestions are good because they’re progressive and they push the limits of what is currently accepted. Good suggestions are also those that are most highly criticized.

    GreeninNYC hits the head on the nail when she/he says, “Promoting sustainability and great work are not mutually exclusive goals.” Going even further, I’d say that the producing great work is vital to the sustainability of an organization and with that, we need artists. True, investing in artists (and hence art) is riskier than say relying on ancillary revenue streams such as renting out your lobby for weddings, but only if done alone. In other words, investing in artists in addition to creating ancillary revenue streams in addition to creating partnerships with the community in addition to building an endowment in addition to pushing the boundaries with what it produces, etc. etc. taken together is vital to the sustainability of any arts organization. Where so many go wrong is in thinking that one is a substitute for the other.

  5. M says

    I worked in arts administration for 3 years and can tell you that running a theatre–just bare bones, not even taking actors or tech staff into account–is expensive as hell. Add to that the costs of paying union tech staff, union actors, an EMT in case someone in the audience gets sick, security in case there’s an incident, even police if the event is large enough–and it’s just never cheap. I worked about 80 hrs. a week for $25K, all thanks to being “salaried.” Days off were rare. It was honestly one of the worst jobs of my life and made me miss acting sooo much. That said, there has got to be a better way. I just wish someone would work it out. I still think the U.S. should have a National Theatre. No good reason why we shouldn’t, other than all that paranoia about anything remotely socialist.

    • David says

      Thank you for pointing out “salaried” does not mean better pay. In fact, I am full- time staff and make less than that. I think it’s just an excuse to get more work for even less pay. Let’s not even talk about tech. Great expectations and getting paid part time for a full time plus, and over time doesn’t exist.

    • says

      The problem with a National Theatre, per countries that have nationalized theatres like the UK, is the censorship, both legal and culturally implied. So the big debate over there (along with wasteful government spending on the arts) is if it’s about free speech or if it’s libelous, whether or not artists should take risks in what they produce, and what’s considered propaganda in national theatre. I only got a superficial introduction to that when I was doing a study abroad program in England, but I thought it was a really interesting point. So I don’t think Nationalized Theatre in the US is necessarily the answer, just a different set of problems.

      • says

        I am an actress from the UK, and i have never experienced or seen censorship or restraint from the National Theater – in fact quite the opposite. Because they are assured of funding, they are able to take risks, poke fun at society and expose certain social injustices for what they are. Look at some of their work from over the years, it’s amazing.

      • Douglas Clayton says

        If we’re concerned that a ‘National Theatre’ or routing the dollars for theatre through the government would result in censorship, I humbly suggest we take a look at what our theatres are producing with ‘free will’ generated philanthropic dollars.

        Keeping your wealthy donors happy by producing work that they personally like or find pleasant can be just as much ‘censorship’ as anything the NEA or a National Theatre might do.

      • says

        Having watched productions at the National Theatre in London many times, I can definitely say that from an outside perspective, it does not appear to be censored in the least. Their productions are provocative and thought-provoking much of the time.

        On a related point, you have heard of the National Endowment for the Arts, right? Even though we do not have a national theatre, we have a federally funded agency that works to fund theatres at the local and national levels. So, in a way, we already have a national theatre system; it just needs to be greatly expanded.

      • RLewis says

        The problem with a National Theater in the US is location, location, location. The US is a very big country for a National Theater such that any one facility in any one city would leave 99% of the audience too far away to participate. The best answer to the european National Theater model in this country is a series of theaters in every state, which we already did with the regional theater movement. Unfortunately, we’ve now mostly let the federal government off the financial hook for those.

  6. Steve says

    As an Artistic Director myself, I’d venture to suggest that the solution lies somewhere in the middle. Theatres NEED an administrative staff to function (although I am taking the 3:1 quote with a grain of salt). But why can’t those positions be filled BY actors? We’re growing our company by attempting to offer full-time positions to our actors. We find that they’re more invested in the product. For example, yes, cold calling for donations is annoying. But, if your show is going to benefit directly from the work you’re doing, wouldn’t you be more motivated?

    • mhari says

      “Lamb’s Players” in San Diego California successfully used this model. When I worked there in the early ’90′s they had a company of 8-10 actors who also provided all of the staffing requirements. I believe they are still around — but have no union contracts.

    • says

      Here in the Berkshires of Massachusetts, one of our “big four” companies, Shakespeare & Company, indeed does operate on the basis of actor-administrators. It’s an idea that works pretty well, though when an actor is also the person who prepares the ads, or does other tasks, they often have to be set aside when in rehearsal and performance.

      Yet their model does seem to work pretty well.

      And I once worked (for four years!) with a theatre company where artists and administrators divided the proceeds that were left after the bills were paid. $50-120 week didn’t go very far. Yet I never was happier.

    • Kathleen says

      I was an education director for nine years with a theater company where I had been an actor. As the seasons passed, I saw my acting for that company dwindle to nothing. I began acting at other theaters. Then I was asked to stop acting altogether, because I was needed to work concessions- which, by the way, had nothing to do with the hard work I did in the education department for said theater. It was infuriating, to say the least. Now I am an educator at a private academy and nobody tells me when I can and can not act. Sometimes the very people who should value your artistic contributions most, don’t.

    • Anon says

      Once upon a time I was an actor/company member in a company that worked in this way. The entire company – administration to tech – was run by actors. We all lived together in a residence (this was part of our pay – room and board), worked 6 and sometimes 7 days a week from 8am to 11pm. We got a stipend – $50 a week. I look back on those years and am amazed that I managed to pay off student loans while there. It was a wonderful job for a while, until the living situation became intolerable and the equality of the artistic vs. the work became obvious. Some people just got cast more than others and those who weren’t cast as often became workhorses. And therein lies the real problem with that set up.

      But if it could be made to work – or when it does – it’s awesome. I think an actor becomes more intelligent as an actor and more thoughtful to work with when they understand the roles of everyone else in the theater around them.

