I wade into the compensation debate with some reluctance. The discourse has become startlingly heated. People care about the issues, which is a good thing. But unfortunate, incendiary, even insulting things have been said on both sides to those who have expressed perspectives and opinions that not everyone agrees with. I think that’s really sad because, when it comes down to it, and the most strident and entrenched voices notwithstanding, most people broadly share the goals and the values that inform perspectives on both sides of this debate.
With Chris’ essay, we button up our current coverage of the proposed Helen Hayes awards wage requirements
Most people who are concerned about the potential unintended consequences of the minimum compensation requirements that theatreWashington has proposed share the goal of finding the ways and the means to increase compensation for artists who work at the poorest theaters in town. They share the hope that the talents and efforts of these dedicated and committed artists can receive remuneration that better reflects the value we place on them and their work.
Most people who argue for the need to increase remuneration for professional theatre artists on all levels are aware of the important part that our smaller companies play in the ecosystem — and in the food chain — that is the DC theatre scene. Most value the dynamism and diversity that these companies provide both the artists who work for them and the audiences who experience that work. Few would feel that the scene would be as vibrant, or our city as much a magnet for talent from across the country, if those companies and that sort of work was substantially discouraged.
A lot of what has been said during this discussion is conjecture, prediction, speculation, or educated guessing. I will engage in some of those same activities in this piece. But there are some things that are established and irrefutable facts. Let me begin with a few of them.
History did not begin yesterday, part one
When I came back to Washington after college in 1979, there were two companies who paid people anything close to the minimum requirements currently contemplated by tW. They were Arena and Folger. (That Folger company eventually morphed into Shakespeare Theatre Company, after which Folger began producing again on its own.) Both of those companies chiefly cast and staffed out of New York City. The likelihood of indigenous DC theatre artists finding anything but the lowest level work at those companies was tiny.
The reason that there is now a burgeoning, vibrant, varied theatre scene in DC, a scene that attracts artists from different parts of the country, is that, throughout the late 70s, 80s, and into the 90s, a lot of very dedicated and talented people worked for stipends or, in some cases, for nothing at all. Perhaps the scene would have developed identically or similarly without artists working for so little for so long. Perhaps the companies that began by paying people little or nothing, which have now developed to the point where they can pay their artists much more, could have developed identically or similarly had they paid people better from the beginning.
Perhaps there are people who believe that the artists who worked for so little for so long should not have done so. The fact is that they did. It should be remembered that we are now having this conversation in a theatre scene envied for its vitality by other cities in the context of they (or I guess I should say “our”) having done so.
History did not begin yesterday, part two
Here’s another indisputable fact, demonstrated plainly by the history of the Helen Hayes awards: on a level artistic playing field, theaters that pay stipends hold their own with theaters that pay better. I can’t say for sure what Studio and Woolly paid in the 80s, when they began to get nominations and to win awards; or Signature in the early 90s, when Eric Schaeffer was still working at WETA during the day; or Synetic, when it began getting Helen love. It would surprise me greatly if any of those theaters were meeting the currently contemplated compensation requirements at the time they began getting nominations and awards from Helen Hayes. Yet the work done by these theaters and others was judged, by the Helen Hayes standard of excellence and within its adjudication system, over and over again, to be as good as, or, in frequent cases, better than the work being done by the people who were getting paid more.
I know that I got a small stipend when, in the late 90s, I was twice deemed to have been among the 6 or 7 most accomplished supporting actors of the year, in the eyes of Helen Hayes nominators and judges, from a pool that included actors from scores of productions put on by 40 or 50 theaters.
It is a fact that compensation levels are not a factor regarding excellent achievement, as determined by the Helen Hayes awards adjudication process.
