There’s a huge takeaway for small theatre companies in DC following the revised Helen Hayes eligibility requirements and the removal of Ari Roth from Theater J: In DC, at least, theatre is first and foremost a business. Each of us needs to decide what to do with that uncomfortable fact.
from DCTS: Recently, theatreWashington announced a major change to the qualification process for the annual Helen Hayes Awards, instituting minimum wage requirements across several artistic fields. This is the latest in a continuing series of opinion pieces, meant to reflect the different points of view of producers, actors, designers, directors, and other artists on the recent change.
As the founder of a company with three Helen Hayes Awards recommendations, I understand this business position, really I do. Each of us is beholden to boards or other interested groups to raise funds for our company. I’m stretched thin on how much more of my personal savings I can put back into my own company, so on more than one occasion I’ve heard myself say, “no art gets made until money is made first.” I don’t like it, but that’s reality.
When any of us decides to have our theatre join the professional ranks, it can be very difficult to stay true to our mission. Not everyone with cash to fund the business is as in love with our goal as we may be. That means walking the fine line between artistic integrity and financial viability. The more popular you become, the more opinions you have to take into account as you build your reputation.
Looking at the growth trajectory of the biggest theatres in DC, there is a direct correlation between success and a willingness to accommodate broader opinions. The deservedly well-respected Woolly Mammoth (to which I’m proud that Molotov’s audiences sometimes compare us) mounted both “Fat Men in Skirts” in 1991 and “Bug” in 2000. They’re still doing very interesting work like “Bootycandy,” and giving opportunities to many new talented writers and artists. It’s unlikely, though, that we’d see anything as jarring on their stage today quite so consistently as when they were still struggling and working in smaller venues. They and other established companies have a very large budget number to meet each year, and you can’t do that on a steady diet of dark, triggering or overtly challenging material. (At least not in DC, it seems.)
Read this: Proposed Helen Hayes wage regulations
And when board members are expected to raise five-figure contributions each year, as they do for many established theatres, it’s considerably harder if your seasons test the limits of an audience’s sensibilities. What’s more, if a board feels any artistic personnel are working at cross purposes to the goals of a theatre — or to the interests of the people who pay to keep the lights on — it’s within the board’s rights and fiduciary obligations to make the changes they deem fit, whether any of us agrees with those changes or not.
It is a shame, however, when those boards make decisions that will serve to define out of professional status the very companies they courted scant years ago. I remember sitting with my peers in the audience at Imagination Stage, listening to Linda Levy explain the values of being part of the larger theatrical community. I also clearly remember hearing how Helen Hayes recognition could be valuable in developing our reputation and in helping create the credibility required to seek funding.
Only a day or so ago, in an end-of-year donation email, one of my friends was encouraged to contribute to the organization that had seen the DC theatre community grow from 14 theatres in the mid 1980s to over 90 today. The sad fact, however, is that many of those over 90 professional theatres could be defined out of their professional status, once the board-approved Helen Hayes Awards eligibility requirements are put in place in 2016.
Read this: more in our series on the Helen Hayes professional wage requirements
In the case of my own company, which has largely been bootstrapped for our seven years of operation, the compensation minimums will increase our budget by 60 to even 80 percent per show. That’s not the kind of number we can prepare for – the funding is just not there.
So, what to do? From a purely business standpoint, there are some options:
We could try to find 80 percent more money per show.
We could cut back our season by one or two shows, and eliminate other programs.
We could continue to do our work outside of the Helen Hayes system.
We could become a community theatre.
We could dissolve.
We could compromise.
We could move to another city.
Because we know we don’t have avenues for nearly doubling the funding per show, we could cut back to one show per season while keeping other programming. That will make it harder still to find more funding, as there’s very little value to a corporate donor in a theatre that holds 16 performances or fewer only once a year. We could certainly work outside of the Helen Hayes system, which we did for the first several years of our existence. It’s a shame that we have to consider it, given that this is DC’s only professional awards organization. Not being part of it seems on its face to devalue our company as a legitimate business entity (despite our 501(c)(3) non-profit status).
There are some things we can’t or don’t want to do. We can’t become a community theatre. It’s unlikely that we would get widespread community support for our mission of preserving the Grand Guignol and horror/suspense theatre. We don’t want to dissolve, obviously. And we’ve already compromised somewhat on what was originally an exclusive focus on Grand Guignol, broadening our reach to horror and suspense. We can’t go much beyond that, because historical preservation of the form is what is building our brand reputation, and giving us a name outside US borders.
