When Paying Dues Doesn’t Pay the Rent, How Does the Theater Survive?

This post was originally published on NY Times - Theater

Written by: Jesse Green

A woman who has been working for about 16 years in a costume shop at a midsize theater in a midsize city in the Midwest agreed to discuss her job. A typical 40-hour week finds her cutting, draping, patterning, tailoring, altering, stitching, dyeing, distressing, repairing and “whatever else comes up.” The pay is $18.64 an hour, but only during the theater’s nine-month season. During her three-month furlough, she collects unemployment and goes without health insurance, “praying to Baby Jesus,” she told me, “I don’t hurt myself over the summer.”

I first learned about the woman when she wrote about her work — “first hand” is the job title — on Nothing for the Group, a newsletter devoted to a conversation about pay equity in the theater. In a feature called Bills, Bills, Bills, it publishes workers’ anonymous “money diaries”: not just the numbers but the thousand little cuts that come from undercompensated employment. The Times confirmed her identity and job duties, and agreed to maintain her anonymity so she could speak freely about her pay. An expert professional in her 50s, she makes, after taxes and other deductions, less than $20,000 a year from the work she “for the most part” loves.

Despite its good cheer, her diary is poignant. She waffles about the $115 a month deducted from her paycheck for parking: Maybe she could save the money by biking — but what about the weather? A highlight of her week of scrounging leftovers and skipping meals is a neighborhood meeting that, though “not terribly exciting,” provides free food.

She is not an outlier. Lauren Halvorsen, who runs Nothing for the Group, and who was the associate literary director at the Studio Theater in Washington, D.C., until the mass pandemic layoffs of 2020, said she could not afford some of the freelance work she has been offered since then, even though she was just “scraping by.” “The pay is so awful I’ve had to say no,” she told me. “The thing I most love I can’t do anymore.” After 17 years in the theater, she got a day job at an engineering firm. Likewise, the Midwest first hand has been studying to become a home inspector.

The dramaturg Jenna Clark Embrey, who curates the money diaries for Nothing for the Group, still works as a dramaturg but is now a communications consultant as well. In addition to her anecdotal feature in the newsletter, she created the Theater Salaries Spreadsheet, a crowdsourced database that sheds an embarrassing light on a traditionally shadowy playing field.

Even considering the number of entry-level positions and the small size of some of the unnamed institutions, the financial details of the 543 jobs currently listed are disheartening. A company manager at a Chicago nonprofit makes $28,500. An artistic assistant at a Virginia theater with an annual budget of $5 million makes $26,000. An assistant director of education for a Tennessee theater handily undercuts them at $21,000. These are professional, full-time jobs.

Nobody doesn’t believe in fair pay. And few would deny that theater employees, like other workers, are too often compensated at rates well below the minimum wage, let alone the living wage, in their communities. Yet a pervasive story theater people have told themselves forever says that scrounging and sacrificing and “paying dues,” sometimes indefinitely, are part of the identity, even the glamour of the field. Poverty may be seen as a sign that progress, if it comes, has been earned by suffering. A few years ago, a Chicago director told me that a major marker of career progress among her colleagues was when they needed just one day job to support their theater habit, not two.

But like certain old plays, those old stories are falling out of favor. In part because the 18-month shutdown gave theater people the time to scrutinize their circumstances, and in part because other equity initiatives were at the same time roiling the field, a consensus for change has begun to emerge. Prestigious institutions are being forced to alter or eliminate their unpaid internship programs, smaller companies are voluntarily restructuring their compensation packages and a movement to make fair pay practices standard if not compulsory is gaining traction in Chicago and spreading to other cities.

In the first installment of this series, about the culture of cruelty built into the American theater, I noted that change, even to achieve universally admired goals, is never free. That’s literally the case with pay equity. The money to more fairly compensate low-paid workers must come from somewhere. In a few theaters, but probably not the ones that can most afford it, that may mean paying top earners less. In others, the money may come from increased fund-raising, which itself is not cheap. (Development directors can command big salaries.) But in many, it will come from curtailing or eliminating core functions that until recently would have been considered sacrosanct, definitional — and whose loss will have profound implications for the future of both the art and the business.

So the question is not just how much we’re willing to spend on fair pay but also how much it will cost.

