Put the money where the people are

I was working this morning on some research and prep for Swim Pony’s upcoming re-working/re-mount of The Ballad of Joe Hill for the Live Arts this fall and I started thinking a bit about the stage hand strike (IATSE Local 8) that’s currently in progress at Philadelphia Theater Company’s Suzanne Roberts Theatre.


I have read the small bits of info that are out there for the public:



but beyond this surface level of information, I can’t say I know a lot personally about this particular situation. I don’t really know the ins and outs of this company (lord knows they are not in any rush to hire directors creating out of the box devised ensemble work) so I don’t really want to speak to the conditions at the place.

I have worked on both sides of the producer/gun-for-hire dividing line. I know the intense weight and pressure that a producer has in keeping the boat afloat. I know the resentment of feeling unfairly compensated for your work. I think both of these emotions are understandable. I also think both sides ought to experience the others’ shoes for a few miles. I bet it would go a long way towards decreasing anger and frustration on both ends.

Unions are imperfect animals. I certainly have steered clear of AEA on many occasions because I find that they often make it impossible for me to create in any way outside of the traditional system. Artists create works in many kinds of ways, but there is incredibly restrictive limits on the kinds of contracts I can engage an actor in. In a devised process the difference between training, research, writing and rehearsing is super muddy. That’s what’s wonderful about it, that the work is so unique to the participants, but it can be near impossible to work that out with a union rep. It’s often exhausting and not possible to create in the standard 40 hour week. 8 hours of generating isn’t doable. It just isn’t. But for AEA, a week is a week. I could cite any number of other irritations and frustrations (don’t get me started on site specific work and the equity cot) but the point is this – in theory a union should allow the workers to lobby for rights that serve them better in the professional world. That world of theater is changing rapidly and the union in some cases can actually hold an out of the box thinker back. This is one example of one union. I’m sure you could cite a multitude of others in the arts with just as anger inducing rules.

That said, in a system in which the employee has little agency – a situation which the traditional regional theater model can often engender – I totally understand the feeling of being an expendable cog in a massive system. The truth of the arts is that the supply versus demand equation is often skewed – there are too few employers and far too many people looking to be employed. Add to that a labor force that generally isn’t in it for the money. It makes sense that as foundation endowments disappear and budgets shrink that a producer might feel that ANY job is a good one when there are scant alternatives. It’s hard to bargain when you have little leverage. A union is a way to gain that amass that leverage.

Everyone knows there’s no money in the arts, right?


Here’s the thing. I don’t disagree that it’s reasonable not to expect to be making Wall Street money any time soon. But in the past few years I’ve sat on a few grant panels, and I’ve taken up the habit of really digging into the financial records of the companies I’m asked to evaluate. There was a trend that really bothered me, especially with small to mid-sized companies. More times than I’d have liked, I saw a company make a slow steady growth in budget size and increase the external features of the company – the amount of money spent on advertising,  materials for set and design rental, expense of space rental, etc – but keep the actor salaries consistent. I don’t think it’s appropriate to talk too specifically (for a whole host of confidentiality reasons) but I will say you can learn a lot in the 990’s that non-profits make public.

At the NPN conference last month I heard a representative from Doris Duke say that all artists worth their salt will be undercapitalized. If you have imagination you will always dream bigger than your resources. Or as I would put it, the idea expands to money allotted to it. And when we first start leaving that DIY phase we often immediately start dreaming bigger with the little cash we have. It’s so satisfying to put that money towards outcomes we can see and receive praise for – better theaters to rent, cooler lighting effects, fancier set pieces, etc. What’s harder is to do remember that the work someone did for free last time is worth more than free. Ditto for way under paying as well. It’s doubly hard when you are paying something to be objective about what that work is actually worth. I once worked at a company where the base actor salary hadn’t been raised in 10 years.

I get it. We acclimate. It is hard to pay more for something and have the product be the same. Which is why something I almost never saw in those grant panels was the same level of production value and an increase in salaries for the people they were working with.

There’s the old “industry standard” line that I hear floated around. Look, the simple truth is that $250 or $300 a week is not a living wage.  But I hear people actually excited about numbers like this all the time. The truth is we’re often working far more than our income alone would justify. We do it because we love it. We do it because we care about the companies we work for. We do it because we’re asked for favors. We do it because it’s what everyone around us is doing.

