For the past few years, it seems there has been much talk of “The emerging Boston theatre scene!” In the months leading up to the upcoming Boston theatre conference, there have been many musings and much lauding of what we’ve accomplish. The community, the growth, these are all great accomplishments. Small theatres are growing, increasing their budgets, and expanding their programming. But how much can we let these budgets grow before we factor in the labor of our actors?
In a previous post, we talked about one of the tenants of “Laissez-faire” economics as it pertains to theatre: That our labor is worth what we’re willing to do it for. Minimum wage laws and collective bargaining aside, each job and industry seems to have its own evolving standards of what labor becomes worth. You probably won’t find a hedge fund manager willing to work for 30k a year. You’ll find plenty of service workers and “unskilled” laborers who dream of that same amount, but work for barely above poverty level. (For the curious, a standard 40 hour work week at the federal minimum wage comes out to just below 16k, only about 5k above the poverty level).
Now here’s a question: How many of you consider yourselves professional theatre artists? Freelancers? Or even just an actor who likes to make side money?
How often do you get paid for your work?
Like many artists, the actor finds his or herself willing to work for free more times than not. This is true of many markets. However, one of the great appeals of the L.A. and New York markets is the larger number of available paid gigs. Granted, the odds are still stacked against you and often times you’ll be working for peanuts. But wouldn’t that be an improvement? I preferred salted, but I’m not picky…
My labor is worth more than nothing. Of course, we don’t act because we week wealth. If that’s why you’re in this business, you’re barking up the wrong tree. But as professionals, as people, as members of a productive and capital driven society… What is the incentive to work for free forever?
In past years, we’ve discussed the rise in Boston’s artistic scope and growth of opportunities. However, when actors come to Boston from New York… Many feel they’ve taken a step backwards and are dumbfounded by how rarely we pay our actors. I think that this one of the major challenges facing our community in the coming years. We must create a sustainable local theatre economy where we value our labor and encourage our best and most talented to work hard. How do we do this? By being competitive and creating sustainable business plans to start paying our actors in the next few years. Of course, not all companies can start paying from day one. But we have to be proactive and make those decisions when our companies can afford it.
Paying our actors, is an investment. Even the smallest of investments can yield large returns. And the most brilliant of business models don’t invest expecting a return in one year. They invest expecting returns in 5 or 10 years. And that idea should start at any level where producers expect professionalism and dedication from their performers. So as a small company investing in a future as part of the Boston arts scene, actor pay is something we are already working into our production budgets. As our local talent develops, and others look to Boston as a possible destination to practice their talents, we need to be proactive in creating a sustainable functioning labor market in order to continue our march towards the forefront of the American theatre.
A great man once wrote “With great power, comes great responsibility.” If I’m not mistaken, they turned his book into a musical recently…