I’ve spent much of my holiday reading about the Occupy movement, which I have been woefully uneducated about – partly because of being busy, partly because of underreporting from trusted sources. I also tend to read a lot about theatre while I’m on vacations, just generally, so when B. Michael Peterson posted “On artists making a living and artistic directors that could make a difference but don’t”, I was at full attention.

The basic premise is obvious from the title – theatre artists should make a living but don’t, and it seems to be because of large theatre’s swollen administrative staffs. Now, I am one of the accused/mourned theatre artists who has gone into administrative work at a large theatre company to pay my bills. I’m lucky in a lot of respects – the theatre I work for has a balanced budget, I get paid enough to survive and pay down my credit card at the same time, and I work about 3/4 time in the office, which gives me time to work on other projects in the evening and on weekends, AND have a small amount of downtime at home between events. I’m paid hourly instead of salaried, so any hours I work beyond part-time are paid for (not at time-and-a-half, but still, it’s paid, so I get slightly less pressure to work obscene hours without more than my contracted salary). It could be a lot worse.

It could also be a lot better. How do we make it better? Where does the money come from to make it better? What model works better?

The comments got pretty illuminating.

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?

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.
“Larry Murray” http://berkshireonstage.com/

Yay Berkshire! This is a model that’s occurred to me independently of this article because of the influence on West Coast culture of the co-op farm movement. Co-ops are kind of awesome entities, although I admit that I don’t know too much about them as a business structure, and what sort of laws surround them. But the idea of the workers owning a private business, like shareholders — fabulous.

Here’s a few more:

– 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.
“Kit Baker” http://kitbaker.blogspot.com/

“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.
“Carl Forsman”

This statement is very true, actually. As mentioned before, I pay for things with my check from working as an administrator in a large theatre in Seattle. As an administrator, I get a health savings plan (not health insurance, but which is better is a separate debate), paid time off, paid sick leave, and paid bereavement. We get a nice lunch once a year for the entire staff donated from one of our largest donors, who is a very kind and humble human being. I also get comp tickets to the shows. I don’t get much more than that, like lunch on the company dollar. We have old computers that need to be updated. We have to be careful about what we buy for the office as far as supplies, and we have to meticulously track most expenses. There is a company credit card for these things, but to get it to buy more pens, I practically have to find the Golden Fleece to get the gods’ favor. We have the occasional company party, and while they’re becoming slightly more common because of some new marketing staff, they’re rare and there’s a budget for them.

I’m going to contrast this with my significant other’s experience at a small but growing software company in Bellevue. They’re currently in a small transitional office, but they’re in the process of having a nice, new large office renovated for them to move into. The staff of 100-ish employees are fed a nice lunch once a week, AND every birthday in the company is celebrated with a meal. There’s a big holiday party which actually DOES NOT also function as a fundraiser with donors and board members- it’s just a fun thing to do. After selling their software to a large company, the employees who worked the hardest on the customization got iPads as a thank-you. He works full-time, sometimes more than 40 hrs a week, but not much, and he has health benefits including dental and vision (very rare), and paid time off. He can occasionally work from home. The company owners will randomly buy meals or drinks for the staff outside of the once-a-week lunch (like recently, the day after Thanksgiving, the 10 people not on vacation were taken out to a nice breakfast).

The large and highly-valued cultural institution that I work for could never, ever treat its employees this way without amassing serious debt. Shows would have to be cut. Fundraisers arranged hastily and thrown. It would be bad. And if we tried to throw a fundraiser to so that admin staff could be fed on the company dime once a week, the public would be furious.

Moving on …

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.
“Zak Berkman”

This is also interesting. I’ve read something before on Theatre Ideas about how artists are not migrant workers, and yet they seem to be treated that way. This definitely ties in with some of the Occupy values – values about local talent jive with the need for jobs in this country, instead of out-sourcing. The need for a rep company works with oil costs – as the cost of transportation rises, so does the cost of importing actors rather than investing in your local talent. There’s definitely a 1% of large theatres out there, who have staffs able to focus on applying for grants, while small theatres flounder because they don’t have the man-power to focus on writing grants, answering the phones, reading scripts, and directing or acting in the shows. That’s asking a lot, even if your staff is decently salaried (I mean, that’s a 14-hr day, all told!)

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.

An interesting comment because it reminds me a lot of when the union movement got started in the mid-19th century, and how it is being broken down today. There’s pressure on many people to stay well over a reasonable number of hours to work, because so many people can potentially take their place (“scabs” in union terminology). It’s undermining both on a professional and personal level because you’re basically constantly told that you aren’t good enough, even if you have the job/role. Why have loyalty to a company that can so easily replace you, and has that threat built into the contract, and management’s treatment of your skills?

Overall, what I pulled from this is that we could be easily using our artistic team in other capacities, both to cut costs and so theatres can treat artists as humans rather than commodities. I think we’re underestimating theatre artists here. Think of it this way: artists have to sell themselves as a product all the time. If you’re freelance, you have to constantly look for paying work, and develop your own projects if for no other reason to have a portfolio. You have to have outreach and marketing skills, you have to be reasonably organized, you have to have a good phone voice, you have to have a good enough grasp on grammar and spelling for email correspondence as well as your resume, you have to have a certain amount of charisma for auditions and interviews, you have to be able to at least balance your own checkbook. If you are a freelancer, you probably have figured out how to use a word processor and Excel for all kinds of magical things, and you probably have crazy ninja skills with some kind of calendar program. You are your own administrative office. I know plenty of freelancers who have most of these skills in at least a moderate, entry-level way. Why can this not translate to artist-administrators? I feel like a lot of theatre companies, of all sizes, are afraid of the artists owning and running the theatre for some reason, like they’re so delicate and otherworldly that asking them to file things alphabetically or run the box office when they’re not in a show might break their creativity so bad it will never come back.

I am, however, gratified by many of these comments that people are thinking about this problem, and in some cases solving it by giving their artists a salary and making them earn it by participating in the organization in other ways. This isn’t a point to exploit artists’ time, however. I’m not suggesting we use salary and benefits as bribery for slave labor. But I do think that if an artist is truly invested in all aspects of the theatre, using all his/her talentes to keep it afloat, and we can all manage to find a healthy time balance for how much we all work at this career, then artists will be engaged in and excited about the community they work in. Less desperate, healthier, happier, and more able to express their creativity because they’re taking better care of themselves. They know their time is valued, and they know why, and that sense of agency will translate into their work.

Finally, an awesome blog to check out: Collective Arts Think Tank

One thought on “#OccupyRegionalTheatres

  1. I’m so very glad that I’ve passed along such wonderful information or rather a wonderful link ;) I heart you, xoxo!!!

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