History did not begin yesterday, part three
So what does this change mean for those of us actors, directors, and designers who were paid stipends and who were nonetheless nominated during the 30 years when any compensation established a professional credential? Is tW going to go back over the list and asterisk our nominations and wins, as if we had somehow cheated the system, like baseball players who used steroids?
tW is perfectly within its rights to impose this or any other shift in eligibility requirements. But let’s remember that the awards were established to acknowledge excellence in artistic achievement, not to reward successful business models or successful fund-raising. One of the great things about the advent of the awards is that it helped make the city aware not only of the artistic achievement of the “living wage” theaters that hired New Yorkers, or of the touring productions that breezed through town, but of the indigenous talent that was, then, working for stipends. Theaters that today are on the level Studio and Woolly were three decades ago could now be excluded from award consideration and, consequently, not have their artistic merit recognized the way the merit of those theaters was recognized then. How important was that recognition to the development of those theaters into institutions that can now pay decently? I think it was important, just as it was important to the careers of local actors, directors, and designers to achieve that notice. I’d hate it if we, as a community, as institutions, or as individual artists, adopted an attitude of, “Now that I’m this far up the ladder, I’m not sure that we really need to acknowledge those on the lower rungs anymore.”
One other fact that is uncomfortable for some to hear
Some people in town, among our most accomplished and respected artists, find, for whatever reasons, the work at smaller theaters to be more challenging and to be of greater interest to them than the work offered them by larger, richer theaters.
I’ve done numerous interviews during which artists made a point of extolling the attractive vitality of small theaters. I can name actors who delayed, resisted, or even turned down Equity membership (and the consequent “living wage”) because they didn’t want to foreclose the option of working for a stipend at small companies whose missions engaged them. Hell, I am one of those actors.
For every non-Equity actor (during my time as Artistic Director of Washington Shakespeare Company) who balked at a stipend and tried to negotiate it up, there were more Equity actors who were asking me to figure out a way that they could work for the stipend — calling them producers, finding an educational justification, offering to kick back a salary under the table. I can name several actors who left Equity, either because they weren’t getting satisfying, or any, work, or because they were more attracted by the opportunities offered at smaller theaters. (Many of them are women of a certain age, interestingly.) Among this cohort, I can name many Helen Hayes nominees and three award winners, two of them multiple winners.
People can think these people (or I guess I should say “us people”) are misguided or foolish or detrimental to the health of the professional scene. But they can’t think that we don’t exist. I think we deserve to be part of the equation and part of the conversation.
What confuses me about the proposed tW changes
I’m confused by the seeming elasticity of the term “professional” as employed by tW. If tW exists to support professional theatre, as opposed to amateur dramatics, it doesn’t make sense to me that smaller companies are being told that they conceivably won’t be eligible for awards but will still be eligible, as small professional companies, to all of the other support that tW offers what they deem “professional” theatre companies. It seems logical to me that, if a company is “professional” enough to receive the rest of tW’s support, there is no reason that their “professional” work should be excluded from awards consideration. I’m not sure I’ve heard a distinction that explains these two different applications of the word “professional.”
I think an argument can be reasonably made that the difference between theater size should be acknowledged. After all, there are single salaries at the high-end theaters that equal the entire budget of the theater I led. The thing is, tW made that distinction when it tiered the awards, creating separate Helen and Hayes categories. But before that horse has even left the barn, tW came back with this new requirement which could (the law of unintended consequences) de-populate the new Helen category significantly, if companies who are eligible for consideration this year are unable to meet the new criteria next year. I’m confused about why the tiering of the awards system wasn’t statement enough about the perceived gradations on the spectrum of professionalism. Some have said, in response to the proposed eligibility change, that an alternative, “Obie”-style awards should be created to acknowledge outstanding work at smaller theaters, those that it doesn’t make sense to pit against larger, well-funded institutions. Didn’t tW just do that?