For us, really, we’re at a crossroads that our board will have to help us navigate. I don’t like the idea that my company – along with many others – will essentially be defined out of our professional status in the eyes of many of those in the more established theatre community. I don’t like the thought of reconsidering our mission for the sake of money. I don’t like the idea that we may have to give fewer opportunities to DC’s very talented professional actors and technical people, who typically are happy just to receive a stipend or a percentage guarantee against gross profits.
What I like, though, is what drives me. I like to live and work in DC. I like the idea of a vibrant and supportive creative community in the buttoned-down confines of our nation’s capital. I like the fact that DC’s creative and civic leaders are working hard to overcome the stigma that this city is just a good place to be from. I hope that we can find a way to make all that happen without having to make compromises that will homogenize theatre in Washington.
But whatever happens, I’m going into it with my eyes wide open. Because in DC, theatre is first and foremost a business.
written by Alex Zavistovich,
President and Founder
Molotov Theatre Group
How on earth can you say Signature Theatre was NOT bailed out??? It most definitely WAS bailed out. Part of it was a loan but the rest was money forgiven by the county. THAT, my friend, is a bailout.
Signature Theatre was NOT bailed out. That is a dramatic headline that if you did any research you would know is not true. Get your facts straight. Professional = paid. PERIOD.
Thanks for writing back. Not sure why you continue to try and paint me with a brush. As I stated above, and apparently need to restate, tW can create whatever criteria they want for their awards; that’s the general consensus around town, and I agree with it. But money does not equal quality, and a number of former judges I’ve spoken to had a hard time separating the two. That’s a problem, regardless of what’s eligible.
Does doubling the number of awards matter if 75% of the eligible companies for awards are no longer eligible? Never mind that the very idea that HH has been doing “better” for indie theatres is just shortsighted. If you really, truly think that the top 6 (of 90+) receiving over half the available nominations is equitable, or in any way an accurate judge of the quality of DC’s work, then you’re misguided, at best.
Putting aside your guesses at my logic, you’ve come to the wrong conclusion. I don’t actually care about the awards in and of themselves. What I do care about is how the DC community perceives professional theatre, and the exposure those awards mean for all companies, big and small.
All that being said, you are probably reading a tone into my posts that doesn’t exist. I’ve asked this question elsewhere, and no one can seem to answer it. Perhaps you can. Can you name three things that tW currently does for smaller, independent theatres? I’ll get you started on the first three that come up, and then you can tell me that tW is “advocat[ing] for the DC theatre scene in general.”
-Website portal. This is hardly useful, as theatre end metrics have shown.
-Casting database. This might be useful one day, but the Actors’ Center casting database is far more varied and useful.
-“Taking Care Of Our Own.” I can’t even point to a single instance where this has benefited an indie company.
Respect is earned, and tW has done very little to show the indie theatre community that they are worthy of that respect. If tW continues to bill themselves as advocating on behalf of all of indie theatres, yet nothing they do is geared towards actually helping indie theatres, why on earth should we stay? Your comments speak to the notion of, “It’s built and there’s a place for you.” That’s BS. With no mechanisms in place to help smaller companies grow, and no real takeaways for joining, there’s no reason for indie companies to join. None at all. tW just wants the numbers so they can LOOK like they are representing other companies.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there is an entity that has set a bar for actors seeking a living wage. It’s called Actors Equity Association. Just like in any other profession with a union, if you’re attempting to do something full time, you ought probably to join the union. Policemen, teachers…we look at these professions as being represented by a union. Or several unions. If you aren’t a part of the union, you don’t have anyone fighting for you. You’re not “professional.” Why are actors any different? If you want the living wage, go Equity. There are plenty of actors who don’t want to do this full time, and there’s absolutely no difference in quality between random AEA show #1 and random indie show #1.
Hi again Stu. Thanks for the HH audit. Those numbers actually sound pretty balanced to me considering the statistical advantage of a well-funded and established theatre. Parallel those numbers to the wealth disparity in our country – you know, the top 1% and all. The Helen Hayes Awards have been doing 49% better for the “little guy” than our national economy, and on top of that they just doubled the number of nominations and awards for the smaller theatres.
Numbers aside, you and Mr. Zavistovich share an awards-centric view of theatre, and the negativity that results from this kind of myopia is causing you both to miss the point of being involved in an arts community at all. Further, it is causing you to paint theatreWashington as some sort of adversary to small and independent theatres, and you couldn’t be more wrong. Even if they don’t have the resources to single out every little on-site production in every bar or tiny-house community, by continuing to advocate for the DC theatre scene in general, they are furthering the cause for all of us – whether you like it or not.
But what constitutes a living wage? According to theatreWashington, that thresholds set will see the average actor earning $6,000 a year. Is that professional?