  7. says

    This posting is on a subject dear to my heart, thanks for tabling it so thoughtfully. There certainly is a longer and more nuanced argument to be made, but I just know that any argument I could make would be really long and not all that nuanced, so here’s the two minute version.

    First of all, my outlandish suggestion is that everyone who’s thinking of starting a new theatre company in the US do it now, taking the long view and using the messages and signposts coming out of Occupy Wall Street as a guide. Economic fairness – eco-conscious sustainability – inclusivity – creating new enlivening theater spaces (eg http://www.stannswarehouse.org/current_season.php?show_id=68) – you can pick and choose your own.

    If you think my outlandish suggestion doesn’t address the problems of US regional theatres with top-heavy administrative staffs, then you guessed it – I’m sorry but I have no answers there.

    I myself have been an administrator for three ensemble companies founded and managed along similar lines, each of whom had loyal, passionate and sizable audiences and networks, yet all were forced to close for reasons unrelated to the need we seemed to be filling. And after the third I couldn’t afford to have another try. Hence the “close to my heart” part.

    So, in place of the long and nuanced contribution this excellent blog deserves, here are a few short, random and hopefully pithy responses:

    - The forces that Occupy Wall Street is rallying against may be the very forces that are making theatre people feel so sad and powerless. These forces may well have built some kind of stubborn and at best partially visible glass ceiling above the reform you are quite rightly advocating for.
    - I really miss Berlin’s repertory theatre companies. That feeling of walking through the doors and getting an overpowering feeling of entering a distinct theatrical world. That sense that it’s a truly unique COMPANY with such rich experiences to offer for such affordable prices, and there’s a different one every night.
    - An old friend and colleague ran a large repertory theatre for a while – his work there was the weakest I’d seen him do, in large measure because he was forced to work with actors he’d inherited who had long-term contracts. When he quit and went freelance and was given a broader choice of performers, his work was as good as it had been before.
    - Most of the artists in my US non-profit ensemble company that closed have gone on to enjoy amazing success as freelancers, both financial and artistic
    - I would love to see new companies come along with new sustainable financial structures that support strong artistic work
    - there must be some models out there of companies who are doing or are trying to do what Diane is envisaging. If not then we’ve REALLY got a problem.

    • says

      (sorry, I should clarify that the idea for the Foundry Theatre production I linked to above pre-dates Occupy Wall Street, and the company itself has been a champion of artists and progressive ideas for well over a decade)

    • says

      Thanks, Diane, for a great post. We at NYC’s Epic Theatre Ensemble are tackling this problem head-on this year, by building a brand new contract with Actor’s Equity that was just approved Monday.

      Basically, Epic has condensed most of our annual Off-Broadway, new play development, AND in-school and after-school educational programming this season into one 20-week period, from January to June 2011. What this enables us to do is hire a full-time acting ensemble, 42 hours/week at $900/week, one of the highest non-commercial salaries in NYC. The actors rehearse, perform, teach, and develop new work together with our resident writers and directors all under a single umbrella contract with AEA; and they get a year of health insurance to follow. We think it’s the first of it’s kind in our contemporary era of union/producer relations, and does harken back to that old “ensemble” idea that many respondents have mentioned. For us, it’s an extension of a core piece of Epic’s mission apropos of “artists’ value in our society” (as well as audience development values) – we’ve always believed it’s critical that the same actors who work on our Off-Broadway stages work in our partner schools.

      Some may find it hard to believe that AEA has built such a contract for us, but I have to give kudos to Michelle Kelts and others there who saw that what we were offering was a win-win situation. After this pilot year, our goal next year is to build two separate 12-20 week contract periods, one in Fall 2012 and one in Spring 2013, and serve almost double the number of actors. Then as we build this up, I think we can turn our attention to creating similarly supportive contracts for writers and directors (maybe even designers?) who work with Epic. And, by the way, participation in the ensemble is not guaranteed to a single group of individuals: everyone from our very diverse group of artistic associates has to audition for each contract, and we’ll always have significant levels of auditions for those who we don’t yet consider our associates – I say this to address the concern that an “ensemble” has to be “permanent” to be meaningful, and the concerns that follow about strength of artistry over time.

      Now, a note to other artistic leaders – it’s not cheap. We’re actually paying more than we would if we continued to break out Off-Broadway work and Teaching Artist work separately. But if we really believe in “artist value” – the idea that theatre artists have a central role in our civic society as those people who are uniquely qualified to build empathy, foster dialogue on vital social issues, and kindle the imagination of our audiences toward working collaboratively to attack intractable problems – we have to make the value relationship a two-way street.

      Anyway, if anyone wants to hear more feel free to email me at RonRussell@epictheatreensemble.org – Diane, I’d love to talk to you more about it if you’re interested – and be on the lookout for public postings of more info on this on Epic’s Facebook and Twitter accounts, as well as our website, and my personal Twitter and Tumblr accounts – all to come in about a week! Thanks again for the great conversation starter!

  8. says

    Thanks, Diane, for a great post. We at NYC’s Epic Theatre Ensemble are tackling this problem head-on this year, by building a brand new contract with Actor’s Equity that was just approved Monday. We’re about to mount a major social media campaign with this new “ensemble” contract as a leading story – but I probably won’t get my blog up until next week so wanted to give the bullet-points now!

    Basically, Epic has condensed almost all of our extensive Off-Broadway, new play development, AND in-school and after-school educational programming this season into one 20-week period, from January to June 2011. What this enables us to do is hire a full-time acting ensemble, 42 hours/week at $900/week, which is higher than the highest non-commercial minimum of any NYC contract. The actors rehearse, perform, teach, and develop new work together with our resident writers and directors all under a single umbrella contract with AEA; and they get a year of health insurance to follow. We think it’s the first of it’s kind in our contemporary era of union/producer relations, and does harken back to that old “ensemble” idea that many respondents have mentioned. For us, it’s an extension of a core piece of Epic’s mission apropos of “artists’ value in our society” (as well as audience development values) – we’ve always believed it’s critical that the same actors who work on our Off-Broadway stages work in our partner schools.

