“What Is Our Work Worth?”
by Ellenor Riley-Condit
When I ask myself questions about the monetary value of work in the theater, particularly as an actor, I tend to get kerfluffled really quickly. Sometimes it feels like artists who make physical objects may have a more streamlined process for figuring out their worth. Whether you’re a painter, a baker, a whittler, or an artisanal cat toy maker, if your art form results in a physical object, perhaps you can figure out slightly more easily how much that object should cost? Obviously that’s an extreme generalization on my part, but it feels like a grass-is-greener type of thought process: Maybe if I used my labor to paint paintings instead of make plays, I would be more clear about how much money my labor is worth. Questions of value feel more confusing (and even more dangerous for self-esteem) when I, the actor, am thinking about myself as the product.
I am wondering what work as an actor, and specifically a non-equity actor, is worth. I am wondering how non-equity theater companies (such as The Syndicate) and other non-union producing entities should determine what to pay people. I am wondering, is there a right and wrong here? Are there ethics or morals to consider? Or is it acceptable to pay people a small stipend or even pay them nothing at all because there are performers who will take that deal and the market determines the value? Do I understand any of the basic terminology of economics? And if we’re not union, does that mean we are hobbyists (that burns, I know) not professionals, and therefore it’s cool if we don’t have pay standards?
Money, as we all know, is an ugly thing. It’s difficult to manage and embarrassing to talk about, and it runs the world. I have lied to my own mother about how much money is in my bank account, not because my mother would judge me, but because I would judge myself. Think about the last conversation you had about money. Were you uncomfortable? Were you honest? Was the other person honest? Did your judgement of yourself or the other person change during or after the conversation? We get all twisted up in knots when we talk about money, even with people we love and trust, who are on our side. It’s uncomfortable to sit down with the other members of The Syndicate when we are making a budget and say “Okay. We need to hire six people to work on this show with us. How much are they worth and how much do we actually have?”
The Syndicate has agreed on two things about money from the very beginning:
- People are more important than production value. We make sure we can pay everyone before we consider how much money to put towards set, costumes, etc.
- Everyone makes the same amount. Actors, director, stage manager, designers, everyone. It’s not as much as we would like yet, but as we work to grow our budget we want to treat everyone as equals in our process.
I believe this is a good, ethical way to do things. At least…I think I do? Is this the right way to approach money when a theater company doesn’t have a lot of it? Or is this just a way?
I’ll be transparent here: The Syndicate calculates stipends based on weeks in rehearsal/production. (Base Weekly Stipend) x (Number of Weeks in Process) = Total Pay. (See, I’m getting uncomfortable and I’m not even saying real numbers!) Because our designers are often working in the room with us throughout rehearsal, everyone working on a show is usually in process for the same number of weeks. But what about the fact that some people work more hours to complete their tasks on a show than others, does that mean one person’s labor is technically more valuable than another?
This may seem like splitting hairs but it’s genuinely hard for me to think about: even if all of us running non-equity theater companies acknowledge that we can’t pay a lot, or can’t pay what we’d like to, aren’t we still defining our worker’s value to us by how much we pay them? If we’re not answerable to any union does that mean there is no standard? It is ethical to pay everyone the same amount or do I just think that’s good because that’s the way The Syndicate does it? Is it okay, hypothetically, for a designer to be paid $500 and an actor to be paid $100 on the same show? Or a director to be paid $500 and a stage manager to be paid $100 on the same show? How should we make these numbers up? Is it based on hours worked? Perceived importance of each role? Talent and professionalism? Or are we simply looking at our bank accounts and going “We really want to produce this show, so we’re going to do it with the money we have and find people who will work for a small amount.”?
Those difficult questions bring up a lot more difficult questions for me. Many of us non-equity companies want to be respected as legitimate professionals even if we aren’t union. We want to be considered for awards, we want our shows to be reviewed in the same publications as the equity houses. On the one hand, we are doing everything in our power to achieve professional standards and get noticed, but on the other hand we’re doing it without paying the people that work for us. Our companies are not profession-al in the sense that the people who work for us can’t make a living at it. So, is theater our job? Are we professionals? Is it our hobby? What is it?
I feel I’m coming dangerously close to suggesting that a certain amount of money must change hands for a piece of theater to be legitimate or that a person’s profession is definitely, only the thing that makes them money. I don’t believe that. Of course, I want the value of what we do to transcend currency. But at the same time, I believe our work has value that is simply about currency because unfortunately we need money to live.
In November of 2016 the movement #FairWageOnstage succeeded in helping Off-Broadway actors renegotiate their contracts with the Actor’s Equity Association to receive higher pay. This movement is a kind of union within a union, Equity members banded together to demand a wage increase instead of just the same old contract renewal. The movement was started by Carson Elrod and Nick Westrate in 2015 with just a handful of actors meeting secretly in each other’s living rooms. Many of them talked about how, despite being employed full time by theaters, they were working second jobs or drowning in credit card debt. The initial meetings created a safe place to talk about the tension that comes from being outwardly “successful” but inwardly panicking and struggling. In 2012 Westrate was employed all 52 weeks of the year at Off-Broadway houses, he won a Drama Desk award, and he still had to file for bankruptcy.
#FairWageOnstage widely circulated certain statistics to get people informed. The average salary for any job in New York City is $975/week for working 5 days at a total of 40 hours. An Off-Broadway actor usually works 6 days at a total of 53 hours and makes $593/week. Now, after #FairWageOnstage’s success, instead of contracts being determined by seating capacity in Off-Broadway theaters, minimum pay is determined by dividing theaters into three budget groups: commercial theaters, non-profits with budgets of less than $4 million and non-profits with budgets of more than $4 million. Many Off-Broadway theaters are now looking at a 64% pay increase for actors by 2021, salaries will go from a minimum of $482 per week to a minimum of $656 per week.
So why am I going on and on about numbers which specifically apply to New York City, to union actors, and to theaters with budgets that are currently beyond most of our wildest dreams? Well, I think it’s telling that even though these actors had concrete data to draw from to prove to their employers that they were being undervalued, even though they are undisputedly working at a professional level, and even though they are part of a union, it was still really freaking hard for them to assert their worth. Participants in this movement were quoted (often anonymously) talking about the fear and shame surrounding their salaries. If it’s that hard for people who have won Tonys to assert their worth in this industry, what hope is there for the rest of us?
Honestly, I’m not sure. I’m not sure if it’s fair to be critical of non-equity theater companies that don’t pay their actors. I keep going back to, if the actors agree to it, doesn’t that mean it’s okay? Maybe, but then why does it still feel so uncomfortable? And, again, how should the producing organization determine what to pay people, if they’re paying people at all? The producing manager of the New York Theater Workshop, one of the Off-Broadway theaters whose contracts will change by 2021 said, “It’s a little scary, looking toward year five of the agreement and thinking about what that’s going to mean for the budgets and our ability to produce on scale that we’ve grown accustomed to producing on.” That feeling is also telling and applicable to organizations of any size, union or not. Theater companies want to keep producing on the level they are accustomed to, they want the product the audience (and critics) receive to be of a certain scale and quality so they start their budgeting from there. Sometimes, it seems they spend the money they need to put the show up first before they spend money on people. The Syndicate tries, in our own small way, to do things the other way around, to budget for people first. But is it worth it? Does it make our process or our product better? As usual, I’m not sure. But I have a couple options: I can either try to have more, probably uncomfortable, conversations about this with my collaborators to figure out how to keep moving forward, or I can go into whittling. I hear there’s good money in that.