It’s difficult to argue pay= professionalism in an industry that doesn’t provide health insurance, benefits or 401k building. It’s especially hard when the majority of DC actors don’t do this full time, for various reasons.
In the end, this will blow over. Some actors are guided by a paycheck, some by interesting projects. Nothing about that has changed.
Finally, i’m really chagrined at reading the tone of your post. It’s attitudes like that that cause a bigger disparity where none should exist. Can you have a better time seeing a show at DCAC than at the Harman? Yes, of course you can. In fact, one need look no further than Signature Theatre’s recent woes to see that “ability to pay actors” does not equal professional. Unless we’re equating professional to companies that are financially failing so badly that the county has to bail them out.
Thanks for the reply. I’m not sure what perspective has to do with this: I don’t think I indicated what I do in DC theater. I’ll also ignore any personal attacks and assumptions you’ve made, simply because this isn’t the forum for that.
I’m quite familiar with theatreWashington, both their programs and their personnel. What I do know is that there’s a difference between saying you represent 90+ theaters, and actually doing something to represent 90+ theaters.
So let’s talk about those 90+ theaters. In the last decade, there have been roughly 1,400 nominations (excluding out of town and TYA productions). Of those 1,400 nominees:
Over half of all nominations were split between six companies. I don’t say this to disparage the work of any of these companies, but they all have one thing common. They all have their own home, a permanent space. Not only does this grant more “legitimacy” in the eyes of audience members (and rightfully so: those companies have worked damned hard to get where they are today), but it also allows for more opportunities, artistically. You can build a three story set, or plant a lake in front of the front row. It has the potential to make the entire experience more immersive.
That is not to say that smaller, indie companies can’t do the same. Pinky Swear did a show this past summer in a Tiny House Community in DC. LiveArtDC set a production of Romeo and Juliet in a bar. It can be done. But finding affordable space on DC is probably the biggest obstacle to smaller companies right now. Many try to become “in residence” to any permanent space, so they can have a name to attach and a single,visible location for audiences to come to. It’s no wonder that companies with permanent homes sell more tickets and earn more nominations.
But that isn’t really the point. Because any awards show will always be subjective. Whether it’s uneducated judges (see the Tony Awards decision to remove Sound Design as an award) or the interpretation of criteria, there will always be aspects of awards that are nebulous. No, the point is that theatreWashington can set any sort of criteria they like, from admission to eligibility to awards consideration. As a non-profit that nobody nominated or elected, that’s their right. That doesn’t mean that they can say they’re working on behalf of 90+ theaters, however, because the aren’t.
This ceiling is going to have the opposite effect. I think we’ll see indie theatres leave theatreWashington entirely. At that point, it will be interesting to see how they change their mission statement. I haven’t talked to a single theatre owner who plans to change the way they operate because of these restrictions. I’m not saying there aren’t any, just that I’d be surprised if there were many.
And if that happens, it’ll leave theatreWashington representing 15-20 actual theatres (as opposed to non-producing companies like The Inkwell). The Helen Hayes Awards suddenly go from Drama Prom to Night of the Theatre Elite. Which again, is perfectly fine. But at least be transparent about it.
Hi Stu. Another attribute of a professional (and a non-monetary one) is that they have perspective on their field. Yours seems lacking. On top of an obvious disregard for simple dictionary definitions, you seem to have a big problem with theatreWashington, and I’d like to offer you a bit more perspective about them:
As someone who has been a judge in a number of awards and contests, I can assure you that the process is way more difficult than you realize. Consequently, all awards organizations have their inherent flaws: the Oscars, the Grammy’s, the Tonys… theatreWashington is the equivalent of a tiny theatre to these other powerful and well-funded awards, and I’d say that under the circumstances they are doing an amazing job. They are always working to improve their judges and process, they see damn near everything in the region, and their nominations and awards are far more balanced than you characterize them.
Let’s take for example Toby’s Dinner Theatre. Have you ever been there? Probably not, as it is in Columbia, Maryland – 30 miles north of STC on the map, and $20 million south of STC on the budget. Toby’s has 70 Helen Hayes Award nominations, which is an average of 2.33 nominations per year. Leaving out the logistics of just getting judges up there to see a show, this is a lot of consistent recognition for what is the DC theatre scene equivalent to the (former) planet Pluto. It doesn’t seem that the “luxury of not having to deal with smaller companies” is or has ever been part of theatreWashington’s mission.
As for “glitz over quality,” surely this happens sometimes, but this is anything but “routine.” If you take a more honest look at the history, there are countless examples of large companies losing to small ones. It is as fair a playing field as an awards process can have. I can testify to this from personal experience. With all respect to Toby’s Dinner Theatre, if they can earn such long-term and consistent recognition from theatreWashington, then so can you.
