Currently in the United States there is a great debate over what constitutes minimum wage. Why should the Washington Theatre Community be any different? Many of us are working hard contacting our reps in Washington and at home to get the minimum wage to a point where people aren’t taken advantage of by their employers. When it comes to taking care of our own, why aren’t we doing the same? Why do people see it as acceptable, honorable even, if you are an artist barely making enough to scrape by? How has the idea of being a “poor artist” shifted to mean someone who is actually poor as opposed to a person whose minimal needs are fulfilled because their job pays the bills and feeds their soul? theatreWashington is working to fix this, and the mandate they have laid forth is indeed a promising first step toward an accountable professional system in Washington, DC.
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.
Last summer I wrote an op-ed to respond to and continue a conversation about how theatre practitioners are paid. Last week theatreWashington announced a first step towards pay minimums for HHA eligibility in 2016. For many companies this seems a daunting task as they enter the next fiscal year. Across the board of the now 90-strong operating theatres in DC there is a range of levels of compensation, yet they are all covered by the “professional” umbrella. The current model maintains an illusion that all of the theatres in the DC region that pay – any amount – to their artists are operating on an equal plane. I hold with the unpopular opinion that the plane is not equal. There are so many companies that do take care to pay their artists fairly, or adjust budgets or schedules to suit the needs of the production to their resources.
These new minimums presented by theatreWashington should represent the lowest tier of what could eventually be a fairer system for every theatre in the region. As first steps go, I think this was a good move. Carolyn Agan’s article yesterday made some excellent points to the positive benefit this can immediately have. It is a step towards valuing theatre artists for their work and an effort at holding the companies who would hire these artists accountable. However, it is only a first step and there are still many miles to go.
A NEW DEAL
First let’s take a real hard look at the new minimums:
Actors in rehearsal: $75/week, or, $12.50/day
Actors in performance: $150/week, or, $18.75/performance
$12.50 a day doesn’t even cover the cost of a meal and a metro roundtrip. For the purposes of math, let’s say all of a production’s rehearsals are “straight sixes” (work period of six hours). That amounts to $2.09/hr for the Actor. If an Actor is so lucky as to be in rehearsal and performance full time, with no vacation, breaks, or stops in work for a whole year, at this minimum they will make $11,700 a year as an actor. Based on MITs living wage calculator the minimum living wage in DC is around $28,600 for the minimum sustainability as a single, childless adult. To be in the middle class of America you’re generally making between $30,000 and $70,000. I might assume that for many actors there are breaks between gigs, so $11, 700 – less than half of the sustainable minimum income – is a best-case scenario for these Actors.
Designers/Musical Directors/Choreographers: $500
In order to make a living off of $500 per show, I would have to do 57.2 shows in a calendar year in order to make that sustainable minimum. Directors would have to do 38 shows in that same year. I’ve described this scenario before, but even if we never needed sleep to operate this is just not humanly possible considering the time necessary for production meetings, budget meetings, rehearsals, tech, and anything else that goes into production time and professional skill.
So, are these really professional wages? No. But they represent a good-faith first step in where theatreWashington may be taking things.
WHAT SHOULD BE NEXT:
These minimums are also just a beginning in that they represent only certain fields, failing to take into the account the essential personnel behind the scenes of every production: the Stage Managers, Technical Directors, Electricians, Carpenters, Deck Crews, and more. They have never worked towards being recognized with an award, yet they show up every day and work with as much passion as anyone else in the room. The production depends as much on those faces we don’t see onstage for its success. Everyone working on the production should be compensated fairly, not just those whose names are on the front of the program.
Further, the cost of living does not remain the same over time – it goes up. Going forward, there should be a plan in place to set an annual percentage raise in these minimums to accommodate this. Failure to consider this inevitablity creates stagnant and unrealistically low wages for everyone involved, and eventually we will be right back here again.
It might also do theatre practitioners well to think about creating a tiered system. Currently Theatre Communications Group has developed a tiered system based on companies’ annual operating budgets that is used to create a baseline for negotiation between these companies and their artists. A tiered system of minimums helps by giving smaller companies a sense for what they might be striving, and will help shape their development campaigns. Additionally, theatreWashington would do well to offer development support to the companies at or below the lowest tier: seminars on fundraising and financial planning, benefits for “emerging” companies, and networking opportunities for artistic directors and potential donors are just a few ideas on ensuring that those who might see these minimums as prohibitive to their continued operations have the support to continue to grow.
I’ve been engaging about this a lot on social media, as was Carolyn Agan, before writing this piece, and I very much appreciated this analogy that I’ve seen in a thread: There have been so many instances of people in our country fretting over the economy’s imminent collapse if we do “blank.” If we end slavery; end child labor; allow women to work; allow a minimum wage; allow unionization. The sky has not fallen, in fact it’s been quite the opposite – we have a safer and more organized workforce that is still growing towards more sustainable and equitable standards.
This new set of minimums is not outlawing theatre jobs below the minimum. It is not asking smallest theatre companies to dissolve or close. Theatre can still be made – it just may not be eligible for our regional awards. If the awards are a company’s goal, then these minimums are a necessary factor and companies should use the intervening time before they are implemented to adjust their business plan to this new need.
theatreWashington has covered all 90 theatres under their “professional” umbrella for many years. The truth may simply be that DC cannot sustain 90 “professional” theatres without requiring the companies to honestly assess their resources and mission. We can have 60 “professional” and 30 “semi-professional” companies and still be the vibrant, diverse artist community we boast about. Theatre practitioners deserve to treated and talked about as professionals with real skills that they have cultivated with time and effort. What we do is hard work. Let’s treat it that way.
Andrew F. Griffin is a professional Lighting Designer for Theatre, Dance, and Opera.
He has designed for many DC area theatre companies and is currently in his second year at Yale School of Drama where he will graduate with an MFA in Design.