    Some may find it hard to believe that AEA has built such a contract for us, but I have to give kudos to Michelle Kelts and others there who saw that what we were offering was a win-win situation, and it only required a slight adjustment of everyone’s thinking, my own included. They are a union, after all – if we can offer their constituents better money in a reasonable work environment with health insurance guaranteed, why not give it a try? After this pilot year, our goal next year is to build two separate 12-20 week contract periods, one in Fall 2012 and one in Spring 2013, and serve almost double the number of actors. Then as we build this up, I think we can turn our attention to creating similarly supportive contracts for writers and directors (maybe even designers?) who work with Epic. And, by the way, participation in the ensemble is not guaranteed to a single group of individuals: everyone from our very diverse group of artistic associates has to audition for each contract, and we’ll always have significant levels of auditions for those who we don’t yet consider our associates – I say this to address the concept that an “ensemble” has to be “permanent” to be meaningful, and the concerns that follow about strength of artistry over time; no one has to make long-term promises in order to participate, and that’s better (we believe) for both the artists and the organization.

    Now, a note to other artistic leaders – it’s not cheap. We’re actually paying more than we would if we continued to break out Off-Broadway work and Teaching Artist work separately. But if we really believe in “artist value” – the idea that theatre artists have a central role in our civic society as those people who are uniquely qualified to build empathy, foster dialogue on vital social issues, and kindle the imagination of our audiences toward working collaboratively to attack intractable problems – we have to make the value relationship a two-way street.

    Anyway, if anyone wants to hear more feel free to email me at RonRussell@epictheatreensemble.org – Diane, I’d love to talk to you more about it if you’re interested – and be on the lookout for public postings of more info on this on Epic’s Facebook and Twitter accounts, as well as our website, and my personal Twitter and Tumblr accounts – all to come in about a week! Thanks again for the great conversation starter!

    • says

      I appreciate how Ron is leading through example and taking small steps towards addressing the problem Diane has described. As the leader of a fledgling ‘artist-driven collective’ where everyone currently works for free I am inspired, encouraged, and challenged by what I read here to keep an eye on sustainability and fairness if and when our organization grows to the point of being able to pay its actors. Kudos to the Epic Theatre Ensemble and everyone else who is out there working this out for themselves.

      Jordan Rosin.
      http://www.jordanrosin.com
      http://www.theumegroup.weebly.com

  9. Carl Forsman says

    I appreciate that Ron thinks this is a great post, and I LOVE what Ron is doing in bringing his company’s core mission closer to an idealization with having his actors on those contracts. But I really question almost everything in your entire post.

    “We want to tell ourselves that it is not possible to do more for artists but this is simply not true.” This is not an economic statement. It is emotional. Perhaps “cultural economics” involves a different kind of math than the kind we use at my theater. But the fact is that I have worked with and talked with some of the most esteemed arts administrators and arts consultants in America. And the non-profit theater in America isn’t wasteful or bloated. There isn’t largesse being spent idly on administrative positions. If there were, then you could make an ECONOMIC argument about moving the money that is wasted to different spots. But like so many who are critical of the nonprofits (which you apparently study in some kind of bizarre vacuum – who would study American non-profits in the Netherlands? Why not complain about Dutch theater?) you fail to grasp that the American theater by and large is doing enormously MORE with less! For example, at random I just picked the Vineyard. Their website says they have 16 staffers. They are doing 3 shows (and a Lab) this year. Those 3 shows, let’s guess, have an average of 4 actors each. They have 4 designers (forget their assistants) each, a director, plus a musical that has three specialty staff at least (forget musicians)…. by my back of the envelope, they have 30 artists working there this year. Probably after the lab etc. it’s many more. So let’s go back – let’s say we want them to put 4 of those artists on full time salary. Okay – with what money? You have basically accused them of favoring administrative staff over artists. But what you are inherently saying is the theater should subsidize the artist when they aren’t working. Because that’s the only explanation. And who do they fire to get the funds? Not one of their two development staffers. Not their ONLY educational staffer, that program is crucial to long term growth and probably a revenue stream. Their literary associate? That seems pretty keenly tied to their ability to make work… Your argument is so ignorant and simplistic, I am shocked that people like Ron have even given you a hearing. You can’t say, theaters should do more, without suggesting either new revenue or things to cut. It isn’t an argument because it doesn’t explain why it is “simply not true.” If it is so simple, why does no one use that model? Because it’s inefficient, and wasteful, and we have to be lean to survive. Saying, “You should employ artists” or “you should pay artists more” is the easy part. Anyone can say that. We should cure cancer and explore the galaxy, too. Amateurism is boring, especially from academics. If you want to totally redo the economics of producing non=profit theater, then explain that plan. We’re all ears.

    • says

      Thanks for your post. You are correct in asserting that in smaller and midsized theaters there is often little to no ‘fat’ and that such theaters are generally rather leanly staffed. That is why I was careful to say ‘larger theaters’ in my post as I do not perceive that, generally speaking, smaller and midsized theaters (e.g. the Vineyard), are spending an excessive amount on their facilities and administrative staffs. There are, however, larger theaters in this country whose staffs have grown eight-fold or ten-fold over the past thirty years, and much of that growth has been in the development and marketing departments. They don’t have two development staffers — I’ve counted upwards of 20 development staff members at large institutions and the same number in the marketing department. The salaries of their leaders and their development directors have also grown exponentially. They have also expanded their facilities and significantly increased their costs for utilities and the number of people it takes just to ‘maintain the facility’ and keep it secure and ‘staffed’. They have increased their production values and are, in many cases, spending rather incredible amounts on sets, props, and costumes. At the same time, a playwright may be paid by a theater with a $10-$20 million operating budget $5-$10,000 to spend 1-3 years of his or her life writing a play. Sure there are commissions that go a bit higher, but it seems that they are rare. And yes, that playwright will get royalties if the play is produced, but these days many of them are not produced. In the face of dwindling audiences theaters are, in some cases, reducing the number of characters in their plays, the number of plays that they produce in a year, and the number of weeks that those plays run. So actors are not only making less money and finding fewer opportunties to work, but are having difficulty achieving the minimum number of weeks needed to qualify for heatlh insurance through their union. I’m not suggesting that these theaters fire all 20 development staffers and reinstate their artistic ensembles. I am simply suggesting that, given the signficant amounts of money that have been spent on administration and facilities, there is perhaps more that could be done for artists in these larger theaters and that perhaps a different choice could be made in the future when considering where to make further investments.

