Feature

Paying theater artists fair wages is hard. But why do we consider it optional?

We need to talk about money.

Hey, Seattle theater.

We need to talk about money. Artists need more of it.

I’m not telling you anything you don’t know: All artists want to make more money and all companies want to pay artists more. But you also know that theater artists—actors, designers, directors, stage managers, crew—often work for sad stipends or salaries that are well below minimum wage. That’s not sustainable for individuals, and what’s bad for an artist is bad for an arts community. And if we won’t take care of our people, who will?

Producing theater is agonizingly expensive. Rehearsal space is expensive. Official performance space is expensive and limited. Production rights and design materials add up fast. Theater, by definition, requires collaborative effort by a large group of people working together in the same place, in addition to many hours of individual preparation. Federal arts funding is drying up and local arts funding is spread thin.

All this is to say, making ends meet is tough for a theater company of any size. But if we all, from funders on down, want a healthy theater community, paying artists fairly can no longer be considered optional.

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In early 2018, actor Matthew Kacergis sent out a Google form to the Seattle-area theater community at large, inviting interested artists to share wage details from jobs past. Not only was he professionally curious, but Kacergis knew his vantage point was a privileged one: As a straight, white man who can sing—“the data doesn’t lie, musicals sell better than almost anything else in a theater season,” he says—he was more employable than many artists. Even though he was working regularly at the 5th Avenue and Village Theatres, two of the better-paying gigs in town for union actors, Seattle was fast becoming prohibitively expensive for him.

“I watched the artistic community respond to cost-of-living increases and suffer, as I was, but I also knew there were people much worse off than me and I wanted to know what the numbers really were, beyond sitting in a bar with fellow theater professionals, complaining,” he says on the phone from Washington, D.C., where he recently started a new job in arts administration.

The numbers weren’t great. Kacergis received nearly 200 responses, from union and non-union artists working at all levels and in all aspects of theater. A few listed reasonable rates: union actors making $850, $925, $1,400 a week; some $3,500 director stipends. One designer lost money on a show because she refused to present shoddy work due to an inadequate budget. Some union members clarified their total hiring costs, which include payment into their health insurance and pension plans in addition to wages. One actor qualified a $400 stipend: “a great place to work.” Another mentioned signing a contract specifying their $300 fee wasn’t payment for services, but reimbursement for expenses. A crew member did the math and their rate worked out to $4.05 an hour.

Low-overhead fringe theaters are an important part of a theater ecosystem, a place for experimentation and a haven for art and artists that struggle to find space at traditionally risk-averse regional theaters. “I’ve never once had a conversation at WET where we said, we can’t do that show, it’s just not going to sell enough tickets,” says Samie Spring Detzer, artistic director of Washington Ensemble Theatre. “That is such freedom, such a luxury that so many organizations don’t have. [WET] is a good place for people to find their feet and share their voice, and I like the fact that new artists come here. If we were paying Equity wages, we might not always go with younger, early-career artists. I hope we would, but it’s a different game. It’s a different market.”

The Equity market affects larger theaters governed by union contracts (Actors’ Equity Association, Stage Directors and Choreographers Society, United Scenic Artists). Those contracts guarantee minimum salaries, though there are so many contract levels and exceptions that those minimums hardly guarantee financial security. This was a central problem addressed in the Fair Wage OnStage campaign, begun in New York in late 2016, in which New York actors, successful by any artistic measure, fought back publicly against union rates so low they were making well below minimum wage, despite working regularly at major off-Broadway houses.

Nine years ago in The Seattle Times, journalist Misha Berson addressed a post-recession problem for local actors: smaller cast sizes and more out-of-town actors being imported in ready-made shows. The article’s focus was a dearth of work rather than how much the available work paid, but the key finding was also that local actors were unable to make a living. Novel solutions included Taproot Theatre’s program in which donors sponsored individual actors (interesting idea!) and theaters forming repertory companies of actors, which would ensure members regular work (not feasible, according to theater execs at the time). The boldest solution Berson referenced was a new collective recently formed by some of Seattle’s most experienced actors, banding together to produce high-quality work; the resulting New Century Theatre Company closed last year.