When I spent a summer at the Williamstown Theater Festival, 40 years ago, my cohort of apprentices had no clue that we were “workers,” let alone professionals. We understood ourselves to be gofers and dogsbodies who, in exchange for proximity to Frank Langella and Blythe Danner, and a chance to play Fairy No. 13 in a supersized “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” were expected to perform all kinds of unpaid labor, some of it unsafe and some of it degrading. If Langella’s toilet needed cleaning, there was an oversubscribed sign-up list of volunteers eager to do it. And if another star groped you at a party, well, maybe you’d get to be Fairy No. 12.

Joseph Schuyler)

The Massachusetts festival is radically different today. Jenny Gersten, who was hired in November as its interim artistic director, said in an interview that the old model, which she observed firsthand during 13 years in two stints on the leadership team, was not sustainable. It had arisen, she said, “from the summer stock model of the 1950s, which was very much a ‘let’s put on a play’ ideology.” Workers, she said, were expected to “get by on whatever the equivalent of ramen was — probably Velveeta and Spam. Whereas now we see that working 16 to 18 hours a day without pay and proper safety accommodations is” — she paused — “problematic.”

As recently as 2019, the festival produced seven highly professional shows during its eight-week season, four at the 173-seat Nikos theater and three, often featuring large ensembles and elaborate designs, at its 511-seat Mainstage. (The 1980 “Cyrano de Bergerac” starring Langella featured a cast of 64.) To fill that stage, and essentially build it, the festival depended on its corps of 70 apprentices, most of whom, far from being paid for their work, instead paid for the privilege: $4,250 for tuition, room and board. (At a slightly higher level of serfdom were 50 interns, who paid only $650, for housing.) The promised learning experience was delivered in the form of hands-on hard labor and the occasional tongue-lashing.

But at the beginning of 2021, as conversations about representation and good labor practices were coming to a head everywhere, the festival’s board of directors received a broadside from an anonymous collective called WTF, Williamstown?! Filled with devastating detail, the document described an inherently inequitable and exploitive program, not only in terms of pay and treatment but also access. Among its contentions, as Gersten, who was not then working for the festival, described it, was that the “pay-to-play” model meant apprentice and internship programs were effectively open only to people of means, and were therefore predominantly white. “Which was true,” Gersten said.

That summer, as the festival embarked on a scaled-back and entirely outdoor pandemic season, Mandy Greenfield, the artistic director at the time, replaced the apprenticeships with an early career program for students from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds. But unrest emerged on a different front as professional sound technicians working on the musical “Row” walked off the job in protest over the low pay and unsafe working conditions that they and others in entry-level jobs endured.

Greenfield stepped down after the season. As Gersten returned she already knew that the festival’s problems could not be addressed within the framework of its traditional ambitions to be a major training program and a major production organization at once. What had seemed like temporary pandemic accommodations were going to have to be permanent.

The result in 2022 is a drastic change. There are now just 20 trainees on campus, 10 of them from Williams College, which has hosted the festival since its inception. The trainees are provided with free housing and meals and paid a $2,500 stipend for a seven-week “intensive.” They divide their time — about 46 hours a week, spread over six days — among workshops, classes and departmental rotations. At the same time, with no free labor, and in order to eliminate hasty changeovers between shows that kept workers up for days at a time, Gersten has cut the summer season from seven complex productions to three smaller ones. The first, a five-person “comedy thriller” called “Man of God,” began performances on July 5.

Stephanie Berger)

“We might be able to expand the season in the future,” Gersten told me, “but I don’t think we can ever get back to the size we once were. The cost of paying all these people, doing fewer shows, with more dark time between them, has increased our expenses 40 percent and reduced our income. We are making it work, but only with a great deal of subsidy from individual donors. And though the trainees are getting a kind of firsthand knowledge — watching someone in the box office deal with an irate customer or sitting with me as I talk to a playwright — it’s not the same value as actually doing the work.”

It’s a painful paradox that improving pay for the festival’s professional staff means having fewer shows and thus less opportunity for them to practice their craft. And that improving the conditions for trainees means cutting their ranks by nearly 90 percent. Nor is this just Williamstown’s problem. Protests have recently plagued the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Connecticut, the Walnut Street Theater in Philadelphia and, in New York, the Flea, which essentially rebirthed itself in a different form, and the Lark, which shut down completely. As more and more theaters start to institute similar reforms, what will the future of the business — and the art — look like?

