WARNING: The opinions expressed below are DEFINITELY those of The CoLab Theatre Company! Learn more at www.colabtheatre.org!

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

An Actor's Labor

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…


  1. One of my New Years resolutions was to break out of the actor/slave mentality - not to hang a lampshade on a less than satisfactory experience without pay by saying, "Well, at least I'm acting."

  2. Of my theatre-related income, more than 90% over the past year has come from teaching over performing and writing, and I generally operate under a small loss when I produce.

    The only way to end this cycle is if we increase the audience for theatre. I think that the pooling of resources with regards to publicity that we're seeing with the STAB-member companies is a step in the right direction: but ultimately, we need to make going out to see a fringe-theatre company be seen as as viable a night-life activity as going to listen (and dance) to live music, or DJ, or go out to the movies.

    In short, we're going to need to evangelize for the art-form and promote it to people who don't think themselves to be "theatre people."

  3. I agree with Ian that essentially it's a matter of culture change: building up the audience into a culture that expects and desires and pursues the art form. The question is how to reach the audience, to pull them in, without denigrating the art form.

    If we're to use (shiver) business terms, what we require is:

    1) Product (plays) that people want to see
    2) Advertisement that encourages live performance (e.g., what sets theatre apart and a viable option to movies/tv/etc.)
    3) CONTINUED networking/word of mouth to bring more audience in from the initial audience (requiring longer runs, etc.)

    I quite agree that all members of the art should be paid, and optimally, paid well (if at LEAST a subsistence). This is my first year solely as a freelancer...and it's a rough gig.

    Let me meander a bit on the first point, which is having a product people want to buy. There's a tendency to do the same play over and over and over. It's safe. And as a classicist myself, frankly I *like* Shakespeare and Guys and Dolls. I think they're worth doing. But this "pre-packaged" mentality is also what's brought us such, ahem, QUESTIONABLE material as the recent slew of (to my mind) at BEST mediocre movies-as-musicals which by and large aren't doing so well. Of course, the flipside is that theatre artists then go so very edgy or extreme or full of their art in the name of art that they alienate, perhaps, even the readers of their work - or at least the audience. So I suppose I'm advocating that so much of how we can pay actors rests on the material we give them which will draw in the bums in seats to pay everybody.

    The other question, of course, is how to change the culture from free-on-demand-ness...and for that I have no particular easy answer, other than time time and time.

  4. While you can point to certain sensationalistic theatrical "events" that have been quite successful, like ART's The Donkey Show or even, for those of us with a more classical bent, Commonwealth Shakespeare Company's productions in terms of attendance and profit, but how much is that translating into popularity of theatre as an art form? How many of these people actually go see plays the rest of the year?

  5. I can tell I'm going to write a follow up to this. I will respond to your thoughts and comments on a later post. Keep'em coming if you have anything else on your minds!

  6. I believe you posted this to Facebook a few months back, Kenny, and it might be useful to see how many of these suggestions our local companies (or STAB as a whole) can institute:

    Ten Things Theatres Need to do Right Now to Save Themselves.

  7. The first thought I have about paying artists is that it is a chicken-and-egg sort of situation.

    Ian is right that in order to be able to pay artists, a company must be able to *afford* to pay them and still have enough budget left over for high production values.

    In order to afford artists/high production values, the company must attract a larger audience.

    In order to attract a larger audience, the company must produce *high quality work*--which, soon, may only come from paying artists.

    In my experience, actors and designers alike tend to work with small theatre companies for two reasons: 1) They get more direct control over the product, either through a loose reporting structure or because they get bigger parts/roles with us... which is rewarding and revitalizing for the artist; 2) Simply said, they gain experience and beef up their resume. Once an artist becomes good enough, experienced enough, established enough, hopefully they will start getting noticed by larger companies. Not only will these companies provide the artists with better press (because they can afford to buy it), but *gasp* they will actually pay them for their work. So the artist moves on.

    I'm not saying that all artists who can work with larger companies will no longer work with small ones. They may have friends or colleagues they respect working with a small theatre company, or a company might be working on a project that really piques their interest. But I know IDS has been unable to pursue certain working relationships with extremely talented people because we could not afford to pay them.

    So, in short, if small theatre companies do not pay their artists, they cannot gain access to the best artists in Boston, and so cannot produce the best work. But if they don't produce the best work, there is only so much their audience can grow.

    There's only so much good marketing can do; the PRODUCT ITSELF MUST BE GOOD ENOUGH to keep people coming back, and to attract more patrons who came to the show not just because they know someone in the cast or crew.

    That being said, good marketing can go a long way. As can word-of-mouth, which is best generated for longer runs.

    Also, contrary to what Emily said, I've found that well-known work that has some buzz, or work by well-known playwrights, tends to attract more butts in seats than a new work by an unknown playwright. Don't get me wrong, I love new work, and am glad that there are so many companies in Boston that support it. But doing an established work in a new or unexpected way can be refreshing, and will attract more patrons than a work nobody has heard of.

    Sorry for the length! I just had a lot of thoughts to share.

  8. Not at all, Lindsay. Yours is a perspective that we need in the discussion. I'll respond in detail next week!

  9. Lindsay is absolutely correct about quality.

    A couple of days ago at the STAB Open Mic Night (Emily and I both presented work as playwrights; Kenny, Emily and I all read as well) I noted the over-all quality of the writing being presented.

    I attend a lot of staged readings; I feel it's my duty as a playwright to know the landscape-- and this un-curated "open mic" was actually better than the scripts I hear at many curated staged-reading series. This tells me that a lot of the people doing new play development on the fringe are dropping the ball: for whatever reason, they're presenting work that really isn't the best, or most interesting, or most challenging, of what is available out there.

    If those of us on the fringe, who have the least to lose, aren't picking up the best scripts they can get hold of, then we're not giving non-theatre people an excuse to come to the theatre (or come back.)