The adage that you can make a killing in the theatre but not a living has been repeated ad nauseam, but the sentiment still has an unfortunate ring of truth. Unless you’re part of a hit Broadway property or are among a certain echelon of salaried theatre managers, life in the American theatre for many remains one of passion and artistry but little remuneration. That may be changing, at least a little bit, very soon.
In May, President Obama announced a modification to the Fair Labor Standards Act, which stipulates that starting Dec. 1 most full-time employees making a salary of less than $913 a week, or $47,476 per year, would qualify for overtime pay for time worked over 40 hours a week; overtime pay rates are defined as time-and-a-half. Previously the salary threshold was $23,660. While in many commercial industries, $47,476 might be a typical starting salary, for many nonprofits, particularly in the arts, it’s close to or above where a lot of salaries come to rest. According to a 2014 report from the Los Angeles County Arts Commission, surveying nearly 2,800 area arts nonprofits, employees of theatre nonprofits made a median average salary of $32,799.
The overtime news has been met with a flurry of reactions in the nonprofit arts world, and not least the theatre world. We reported on the upcoming changes in a recent piece geared as a kind of “FAQ” for theatre managers. But how are the soon-to-be-implemented rules affecting workers and theatres on the ground?
On the worker’s side, the FLSA modification is unsurprisingly a much-welcomed development. “I think it’s fantastic,” said Dylan Jamison, assistant technical director at People’s Light in Philadelphia. Though he’s been full-time at the theatre for eight years, Jamison’s salary is well below the new overtime threshold (with health and retirement benefits). He estimates that over a season he averages 44 hours a week, but during tech rehearsals he can work up to 80 hours a week. Said Jamison, “I think it’s a change that’s a long time coming across the board. People need more support as my coworkers and I look toward starting families and moving on with our lives; it’s almost impossible at current salaries.”
On the managerial side, though, the news has been met with some trepidation. For one, the announcement came in May, and theatres must begin complying by Dec. 1; many theatres’ budgets run from June to May, and compliance will take some quick adjustments. As some have pointed out, when minimum wage increases are signed into law, the implementation is usually phased in over a number of years. Amy Wratchford, managing director of American Shakespeare Center—a $3-million theatre in Staunton, Va.—estimates that meeting these new rules would cost ASC almost $250,000 per year in overtime pay.
“There’s so many of us out here trying to do the best we can with limited resources and trying to inch things along as we’re able and investing in our people,” she explained. “But the kind of ramp-up they’re asking for in a five-month period is just insane.”
Wratchford sees these new regulations as an additional stress on an institution that is only starting to turn its finances around. “We spent a long time in the red, starting in fiscal year 11 [2010-2011],” she noted. “We’ve been in the black and that’s the first time since we opened the playhouse in 2001. There are so many priorities, including paying people more.” The theatre has been trying to increase salaries and artists’ fees across the board, she said, as well as create a retirement plan for employees—priorities she said will have to be put on hold to budget for increased overtime pay.
This strategy—of holding off spending in one area to pay for increased overtime—seems to be common. The National New Play Network, which has 108 member theatres nationwide, has been hosting online chats about the new rules. According to executive director Nan Barnett, common strategies that have been discussed include “holding on hiring, reallocating duties, and mandating 40 hours wherever possible. Others are trying to move a few people up to the minimum overtime exempt salary, which generally means moving others to part-time positions and limiting hours.”
All of this deck-shuffling, though, is only one piece of the puzzle, many artists and workers say. The new rule isn’t just about paying employees more. It may also serve as a wakeup call for the nonprofit theatre field, which has historically been overly reliant on poorly paid labor. It’s a dilemma perhaps best understood by low- and mid-level institutional employees: They know as well as anyone the kind of financial pressures that many theatres face—not only because they’ve seen the balance sheets and may work in fundraising but because they’ve been asked in part to shoulder it with their own low wages.
“I don’t know where the money will come from, and I feel bad for development and marketing departments across the country who will be pressured to wring out more dollars,” says a woman we’ll call Sophia (she, like many people we spoke to, asked to remain anonymous), who works in the artistic department at an $11-million theatre. On the other hand, considering that she makes $34,990 a year and regularly works overtime, says Sophia, “I’m really fucking glad about the new rules.”
The scenario is a familiar one: You work 80 hours during one week of tech, and the next week, you make up for it with a week off. “Under the previous system, as happens a lot in small theatres, there’s kind of a binge-and-purge, where people will work 100-hour weeks going into tech and might only work 10 hours the next week in order to recover,” said the artistic director of a $790,000 theatre in the Midwest, whom we’ll call Steven. He added, “That’s not necessarily a healthy way of working.”
This kind of comp-time flexibility has long been seen to offset the brutal hours that are often unavoidable in certain departments. Tech week is typically 10 hours a day over six days for actors, directors, and stage managers—with production crew working seven days straight, and usually longer daily hours, during that time. On opening nights, the marketing and development staff tends to put in extra hours to meet and greet with donors and press. And literary staff can clock disproportionately long hours if they’re dramaturging a show.
