I am a professional actor in favor of wage increases for artists, and I am at a crossroads. I believe many people in our theatre community are. It has been a tumultuous week that has brought many of our core values into question, and the debate is heated to say the least. I am, however, extremely disappointed that there seems to be so much vitriol being hurled at an organization whose core mission is to support the artists and organizations that make up that very community.
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.
Let me start by saying I respectfully disagree with Molotov Theatre Founder, Alex Zavistovich, who stated in his article on this very site just days ago that we must deal with the “uncomfortable fact” that “theatre in DC… is a business.” Theatre has forever been a business. It is the business of creating art, in the same way a law firm is the business of practicing law and a restaurant is the business of creating and serving food. The only way I know of to do theatre, as a solely artistic venture would be devised street guerilla theatre performed for free by a group of friends. Any group that takes in and puts out money is a business and while we may think of the purpose of our particular one as a higher calling, that doesn’t change the fact that money needs to exchange hands for it to continue and thrive. There are hundreds of college’s around the country with degrees and masters being awarded every year to students set out to do just that, manage and grow the business of art.
What is also a business is theatreWashington. A non-profit business with an admirable mission, but a business never the less, and that business is currently trying to deal with the reality of our oversaturated market. Since the awards inception, the DC theatre scene has had an average company growth rate of 2.6% per year, although anyone who has been around since 1985 can tell you the bulk of that growth has happened over the past 10 years. It is not viable for an organization to continue sending volunteer adjudicators of a high and respectable level to see 2-9 productions at over 90 theatres every year. Nor is it viable for that organization to continue offering tickets to its largest fundraiser and celebratory event of the year at significantly below market costs to staff members of those 90 theatres and counting. I am not insinuating these were the primary factors in the decision to revamp the criteria for award consideration, and as the board decision was made behind closed doors I have no way of knowing if these were even a factor at all. It is, however, important to remember that this conversation should not leave out the strains on the organization administering this event every year.
The business of being an actor
On a personal level, theatre is a business for me. I make the overwhelming majority of my living off of theatre. Acting is my day job and I supplement that income the way most low-income workers do, by picking up odd jobs and contract work here and there outside of my day job. I understand I may be in the minority of DC actors, but I also understand that is a choice. Some of the most talented and professional actors and artists I have worked with have full-time day jobs outside the industry that they commit to with just as much passion as their work on stage and the smaller professional theatres in town allow them to pursue both. I applaud and respect them for that work as much as I hope they do me for mine. I don’t think that means my work is more professional or artistically more viable than theirs, simply that we have chosen to go about it in a different way.
The sad reality is, it seems like 99% of Americans feel they don’t get paid enough for the work they are doing, and that is certainly no different in theatre. Even if an actor worked at the highest level of regional theatre available in this town 52 weeks out of the year (an impossible feat as no theatre produces every day of the year) you would still be raking in over $33,000 less than the median income for a Washington, DC resident. With the current national and even international debate over fair wages and minimum wage, I think it is noble and necessary for us as a community to face that conversation head on, even in the touchy area of artist compensation.
Most artists file their taxes as a self-employed business. According to the IRS, to qualify as a business you need to have a 3-to-5 loss to profit ratio, otherwise it is considered a hobby and you cannot write off your expenses. While I don’t think the IRS is the end-all-be-all of defining professionalism, most actors I know relish writing off acting books, classes, make-up, audition mileage and transportation, trade magazine subscriptions, on-camera and audition outfits, scripts, and music on their taxes. I have a hard time believing, with all those expenses, a $300 stipend will help them meet this loss-to-profit ratio.
the proposed Helen Hayes Awards regulations
The Helen Hayes Awards was founded to “celebrate outstanding achievement in professional theatre.” In that, they, and they alone, have the right to define what professional means for their criteria. Just as other regulations have been set in the past to define a theatre or production’s eligibility, these new regulations define “professional theatre” only in the eyes of the Helen Hayes Awards. They do not suppose to be the one true deciding factor in the professionalism of any company or show. Now many have argued that these new criteria feel arbitrary and with rehearsal minimums starting at $12.50 per day, come nowhere near the federal minimum wage, and I would have to agree with them. However, as Linda Levy, theatreWashington CEO, was quoted as saying, “we had to start somewhere.”
Theatres that do not currently meet these minimums are going to have a choice ahead of them. I think it is far too early in the process to suppose what they are going to do and each theatre is going to handle this differently. However, I think the argument that theatreWashington has some how dampened opportunities for actors and artists in this town by administering these regulations is preposterous. The organization cannot be held responsible for the decisions individual companies make in regards to fitting into or not fitting into these guidelines. That is no different than Papa John’s cutting jobs and blaming the Affordable Care Act, except of course in the fact that the ACA was a federal mandate, not an optional participation event. Mark Rhea, artistic director of The Keegan Theatre, summed up this argument beautifully in the Washington Post, stating if they wanted to produce a show with too large a cast size to make the wage minimums manageable, “We’d likely produce the show anyway, recognizing it would not be eligible for recognition by Helen Hayes. Helen Hayes doesn’t determine whether or not we do a show; … they aren’t our reason for existence.”
The other argument being spouted a lot on social media is that theatre companies that are no longer eligible for the awards will lose out on the marketing opportunity provided by nominations and wins. First off, these awards are purely retroactive, so while you can advertise your company as a past Helen Hayes Award winner, you cannot sell a current show based on nominations or awards. As far as what the awards can do to bolster donations and grants, I turned to a current sitting board treasurer of a local DC Theatre for that question. “Awards are helpful, sure, you can’t deny that.” He said, wishing to remain anonymous for the purpose of this article. “But they aren’t a deciding factor. If my company [wasn’t meeting the new Helen Hayes regulations] I would want to run a case study to see how much awards actually affect audiences and therefore revenue before I even begin to worry about it.” It should also be noted that these regulations are strictly for the awards, and does not preclude companies from the many other services theatreWashington has to offer, including marketing and support.
The last side of this conversation that I have seen come across more in subtext is the idea that many of these theatre companies CAN pay more to their artists and are just choosing not to or spending that money elsewhere. I am sure many theatre producers are staring mouth gaped at these accusations and assumptions. There are more factors that go into creating the budget of a non-profit theatre than I care to ever think about, that’s why I tread the boards rather than sit on one. However, one thing I think we can say of anyone that gets into this business on either the artistic or producing side, is they are not in it for the money. I don’t think we should stunt or stifle companies struggling to grow to a point where they can pay all their staff and artists the wage they deserve, and maybe this method of compensation requirement isn’t the best one out there. But the point is, this is what theatreWashington has decided for eligibility in its Helen Hayes awards ceremony.
You can’t win a Tony unless you are on Broadway, and you can’t win a Helen Hayes unless you meet these requirements. Maybe that just means we need our own version of the Obie awards.
At the end of the day, the supply and demand of the market will determine what happens to artist compensation, not theatreWashington, nor any one individual organization. If you produce theatre at a high-quality level in an underserved niche or assert yourself as the cream of the crop, audiences will pay and pay well for tickets. If “DC’s very talented professional actors and technical people” continue to be “happy just to receive a stipend or a percentage guarantee against gross profits” then that is what they will continue being paid. And while many artists I know love the work they do, especially the cutting edge work at many of these smaller companies, I know very few, if any, who don’t wish they didn’t have to work several jobs simultaneously to do so.
To demonize a company trying to stand up for the beginnings of a decent living wage for artists, when we rarely do so for ourselves, seems to me to be the worst offense of all.
Contributor Carolyn Agan is an Equity actress and teaching artist.
She has been an active member of the DC theatre scene for the past 8 years.