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

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

An Actor's Labor, Pt. II

After my post on actor pay last month, a number of local artists approached me both online and in person to discuss their thoughts on the topic. The majority of opinions came from freelancers and producers, and in many cases individuals had background in both categories. In the end, everyone agrees that we were paid more/could pay actors more. However, there are some major obstacles standing in our way. Let's review some of the comments from last month's discussion:

...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.

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.

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."

As a producer myself, I know how ugly budgets can look. Even with high ticket prices, we find that ticket sales are not enough to cover the costs of producing our work. Non-profits supplement their budgets through donations, grants and sponsorships, and yet many younger companies aren't yet 501 (c)(3) or lack the scale of support to grow without cutting corners. I realize that this is a reality for many companies and that there is no one answer to solving these problems.

I completely agree that increasing our audiences is the best long term goal to alleviate the plight of actor pay. However, this is a long term goal that serves to strengthen theatre at large and does not specifically address actor pay.

What I would advocate is for local producers and freelancers alike to take a stand and address this problem directly. I recently met with a theatre artist with vast experience in other American cities, who was horrified that so many small theatres in Boston did not pay their actors. I've spoken with freelancers privately who have expressed private frustration at how rarely they were compensated for their labor and work.

In almost every conversation I've had, these freelancers said that if a company even offered a tiny, little stipend, they would feel much more respected as professionals and artists. I, for one, do not find this to be an unreasonable desire. However, many of these actors continue to work for free because they don't get asked how they feel.

Well, I'm asking you. How do you feel about dedicating 40-60 hours of your time over and over again without compensation?

I'm not saying that we should never work for free or go on strike. But we need to seriously evaluate when we do or do not work. I just did a show without pay because it was a brand new company with a minuscule budget. I'm also doing a show this summer for a weekly stipend. I was just offered a small gig for a director I'm friends with. I turned it down due to time concerns, but I would've done it as a pro bono favor.

Actors who are dedicated to making acting part of their full-time profession need to treat themselves as professional freelancers and decide what projects are worth doing pro bono and when they need to ask for compensation or turn down a role. Have some balls!

Producers need to factor actor pay into their budgets according to their size and scale. Have a budget of 300 dollars and need three actors? Fair enough. But have a budget of $1,000 and need three actors? Surely, one can afford to pay $25 stipends to each artist for their 40-60+ hours of labor. That's less than 10% of the total budget. Some people might say that's too low. But I wager that the act of budgeting in compensation for the most underpaid members of the theatre community would be a giant mark of respect and mutually beneficial for all parties in the medium and long run.

As one of the comments said on my blog post last month, the time is coming when small theatres will have to pay their actors in order to maintain a steady level of professional growth. There is some debate over when that time is. I respect others who disagree with me, and I've never felt that any company or producer in this community was exploiting me or other actors. However, I feel strongly that the time has come.

The CoLab will be a part of this future. We are less than two years old. We have a tiny budget. We will be paying our actors small (and I do stress, small) stipends for our first full length production. We won't be able to pay actors for all of our shows and programming this year, and probably not next, but we will be factoring actor pay into the budgets of projects with higher production value. In the long term we hope to have an actor pay budget for all projects, large or small.

Think about this way: If this individual production can afford to spend hundreds of dollars on space, costume, props, etc, why can't we afford small stipends? It would be easy to save that money and put it towards production value, such as sets or other design elements. But instead, we choose to say to our actors:

We are young, but we are professionals and we are cut from the same clothe. As we grow, you will grow with us. We are all in this together.

Be well,


  1. Lindsay Eagle pointed out in the previous Actors Labor post, that lots of actors take the credit and experience they get working with independent companies and move on to working with larger companies with bigger budgets, and that is exactly my goal in working for free with smaller independent companies. Not to sound cynical, I also do it for the joy of acting, but that joy is why I hope to one day be able to act full time, and I think of acting for free as paying my "dues", like a stand up doing open mic nights, enhancing my craft and building my resume as I go, before hopefully earning some money from my work and eventually migrating to New York (or in other actor's cases LA) and really trying to "make it". I'm only now really making an entrance into the larger Boston theater scene, I feel, but as I do so any gigs which come up which offer any kind of pay, even a small stipend or the cost of a modest dinner per performance immediately motivate me to go out for those jobs, and if I can get one, I'm going to be that much more motivated to do good work, feeling that it is being valued in some way in that I'm getting something out of it, even its the cost of transportation and food while I'm working on the project. This leads I believe to happier actors, who produce better work, which leads to happier audiences, and increased attendance. So yes, if Boston theater wants to continue to grow, companies have to start carving out a bit of their budgets sooner, or later, or lose good actors to cities that will offer that carrot.

  2. "Horrified"? :) Kenny, how did irrational and irreverent go?...

  3. Kenny, these posts are so thoughtful and so progressive...I rarely comment on them because I'm more of an audience member than anything, but I always read and enjoy them when I see them pop up on my feed.

    I'm stage managing a show going up in September for which our 11 actors are receiving a couple hundred dollars each as a stipend. We are also working to pay for their transportation and some meals. We are nowhere near offering them enough for 3-4 weeks of their life, but our budget is roughly about 80% caring for our actors. We would rather skimp on everything else to make it possible for the best talent possible to be involved.

