theatreWashington, which promotes Washington-area theater throughout the country, announced last week that it is delaying the implementation of its controversial minimum pay requirements for the Helen Hayes Awards until at least 2017.
Last December, theatreWashington announced that effective next year, productions which did not pay their actors and stage managers $12.50 per rehearsal day and $18.58 per performance would be ineligible for any Helen Hayes Awards. (There were other requirements as well, including a minimum of $750 for a director and $500 for music directors and choreographers).
The theatreWashington announcement provoked a firestorm of criticism, particularly from small theaters which inferred that the organization’s Board thought that companies which could not meet their minimums were less than professional.
“It wasn’t our best timing,” Brad Watkins, Vice President of Theatre Communications for theatreWashington told DCTS.
Recently, theatreWashington received a letter from representatives of fifteen small theater companies, including Landless Theatre, WSC Avant Bard, Molotov Theatre Group, and Pallas Theatre, urging that theatreWashington calculate payment minimums as a percentage of overall production budget, or create a tiered system which set lower minimums for smaller companies. The letter recommended that theatreWashington use the term “eligible theatre” instead of “professional theatre” to describe the companies which met the organization’s minimum wage requirements.
Because of this and other feedback theatreWashington received, Watkins said, the Board decided to rethink its position.
“I don’t want to speak for the Board,” Watkins said, when asked when in 2017 implementation might be announced. “But I would expect our decision to be in the first few months of 2016.
“As you know, we’re in the midst of some heavy lifting stuff for the Board, right now, in terms of the search for a new Executive, and things of that nature,” Watkins explained.
Watkins insisted that theatreWashington’s objective in issuing the wage requirements was not to assure that theater artists received a fair wage. “I think that every theater artist from David Merrick to the guy who opens the box office would agree that most positions in theater are not fairly compensated,” Watkins said in our interview. “So we’re not trying to do anything, except for the sake of equal standards for the Helen Hayes Awards, which is the idea that the shows are professionally compensated.”
Molotov Theatre Group Artistic Director Alex Zavistovich speculated that the theatreWashington decision might have been prompted by a need to control the costs of administering the program – a need Zavistovich said he understood. “We understand that the roughly 97 professional theatres in DC cause proportional expense to theatreWashington (and the Helen Hayes Awards),” Zavistovich said in an e-mail. “theatreWashington cannot continue to scale its own programs with that model; it’s not sustainable. From a business perspective, there should be a way to address the expense of having so many small independent companies vying for theatreWashington’s attention. In the meantime, we are doing all we can to allow DC’s non-union talent to ply their trade and grow in ability.”
But Watkins says that the decision was, in the end, not motivated by organizational economics. “That was not the motivation. But there’s truth in that statement. Nobody wants to say, ‘Well, we’re only going to adjudicate 25 theaters, or 50 theaters, because that’s what we can afford to do. Everybody get in line and take your lottery ticket to qualify.’” Watkins said. “Everybody who is connected with theaterWashington wants a fully vibrant theater community. We want not only the variety of theaters that we have but we want to have a healthy theater community.”
Watkins is, he says, an enthusiast of small theaters. “You can walk into the back alley, down the stairs and you can see the most glorious performances,” he said. “I’m proud, whenever I’m in a national forum, to say I’m from Washington, because we have such an extraordinary profile.”