Myths that Keep Actors and Stage Managers Exploited and Broke
If you are a professional stage actor or stage manager in the United States, it’s likely that you have many beliefs about the “realities” of being a theatre professional. However, you may be surprised to learn that what you currently experience as a baseline reality of “how it is” for professionals in the arts, is shaped by myths that keep you exploited, dispirited, and broke. For instance, you believe if a particular theatre paid you more, that it might go out of business. You believe that if you were paid a living wage, ticket prices would dramatically increase and it would result in smaller casts and less work for actors. You believe that you are easily replaceable. You believe you are “lucky” to be working. You believe that you work in the theatre for “exposure”. You believe that your union is weak. You believe that you are powerless to change “the way things work”. You believe that the work itself is the reward and those lucky enough to have coveted theatre jobs should be grateful and not expect or ask for a fair wage. You believe if you speak up how hard it is to sustain yourself as an artist, you will be seen as a “trouble-maker” and blacklisted and never work again.
Actors and stage managers believe these myths for a few reasons. First, the myths feel real, due to the nature of our participation in the “gig economy”. Fear and anxiousness are symptomatic of a career path that is financially and professionally unstable. Second, these myths are so much a part of the conversational culture of being an actor or stage manager that we unconsciously replay them over and over, literally carving neurological grooves into our brains that forms our experience of baseline reality. But here’s the thing; every assumed “truth” about our world listed above are myths. They are not based in a demonstrably consistent fact-based reality. With just a little research, analysis, and critical thought, the myths evaporate like so much stage fog. (Which had better be union regulation grade stage fog. Cough cough.)
The #FairWageOnstage campaign started with a group of intelligent, hard-working, laborers who were intent to discover why even the most successful stage managers and actors are in a near constant state of economic crisis. Those early conversations often hinged around one or more of the myths listed above. The more we talked, and more importantly, the more we researched the economic landscape of the American Theatre, the more we came to see these myths as a psychological infrastructure that needs to be dismantled if we are to make any significant strides as a group of laborers intent on making a living by selling our talents to the American theatre. The last few rounds of contract negotiations for Actor’s Equity Association have been productive steps forward, if not ideal. Now, as Actors Equity heads into future negotiations with our employers, the most powerful negotiating tool that Equity could possibly have is a well-educated and organized membership ready to demand what’s fair. It’s our goal to help professional actors and stage managers educate themselves and dismantle these myths so that we can collectively realize our potential by making Actors’ Equity Association one of the most powerful labor unions in the world.
We’ll tackle the myths in installments.
MYTH #1: The Myth of Scarcity.
“If actors and stage managers demand a fair wage, they will bankrupt the institutions they work for and there will be less work for everyone.”
“If stage managers and actors demand a living wage theatres will be forced to do shows with very small casts and increase the price of tickets to the point where theatre is financially inaccessible.”
The myth of scarcity is the most powerful and potent in our collective unconscious. We believe that if our employers paid us a fair wage it would quickly destroy our employers ability to create theatre and our community would collapse. We are afraid to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs, even if the eggs aren’t gold, smell terrible, and are clearly rotten.
We believe the myth of scarcity for several reasons. First and foremost, we see our terrible paychecks every Thursday night and believe that if a theatre had the resources, they would surely pay us more than the embarrassing number printed there. Then there’s basic human decency: we believe that if the people who create the budgets for these institutions behaved morally, they would of course budget a fair wage for us if they could! (I mean, they “love” us right? We’re always being told how much they “love” us! If they “love” us, surely they would pay us enough to survive if they were able to, right?!) Finally, to be fair, we do occasionally see how strapped a particular institution or production is, and we project that individual institutions’ hardship that is befalling all of our employers equally.