      • Zak Berkman says

        Diane,

        Reading your post and response to Carl reminded me of my experience reading OUTRAGEOUS FORTUNE – and something Zelda F told us co-founders of Epic Theatre Ensemble ten years ago. I’m paraphrasing but it was essentially this: “when we started the regional movement, somewhere along the way the playwright fell off the truck and we never turned around to pick them back up.” I think as the economics and cultural dynamics of the regional theater evolved with various larger theatres disbanding or diminishing their rep/resident companies it does seem like even more artists are tumbling from the truck… And in the process the image of the artist as someone outside of the institution, outside of the community, is more and more perpetuated: not just by the public or by funders, but even by the artists themselves. Writers and actors emerge from training programs thinking their talent and craft is simply and minimally a portable commodity – something that lives in treetops to be pulled down to earth on a lucky occasion – and they have forgotten they can be part of the soil, be the primary community builders, the bridges between diverse populations and perspectives. Too many metaphors there, but you get the drift.

        I’ve just started my new post at People’s Light and Theatre, transplanting myself from a 7-person staff and $1M budget at Epic, to five times as many full-time staff members and a $5M-plus budget. While on the face of this it might seem I’m experiencing two ends of the spectrum, but I’m not. PL employs relatively tiny staffing in development and marketing compared to the number of artists employed. Artists here are at the leadership, staffing, and soul of the company. Much like Epic. And we are in the midst of exploring how to bring more artists on board in multifaceted capacities. But this said, even with PL’s company ethos for long term relationships and artists at the core, the gravitational pull away from this is evident, present, and something we are wrestling with daily – much more so than Epic. It exists in some part because of campus/facilities with two stages, multiple rehearsal and classrooms, offices, a banquet, and a bistro – all created to serve the desires of one kind of audience – an audience that is now clearly shifting, changing. Still vital, but requiring new thinking about the use of our space, which is all a financial challenge. There are factors at play like the changes in Equity’s health & pension policies that are beyond our organization’s grip and impact how we integrate and engage actors with families, actors who are aging, actors with long term health issues. There’s also the natural reality that at 37 years old, it’s nearly impossible to find artists willing to give over their lives to this organization in the manner the founding artists and their initial artistic off-spring did. And really why should any artist do that given the current social, political, economic, civic, environment? But if a place was created on the steam of 60-hour/wk passion, how does it adjust to something with more family-work balance?

        So all this is to say – this is a vital subject for large theatres like my new home to reflect upon. I think many regionals are looking at ways to turn the truck around. Some are not. Some are just broken on the side of the road. But no matter where we are in that spectrum, we must continually and collectively – as an ecosystem – ask why so many talented artists eager to be part of and central to active communities are fleeing to other mediums, to academia, and beyond,. And we must not just rest at the answer that those other jobs pay more or offer stability. Most artists are not greedy. Most are craving to feel necessary more than comfortable. So how can we offer that opportunity, that centrality – how can we make that part of our identity, and make that appealing to everyone involved. All critical questions. Thank you for asking them.

        Best,
        Zak Berkman

        • Sherri Kronfeld says

          Dear colleagues,

          As a theater practitioner (mainly director) who has supported myself most often as a theater administrator (mainly marketing) at several of New York’s off- and off-off Broadway venues, I found this article and the responses compelling. The 3 venues I’ve been on staff at in recent years all had small budgets and tiny staff, all were smaller than the example Carl gives, and all of them do so much with so little. So the large/regional theater conundrum of too many well paid administrative staff is not something I’m that familiar with.

          The venue that I’ve worked at for a little over a year, Performance Space 122 (www.ps122.org), together with several presenting orgs, artists and thinkers in NYC, have been grappling with this question- and created a working group starting in summer 2009 to try to come up with some solutions.

          The organizations involved were very different from each other, and these aren’t off-Bway theaters, but presenters of performance in all its forms, but like you all here, they shared a desire to make performing artists more central to their organizations, to pay their artists something more along the lines of a living wage, and to help artists become empowered and perhaps even create an entirely new financial model. In Spring 2011, all the orgs and individuals described what changes they’d implemented, and shared the results. I thought it was pretty inspiring, so I’m passing along for any of you who are interested.

          http://collectiveartsthinktank.blogspot.com/

          Thanks all for sharing your thoughts on this topic.
          Warmly,
          Sherri Kronfeld

          • says

            Diane, I’m really glad you posted this original piece, and glad the comments are so lively. I worked on the Collective Arts Think Tank writing and I’m glad that is still in the conversation, too. To Carl, I would just argue that the emotional argument is not a bad place to start. Economically I think the people making the art (the theaters and the artists alike) need to start leading the field, rather than funders. By that I mean, if it costs so much to make x number of shows a year that you can’t pay actors a living wage, then bring more resources to fewer shows, or do what Epic is doing, and develop really clear arguments as to how and why that is important. The free market refrain of “show me the numbers” is worn out. I think an ethical argument is in order here. If your budget is above a certain point, and you’re referring to yourself as a ‘professional’ theater company, and yet you can’t pay people enough to eat and raise their kids on, you’re not doing a fundamental part of your job. If you can’t do a fundamental part of your job, don’t ask people who’s goal it is to raise questions to also answer them to your satisfaction. Here’s one way to do it: stop letting funders or donors tell you how much is enough for a show, or how many shows in a year you should do. Write to Rocco, write to your board and say, “I can’t look at myself in the mirror if I can’t pay people enough, so from now on we’re doing seasons of fewer shows with living wages. We’re bringing more resources to fewer shows and we’re taking bigger risks. You need to help us raise the money so that we can really do this thing we believe in so much and do it properly.” And for artists, we need to start turning down gigs, venues and unions that won’t support us, or do what Epic did and rewrite the rules.