Darragh Kennan, an actor who’s been on every major Seattle stage and a former artistic director of NCTC, has seen a pattern repeat throughout his career. “There came a point when I was like 40, maybe even 35, and all of my best friends who were actors, year after year after year, stopped acting,” he says. “There’s a reason we don’t have a lot of actors over 40 in town anymore. Because you can kind of make it work for a while, and then you want to have a life and a family and that’s really tough.”

That dropout rate creates another problem—it diminishes the quality of the work. “The longer that cycle [of underpayment] goes on, the harder it is to develop great actors,” says Ryan Guzzo Purcell, artistic director of the relatively new company The Williams Project, who saw this pattern firsthand when he was the associate artistic director at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre. “It makes rational people quit, it makes people who don’t have a ton of money to begin with quit, and it makes the ones who stick around really distracted. It’s that much harder for them to focus on doing a project. So without thinking too much about what it meant, I decided I wanted anything I did to be about living-wage artistry.”

The Magic’s artistic legacy is bold but the artistic model super traditional, Purcell says, and for artists who want to live outside New York or LA, where film work can subsidize a theater career, that traditional model is broken. “Recognizing that there’s no way for actors to work every week and yet it’s still a full-time job, what does it look like to imagine working theater actors making enough that they feel taken care of?” Purcell says. “My basic idea is, think of [artists’ work] as labor costs. Because it is. If it was labor, could you pay people less than they can live on because they like doing it?”

There’s always a trade-off. Purcell doesn’t currently pay himself. “I feel like I’m in a power dynamic where I’m allowed to exploit myself,” he laughs. “And right now, if the Williams Project does well it helps my career more than any of the actors.”

Making work for yourself (or selves) for free is one thing. But when does working for someone else become exploitation? At what point does a company that started out as a group of friends making experimental art together have an obligation to pay? Even big theaters often budget for as many non-union artists as they’re legally allowed to hire. When a theater company hires a professional artist and underpays them, the artist is, in effect, subsidizing the company.

“I’m not saying this is true everywhere, but I think people are getting away with things in the arts,” Kennan says. “You wouldn’t actually survive if you played by the rules. People are getting paid less than minimum wage to do jobs. People are doing stuff for free. People are donating their time. Because they’re doing other jobs, they don’t really have to depend on something.”

In all creative mediums, “experience” and “exposure” can be beneficial, but unlike many other creative mediums, one cannot practice, and therefore improve at, the craft of theater on one’s own. A working theater ecosystem requires a mix of small, mid-level and large theaters. “The three levels feed one another and folks move up and down between all of those tiers,” says Jeffrey Herrmann, managing director of Seattle Repertory Theatre. “Not having those mid-level theaters becomes an obstacle to us, to being able to draw more folks locally. You don’t have a system for people to rise up through the ranks, in terms of experience, which means that we end up having to look more out of town than we would like.”

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Making hard and fast rules around who should pay what is impossible. Does it have to do with company longevity? Budget size? Percentage of that budget that goes to artists? How many people you employ? Singling out any one company is wildly unfair; few are blameless. But no nonprofit is swimming in cash. Everyone pays what they think they can, and when it comes to administration, Herrmann points out, “nobody’s living high on the hog.”

“Living wage” is equally sticky. Living for whom? A single person? Married with kids? Seven roommates? What are artists actually entitled to, as a quality of life? Do they deserve to take a vacation once in a while?

“I was that guy for a long time, having to talk to theater directors and casting directors and producers about, hey, is there any way I can get health care for this, is there any way I can get $50 more?” says Kennan, who now works full-time as the donor relations officer at Seattle Repertory Theatre, and can be seen in Oslo at ACT Theatre through Nov. 11. “I was that pain in the ass, squabbling about every single contract, and when I was a producer, I was always thinking, how can we get these people more money, what else can we do for them? People have those conversations at every level.”

Artists are also having this conversation nationwide. In a 2017 issue of American Theatre magazine dedicated entirely to “the Compensation Conversation,” writer Kelundra Smith reported on the different ways companies like Center Stage in Baltimore, Lantern Theater Company in Philadelphia and Writers Theater in Glencoe, Ill., are working to raise artist pay as high as possible.

