Recently, the FringeArts blog of Philadelphia interviewed the critically successful performer-producer Charlotte Ford about her decision to take a leave the arts scene to pursue a more formal career in speech pathology.
In her interview, “The Untenable Career of a Successful Philadelphia Theater Artist”, she candidly laid out the economic pitfalls of being a working artist: relying on grants or sponsors for funding, putting in 60+ hour weeks for scant pay, working tirelessly on increasingly successful projects only to struggle, still, with filling the calendar with work to pay rent. She felt that between the funders rejecting her grant requests for “doing it wrong” and an increasingly expensive environment, there was just no benefit to remaining a full-time artist.
Like Charlotte, I have wrestled with questions like these, but one point that her interview skirts and does not confront is the devaluation of artists by artists. We are conditioned to think that we must struggle and remain poor and hungry in order to produce art well. I, like you, have considered taking on a show for significantly less than my worth. When I agree to do that, however, I take value away from myself and my fellow artists. I’m telling the producer that my time and talent are negotiable, and that yours are, too. It’s about supply and demand. You are the only YOU. If they want YOU, then hiring you should benefit them for having you and benefit you by supporting your life as an artist.
Starting out as an artist in DC was hard. Very hard. I don’t believe I made more than $500 for a show in my first year as a designer. That’s hardly a livable wage, so I had to supplement my income by working part time at Starbucks, on overhire crew calls, and – finally – by taking a staff job at an opera company in Detroit for part of the year. I was afraid to push back and ask for more because I could lose that show to someone else in the ranks who would not ask for more money. That fear doesn’t go away, either.
Later in my career, after joining the designers’ union USA829, I was put in an awkward position by a particular theatre company. As we discussed contracts, I uncomfortably asked for my fee to be raised to meet a more legitimate rate given the workload I was being asked to do for this particular production. Their producer’s response was to tell me that they could get another designer who wasn’t in the union for less than their original offer. I invited them to do so if that was their decision and ended the discussion. The next day they offered me the show at the fee I’d requested. It was then that I began to value myself more, and to negotiate for myself better.
It’s not just myself I value, either. I value my fellow artists. If I am willing to take a lower fee as the lighting designer, then I have lowered the value of the projections and sound designers, as well, as their fees are usually comparable to mine. Similarly, if a set or costume designer – typically the highest paid designers on any particular production – is not willing to negotiate their worth, they then set the precedent for the rest of us. I cannot speak to other disciplines’ pay scales, but I have to imagine that the time they put into each production should be compensated at a wage that should allow them to flourish – not just survive on the bare minimum – and there is a ripple effect when one of us places our art below our worth.
Another company I’d worked with for years didn’t exactly push back when I asked for a higher fee, but they couldn’t raise it by much, either. Instead of simply rejecting me, though, they were open to a discussion about artist pay structure. With no one pushing, even as the company grew in distinction, there was no incentive for them to raise their fees. Several artists grew a voice when they heard that this company was willing to listen, and they’ve since re-structured their pay scale for artists in every discipline. I wish that more producers, managers, and sponsors were open to discussion about what it takes to create art on the professional level.
At the rate this company originally offered me, I would have to design at least 80 shows in a year to match their producer’s salary – a modest living wage itself. If I had to design 80 actual shows in a year (and if I were hypothetically able to book that), I would be constantly split between projects with none of them ever having my full attention. I would have to be in too many places at once – focusing Theatre A’s show while plotting Theatre B’s while cueing in a 10 out of 12 at Theatre C while attending a production meeting at Theatre D while generating paperwork for Theatre E while researching new technology and techniques in my field in my “spare” time. Even if I was a fleet of people by myself, the work I could produce to support myself at that rate would be shoddy – not to mention that I would be completely unhealthy and unable to grow as an artist.
Similarly: were I to get a “day job,” my focus would have to be split between doing that and whatever shows I was still able to book around my available time. Given that so many productions require more than a full-time job does, could I still be considered a professional lighting designer? The distinction is not between making a dollar or not, it’s between focusing completely on my work or having my focus split.
If even one of us is unwilling to participate in a movement towards a living wage, then we will all continue to be overworked and underpaid.
Professional theatre companies can pay their staff a living wage to focus on their work, yet have stagnant and unsupportable fees for the artists who are giving just as much time per week to each of their productions. If you want to hire professionals, pay them at a professional rate – one which supports their livelihood and allows them to thrive for the duration of their work on that production. If the company cannot provide that for their artists, if the artists cannot afford not to have alternate sources of income during these periods that are not related to their work, then perhaps we must draw a line as they do in the sports world and represent those productions and companies as semi-professional. No less valuable to the artistic community, but more representative of the company’s level.
I recognize that many of these statements may be incendiary, but I think it’s a necessary conversation we need to have as artists, producers, and audience. Ms. Ford stated that “live performance is expensive to create,” and she’s right. Live people are expensive because our lives are valuable, and we cannot neglect that for ourselves. Ask for more. Don’t work for less than you’re worth. Even when you do that favor for a friend, at the very least be sure you’re not doing it at a cost to yourself. Remind your collaborators and producers that you have a worth. I know we can do this at every level of production because all of the theatre companies I have worked with really do care about their artists.
This is a conversation we need to have as a collective – not as individuals. Working together is the best way to create change. If even one of us is unwilling to participate in a movement towards a living wage, then we will all continue to be overworked and underpaid. This is why I think artist guilds and unions are so important. Imagine if artists of every discipline met to set minimums and conditions so no one would be afraid to be undercut. It’s time we artists started taking control of our livelihood. We have to stop competing in a race to the bottom to win by providing the most product for the least money. Our time and talent is more valuable than that.
Guest writer: Andrew F. Griffin is a Helen Hayes Award winning freelance lighting designer.
See his work at AFGLighting.com