    • Alex says

      Amen. Lots of theater people can’t do math. Why should we pay people for not working when most of the theater’s budget is based on donations?

      And if we want theater to be non-wasteful – why should people or organizations donate to theaters to support non-working actors when they could be supporting food banks or AIDS Clinics or children in Africa with cleft lips. There’s a lot of good causes, for any charity to remain viable it has to remain lean.

      Actors should get paid for their work, but not for non-work.

      And when an Actor “hits it big” like an Administrator can’t – and the Administrator and theater company is partially responsible for the Actor’s success is he or she going to share the accolades and new income with the theater company administrator who helped garner the success?

      • Douglas Clayton says

        “Actors should get paid for their work, but not for non-work. ”

        I appreciate the sentiment, but if you look at any other industry where skilled labor works contract-to-contract, and must spend half or more of their time job hunting from job to job, those ‘consultants’ are usually paid double or triple what a normal salary would be to make up for the nature of the job.

        If you want to go back to employing actors on an annual contract (which I heartily endorse), then sure, just pay them when they’re working under that contract at your theatre. But if you are going to hire them only job-to-job, flying them around all over the country all the time and making them deal with all the effort of constantly job-hunting and not having a ‘home’ or a family, then you ABSOLUTELY should pay them for when they’re ‘not working’ – just as you would for a skilled worker in any other profession.

    • Douglas Clayton says

      Regarding Carl’s ‘economic thinking’ vs. ‘emotional thinking’ – I’d suggest that he’s forgetting the flip side of the discussion, which is that economics IS emotional – and it certainly is when you come to ticket buyers and donors to arts organizations.

      I attended graduate school at the FSU/Asolo Conservatory, based at the Asolo Theatre in Sarasota, FL, which at the time was one of the last few theatres in the country operating on the regional theatre rep model – six shows a year, with a core company of a dozen actors, supplemented by a couple actors from NYC and from the community each year.

      Those twelve actors had homes, steady work, families, and were really really happy.

      But more important “economically” – the audiences there were deeply devoted to the various actors in the company. I can’t tell you how many times I heard audience members say things like “Oh, it’s a war play. I don’t want to go see a war play.” “Yes, Agnes, but Jimmy Clark is going to play the lead! I have to see Jimmy!” “Oh, you’re right – he’s always so delightful! Remember when he was the German butler in that funny play about the rabbit…” etc etc etc

      The actors (and other artists as well) created deep bonds with the audiences that transcended in many ways the ‘marketing draw’ that the theatre had as an institution, or that a particular show might have because of content or topic.

      Is this a shock to anyone? It shouldn’t be. Anyone who’s spent any time in any aspect of the theatre knows that ‘it’s all about relationships’. Whether it’s working in rehearsal, marketing a show, dealing with union negotiations, soliciting donations – it always comes down to long investment in personal relationships.

      Why all the regional theatres have abandoned the huge value that resident companies and resident artists can bring to their customer base is simply beyond me.

      I suspect that is has to do with the broken model of Board leadership in this country, where Boards are expected to do everything under the Sun. And then the first time the theatre gets in financial trouble, the Board realizes that the only thing that can really come back to bite them is if the theatre loses money, so they rapidly ditch all responsibilities except ‘make money’ and ‘cut costs’ – and don’t have the real understanding or expertise to appreciate things like the relationship between the artist and the audience on an ongoing basis.

      But that’s a whole different topic.

      • MS says

        Amen Brother!

        Audiences love seeing a company do different kinds of roles in different plays from year to year.

        Take the Oregon Shakespeare Festival as an example. Not just a resident company, but a rep company as well. The audiences there LOVE the acting company, love being able to see them in multiple parts over the course of a weekend, and are willing to travel to rural Oregon to do it.

    • Scout in NY says

      It’s very refreshing to hear from someone with real life experience working with the finances of theatre, rather than those who can only hypothesize.

      One problem is that we’ve become an enormously comfortable culture in the last century; no longer are actors willing to accept life in a 2-room cold water flat in an undesirable part of town with no central heat, air conditioning, internet service, personal smart phones or computers – we all have been taught to believe that a middle-class quality of life is a god-given right of mankind. What would have been seen as extravagant luxury less than 100 years ago is now considered bare-bones necessity.

      Actors who resent full-time administrators also choose to ignore the fact that administrators, as you point out, are working for the theatre full-time, all year, without the benefit of applause or publicity, without the dangled carrot of potential celebrity, without the adoration of audiences or the fun of rehearsing and performing. Actors work very hard, but we shouldn’t ignore the rewards actors receive that others don’t simply because they aren’t financial.

  10. Alex says

    The real reason actors are paid so little is that 1) they are interchangeable and there’s far more supply than demand. Yes each Actor is unique in their own way. But if someone gets sick there’s an understudy, or you bring in a replacement. 2) The real reason is that many actors will work for less money is for a chance to be seen. Why? Because we all hope to become stars. And stars get lots of money and become famous. And many actors view off broadway and broadway as a stepping stone towards work on TV and Film — where they could become famous.

    Arts administrators will never become famous (or very rarely) and they need to be paid well in order to attract the talent / ability to do a lot of boring work (grant applications / marketing to bring in audiences / running the physical “plant” ie the theater, hiring janitors and paying the bills and raising money. Actors don’t have to do anything boring. Acting is fun. That’s why we do it. I’ve worked both as a producer and an Actor. I much prefer acting, and I’d do it for free. It’s the best feeling in the world. But you have to pay people to do the boring hard work that doesn’t get applause – which is the administrators.

    • Scout in NY says

      Perfectly stated. So many actors seem to be afraid to talk about the “fun” of their careers, because they feel people would believe it makes up for a salary lower than those with drudge jobs receive.

