I want to thank my friends and colleagues for their vigorous advocacy of non-Equity theatre makers – performers, producers, or both – during the discussion of theatreWashington’s new minimum pay requirements. I applaud the dialogue on all sides for remaining informed, erudite and civil.
I can only speak for myself, and I realize that having left DC (where, it should be noted, out of all the markets I’ve ever worked in, non-Equity actors are paid the best), I have no skin in this game and no professional associations to risk. I’m also in a much more comfortable situation than many colleagues, so the debate about adequate non-Equity compensation isn’t as immediately relevant to me as it is to others.
Unacknowledged in this discussion are the thousands of non-Equity theatre makers all over the country who already earn a living wage elsewhere. Indeed, virtually every non-Equity theatre structures their creative process around the assumption that virtually everyone involved has a day job; that’s why rehearsals are nights and weekends, for a start.
The related and far more fanciful discussion about living wages for non-Equity actors seems based on the flawed assumption that we have no other income sources, as if we stave off starvation by stringing together $400 acting gigs. Of course $12.50 per rehearsal would barely cover subway fare and a meal. But how many people count on it to?
I certainly wouldn’t turn down a larger paycheck – heck, who would? – but if I wanted a living wage from pursuing my art to the exclusion of all else, didn’t have a more lucrative skill set, or felt exploited or underpaid or otherwise mistreated, I’d join Equity.
Some people are non-Equity because they’re building up their resumé before joining. Some remain non-Equity because for various reasons they’re more marketable. But others are non-Equity because they’re already financially independent or have a day job and, having the option, prefer to work on small scale productions that are typically riskier, experimental, or focused on more artistic than commercial goals. These artists quite often have extensive training and experience, BAs, BFAs, even MFAs. Some were Equity but left. They love what they do – some have been doing it longer than I’ve been alive – they just don’t do it for a living.
I’m non-Equity by choice. I’m content with the money I earn from acting, which at best never exceeded $5,000 a year. I’m content with the resumé I’ve accumulated with local, summer stock, semi-pro, fringe, and Equity regional theatres. I’ve had opportunities I’d never have as an Equity actor. I’ve done shows that would bankrupt an Equity company; ironically, the most ardent living wage advocates worked on some of them with me.
Granted, I’m past forty years of age, and as such, many of the choices and sacrifices I made for my art in my comparatively bohemian youth – scraping together temp work and odd jobs, quitting full-time jobs for summer internships, no health insurance or savings, accepting parental charity – are no longer feasible, especially in this economy. I have a day job that pays better than the LORT-A minimum. If I quit that job and worked for fifty weeks a year with a NEAT contract, I’d be lucky to make half of my current income. I’m happy right where I am, thanks.
Don’t get me wrong. I value my skill set, experience, and training enough that I expect compensation. I rarely work for nothing, unless it’s my own theatre company, or the right role. But the choice to work for free or demand fair compensation is mine.
So, after twenty-plus years (and counting) of making theatre, having made all those sacrifices, with my training, my MFA, having done about 100 plays since undergrad, receiving a regional Best Actor award in which I was nominated alongside Equity actors, having enough EMC points that I can turn Equity virtually at will, what am I? Professional? Semi-pro? Mostly Professional? Independent Freelance? Over-trained Dilettante?
It’s a relevant question, because if theatreWashington is trying to define what constitutes professional theatre, then by extension they’re trying to define what constitutes professional theatre makers. So what makes one a professional? Training and degrees? Union affiliation? Income percentage? Or something less tangible?
Through the Helen Hayes Awards and the “Helen Hayes Recommended” marketing tag, theatreWashington has helped make it possible for small and emerging companies to grow their audiences and budgets to the point where many can offer Equity guest contracts, or pay the newly mandated non-Equity minimum. tW’s influence has helped shape and strengthen DC’s theatre scene into the national powerhouse it is today.
But these new requirements make it far more difficult for the newest batch of theatre makers to become the next Forum, or Keegan, or Constellation. And with so many venues closing over the past five years (H Street, Playbill, Warehouse, Clark Street, Artisphere, etc), do we really want to intentionally make it harder? Arguably the theatre scene is overpopulated, but is the solution to smother our own children?
I remain convinced tW’s guidelines will produce negative unintended consequences. Some small theatres might be able to absorb the increase in budget without a ripple, but the rest will start doing small-cast shows, do fewer productions, or eschew Helen Hayes eligibility altogether, reducing opportunities for emerging artists. Rehearsals will be fewer but longer, compromising the quality of the productions as well as the work-life balance for actors with full-time jobs. And do we want to give DC’s Equity companies the option to lower their non-Equity pay rates to tW’s minimum?
Ultimately the pivotal question is why theatreWashington has announced these new minimums. Is it because non-Equity theatre makers are crying out for better pay? Then tW should perhaps let them do their own advocacy. Or is it a means to focus tW’s finite resources on a smaller pool of theatre makers? If so, it’s a pity, because it benefits those who need tW the least at the expense of those who need them the most.
John Geoffrion is an actor, director and producer who received his MFA from Catholic University and worked in DC-area theatre from 2004-10.
He is now the co-founder and Artistic Director of the Hub Theatre Company of Boston.