Here’s how Elsa Hiltner sees that future. All theaters will end unpaid internships. Those with annual budgets greater than $1 million will meet minimum-wage rates, and eventually living-wage rates, for all workers. Compensation categories, or each worker’s actual pay, will be clearly defined and shared. The highest salary in an organization will exceed the lowest by no more than a factor of five. Schedules will be set “to the greatest extent possible” to fit within a 40-hour workweek.

Those are among the benchmarks for certification by the Pay Equity Standards, a new program developed by Hiltner, who worked in theater production for 15 years, and her colleagues at the Chicago-based advocacy organization On Our Team. Two small companies in that city — Collaboraction, dedicated to social justice, and 2nd Story, dedicated to “real stories by real people for real change” — are the first to meet all the requirements. On June 29, they received, among other things, the right to use (but only for the rest of 2022) a handsome laurel-wreathed badge in their marketing materials. Six more theaters around the country are working toward certification in 2023.

They are smallish companies. New York nonprofits with artistic directors making $1 million or more per year — and with pay spreads that may approach a factor of 50 — seem unlikely to apply. Still, as with LEED certification or fair-trade stickers or organic-food labels, the hope is that the badge will eventually help consumers of theater choose work that aligns with their values. While waiting for that to happen, theaters may benefit, Hiltner says, from a happier, harder-working staff — and from the positive response she sees from funders and donors to institutions that actually “live out their missions.”

But it’s also the case that funders and donors generally prefer to contribute to theaters that make a lot of theater. That’s one of the problems facing PlayCo, a New York City company implementing a new compensation model this year.

As described to me by Kate Loewald, PlayCo’s founding producer, and Robert Bradshaw, its managing director, the plan is designed to address not only the usual inequities by raising everyone to at least the living wage but also to adjust the misalignment of pay between staff (who may be full-time) and artists (who usually work for a month or two).

It does so, in part, by putting every job in a clearly defined and equalized pay category: A stage director is compensated at the same rate as Loewald and Bradshaw, a staff associate director at the same rate as a freelance costume designer. Because all the categories are “transparent,” everyone knows what everyone’s making, which in almost all cases is more than before. (The exception is Loewald, who took a cut.) Based on an estimate of 250 hours of work, directors formerly paid $3,500 will now be paid $7,100.

To accommodate this policy, and other labor initiatives as well, the company’s board has agreed to raise the annual budget, which stood at $1 million before the pandemic, by about 20 percent. It has also agreed to lower ticket prices from a base of $35 to $25, with cheaper seats available. As a result, at least for now, PlayCo will be able to afford only one show a season, instead of its usual two or three, risking a spiral of disinvestment. A unique element of the city’s theaterscape — PlayCo has focused on adventurous global work — is thus diminished.

“This has to be,” Loewald says. “We will develop the theater we want to be around.”

Julieta Cervantes)

For Hiltner, that’s the bottom line. “The negative things you ‘give up,’” she says, “are not really losses.” In part, I agree: At many theaters, fewer shows might mean better shows. At others, I’m not sure less product would be a good outcome. And what about gorgeous but expensive design? Hiltner was a costume designer before joining the exodus of artists forced out by low pay.

Still, creativity, like water, takes the shape of its container. And what is the creativity of the theater about, above and beyond that of other industries, if not to imagine, rehearse and revise better worlds, both onstage and off?

Pay equity need not, after all, be a zero-sum gain. (Soho Rep, which recently introduced a living-wage job creation program, is actually planning to expand its programming.) If theater, as Hiltner puts it, operates under a scarcity model — “there’s not enough and there will never be more” — perhaps it’s because we undervalue it ourselves. Noxious stories about the value of suffering and a lifetime of scrounging exist to convince ourselves of the false idea that a passion cannot be a profession.

“If the arts industry starts valuing the art,” Hiltner says, “that will ripple out and impact the way people donate and the way corporations and foundations give support. If we stop thinking of resources as scarce,” she adds, “maybe they finally won’t be.”

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