  11. Renee says

    You are assuming that administrators make a living wage. As far as I know, the administrators I admire the most are still holding down other jobs in order to keep administering.

    Bringing attention to these ideas is good. But now we need more than a wish list. We need to figure out HOW. Grant monies don’t fall in the laps of small theatre companies. The larger theatre companies get the bulk of grant money and the large donors, which is great, but it still creates the conundrum of earning nothing until you are lucky to get into these place, and then you get to earn something. I think most administrators would like to know how to pay a living wage and still have money left over to put on the production itself.

    I’ve spent years putting on plays with a $1500 budget and having folks say the quality was so high. Many ventured that perhaps we had had a $15000 budget? That’s lovely, truly, but our actors were paid zilch and our administrators were severely overworked, stressed, and burnt out in order to create the quality.

    So, then, my question is, how do we do more than just talk about it on a webpage? Can we galvanize, create a forum, start making change? Count me in if we can get half a dozen folks together, for a start.

    Tally ho.

  12. Nick Schell says

    Let’s not forget writers :-) perhaps a good strategy would be for companies to organize more around original (local) writing and stories more than the same old drivel. The would allow some of the money. Here fly paid to publishing corporations to fall into the hands of a local writer. Also local stories would probably draw an audience in a way New York imports can’t. I for one am tired of the conventional wisdom that NYC is the only place for theatre.

  13. Leonard Jacobs says

    Diane,

    A very thoughtful post. And equally thoughtful comments. Your questions in the middle of the piece are not at all preposterous. They do deserve some substantive responses. Here’s my shot:

    “What if theaters maintained a minimum ratio between ‘wages or fees paid to artists’ and the total operating budget?”
    A fine idea conceptually, but absent a real example of a real budget of a real theater really operating in a real place in real time — a budget accurately reflective of the vagaries of contemporary philanthropy, including all levels of public funding, plus trends in single ticket sales, subscriptions and ancillary earned income — it’s a concept that ultimately raises still more questions, each deserving substantive answers. For example, how would maintaining such a ratio impact a theater’s core business model — what direct and/or indirect effect would it have on ticket prices, on essential administrative costs (e.g., box-office management, legal fees) and on programming possibilities? How would you measure the ratio’s effectiveness? If the motivation is to allow theaters to produce shows with larger casts – that is, to address the need you have identified to reorient nonprofit theaters back toward actors, a need I question — how would the creation and maintenance of that ratio, and the increased casting that would result, affect union actors, with the contractual requirements for contributing to pension and health? Would such a theater be bargaining more or less effectively with Actors’ Equity if the theater, say, hired more nonunion actors — even if they compensated those nonunion actors with better-than-nonunion wages? How would all the other creative forces indispensable to the theatrical product — the playwright, the director, the dramaturge, the craftspeople, the stage management and all the associated vendors (i.e., lumber supply, lighting rental) — benefit from such a ratio? Or would they? I mean, shouldn’t they? Ash them. They’ll tell you.

    Again, I’m not assailing the good intentions behind your question. I’m simply suggesting that merely posing the question is easier, perhaps more facile, than furnishing answers.

    “What if investments in the buildings, administrative budgets, and salaries of full-time staff of theaters were matched with a relative increase in artistic budgets and, specifically, wages or fees paid to artists?”
    I’m not sure what you mean by “investments in the buildings.” Do you mean newly built structures? If so, what if a building is paid for, in part or in whole, with public monies – does your question not have inherent legal implications? After all, guidelines around public spending on cultural structures vary by state and locality — how would your question square with the requirement that each dollar of construction money be somehow leveraged to benefit artists? Who would enforce it? How would the “match” you refer to be defined? And now the other half of the answer: What if a building is paid for fully with private dollars? Are you suggesting that there would be a requirement that philanthropists making “investments in the buildings” be fully apprised of the business model — for that is what it is — you’re referring to? Would a theater be legally bound to explain that each philanthropic dollar destined for the physical plant would result in artists receiving more or better compensation? This isn’t such a bad idea – it might even leverage more or more targeting giving. Or maybe it would create confusion in terms of a theater’s balance sheet?

    And also—most fundamentally—what does your use of the word “relative” mean, precisely? I’d like to see an example — using the specific budget of a specific theater (Arena Stage?) — for how this would work. Perhaps you could extrapolate this scenario out to its full conclusion.

    “What if LORT A theaters paid wages to artists comparable to a Broadway production contract?”
    LORT A theaters will tell you — veins bursting in their temples — that they’d be immediately put of business. Such a reaction would be more dramatic than Vanessa Redgrave playing Mary Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey Into Night, but even that had great entertainment value. Let me add that if you look at the major non-profits regularly producing on Broadway now—that is, Roundabout, Manhattan Theatre Club, Lincoln Center Theater—there can be no factual dispute whatsoever that being LORT, and thereby not having to compensate artists at the level of a Broadway production contract—gives these institutions powerful advantages over traditional commercial producers. Why would a LORT theater agree to your proposition? What would be in it for them? I think you have to ask those final two questions before your question can be properly answered.

    “What if, in consideration of the fact that an actor must begin working on a role before rehearsal begins and often needs time to find employment after a show ends, actors were paid a minimum of 12 weeks of salary at any LORT theater (even though they were working at the theater for only 8 of those weeks)?”
    What if, in consideration of the fact that any employed human being isn’t paid in their job until their hiring date and often needs money to live on after their employment comes to an end, all employed people were paid a minimum number of weeks of salary above and beyond the actual weeks in which they worked? Hope you’ll see my point here.

    “What if theaters opting to do a play with 5 or fewer characters doubled the weekly wages of the actors?”
    Isn’t this what unions are for?

    • MS says

      The point is, what are the PRIORITIES of the organization? And shouldn’t compensation of the artists who make the organization’s existence possible be a major priority?