Here’s the thing. The Myth of Scarcity is mostly FALSE. First, let’s carve some new neural pathways, shall we? Repeat after me; “My employer can and should pay me enough so that I can pay my most basic expenses.” It’s hard to do that, right? I mean, it literally feels strange to say that. But saying it and knowing it is the first step in realizing that, for the most part, it is true. Much of theatre done in America is done by nonprofit organizations. All nonprofit organizations are obliged to be financially transparent. You can look up the IRS form 990 of your favorite employer right here: https://www.guidestar.org/Home.aspx At GuideStar, you can even see the salaries of some of the full time staff at these theatres. You’ll see that many theatres have budgets in the tens of millions of dollars; in 2015, of the seventy-six LORT theaters, fifty-three had annual operating budgets of over $5 million, twenty-four had budgets over $10 million, eleven had budgets over $20 million, and in the really elite category, there are theatres with up to $80 million annual budgets. It’s important to note that there is absolutely no reason to get upset about the salaries of other valuable people who collaborate with us to make theatre. This information is simply meant as context so that you can see that theatres can and do budget living wages for almost everyone working for the institution except for the people who are actually in the theatre delivering the artistic product eight times a week. It’s a matter of priorities.
So why is it that theatres don’t pay actors and stage managers more? It’s simple. They don’t have to. Here’s an important way of understanding how producing works. In the case of commercial producing, a budget is put together for an individual show. In the case of a nonprofit theatre, a yearly budget is put together for a season of shows. The budget is the total amount of money that needs to be raised, based on what things cost. Lighting costs X, so a theatre raises X for lighting. The elements of production have a cost and for every single thing a production needs, money is raised and allocated for those needs. It used to be that producers on every level had to budget a block of money in for actors’ salaries so that actors and theatres could negotiate those salaries. Until very recently, both stage managers and actors would routine refuse to work for the Equity minimum. Now, thanks to the rise of “Favored Nations” agreements, arts organizations have been able to streamline their budgets to only provide for the Equity minimum.
Many of you probably have a justifiable violent gag reflex when hearing the term “Favored Nations” and know from experience that it’s used as a cudgel to destroy an actor’s ability to negotiate a wage commensurate with their experience and value. Here’s a brief history of that bullshit: http://www.actorsequity.org/newsmedia/misc/FavoredNation.asp Hurts to know one of us came up with the idea, huh?
Now, it’s very important to know a few things about “Favored Nations”. Employers figured out a long time ago, especially in the nonprofit sector, that if they just budgeted for bare minimum salaries for stage managers and actors, then they could honestly say they only had enough money to pay the minimum, and that everyone would be getting that minimum. The theatre could everyone a “Favored Nations” contract. If they got any push-back, they could say, “Listen, we LOVE Actor X! We would do ANYTHING for Actor X. But we only have the minimums budgeted. We literally just don’t have the money. We don’t have it or we would pay them more! Of course we would! And listen, NO ONE is getting any more than Actor X. It’s favored nations!”
Why does “Favored Nations” work? Get ready for a bitter pill. Favored Nations works because actors accept it. If all stage managers and actors demanded what they felt they were worth and would say “No” instead of accepting the bare minimum, it would force theatres to create budgets with room to negotiate instead of budgeting the bare Equity minimum. Our agents and we ourselves have set horrible precedents and robbed each other and ourselves of millions of dollars of income by accepting “Favored Nations” contracts.
Let’s game out an alternate reality of how “Favored Nations” could have gone. The first theatre executive director who conceived of the idea of only budgeting and offering minimums starts making offers to actors for their season. ALL of their first choice actors and stage managers say, “No thank you. I don’t work for bare minimum. I need to pay my rent.” Then the executive director has to keep going down the list until they find actors willing to work for minimum and their theatre season suffers, their directors don’t want to work there anymore because they don’t get their first choice casts, their audiences see inferior work, and their artistic directors give them hell for damaging the institution. IF that had happened, we may not have “Favored Nations” today. Instead, what likely happened was every actor and stage manager said, “I want to work. I’ll suck it up and take the minimum.” It was a lack of self-worth that got the “Favored Nations” ball rolling and now it’s the big rolling boulder chasing Indiana Jones through the cave. If the first theatre that tried to weaponize mass poverty wages wasn’t able to produce a season because no one would accept the substandard salary, this “Favored Nations” beast might have been killed in its infancy. But it worked. And it spread. So we now live in a world where it is standard practice and to a certain extent, it’s up to each actor to fight it every time they’re offered a job. I suggest saying to an employer or having your agent/manager say to an employer every time you get offered a sub-living-wage job the following; “My client can’t pay their rent with this salary. What do you suggest he/she do?” This might not change anything, but it at least reminds whoever is on the other end of the phone what the stakes are and makes employers explicitly complicit in our exploitation. If a managing director hears that phrase and still says, “Favored Nations minimums is what we are offering. Take it or leave it.”, after we and/or our reps have explained that we can’t survive on the minimum, then that person has to sleep and live with that knowledge on their conscience. That guilt might one day bear welcome change. But in the meantime, “Favored Nations” persistence is largely our fault for continually accepting the unacceptable. We have made a terrible habit of accepting substandard wages, and as a result actors and stage managers are mostly paid terribly.
