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Sunday, February 7, 2010

Dollar Dollar Bill Y'all

I was reading this article about a possible stage workers' strike at the Shaw Festival in Ontario, and it got me to thinking about a blog topic I've been tossing about for a while now:
Who should get paid in community theatre and how much?
I'll admit, it's a sticky problem.
Struggling, start-up theatre companies may not have the funds to pay everyone a decent (or even indecent) wage, so the hierarchy seems to be pay the technicians first, designers second, director third, and performers last. The argument is that actors and directors love what they do so much that they'd do it for nothing. (Hey, I've met plenty of designers and techies who love what they do, too.)
In my opinion, we lost at least one theatre company last year because of an insistence upon paying their performers. While I do somewhat mourn the loss of this theatre company (Denver would have benefitted more from the loss of a dozen or so others before this one), it is perhaps rightly so. If you cannot be fiscally solvent without expecting your performers to work for nothing, then maybe you do not have a sound venture.
Now I can already hear the chorus of "buts" out there (anybody else just flash on Monty Python?), so let me just say that I know, I know, we don't do theatre because it's a sound venture, and, if an actor is willing to work for nothing and a director is willing to work for next-to-nothing, exploiting that fact to make ends meet is sometimes the only way that a theatre can survive. Sometimes what we have to do to survive does not always match up with what's right or fair, but it is something that should at least be strived toward, rather than simply accepting the survival tactics as normal business practice.
You all know where I stand on the number of theatre companies (specifically, the number of redundant theatre companies) we have in Denver already, so I will leave that out of the discussion. (Well, I'll try.)
Let me instead talk about value, and, in so doing, I will speak of my own personal experience.
There is a paradox in theatre wherein the less you are getting paid, the worse you are treated. One of my standard practices as a director is to break my rehearsals down into half-hour increments. Some actors are called at 7pm, but others don't need to be there until 7:30 or 8pm. Other actors can be let go early as well. This does two things: it keeps me on task as a director, and it means as little "sitting around and waiting" time for the actors. This doesn't mean that things don't run over a little bit here and there. That's just going to happen. This way, though, it happens a lot less, and when it does happen, the actors at least know it's not because I don't value their time.
I adopted this practice as a result of being one of those actors who's had to sit through a three-hour rehearsal wondering when or if we were ever going to get to my scene. Generally, those were shows where I was working "for the love of theatre." On shows where I was working for "love" plus a small stipend, I might still have to sit around for a while, but I knew that we were going to get to my scene that night or I at least was going to receive a very sincere and heartfelt apology if we didn't. When the money was particularly good, I found that my time was almost never wasted. It seems like it ought to be the other way around, doesn't it? If you pay me well, you shouldn't have to feel bad that I'm sitting around. If I'm volunteering my time, you should be placing a higher value on it. However, I've not seen it work that way.
As a director, every time I've worked for nothing or next-to-nothing I've regretted it. Often, when a theatre company can't afford to pay their director, they can't afford to pay a props person, so I'd find myself running to second-hand shops and asking for receipts that I was pretty sure would never be reimbursed. I've had to stand in front of my actors two nights before opening night bluffing as best I could about why their costumer (who I'd seen once through the whole pre-production process) wasn't ready with their costumes yet, and since I strive not to throw anyone on my team "under the bus," I was the one standing there with egg on my face. I once had to build a giant Christmas goose out of papier-mâché that was still wet on opening night - not because it was my job - but because if I didn't get it done by me, it wouldn't have been done. (Prior to that, my experience with copious amounts of glue and newspaper had been a piñata for my 7th-grade Spanish class, and I at least got to beat that with a stick when I was done.)
Ironically, it was the times that I was actually paid pretty well that I had the least amount of extra stuff to do. The shows where I was uncompensated actually hurt my credibility because I looked disorganized. Well, I was. I was doing my job and five others. I also got bad-mouthed as being "difficult" for having the audacity to say things like, "We open tomorrow. Where are the FREAKING costumes?"
So, for myself, I have adopted the policy that - with exceptions for very good friends (of which, I purposely do not have many) - I don't work gratis. Do I get a lot of work? No. Will I ever again have to choreograph an entire show in 24 hours because the producer "forgot" to hire a choreographer? Probably not. I have decided what my time, my skill, and my sanity are worth. It's not a cost-prohibitive amount for companies that take themselves seriously, but it lets me continue to love theatre in a way that I was starting not to by working for . . . those other guys.
Is it really about the money? Not really, though it is nice when you can get paid to do what you love. It's really more about the value.
Do I suggest that everyone hold themselves to this standard? Well, actually I do, but I don't expect it.
My hope is that directors will remember to value their actors' time, even if it's not being paid for - especially so, really. My hope is that producers will factor volunteers' time as part of their budget, be they actors, directors, designers, stagehands, or ushers. One rule of thumb that I go by when utilizing volunteers is to calculate how much it would cost to pay someone to do what they're doing. When thought about in those terms, it's hard not to treat volunteers with respect and dignity. I think some nonprofit organizations forget that.
Finally, my hope is that the artists themselves (directors, actors, designers) remember that the value for which they are willing to settle regarding their own time and ability sets a standard not only for themselves but also for everyone else who does what they do.
It is possible to love your art and still expect to be compensated fairly for it.


Kendall said...

Ok, there is a lot to comment on here.

First off, I think getting anything to change in the industry over this issue will be as easy as nailing warm Jell-O to a tree. Or better yet, nailing warm Jell-O to a cat climbing a tree… in a wind storm.. But I digress.

It’s a multi-phase problem. So many people in the business do what they love for “free” simply because it IS what they love and they want the opportunity to do it. Production companies know this and count on it. The artists do the work for free under the assumption that this is part of “paying the dues” and that with enough free work, there will be a door opening into a paying gig. This has been true since the footlights were actually candles.

This will never change.

Production companies will rarely pay for staff they know they can get for free. And artists will always work for free if they believe that is the only way they will get to do what they love most.
I am one of them…

I volunteer my time for free for Phamaly because I love to do it and I love the company. That does not mean that if they handed me a check, I’d tear it up. But, I believe in Phamaly’s vision and what they are trying to do, I have no problem with contributing to them with a donation of my time and physical effort.
However, if the DCPA was hosting the touring production of Pixar’s “Toy Story On Unicycles”, they would have to pony up some bucks before I would lift a prop…

As a professional entertainer, I get a LOT of requests to do free shows. Very few, if any, do I accept. People have said, “Think of all the great exposure you’ll get” and, “You’ll get a whole bunch of shows out of this!”. The only thing I ever got out of doing shows for free, was more requests to do free shows. I’ve been treated like I was dirt in almost every free show situation that I’ve been in. Phamaly being the exception… So, I do not work for free for any other reason.

The bottom line is as long as there are artists willing to work for free, companies will not willingly pay for help they know they can get “gratis”.

Brady Darnell said...

Exactly, Kendall. Exactly.