Art has always been done more for love than money. Actor Hilary Swank revealed in an October 2016 interview with Chelsea Handler that she was paid no more than $3,000 for her Oscar-winning role in Boys Don’t Cry. The Screen Actors Guild (SAG) minimum to receive health insurance then was $5,000, which meant she had an Academy Award but no health insurance.
As shocking as her story may seem, many theatre practitioners are all too familiar with the trope of the starving artist and the struggle to make ends meet. Part of the promise of America is the ability to provide for your family while doing work you love, instead of just taking on a job to pay the bills. But for many theatre practitioners and arts administrators, even finding a job just to pay the bills is not in the cards; real living wages are still a rarity in the theatre, especially for freelance theatre workers. With government and private funding for the arts anemic and showing few signs of growth, many theatres are juggling payroll with the overhead needed just to keep the doors open.
Steven Boyer, who was nominated for a Tony for his performance in Hand to God, recently laid it out starkly, in a video for the actors’ advocacy group #FairWageOnstage, which successfully pushed for increases to Off-Broadway rates last fall: “I would have been making more money if I had just stayed claiming unemployment.” Before negotiations between Actors’ Equity and the League of Off-Broadway Theaters and Producers concluded in November, the Off-Broadway minimum was $593 a week—less than it is for many theatres outside New York City.
The new rates for Off-Broadway contracts have not been disclosed, but actors’ and stage managers’ pay reportedly will grow between 32 and 81 percent over the next five years, depending on the size and budget of theatres (these vary widely Off-Broadway).
The union’s battle on behalf of practioners’ pay isn’t done. In Los Angeles, Equity recently ended a longstanding agreement that allowed its members to work on stages with fewer than 100 seats for little more than gas money—a move Equity believes will raise pay for actors onstage (though proponents of the city’s 99-seat scene, including a majority of Equity’s L.A. membership, disagrees). And Equity’s LORT (League of Resident Theatres) Contract, from the consortium of some of the nation’s largest nonprofit theatres, is set to expire Feb. 12.
But the struggle isn’t just being waged by the actors’ union, or on its terms. Around the country, artists and administrators are speaking up for better wages, and fighting back against the starving-artist myth. Many theatres are listening. Some have made paying artists a living wage an explicit part of their mission, offering fees above the negotiated minimums rather than stepping up only as far as unions or labor laws require them to.
In 2015, for instance, Philadelphia’s Lantern Theater Company decided to increase artists pay by 50 percent for its 2015-16 season.* They then committed to a three percent living increase every year from that point. “We looked at our annual budget and realized that it would cost us $90,000 in the first year, then increased that by three percent over the next four years,” said artistic director Charles McMahon. “It represented an eight-percent increase in total operating budget.” The Fair Pay Initiative will cost the Lantern an estimated total of $365,000 to $390,000 over four years.
The Lantern has a $1.3 million operating budget and operated on a Category 6 Small Professional Theatre Agreement with Equity*; the minimum under that contract is currently $430 a week. With the Lantern’s Artist Fair Pay Initiative, the company went from paying Equity actors $420 per week in 2014 to $684 per week in 2016; non-Equity actors went from $220 per week to $348 per week. Backstage crew, union and non-, also received pay increases. The Lantern now operates on a SPT Category 10 agreement.
To make up some of the funds, McMahon donated money from his salary, post-tax.* But he insisted that the key to the success of their initiative was full buy-in from the theatre’s board, which has committed $68,500 to date to increase artists’ and administrators’ salaries. The board pledges, including McMahon’s contribution, made up 16 percent of the new raises, but it was a $200,000 gift from the Wyncote Foundation that changed everything. That donation allowed the theatre to launch a dedicated campaign to raise 90 percent of the funds needed for the Artist Fair Pay Initiative within the first year.
Increasing artists’ pay has allowed Lantern Theater Company to ask them for some additional rehearsal and performance time, which McMahon said has only deepened its relationship with artists, as well as leading to better productions, stronger critical reception, and a seven-percent increase in subscriptions.