The new requirements could eliminate established salary differentials
The requirements for director and designer are at, or within spitting distance, of what small companies have been paying, at least the companies I’ve been involved with. However, there has always been a differential between salaries at most companies: the director gets the most money, designers are at the next level, and actors are below both. This is done to reflect, in the case of the director, the fact that (s)he is responsible for every aspect of the production and has been working extensively during the pre-rehearsal period, and, in the case of the designers, that they, also, are involved much earlier and on a conceptual level, before actors even begin their work, and that they have special technical skills.
Keeping director and designer salaries on a fixed stipend, as the tW plan contemplates, while moving actors onto a per diem scale will, in all likelihood, eradicate that differential, as the per diem numbers could easily add up to a higher amount than the fixed salaries. It’s odd to keep one set of artists on a stipend and move another to a per diem system. Also, there is typically one, maybe two, director(s) and usually one designer for each category. The important budget variable for productions is cast size, which brings us to:
The law of unintended consequences, continued
As I said, small companies are paying directors and designers close to the new tW requirements. It’s the cast compensation that looks to be the budget-buster for small companies. By making cast compensation (and, therefore, cast size) the potential variable between current budget levels and possibly unsustainable increases, my fear is that this 1) works against companies like WSC, Keegan, American Century, and others who have traditionally included large-cast pieces in their seasons, and 2) increases the downward pressure, so apparent over the last decades, where economic realities create an imperative to write and produce plays with fewer and fewer characters. (Here’s a tip to the playwright who wants to become the next “most-produced” stage writer in the country — write a play for negative-one actor!)
The law of unintended consequences, still more
Let’s not allow this conversation to occur apart from the context of ticket prices. The increased costs for a theatre which wants to remain eligible for awards consideration cannot be met solely by unearned income or cost cuts, in all likelihood. The requirement will put pressure on theaters who have retained affordable ticket prices to increase them. Subway ad campaigns notwithstanding, theatre (and now, potentially, theatre that is deemed award-worthy) can be quite expensive. I’d hate to see the theaters who have prices south of $50 join the non-profits in town who have prices north or that number (and, in some shocking cases, north of $125). It doesn’t bode well for the future vitality of the art if it exists chiefly as a perk for the wealthy, and not as an activity that all strata of society can enjoy.
The law of unintended consequences, there’s still more
Award recognition, while not the be-all and end-all goal of any serious artist, could, if revoked, have unintended consequences for worthy companies. It could be used by the press, for instance, as a reason to drop coverage of companies that aren’t highly financed. It could be used as an excuse for foundation and individual donors to close the door on requests for support. Companies not awards eligible will no longer be included, even if their productions would otherwise qualify, among the “Helen Hayes Recommended” productions. All of these results would impact a stated goal of tW: butts in seats — presumably, in the seats of all the “professional” companies entitled to any of the tW support programs.
Other options to the proposed minimum compensation rates
One of the odd aspects of the proposal by tW is that some companies, including ones who have been around for a long time, could have some productions (with small casts) eligible and other productions (with larger casts) not eligible. That leads me to think about some other potential yardsticks for eligibility that might avoid the bizarre on-again, off-again, “If it’s Tuesday, your company is professional” scenarios for eligibility.
One option might be some version of the “Warren Buffett Rule.” If companies demonstrate that managers are paid inside an acceptable ratio compared to artists, or if artist compensation meets a certain percentage of overall budget, they will be eligible. Another might be that companies demonstrate a good-faith and consistent effort to increase compensation. If compensation increases each year at a determined percent, the company would remain eligible.
I’m not sure that it makes complete sense to employ an inflexible, “one size fits all” model, in which the business model of companies that have ticket prices over $100 and ticket inventory per show in the mid-three figures, staffs in the scores, boards in the dozens, is applied to companies with fewer than 100 seats and prices south of $50, staffs fewer than five, and boards fewer than ten. Since the director/designer numbers are easily within reach of many small companies, but the actor numbers could be a problem for certain small companies, couldn’t there be other ways of working toward the goal that would actually be easier to document than “per diem” requirements? Among other considerations, this system strikes me as an accounting mess and an oversight nightmare.