If artist wages are what get cut in your budget, or your budget is dependent on interns or people paid below minimum wage—and remember, hourly wages don’t usually factor in time spent on preparation—then you’re part of the problem, and reinforcing an already inequitable hiring system. Many artists won’t or can’t complain or ask for more because they want to get jobs, because implicit bias exists at every level of theater, and the messaging in theater is often: You are replaceable.

That’s why Equity and non-Equity actors with The Williams Project are paid the same, currently $700 a week and rising (though the company also pays into health and pension plans for Equity actors). They want no incentive to hire certain artists because they can pay them less. It’s also why the company doesn’t produce very often right now.

“Our model is about how many people can we pay fairly and can we fairly ask them to do what we’re asking them to do?” says Purcell. “We know what we can afford, and we don’t do more than that, and if we want to do more than that we know that we have to find a way to get more money.” He and Williams Project managing director Ellen Abram tell me that they spend, on average, two days a week on fundraising. “It’s not easy but it is that simple,” Purcell says. “If that’s your priority, then how much money can you get and how much art can you make? And that’s running a company. That’s not like art-making, but it is running a company.”

Abram points out that there’s potentially a big difference in the level of access to moneyed circles that she and Purcell, two middle-class white people, can gain, compared to people from less privileged backgrounds. But, she clarifies, being uncomfortable with fundraising isn’t the same thing as not having access. “I’ve taken on the responsibility of paying other artists, so it’s my responsibility to honestly interrogate my level of access and to develop the skill of fundraising,” she says. “I think all producers need to have that honest conversation with themselves.”

Government grants have a different problem, because the majority of them fund arts organizations rather than artists.

“My observation of government funding in Seattle is that they give teeny-tiny amounts so that everybody can get a grant,” Abram says. “And I’m 100 percent on board with that, with spreading around who gets funding, where they live, who their audience is.” She also wishes that grantmakers would factor in how much a company strives to provide their artists with professional pay when deciding how best to support the theater field. “I mean ‘professional’ purely in terms of how much you’re paying, whether a job is created. I’m not making any judgment about training, background or even quality, because that’s subjective.”

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Discussing theater and money issues can be both subjective and incendiary, full of artistic gatekeeping about what is “professional,” what is “community,” what is “fringe” and the million subdivisions therein. A 2005 Post-Intelligencer story decried a state audit that forced some smaller theater companies to pay their artists minimum wage in compliance with labor laws. Theaters will close! Art will die!

That may be partially true. But theater will never die—it just might have to look different, or be honest about what kind of theater it is.

“The dark side of what we’re advocating is that people will have to quit, or they won’t get hired,” Purcell says. “If there are fewer roles, that will be a real thing.”

But the idea that it’s bad for established theaters to pay at least minimum wage needs to die. Perpetually underpaying artists means the quality of theater in town suffers, and then why would people come to see it? So, ultimately, everything dies.

“I’ve always felt that if people aren’t coming to your theater, it’s not their fault,” Herrmann says. “It’s our fault for not giving them a reason to turn off Netflix and get off the couch and come through our door.”

Fundraising is hard, building donor bases is hard, securing grant funding is hard. But underpaying artists isn’t the answer. Increasing access to money is. “A seismic increase in government funding is an essential part of the solution for funding the arts,” Abram says. “I actually think one of the next phases of this money discussion is about building political power.” Viewing payment as necessary will require a fundamental shift in how we think about this issue. To make that shift we must have this conversation openly, and in public.

So what happens if a company decides to raise wages, or reduce programming, or both? Will theatergoers pay more for tickets? Will donors walk away? Why would they? Much like restaurants that raise prices to eliminate tipping, if the product is good I’m happy to pay more, knowing that the people making it are taken care of.

“Maybe it’s my last remaining shred of optimism,” Matthew Kacergis says, “but I think that if we made it clear to our donors and ticket-buyers, and everyone else in Seattle, how hard it is for all of us just to make ends meet, they would want to be a part of the solution in helping raise our pay, in helping direct funds to theaters that do work benefiting people that are less represented in the arts community. I really think that it’s an ignorance-is-bliss situation, and they just don’t know.”

Cultivating a growth mindset isn’t going commercial, it’s caring for our artists. If we’re going to raise the quality of work and the quality of life in this city, we need to pay up.