“If we value something, then we should be willing to pay for it,” McMahon said. “We want to keep the artistic life of Philadelphia growing and evolving, and too many people leave the field at the peak of their careers because of money.”
The Lantern is not the first institution to raise funds specifically for increasing artist salaries, and thankfully they will not be the last. In 1990, Center Stage in Baltimore created a $5 million endowment specifically earmarked for raising artists’ fees and salaries. They have not increased the endowment since then, but it still funds about $250,000 in artist fees per season. Center Stage operates on a LORT B contract in their main space and a LORT D contract in the second space, but all union actors are paid the (higher) LORT B rate of $861 per week.
A much more recent example is the small Off-Broadway company Ars Nova, which last December announced a Fair Pay Initiative to raise compensation for artists and the staff over the next three years. Ars Nova operates on a $1.4 million budget and runs a flexible 99-seat space. Over the years, it’s been steadily increasing its artists’ fees. Then one day, an anonymous donor approached Ars Nova’s managing director, Renee Blinkwolt, with the following question: “If you could do anything, if money fell from the sky, what would you do?” Her response: “We would pay these artists more.”
The donor came through with a gift of $100,000 for artists’ pay, and the theatre raised an additional $85,000 at its gala last year. This will ensure that Ars Nova will be able to increase individual artists’ pay by at least 30 percent, and its base pay will immediately jump from the local minimum wage ($11 an hour) to a living wage (Ars Nova is aiming for $13 an hour). The increase also includes paying actors above the Equity minimum for the theatre’s space and budget size, and designer fees will double.
In addition to the money raised, Ars Nova made cuts to certain budgetary items, which were then directed toward the Fair Pay Initiative. They trimmed the number of developmental workshops and readings they held, as well as hours for backstage and front-of-house staff and some employee benefits (at least in the first year).
“We’re going to do less and pay more, rather than do more and pay less,” says Blinkwolt. Seeing the overwhelming support for the initiative has been bolstering, especially for the individual donors who funded the initiative. For Blinkwolt, fundraising for practitioners’ pay has made her realize it only takes a shift in perspective to make donors realize that compensation isn’t just overhead—it’s what makes art possible.
“They are the people making art, whether it’s the artist or people supporting the artists or people making that art technically possible,” she maintains. “They’re people making art, and none of them make enough money. And that has been, for the [individual donors], something they understand and want to support, and genuinely feel like they’re doing good. And they are.”
For Michael Halberstam, founding artistic director of Writers Theatre in Glencoe, Ill., paying artists more than union minimums has always been part of his creed. The theatre has a $6 million annual budget and operates under a Chicago Area Theatres (CAT) Tier 5 Equity contract**, which dictates that actors be paid a minimum of $717.75 per week. Writers Theatre aims to pay closer to $925 per week, an amount that is written into the theatre’s operating budget.
“Actors, staff, and audience members are equally important constituencies in organizational culture,” Halberstam said. “If you view actors as part-time employees, then your conversation about salaries is different. Theatre without actors is like going to an art museum with no paintings.”
Writers Theatre also has a literary development fund for playwrights; Halberstam said they look at what larger area theatres are paying for commissions and try to match it.
But as much as salaries are a part of the conversation, institutional leaders interviewed for this article agreed that the working environments and amenities are equally important. Center Stage is in the midst of a $32 million capital campaign; of which about $750,000, plus private gifts, will put $1 million toward improving the theatre’s artist housing. For its part, Writers Theatre does not hold actors to an exclusivity clause while they work there, so that actors can work other gigs, take sick days, and see their families.
“‘The show must go on’ is a very important phrase, but it’s not the actor’s problem,” Halberstam said. “We have a very aggressive and well-paid understudy program. Our understudies are lateral moves, so that the audience does not see any diminishment in the show quality when the principal actor is not performing, and so that actors can take on a film or television role.”
