This is the Prologue of a multi-part blog series called “A Strategic Approach to Increasing the Value of the Theatre Artist,” by Ron Russell, Executive Director of Off-Broadway’s Epic Theatre Ensemble, with input from the staff and artists of the organization. Working from the assumption that theatre-makers and their skills are critical to the health of our American democracy, the series explores the responsibilities of institutions, funders, and the artists themselves in increasing their impact and value. This Prologue, “A New Contract,” focuses on how Epic has re-shaped its’ contract with Actor’s Equity Association for the 2011-12 season in an attempt to better fulfill our organizational commitment to this concept.
Epic Theatre Ensemble was founded in 2001 on the principle that theatre-makers are essential. That their skills are critical to catalyzing dialogue on vital social and civic issues. That the empathy they help foster, and the imagination they excite, and the rigorous thinking they engage, are all things active citizens need. So it’s not a surprise that we’ve always tried to find ways to get artists into the places they are needed most – into communities that are disadvantaged, and disenfranchised, and disconnected from the role theatre could play in their recovery; into schools saddled with cultures of low expectations; into productions that tackle complex and often intractable challenges that our country struggles with. It’s always been fundamental to our values that the same artists work in our classrooms as on our stages.
We’ve always aimed to pay these artists well above what’s considered the minimum, or even “standard.” We paid actors $260/week on our first Off-Broadway production in our founding season (2001-02); our budget that first year was about $260,000. So on a 10-week contract, which is what we were shooting for on average, an actor was getting about 1% of the total organizational budget (and because we did extensive work in schools and communities from day one, production was only about half of our budget). I followed this as a kind of secret rule-of-thumb for many years thereafter; five years later, when we were a $600,000/yr. organization and producing Nilaja Sun’s NO CHILD…, we were paying actors $450/week. But recently, for a variety of reasons, we began to abandon that ratio, and by 2010 (our biggest season to date, including a production of Sarah Ruhl’s PASSION PLAY), we were looking at a $1.2 million budget and actor salaries were barely increasing.
This is the Introduction of a multi-part blog series called “A Strategic Approach to Increasing the Value of the Theatre Artist,” by Ron Russell, Executive Director of Off-Broadway’s Epic Theatre Ensemble, with input from the staff and artists of the organization. Working from the assumption that theatre-makers and their skills are critical to the health of our American democracy, the series explores the responsibilities of institutions, funders, and the artists themselves in increasing their impact and value. This Introduction, “The Scarcity Principle,” lays out the key challenges.
Theatre-makers in America undeniably work in an embattled field. Artists face low salaries, inconsistent opportunities, and the difficulties any freelance American worker must manage apropos of health insurance, retirement, and child-rearing. The organizations that employ them face cuts, conundrums (e.g. as government funding levels decrease annually, their compliance and reporting requirements for not-for-profits increase, requiring us to spend a higher percentage of declining dollars on administration), and competition for audiences’ time and attention from forms that are increasingly more convenient, accessible, and affordable.
Almost every non-commercial production “loses” money in commercial parlance – very seldom does anyone make more at the box office that they spent on artistic, marketing, and administrative costs components – so artistic leaders are, de facto, looking for what to cut. More often than not, artists’ salaries and benefits CAN be cut: we all know by now that most theatre artists’ will work for minimum wage and that their union will consent. So that’s the first place cuts are made, often to the point that artists are more or less subsidizing the work of the organization by accepting less than a living wage. And I don’t know anyone in our field who’s really happy with that.
But when we discuss the reasons we’re in this position solely in terms of money – which generally leads to an argument about whose fault it is that none of us have enough - we often miss the bigger contextual picture, and a much more complex set of challenges, regarding artists’ value in our society.