It wasn’t always the case. A beloved senior actor recently remarked about working at a well-established regional theatre, “You know, I remember when this was a for-profit theatre in the 1970s. I made $3000 a week. Now it’s a not-for-profit and we make $750. My, how things have changed!” The same theatre that could find the money to pay actors $3000 in the 1970s can now only find $750 a week. That’s the power of “Favored Nations”.
OK, that was a bit of a digression. Back to the Myth Of Scarcity. “If actors demanded to be paid a living wage, wouldn’t theatres close or ticket prices have to go through the roof?” No. They wouldn’t. Here are some reasons why:
First, tickets are not where most of these theatres generate their revenue. For a commercial producer, yes, it’s ticket sales. For Not For Profit Theatres, there are many sources of income—corporate underwriting, individual gift giving, grants, endowments, legacy donations from estates, city and state incentives and subsidies, fundraisers, benefits, residuals from commercial transfers, commissions from future productions of plays originated at the theatre, federal funding, and, yes, even box office. You probably have first hand experience that most of these theatres often peruse very successful capital campaigns for what that theatre prioritizes. The artistic and managing directors of a theatre put together a set of priorities and, with the board and the development department; they go get the money to make those things happen. This is why, all over the country, you see new buildings, lavish productions, and costumes that cost more than an actor’s salary for the run of the show. (Earlier this year I was in a show where one of the actors wore a $6000 costume. That costume is just a few hundred dollars less than that actor’s salary for the entire 12-week period of employment.) If a theatre makes a new sound system a priority, then everyone in the building works to make the money for the sound system happen. What stage managers and actors must do, in concert with Actors Equity Association, is demand that these theatres prioritize paying a #FairWageOnstage. In the recent negotiations, Equity was able to secure raises between 32 to 81% from our nonprofit Off-Broadway employers over the course of a 4.5 year contract, without going on strike. Equity demanded that these theatres evaluate and adjust their priorities. And they did. If they genuinely thought that their theatres would close or that they would not be able to produce work, they would have forced a strike or opened their full financial records to the Equity negotiating team to demonstrate their financial hardship. But they didn’t do either. They gave us huge raises. Because they could. And it was long overdue. And they knew it.
Also, please note that in the Off Broadway negotiations Equity demonstrated a dynamic and nuanced approach to these institutions. It was not a “one size fits all” approach to determining a #FairWageOnstage. While at least one company will see an increase of 75%, 66% of which will be to meet New York State minimum wage requirements, theatres with budgets under $4 million are still allowed to pay wages appropriate to the size of their operating budgets. (If not appropriate to the payment of an actor or stage manager in NY trying to survive.) The union protects these theatres in hopes that they will grow, prosper, and thrive, and eventually be able to afford a different level of production that will enable them not only to provide health insurance weeks and good artistic opportunities for more Equity members, but also a #FairWageOnstage. In all negotiations, we believe Equity should be committed to an approach that meets each theatre where it is to assure its stability and ability to thrive and grow while also encouraging them to pay artists a #FairWageOnstage.
So as we realize that theatres raise money for what they prioritize, actors and stage managers are beginning to speak up from the corner of the donor party we’re expected to attend for free and say, “Hey! While we’re raising money here, can we find some for us too?” It’s important that we do so. We must always remember that no one would walk through a multi-million dollar lobby except to sit in a theatre to enjoy the work of actors and stage managers. No one would sit in a theatre with $100,000 set piece if an actor didn’t come out and tear her heart out on it. When it comes to the theatre, it is the people that make it happen that are the central attraction. The theatre is about the talented artists who breathe life into a theatre for a few hours a day for the enlightenment and enjoyment of people who have come to see what it means to live a human life. While a human life often contains a great deal of struggle and suffering, those artists at the center of the professional theatre, shouldn’t struggle to pay their rent.