As much as artist salaries are a hot topic in the theatre industry, there’s another group of people who make theatre happen when the artists are gone. Administrative staff members are often taken for granted in conversations about compensation in theatre, yet many arts administrators work 60 hours per week, 52 weeks per year, often for less than $40,000 annually, and often hold down multiple jobs with no benefits.
Chip Walton, the producing artistic director of Curious Theatre Company in Denver, which has a $1.3 million annual budget, believes that paying both artists and staff well is the key to keeping qualified people in the community.
“We don’t pay staff less to pay artists more,” said Walton, whose theatre has a resident company. Instead, he sometimes reconfigures the theatre’s season. “Sometimes I may forgo doing an 8- to 10-actor show and do a 5-actor show instead to be able to pay the salaries I want, so there are those trade-offs. I see some theatres produce 8 to 10 shows in a season and pay actors $150 a week. Why not produce four to five shows and pay people more?”
As part of its Fair Pay Initiative, Ars Nova has also increased salaries to a minimum of $47,000. This was done in anticipation of a change in the Fair Labor Standards Act, which was slated to increase the number of workers eligible for overtime pay, raising the maximum threshold from $23,660 to $47,476. Under FLSA, all full-time employees making less than $47,476 per year would be paid overtime if they worked more than 40 hours a week.
But in late November, just nine days before the new overtime rules were to take effect on Dec. 1, a federal judge in Texas issued an injunction against the change, pausing the implementation until the Department of Justice can defend its position in a higher court. That ruling does not mean Ars Nova is backing down from raising the pay of its staff.
“We weren’t doing it because it was a law,” says Blinkwolt. “The law made us realize what was right and how far from right we were. We are doing it because it’s right, and we need to continue.”
Other theatres have taken notice and seek to offer above-average benefits to full-time staff members. True Colors Theatre Company in Atlanta and Center Stage both offer full medical, dental, and retirement options for administrative staff. True Colors offers an IRA, and Center Stage offers a 401(k) with employer matching.
“We monitor our staff salaries by looking at the TCG salary survey and doing some marketplace comparisons,” said Michael Ross, managing director at Center Stage. “We want staff members to have a house with a picket fence. And we contribute to the employees’ 401(k) whether they contribute to it or not.”
Regardless of budget size or number of seats, theatres across the country are always forced to ask themselves whether it’s better to have more contracts that pay artists less or fewer contracts that pay more. So far there is no consensus on this eternal economic question. But one thing is for sure: The cost of living is not decreasing.
Even Blinkwolt admits that the increases at Ars Nova, while substantial for the company, are just a first step. “It’s still not enough—it’s truly the beginning,” she says. “We’re still asking people to work hard and make sacrifices. The only difference now is we’re genuinely trying to hold our feet to the fire and really hold up our end of the bargain of ‘doing as much as we can as fast as we can’ to pay a living wage.”
The gap between what practitioners are paid and what constitutes a living wage varies from theatre to theatre, town to town. While managers agree they can’t afford to pay theatre workers what they deserve, this should not stop them from trying—as many are—a bit at a time. Money shouldn’t be a barrier to making meaningful change, and how that change manifests is relative to a theatre’s size: What seems like a modest salary endowment at a $7 million theatre could spell a 20-percent increase in workers’ weekly salaries for a $2 million theatre.
There are a lot of theatres in the latter range (and below). And it’s become increasingly clear that no matter the budget size, there is an urgency to raising the floor so that theatre practitioners of all levels and job descriptions can focus more on the work onstage instead of on making ends meet.
Kelundra Smith is an arts journalist based in Atlanta.
*An earlier version of the story misreported the details of Lantern Theater’s Fair Pay Initiative. It has been corrected.
**An earlier version of this story stated that Writers Theatre operates on a CAT Tier 6 AEA contract. It recently switched to Tier 5.