      Leonard, I understand where you are coming from, but aren’t we talking about what we as an entire industry, producers and artists (playwrights, designers, directors, actors) and crew and staff, can do to work together towards the goal of everyone creating good, relevant work, while also allowing EVERYONE to earn a living wage? (Or at least more artists than currently do?)

      To say “Isn’t that what Unions are for” pits management against labor, and isn’t in the spirit of the conversation. AND union contracts are only meant to create minimum standards, ie: you cannot pay someone less than a certain wage, you cannot work them more than a certain number of hours per day before paying overtime, etc. The idea that all theaters at each LoRT level are capable of the exact same compensation is patently untrue. (And please don’t say that individual actors can negotiate up from there. Those days are over. Almost all LoRT contracts are now “Favored Nations” and take it or leave it.)

      All due respect, I felt that your answers were exactly the same thing we’ve been saying as an industry for decades. That the power is not in the hands of the leadership of the organization, but the board and the “economy”, some of which is true, but we have to challenge the status quo. And yes, posing the question is easier than answering it — that’s what we’re trying to do here, right?

      • Bonnie Metzgar says

        Thanks for triggering an interesting chain of thought.

        This is an important question facing the field — how do we as leaders improve the plight of the artists we work with? Much of the discussion here outlines the logjam — we’d all like to find a way to pay artists more, but how do we do it within the current business model of most nonprofit theaters?

        First, I don’t think the large institutions will be the ones who will lead in the necessary path of innovation. Their business models are defined, as you point out, by a huge investment in their building as infrastructure and identity. This can trap them into a small set of decisions. The problem is going to need disruptive innovation. Look at Epic — they are able to pilot a program, make adjustments, and build on a successful model over time. Small and mid-sized theaters may not have the alleged excess of the larger institutions, but we have the courage, the flexibility and perseverance to define our principles and get all of our stakeholders to support a radical shift in direction. Funders should invest in small and mid-sized organizations for the R&D on the best of these ideas.

        Second — Diane, I love one of your proposals, and would like to build on it. What if any institution engaged in a capital campaign designated a percentage of the campaign to an artistic compensation fund? This could be a field-wide visibility campaign to improve the wages of the artists we work with, raised during campaigns that we already are committed to. It also is a fantastic way to introduce donors and funders to the artists we work with and the commitment to pay them all a living wage.

        Third — It’s a question. If we had an Artists’ Bill of Rights, what should be included?

        Again, thanks.

  14. says

    Thanks for this.
    My only comment to add would be, if actors get paid for 12 weeks, they better hop up and do their work. In my experience as both an actor and director in recent years, fewer & fewer actors are doing ANY work before they are “getting paid” because of…..how the world is.
    I am always more than ready on the first day of rehearsal but that’s how i was “raised” in the theatre.
    Thanks again and this is great food for thought.
    Molly Lyons
    Theatre Artist: actor, director, teacher, writer.

  15. David says

    Besides those in ensembles (ala Wooster, SITI, etc.) almost no theatre artists creators or performers can make a living practicing theatre. Even then, no writers. We all get jobs in academia or head west and try to get into TV. If we have the energy, we continue writing for theatre while on hiatus. But most of the time, we’re looking for our next TV gig. Just to pay the rent. That’s why American TV has become so good – far better than American Theatre. Everyone from David Mamet to Theresa Rebeck have gone to TV. Today theatre has to provide something TV can’t for it to be unique enough for people to come out for it. Simultaneously, large audiences have always eschewed the avant garde. Hence the continuation of an anemic American theatre and a passive, aging, uninterested American audience. Enjoy.

  16. says

    I am absolutely thrilled that this dialogue is finally happening again! I have been fighting for acting companies my whole theatrical career, and have been deeply committed for years at ACT to sustaining a group of actors 52 weeks a year and empowering them to help guide the artistic programming of the entire organization. The tragedy is that there is virtually no funding support for this model and equally little support in the media, because acting ensembles run counter to the kind of celebrity casting that guarantees press coverage and piques the interest of New York producers. The resident theater movement was created to feature brilliant theater actors creating transformational work over time for a given local audience. Now the resident theater is encouraged to create work that will transfer to New York because that creates “value”, encourages further funding, and garners press. So we have landed in the “migrant worker” situation all of you are describing, in which resident theaters employ actors on a once-off basis and audiences are no longer offered the opportunity to watch the craft of acting by seeing a resident ensemble create a wide body of work. Ironically, it was under actress Jane Alexander that the NEA stopped funding acting ensembles, and the funding community has not found it compelling to reverse the tide. I would love to see this issue placed at the center of our national dialogue about the field, and am extremely grateful to Diane Ragsdale for raising it again.

  17. says

    OR what if rehearsal schedules were lengthened (reduced to part time hours, over a longer period of time) and child care opportunities were available, so actors could do both–act for reasonable pay AND keep a steady “day job”? As an independent, self-produced, non-union performer, I hold a steady teaching job mornings only and have every afternoon available for rehearsals, as well as many evenings and weekend blocks of time. MY schedule, however would not allow me to take a “professional” gig (if, I were ever offered one). Still, I keep auditioning, knowing that my ship is bound to come in. And in the meanwhile, I self-produce (have a steady income to throw towards costs), participate in indy theatre, AND have a fulfilling family life and day job.
    Kim Zeglinski
    Winnipeg, Canada

  18. says

    ok this is am impt conversation. but nowhere does anyone suggest where the money for all this support is really supposed to come from. and how to avoid passing on the costs to the audience in terms of tix prices which for the most part are already too high and prevent large numbers of people, including workiing artists from regularly attending . . .

    we all know the economy is horrendous and getting worse. grant money is drying up, esp for smaller companies.

  19. Lee says

    If artists’ salaries were tied to the salaries of administrative staff at large theatre companies, that would be fantastic. As an administrator, I received compensation cuts, salary freezes, and benefits reductions during the recent recession–while watching the benefits and salaries for union artists steadily increase. As my theater shouldered the burden of those union-negotiated increases, my benefits were the first to go. Just saying.
    And by the way, large theaters that spend thousands of dollars on sets and props? Those are built by artists. With staff positions. Maybe they are props artisans or scenic artists–but they are still artists.