Philosophically, we need to ask ourselves whether a business that can’t pay its employees should be in business. Would the situation actors and stage managers find themselves in be acceptable in any other profession? While in many cases, like Walmart and fast food employers, it is…It shouldn’t be. #FairWageOnstage was in many ways inspired by the fast food workers strike in New York in the summer of 2014. There’s no reason that fast food chains making billions in profits shouldn’t pay its employees enough to live on. That simple truth inspired us to think about the nature of our work and what economic value it should command. After all, acting and stage managing is work and work has value.
While it is true that many stage managers and actors enjoy their work and derive great pleasure from it, it is still work. A labor of love is still labor. As such, anyone who performs work does it with an expectation of payment for that labor such that they can meet their most basic needs. Professional stage managers and actors are not hobbyists volunteering their time for arts organizations but we are often treated and compensated as if we are. While many stage managers and actors, due to the inconsistency of our work, must have “survival” jobs to pay their expenses in between acting jobs, there is no reason that once an actor or stage manager has an acting job that that job shouldn’t be the “survival” job. If a theatre, acting as an employer, does not pay an employee enough to survive, they are participating in a classist and amoral manner inconsistent with their responsibility as an “employer”. If a fair wage is not paid to labor, then employers are behaving as if they expect stage managers and actors to be independently wealthy. Either that or they are acting as if they expect stage managers and actors to subsidize their own employers by dipping into their savings and money from other jobs to make up the difference between their substandard wages and their living expenses.
So, the pressing question implied by The Myth of Scarcity is “If the burden of stage manager and actor survival is shifted to the theatre, at least for while they are employed by that theatre, will the theatre be able to survive?”
That hard question deserves a hard question of it’s own: if a professional theatre cannot find the money to pay a professional laborer what that laborer needs to survive, do they deserve to be in business? Again, Equity is taking a dynamic and nuanced approach to all theatres and paving room for growth. No one involved with #FairWageOnstage want theatres to close. But it is a useful thought experiment to evaluate the morality of the situation we find ourselves in. Actors and stage managers accept 100% responsibility for our duties as employees. It would not be acceptable for an actor to only learn 65% of their lines for a show. Can you imagine an actor saying, “But, that’s all I’ve got. With my survival job and all of my other obligations…I just can’t budget the time to learn the other 35% of the lines.” That would be professionally unacceptable and the actor would be fired. Not only do actors learn all of their lines, they do hours of unpaid preparation at home, they go to donor events, fund-raisers, contribute their time to talk-backs, and more. Stage managers do hundreds of hours of unpaid labor in preparation for each show they do and are the last to leave the building each day. It would be absolutely unacceptable for actors and stage managers to behave in any other way or their employment would be terminated. But currently, stage managers and actors allow our employers to fail their responsibility as employers by not paying a fair wage and we allow them to use an excuse for our lack of fair compensation that would not hold water at all if the roles were reversed. If we claimed that we couldn’t live up to the expectations and responsibilities of employees we would be fired. We behave 100% consistently with our role as employees. Our employers must be compelled to the best of their ability to live up to 100% of what their role is as an employer.
The complicated truth is that we love these theatres, we love the work we do there, we consider their leadership and staff to be our friends and family and we do want to help them survive and thrive. We are all part of the same beautiful community and we share so many aspirations and goals. But when arts institutions have attained a level of financial stability and success, it must be acknowledged that that stability and success was built on the backs of stage managers and actors who have worked for decades below their value to help these organizations grow and thrive. When an institution becomes stable and successful, it has a responsibility to compensate stage managers and actors appropriately because it is what is morally right and out of immense gratitude for the years of underpaid work that fostered that stability and success.