Since the tW minimum requirements are a step toward, but do not achieve, “living wage” status for whomever works at that scale, I’m not clear as to what is gained by drawing a red line that will impact certain theaters with certain missions (say, producing the classics, which tend to larger casts) more than others.
The carrot versus the stick
The next shoe to drop (and, knowing the tW staff, I imagine it’s something they’ve been considering) is how to help smaller and emerging companies successfully navigate the growth and budget implications of fulfilling their missions while maintaining award eligibility. I hope and expect that tW, the support organization for the entire community, does not presume that several companies, all at once and without assistance, are going to be able to increase budgets sustainably and significantly without help.
Here’s an unsolicited idea for how to help: Hook up smaller companies with folks who want to join the boards of bigger theaters, but who might not be ready yet, or attractive yet, to a big company, a company who is not going begging for board members, as small companies are, but who have its choice among interested candidates: the young guns at law firms who are angling for partner, who would love to be on the board of a theatre at which they might rub elbows with a Supreme. Ask them to do due diligence at a smaller company for a couple years. I know that big theaters are often looking for ways to help smaller companies. Here’s a way — ask board prospects to apprentice on the board of a smaller group as a way to get on the fast track to brie and chablis with Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
There is a lot of money in the room at the annual awards ceremony. Many of those people are not engaged with, or are unaware of, smaller groups. It seems to me that it might be a quicker and more effective way to achieve the goal of increased compensation at poorer theaters if an effort were made to hook up that money with companies that might engage those donors, but which aren’t on the radar of those donors. tW knows those people. Can it help the rest of us meet them?
My bottom line
My bottom line is that smaller companies are not trying to rip off their workers or get fat off of their labor. Does anyone who wants to exploit people really go into non-profit arts? These companies are struggling to create opportunity, to create beauty, and to offer diversity, and against fierce odds. Of course, a goal should be better compensation for artists who work for those companies. Another goal should be to help these organizations become more stable, better able to reward artists as well as audiences, and not to add cards to a deck that can already feel stacked against their efforts.
The tW initiative may or may well not achieve its goal of better compensation for artists at smaller theaters. As I‘ve said, it isn’t setting the bar much, if any, higher than it exists now for directors and designers. It’s the actor compensation requirements that could affect budgets and choices at smaller theaters.
It might produce a number of unfortunate unintended consequences: the omission of excellent artistic accomplishment from acknowledgement that it would otherwise achieve; the ability of companies (and individual artists) to gain the credibility that award recognition can afford them and that companies (and individual artists) in the past have used to establish themselves when they were not paying well (or being paid well); the loss of press coverage for companies that don’t meet these requirements and become non-eligible; higher ticket prices; fewer productions and fewer opportunities for artists as companies attempt to meet the new requirements with shorter seasons or smaller cast shows; a less varied and diverse scene as companies make safer choices in order to become stronger commercially; or fewer choices for artists and audiences if companies fail after attempting unsustainable budget increases to meet new requirements for the eligibility they had last year. All of these outcomes would undermine this stated tW goal: Do no harm.
The saddest thing to me, though, is the divisiveness that this debate has provoked. The DC theatre scene has, it seems to me, always been a tale of two cities. There’s the wonderful sense of community that is often in evidence and that is encouraged by tW and The Helen Hayes Awards, throwing that wonderfully inclusive event every year, at which the accomplishments of all are celebrated by the ritual of acknowledging the accomplishments of a few.
The flip side of that coin is the sense of disenfranchisement and exclusion felt by those in our community who feel overlooked or marginalized. I’d, of course, love it if the effort, as admirable as it is, to raise the level of our boats doesn’t end up submerging some. I’d love it even more if the effort encouraged cooperation and a stronger sense of community, and not divisiveness and acrimony.
[Christopher Henley is Artistic Director Emeritus of WSC Avant Bard. These views, however, are entirely his own.]