    That may not be every show's priority, and it's not fucking easy. Our director's been fundraising his brains out for the past month--hundreds of emails, dozens of letters, two grant applications, organizing a donor cocktail party, videos, websites, Facebook, Kickstarter... It's very time- and energy-consuming, and you start to feel like a carpetbagger pushing so many people for so much money.

    For me, it's worth the extra months of planning and labor to be able to give these people a couple of bucks--I believe SO STRONGLY in them and our production's quality really rides on them. I recognize that not every pre-production team can afford to do the same, but I wish even bitty-baby stipends were a reality for more local actors. Boston will lose its talent if they can't afford to eat, no matter how much they truly love what they do.

  4. Generally, I've only played the producer role with staged readings or my one-man show (in which case, I'm also the exploited actor), but my rule with staged readings is that if I can't afford to pay the actors for the one time event, I'm at least going to feed them.

  5. I worked for a few theatres in Minneapolis before arriving here and this discussion has been reared again and again.

    The actors I know who are still there are willing to give their 40-60 hours if the production is good. Some feel that it is almost insulting to get even $1 for that much time (which some theatres have done). If the production was good, and the company (which is not yet non-profit (key)) is working towards sustaining itself, then the time given is almost a donation to the reputation of the theatre (and your own stage time). The actor's actions are remembered and are frequently thought of or asked back into other roles as the company progresses -- creating an almost unspoken resident acting company (hmmmm StageSource conference anyone).

    If the production was bad, and there is decent compensation, there's always the comment, "well at least I got paid." (The $1 per show is even more insulting if the production was a terrible experience.)

    From the theatre company's perspective it is the honour of giving a stipend (even $1) and it is also valuable information going into 501(c)3 status. But I'm done arguing myself for now.

    This is all in credit to what Mike said earlier, that the experience of acting will make you better and more visible to the theatre community. Therin, rising into bigger houses just as the burgeoning theatre company progresses (albeit what feels like a slower pace).

    Yes. We should pay our actors some sort of stipend. Yes. It should be considered as part of the production costs just as any equity theatre budgets for "X" amount of AEA in their house. Theatre is about people, not productions. Right? The stories we tell. The worlds we create. The audiences we intend to entertain/enlighten.

    I'm sure there's a designer or a master carp out there saying, "what about me?" but that's another tangent.

  6. I brought up this topic during break at my rehearsal for "Godspell" last night, and boy did it get everyone's attention. Godspell is being produced by a brand-new company, Moonbox. Our cast is a mix of AEA and non-union, Boston theater vets and college kids, and despite the fledgling status of the production company, we're all being compensated for our work. The general consensus was that by offering even a small stipend for our work, we felt not only more motivated to come out and put in our time, but also to work in a more professional manner. It's not just about feeling respected because you're a "paid actor" now, it's also about respecting the other actors in your cast who are also "paid actors", and your production staff who are essentially your bosses as well as your collaborators. It's a two-way street. Treat me like a volunteer and I'll volunteer my time, but treat me like a professional and I'll exercise my profession. It's a cycle of quality.

    That said, I'd hope that every actor out there who decides to sign on to a project, paid or unpaid, for better or for worse, decides to bring their A-game every day to rehearsal and performance. I'm also taking part in the Independent Drama Society's production of Eurydice, an unpaid gig. I chose to work with them because of the material (I'd been dying to sink my teeth into Sarah Ruhl), and because I respect the company (they were nominated for a few IRNE's this year). I don't work less or care less because they don't pay me, but that's because I feel like I'm otherwise benefiting from my involvement. I feel inspired by your words, Kenny, to continue treating myself like a professional freelancer, and to have the balls to decide for myself which roles really do benefit me and which roles simply fill my time and resume. Thank you!

  7. A message from JJK, who have a problem logging in:

    When I moved here a friend gave me a pseudo algorithm for taking work. Ask yourself 1) does it feed my career? 2) does it feed my wallet? 3) does it feed my soul? If the answer to all 3 is YES take the work. If its 2 out of 3, maybe; depends on your current needs. If its 1 out of 3, walk away politely. That's served me well.

    I believe strongly in artist compensation. Everyone on Bear Patrol got paid. And I'm with Ian - for readings or small things, if I don't pay I bake food and bring wine (kid you not, there are "name" equity actors in town who would do a reading for my Elvis bread, because it is AMAZING).

    I hate to piss on the elephant in the room but from a producer perspective, what you do with your budget is a CHOICE. If you do not compensate your artists, it is because - consciously or not - you are CHOOSING to make other things the priority. I went into BP deliberately intending to ensure everyone involved got paid. Once you make that choice, finding the money is actually quite simple (was actually something that got a big response in my "please donate" letter). Artist pay was more than half of our budget, but frankly we didn't need it for anything else. We needed it for our people. Anyone who chooses to ignore paying their artists...I find that very sad. It's not that hard.

  8. @JJK Well said, well said. It IS a choice. If your budget is $100 or $10,000 you still have a choice of how you spend it.

    As an audience member, my imagination is engaged if the set is made of recycled cardboard or flying, rotating, Spidermanning theatrical chicanery--as long as there are interesting people saying and/or doing interesting things in front of me.

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