Thought experiments aside, the great majority of theatres, despite the socio-political climate, are not poised to close if they pay a #FairWageOnstage. Money is consistently found for a myriad of campaigns and priorities in beautiful theatres all over the country. If a theatre can find $100,000 to put a swimming pool onstage, it can find a living wage for an actor. If a nonprofit can spend $35 million on a new theatre complex designed by a world-famous architect, it can find a living wage for a stage manager. If a theatre can buy three Broadway theatres and be gifted $1.5 million for a VIP lounge, they can pay an actor enough to pay their rent. We spoke with one of the most respected artistic directors in town during the Off-Broadway negotiations and asked him why his theatre didn’t pay more. He said, “You haven’t (as a union) asked aggressively enough yet.” We spoke with another artistic director of a very well known regional theatre that pays double what it has to. We asked him, “Why and how do you do it?” He said, “When I became artistic director, and I looked at what we were paying the actors, I was ashamed, and I went into the budgets with my managing director, and we paid the actors 100% more than we had been over the course of my first five years on the job without having to raise a penny more than we had before. We just made the actors and stage managers the priority, and we cut down on the costs from everything else.” The myth is that theatres are broke, or they’ll go broke, if they pay us a #FairWageOnstage. The truth is that the money is either already there to help us pay our most basic bills or can be raised; we as a unionized work force, just have to stand up and demand it.
Let’s take on the myth that ticket prices will soar if stage managers and actors are paid a #FairWageOnstage. In the commercial theatre, to be honest, that might happen. A commercial producer assumes a lot of risk and is wholly dependent on box office revenue to recoup their investment and pay themselves and their employees. #FairWageOnstage believes that Equity must take a nuanced approach with commercial producers and discuss profit-sharing and other ways to empower those producers to create work and pay theatre practitioners fairly. But in the nonprofit model, we see no evidence ticket prices need to or will spike and become prohibitively expensive. Look at any free Shakespeare festival in the country; Thousands of people on a lawn enjoying Shakespeare and not paying a dime for it. Look at theatres that do deep discounts on their tickets. Look at how many theatres give big blocks of tickets away. In many nonprofit theatres, box office represents as little as 15% of the total operating budget. That means that 85% of the actual costs of production are realized through all of the other revenue streams mentioned above. Think of it this way: let’s assume Major Bank X underwrites a summer Shakespeare festival and it costs $1 million to underwrite the summer season. Now let’s assume that Equity negotiates hard for a #FairWageOnstage and successfully doubles stage manager and actors salaries. The theatre goes to Major Bank X and says, “Actors cost more now and so it will cost $1.1 million to produce the summer shows.” I’m wagering that the most likely result will be that Major Bank X shrugs and writes the tax-deductible check.
As it pertains to raising revenue for a regular season of shows, theatres set goals and identify priorities. That is how budgets for not for profit theatres are created. A season is selected, all aspects of production are assessed, the estimated costs are projected, and the executive director and development department of the theatre set about raising the revenue to pay for those projected costs. If a theatre wants to produce a new play and the play requires fifteen actors and a rotating set with a hydraulic lift that shoots laser beams, they will identify what that will cost and they will raise the money to do it. If actors and stage managers cost more next year than they do this year, they will still identify the costs of production and raise the money to produce. It’s as simple as that. If actors and stage managers cost more, more money will be raised.
So, as we think about priorities, it’s time for us to check in with ours. Is it more of a priority to have the opportunity to play that special role than be able to pay the rent? Is it more of a priority to “work” than to demand a wage that is not exploitative? Is it more of a priority to subsidize our employers than provide for ourselves? Just as our employers have continuously chosen to prioritize buildings, expanded year round administrative staff, enhance production values, and well, everything more than us, we are just as guilty for prioritizing our “opportunities” and “exposure” over our own economic survival. But we are in a union and as the Off Broadway and (to an extent) the LORT negotiations have demonstrated, when we stand together, visibly, and unified, then our entire community can shift it’s priorities towards a more sustainable, moral, and equitable future. Producing theatre is hard. Raising money is hard. Living as a professional actor or stage manager is hard too. But it’s hard work we all must shoulder together. For the last several decades, it’s been on the shoulders of stage managers and actors to shoulder the hard work without a fair wage for it. But at the same time we’ve seen the $100,000 sets, multi-million dollar renovations, new theatres built, more staff added, more lavish production values, and exciting and lucrative Broadway transfers. There is money out there and stage managers and actors deserve enough to pay their most basic bills. So reject the myth of scarcity and know that if money can be raised, and it can, then it should be raised so that in exchange for your skill, talent, and hard work, you may be paid a #FairWageOnstage.