But this kind of comp-hours time-shifting isn’t kosher under FLSA provisions. If a non-overtime-exempt employee works 60 hours one week, say, they can’t offset that by clocking just 20 the next week; they’ll be earning their regular salary for the 20-hour week and time-and-a-half for the hours over 40 in the 60-hour week. This was always the case under the FLSA, but with the new $47, 746 threshold, it will apply to many more employees than before.
In any case, many theatre employees aren’t presently able to take any comp time, either because their employers don’t offer it or because the opportunity never presents itself.
“We can’t get comp time because it’s so impossible to use,” says a woman we’ll call Margaret, who makes $44,000 as the marketing and development manager of a $7-million presenting institution. She works 40 hours a week most of the year, but for four months each year her weekly hours increase to 50 or 60. And there’s no “purging” of these overtime hours. “I could in theory take time off but I have so much work to do that I don’t want to take time off because then I’m not doing a good job,” she says. “We’re all younger and we want to go further in our careers, so if we’re not doing a good job, we feel like that’ll impact our career options in the future.”
Under the new overtime rules, all employers need to track employees’ hours; clocking in and clocking out, even for breaks and lunch, will be required. But for creative professionals, quantifying time spent outside of the workplace can be a challenge. People’s Light producing director Zak Berkman is married to an actor whose work isn’t just in the rehearsal room. “When my wife is rehearsing in a show, she’s working 50-60 hours a week, every week,” he says, doing things like “processing material and doing research and absorbing and memorizing, from the most practical to the most emotional.” The bottom line, Berkman says, is “artistic practice—to quantify it on a timesheet is going to be nearly impossible.”
No matter the kind of work, though, long hours for low pay over a long enough time will lead to burnout, as many workers we spoke to confirmed. Sophia estimated that she works around 50-60 hours a week during the summer, though it’s gone up to 80 hours sometimes. “Work eats up my life to an alarming degree, and while it’s great to be invested in what I do, I feel burned out and disconnected pretty much all the time,” she admits. The statistics match Sophia’s feelings: A 2011 survey of more than 2,000 nonprofit employees by Opportunity Knocks found that 30 percent were burned out and 20 percent were in danger of burnout.
Wratchford, who makes $70,000, sees the new rules as an opportunity to encourage improved work-life balance for the whole organization. Since arriving at the theatre in 2010, she’s made it a mission of hers to make sure that the administrative staff are not working extra hours, especially when they don’t have to.
“Folks check their email too often!” she exclaimed. Indeed, under the new overtime rules, checking email outside work hours will now be compensable time for many more workers than before. “I keep repeating to them, You’re never going to have everything done, and you need to be able to say to yourself, ‘Okay, this is as much as I can do today, I can pick back up tomorrow.’ I don’t think it’s just us; I think it’s rampant in the industry.”
One practical strategy her theatre is trying is to split up duties more intentionally: The marketing staff, for instance, is taking shifts after hours and on the weekends to monitor the theatre’s social media and publicity efforts, so that no one person must work 50 hours a week to answer tweets. For other staff, such as touring actors, she says the theatre will simply budget for overtime and try to keep hours under control. Many theatres classify actors as short-term contract workers, and freelance/independent contractors do not qualify for overtime (unless they’re part of a union that requires overtime to be compensated). For ASC, though, that’s not an option. Said Wratchford, “Our touring contract is an 11-and-a-half-month contract; it doesn’t seem ethical to us to classify them as not employees.” The theatre employs both union and non-union actors, and provides healthcare to all actors, regardless of union affiliation.
Another strategy theatres are looking at is moving some full-time positions to part-time. People’s Light in Philadelphia has not codified a plan for complying with the new overtime rules, but artistic director and CEO Abigail Adams said that splitting full-time positions into part-time may be an option, as employers aren’t required to pay benefits for part-time employees.
“For a number of entry-level positions, people in their 20s are still on their parents’ health insurance,” Adams pointed out. These benefits savings might then be rerouted toward paying overtime, such as for “positions where the continuity is so needed, say for tech week.” People’s Light has a budget of $5.8 million and around 15 staffers, Adams estimated, who will be affected by the new rules.
Part-time help is also a strategy at Steven’s theatre, as the institution is investing in more overhire to assist its technical staff. The theatre’s fiscal year began in July, so it started budgeting for the FLSA changes last fiscal year. For FY17, the theatre also hired two new full-time staffers, instituted small raises across the board, and capped the amount of overtime individual employees can work. No one makes above $47,476 except for Steven, who received a pay raise from $32,000 to set him above the new overtime-exempt threshold. The average pay for his staff is $25,000; he estimates that the cost of living where his theatre is located, in a midsized Midwestern city, is around $20,000 for a single individual.
“The big takeaway of what we’re trying to do is spreading the work in a more reasonable fashion,” Steven explains. “The end result is, hopefully, full-time staff working fewer hours for what is effectively a higher hourly rate.” And, he adds, a “better quality of life.”