But if we institutionalize and capitalize on that, we get artists and crew who always feel like they’re doing too much for too little. And that, in turn, breeds resentment and burnout. It’s the thing that starts making one hold a little part of themselves back from a process because you feel like you’re being taken advantage of. Or get unreasonable about schedule changes or breaks or little things that in most professions wouldn’t be as big a deal. It’s easy to get lazy or pissy when you’re on the defensive and when you feel like you can’t be honest about your needs.

Let me say I am all for entrepreneurship. I understand that a company that has just started will have to go through a “I’m paying you less than you’re worth phase.” It’s like any start up: you begin with blood and sweat and tears. The difference though in the arts, is that we institutionalize that initial phase. We make business  models of over working and over extending. That’s fine when you’re just beginning but when you are hitting year 5, 10, 20, you shouldn’t be hearing the same kinds of complaints. We stay in the “do more with less” model forever. As Andrew Simonet of Artist’s U says, “Let’s start doing less with more.”

We producers need to really take time to think about the reality we’re asking our peers to take part in. Can you really afford that show if doing it means everyone involved needs another job in addition? Is that actually covering your costs? Even if someone will do that much, do you want to be the person that asks them to? We should be asking the people we bring on what it’s like to work for us and then really trying to listen to them.

I think we all need to seriously put our money into the people. Your set design will shrink or expand to the money you allot to it. Clearly, we can adapt, because we all had to do it after the housing collapse. What if you just committed to $50 more a week to the actors in the cast? What if you just promised to pay a TD a little more each time they worked for you? What if you gave a designer enough so that they could really just concentrate on your piece? Each of these shifts might be a couple thousand dollars. In the larger picture, it’s really not that much. I know this is hard. I raise every single dollar that gets paid out by Swim Pony. I stare at budgets all the time. But if you want it to happen, you can do it. That’s why you’re in the arts, you get shit done.

You might say that now is not the time, with the economy the way it is and so many companies reeling from the fallout. I say now is exactly the time when we need to get clear on how we want to operate, now when there are so many forces that might push us in the opposite direction. And while we can’t all jump immediately into the ideal situation, we can make incremental changes Because the truth is, if we endow people and not product now, we pay into a long term stable investment. If we begin from trust and principle, then we have a place to start talking from. If your workers know you have consistently valued them and their work, they’re going to be a lot more flexible when you come to the table with them in the future.


UPDATE – Just saw this posted and figured I’d add it to the mix



  1. Many good points, but there are realities no one wants to grasp. When a company actually pays the people and vendors they owe, they can talk about being fair to their employees. When they have held off for 3 months or more, it’s kinda stupid to take their words seriously. Lets look at designers living wage. The average non union designer might expect $1500 for a show. That’s at least 3 weeks of work, depending on the discipline. All at above 60 hours per week. How many designers you know doing 10 or more shows a year? Even there that’s only $15000. Not much to live on, is it. You might double that of your in the union. Still, not much.
    Theater is a lousy business, and you either move up, or move out

  2. Pingback: An Open Letter |
  3. Couldn’t agree more. For any of us that do spend our career in the industry, there is a tipping point. Many of us get into it because of the fun, the passion, the people….butat some point you, as well as any theatre company, needs to make a choice. It is a choice between continuing to do this as a hobby or a weekend project, or making it your profession. Professionals need to be paid as such…I agree-we aren’t going to make the big bucks, but a fair living wage isn’t unreasonable.

    Many of these Theater companies start as passion projects and that is wonderful…however there needs to be a point where people put away the childish attitudes of “theatre isn’t a real job” and assuming that because there is a litany of schools constantly pushing out fresh meat, willing to work for barely minimum wage or just above, while doing potentially dangerous tasks, uninsured. Sometimes you don’t need to suffer for your art. Sometimes treating it with professional respect, and dealing and working with professionals makes all of the difference in the world.

  4. “Living the dream” as an investment through labor is a labor of love without guarantee of part in next show. Indentured servitude to company. Fair wage for fair day or investment partners.

    1. Look “producer” labor isn’t show sponsor and the “talent” you’ve chosen aren’t the creative art you’ve green lighted business started. Pay your bills or go out of business

      1. Sell something! Producing isn’t purchased story to tell, with budget to sweat director you’ve chosen. Undermining direction and bonding, skilled set building, go sell product producer!

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