No one disputes what constitutes “professional theatre” except for theatreWashington. Your posted definition has been hijacked to fit your narrative. Similarly, the arbitrary lines that tW has created for their awards are simply that, arbitrary. An actor that works six shows a year at companies that fall above the threshold will make $6,000 a year. Is that a living wage? In what possible way can an actor make a living that way?
Again, tW can set whatever bar they want for awards. That doesn’t make those productions any more or less professional. What it does is allow tW the luxury of not having to deal with smaller companies. Which, again, is their right. However, they don’t then get to claim to represent all professional theatre in DC, as they currently purport to do on their website.
What we see from tW’s decision here shouldn’t be a surprise, as HH judges routinely recognize glitz over quality. A show at STC is not “more professional” simply because they have a $50,000 set. You wouldn’t know that from a glance at HH nominees over the past decade.
That’s a lot of angry responses from a bunch of people who came from EXACTLY this place and only survived because of the donations brought in from recognition of their hard work in those early years. Sounds like a lot of this scene has forgotten where it came from. Do we not have recent enough examples of theatres who have experienced a boom after being recognised from HH? ADs that went from the deepest depths of poverty to national recognition in only a season, without at all changing the quality of their work? Are we really of such short memory and sight?
I’m sorry, but I’m tired of hearing small companies complain about what is considered professional and non-professional. If you can’t pay your artists a living wage, then you are NOT professional. End of story.
C. Holland says
Theatre was a source of my income in DC. Part of the reason I left the DC area, (and many others do) was because companies simply dont pay as well against the cost of living as the companies in the other major markets do. It now costs more to live in DC, than NYC. Though I don’t approve of the “one size fits all” rate that is outlined in the HH guidelines, I do approve that they support at least some sort of wage to help the professionals that rely on the theatre as their income. Yes I understand that space costs a premium in the area, and that takes up a large chunk of small company’s funding. But darn it, if you can’t afford the space, rights, and people to make a show happen, then it’s time to go back to the drawing board and rethink the business model. Go back to creating great art with less stuff and better storytelling. Go back to the drawing board and create one AMAZING show that fills seats, and next season you take that revenue and create two amazing shows that fill seats. It’s articles like this that make people scream “Art work is work”. And it makes me scream and realize why I left when my theatre checks couldn’t pay the bills. It’s the reason the United Scenic Artists, Actors Equity, and IATSE exists. You don’t have to adhere to the HH guidelines to continue to create theatre. You can continue to do so on your own. But you shouldn’t be considered a professional theatre if you’re not paying performers and production staff enough to cover their bills. Its not ok. Its been said that people dont do theatre for the money, what they mean is they don’t do theatre to get rich and live a life of extravagance. They do go into professional theatre because they found they can make a living doing something they love. If they can’t make a living, they either change careers or move to someplace that they can. But that’s the same with any business.
Michael F says
A PROFESSIONAL is someone who “engages in a specified activity as one’s main paid occupation rather than as a pastime.” If you can’t pay $75/week for rehearsal or $150/week per performance, how can you call yourself professional? You’re doing amateur theatre with profit-sharing. And you might be doing great work. But if you’re not paying a living wage, you’re not a professional theatre.
I take exception to your conclusion that DC theatre is “first and foremost a business”? Doesn’t the fact that someone like Ari Roth did the work that he did for 18 years make it stunningly clear that this is not so? Sure, his firing is indicative of one of the ways that this business can go wrong; however, the overwhelming tide of support and goodwill toward Mr. Roth that has come from the theatre community on every level should be the takeaway from the story of his firing, and this should inoculate us all from the kind of pessimism that your article conveys. None of us is in this for the money, and you do this great theatre scene a disservice with your generalizations – all because you don’t want to shell out minimum wages to starving artists.
Here’s the thing, Alex. No one is telling you to leave town or disband. You can stick around and keep adhering to your company’s mission all you want; you just can’t be eligible for the Helen Hayes Awards. And if you consider that eligibility the one thing that makes a theater in this town “professional,” you’re incredibly misguided.
With all due respect to the HH folks, many theatergoers in this town don’t even know what they are (if they’ve even heard of them to begin with). Magnificent work can happen *and not be eligible for any awards*. I’d like to think creating compelling, strong work that draws audience attendance and kudos would be enough for a company to want to exist. But if you’re that hell-bent on being eligible for a trophy or plaque, why not start your own award system? Something along the lines of New York’s Obie awards? Take all this resentment and rage and do something about it. Don’t just whine.