While it will certainly be possible for some employers to consolidate positions and streamline some hours, it is still going to cost money to comply with the new overtime rules. And many theatre administrators we spoke to saw this as more than a mere obstacle or headache, but as a chance for the field to reevaluate its priorities.
While Steven said his theatre was able to raise the $60,000 in overtime expenses by “cutting one production, swapping out an expensive musical with a lower-cost drama, and reducing some of our (already small) scenic budgets,” other budgetary moves were more forward-looking. The two new staff hires, including a managing director, were made possible through a local two-year grant. The key was to rethink how the theatre wrote its grant applications; instead of focusing on the art itself, their application focused on the workers responsible for making it happen. The theatre produces 300 performances a year and recently raised its ticket prices from $20 to $25 (it also offers free Wednesday performances).
“One of our strategies was to really focus on capacity-building—making a case of what an impact [our programming] was making to the community and how that wasn’t sustainable with the staff size that we had,” says Steven. “We’ve been able to make a big case on the dangers of burnout.”
For her part, Wratchford feels that a culture of hard work for little pay has stemmed in part from the preferences of granting organizations. “That has been emphasized from the outside, [funders] saying, ‘No, you should be putting all of your money into the programs,’” she said. “It has encouraged people to keep salaries low, because it shows you have less overhead. That’s just unreasonable; you have to pay people. Many funders are saying that it should be 20 percent or less now [for overhead]. It’s crazy!”
Clearly the field will need to do some hard thinking about where the money will come from, and how it will be spent. These aren’t just questions for the next few months: Under the new rules, the overtime-exempt salary level will increase every three years. The next will be in 2020, to $51,000.
“The money doesn’t exist right now, because the donors want to track their money from one end to the other,” said Jamison. “They don’t necessarily want to push it into operating costs and supporting my salary.” He thinks the best solution would be more government support “as a companion to this kind of law change—recognizing that the only way this could be feasible is by putting more money into our cultural endeavors.”
Of course, some theatres could look at this more bleakly. A number of artists and administrators interviewed for this article predicted that some unfortunate byproducts of the new rules would be a drop in full-time staff hires, a disincentive to bring on playwrights and actors as full-time employees—and, worst-case, said People’s Light’s Adams, “I think some theatres will close.”
A woman we’ll call Jane, who formerly worked in the marketing department for a $1 million theatre, offered a darker prediction: that many employers will simply encourage employees to not clock their overtime hours. While workers can sue an employer for asking to do that, Jane worried that too many would fear for their careers to take action. “If I was still there I would never mention overtime, even with the new law,” Jane said. “My boss regularly worked overtime and made maybe $45,000. And 40-plus people applied for my job. I was easily replaceable.” No wonder Jane left the theatre.
For People’s Light’s Berkman, the scramble over the new overtime rule is shining a light on the unsustainable parts of the not-for-profit theatre model. If it is to survive and grow for a new generation and beyond, Berkman said, something will have to change.
“So many theatres were founded on volunteer and underpaid labor,” he said. “How the theatremaking field evolved over time was to make certain assumptions based on how we were founded that we can no longer make.” Such assumptions include the grueling hours that artists and artisans pull during production; he and Adams predicted that under the new rules, 10-out-of-12s may need to be shortened, if not eliminated entirely.
An even more fundamental assumption deserves a second look: the one that says that theatre can only be a labor of love, and that money, if it comes, is just gravy. “I think there’s been a culture of poverty that’s been so ingrained in nonprofits,” said Steven. “It’s the starving-artist philosophy of, ‘Artists shouldn’t be paid because we do it for the art that we love.’ And that’s a terrible basis for anything.”
Indeed: This isn’t just about workers being underpaid but about organizations struggling to retain good workers. Margaret, who now works in marketing and development, previously worked in her organization’s programming department, where she watched a position that paid in the low $30,000-range, and which required frequent overtime, turn over five times.
When an organization can’t attract or retain employees, Berkman said, theatre becomes a game of who can afford to stay in it, which in turn privileges those with inherited wealth or who don’t have a family to support. “The only way for true access and equity and diversity and all these other priorities that we have to exist is if we’re able to financially make the barriers lower,” Berkman said, “so that more people can participate.”
If the FLSA revision does force the field to a larger reckoning about compensation, so much the better. As Jamison put it, over the years he’s worked at People’s Light, “I’ve seen production budgets and designer fees and all of those things go up, and facility improvements and aesthetic improvements, things to make the audience feel happier when they get here.” By contrast, he said, “Our salary has been more or less ignored. It is a great thing that they’re being forced to focus on the labor force that they’ve been able to ignore for so long.”
Even at organizations that don’t use this opportunity to boost pay levels, shorter hours won’t be the worst thing in the world; in fact they might go a long way toward better work/life balance. “If you can’t pay me, that’s fine!” conceded Sophia. “Then let me clock out. Making theatre is not such an emergency that we all need to work so much. In fact, our work will be boring if we’re never out in the world. You should be able to have a family and work in theatre, be active in your community and work in theatre, be healthy and work in theatre.”
Appropriately enough, overtime hours were put in to write this story.