    • Randy says

      The reasoning behind AEA salary and benefit increases (I cannot speak to IATSE, AFM or others) is that our jobs are very rarely for 52 weeks. I can absolutely understand the frustration of having to accept salary and benefit cuts and/or freezes. But if you were to average out the annual income of most of the actors who passed through your theatre (a year that is likely to have included months of being unemployed), I am willing to bet that in most cases you will come out ahead.

  20. Randy says

    Can someone explain to me (or point me to an article which explains) why the resident company is no longer considered a viable model? What changed? How is jobbing in complete casts per show more cost effective than a resident company? I got my Equity card at Actors Theatre of Louisville 14 years ago, and back then there were 5 actors there who were still considered “company members.” But it seemed they simply remained through attrition. I don’t know what kind of contract they were on – whether it was a resident contract or if they signed a new contract for each show in which they were cast and waited around with no salary until the next gig. They were local. I don’t recall where they were all from originally, but they had long since become Louisville residents. I recently started a family and have had to step away from my career in order to be in one place and have the security of a consistent paycheck and health benefits for my family. I find I often daydream now about being able to return to my career in a resident company somewhere. Why is it some far-fetched impossibly silly notion?

    • Megan says

      I, too, agree that the idea of a resident theater company is a wonderful one, and have wanted to figure out a model where it might work. One of the issues is that hiring a repertory company of actors severely limits the scope of work you can do, because you’re committed to providing work for THESE CORE PEOPLE, year over year. This means you have fewer opportunities to do new work, and it particularly means fewer viable plays about people of color, unless that’s a part of your core casting and mission (one example I’ve seen is that Yale Rep could have never nurtured a relationship with August Wilson like they did, without ending their core company). Even a diverse core company means you can either only do shows where race isn’t overtly discussed, or where a multicultural cast is part of the expectation — it’s hard to do something that’s explicitly about one group’s experience without running into casting trouble.
      I once read a suggestion about having a core company that integrated a playwright-in-residence, specifically writing for the actors on staff — can’t remember why that was shot down, but the long and short of it is that core companies are perceived as being problematic for new works development.
      What might work (and what sounds similar to ATL’s model?) is offering a few long-term contracts to designated artists who are actors-in-residence, agreeing to offer these actors a guaranteed amount of work per year and possibly even having first dibs on their schedule. This small group of actors could then 1) continue to work locally around their core company schedule 2) build a relationship with the audience at their home theater 3) build a life within their community. Meanwhile, the company would still have most of the flexibility they need to hire outside actors, and do unusual projects as they arise, while still benefitting from the artist-friendly core company model. Maybe?

  21. Scout in NY says

    I think that it’s advisable that before we start any conversation about how theatres can spend more money, we first discuss where that money will come from.

    As has been pointed out already here, most theatres operate at a loss, not a profit. And, despite a vague claim at the beginning of the piece, most theatres in America have rather small staffs, a good percentage of which slave away at the dreary job of trying to find the money to keep the theatre operating at all.

    And there’s the scary fact that theatres continue to go out of business across the country, and are not replaced at the same rate.

    It would be lovely if we could guarantee at least a middle-class standard of living to everyone who wants to pursue a fulfilling life as an artist, but the resources simply aren’t there. And the demand isn’t there, either; the percentage of artists who have lived comfortably on their art has been very small during the history of the world. The actors who toured with Edwin Booth (who himself would not be considered “rich” by today’s standards, merely upper-middle-class at best), earned enough to live simply, in cheap housing and eating economically – and they would have been considered among the most successful of non-stars.

    So before we dream, we need to find a practical way to make that dream reality, without ignoring or (worse) changing the facts.

    • Megan says

      Scout, I agree with almost everything you’ve said here. It’s a challenge, to be sure — but if the arts are under attack, I think that saving the industry by building it on the backs of artists and necessary administrators who burn out and then find no joy in the work, is kind of like having a successful surgical procedure, even though the patient still died.

      In particular, though, I wanted to ask you about this statement:
      “And there’s the scary fact that theatres continue to go out of business across the country, and are not replaced at the same rate.”

      Do you think that we’re seeing a natural culling process; a response to supply and demand as it were, that will at some point slow down and result in a more healthy equilibrium of arts organizations-to-interested audiences? Certainly there would be less work for all theatergoers as a result, but if those organizations were healthier, is it possible that the current attrition will someday lead to a stronger industry on the whole?

  22. Joey Babay says

    I am speaking from one of those artists that migrated from performance into the world of non-profit work. Part was for the stability, but the other part was the endless energy it takes to sustain and find work as an artist.

    My biggest comment on the post is that it is blurring the line between small non-profit groups and larger cultural icons. We always catch the feeds of these larger Regional Theater institutions. But there is a whole macro environment of us smaller companies that are the bottom feeders of the arts world. It assumes that I am living off the fat of the land when in fact I still am not offered health insurance and am paid below the poverty level. The one “benefit” I am given is that I get a weekly salary which is an allowance of security knowing my bills will be paid. But in actuality, I bear much of the burden of making sure my small company continues to exist, draw audiences and continue to do valuable work. We are under staffed and always working at more than capacity to make sure even the small tasks are carried out so that our artists and teachers feel like their work is valued. So rather than feel like I on the receiving end of the Arts world, I actually think I am devoting much more at less of a financial reward. I do it because I believe in the work and mission of my company.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] Diane Ragsdale on making a living Another theme emerged this week, from Zelda Fichandler’s speech on the history of the regional theatre movement while giving an award to Blanka Zizka of the Wilma Theater, from Michael Dove of the Forum Theatre’s meditation on their words and his call to change “non-profit” into “social profit” to my own post on the idea of staff playwrights as opposed to resident playwrights. Naturally, Diane is right there with a few more “outlandish suggestions” on making a living as an artist in the regional theatres. [...]

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