Disbelief ran round the table at a recent TCG-sponsored panel when master scenic designer Ming Cho Lee declared that his last year’s sabbatical from designing had left him solvent for the first time he could remember.
The other designers in the room nodded in gloomy empathy.
Ming’s discovery was that he could live quite reasonably on his teaching salary if he wasn’t ploughing the proceeds back into the business of designing scenery.
No aspiring theatre artist stays long in the business if making money is his/her only priority. When you work for a fee, the time required to do the job properly is never factored into the financial equation. But it takes far longer to design a show than other theatre professionals seem to comprehend. The average dollar-per-hour netted by the working designer hovers closer to the legal minimum wage than most rational adults with high-toned degrees would tolerate.
But designers are notorious suckers. We love to design. We will even accept substandard pay for the privilege. This willingness to be exploited, together with inflation and the virtual death of the commercial theatre, has brought us to the brink of a humiliating dilemma.
In most professions, fee earners are paid for their services. Incidental expenses are billed separately. The designer’s service is conceiving the design, but unlike law or medicine, our service requires a physical incarnation: drawings, renderings, models, as well as the various technical documents necessary to convert conception into reality. For a long time, designers have been quietly absorbing much of the cost of creating their designs: studio overhead, research, extra labor, materials. Now the price of paper has gone the way of the cheap fish dinner and what used to be “soon enough” (the U.S. mail) no longer is. We must polaroid and color xerox and fed-ex and fax. Models must be ever more detailed and complete. As costs soar and fees don’t, the freelance designer (and most of us are freelance) can be working nonstop and still be unable to clear a living wage. We are not talking about Caribbean vacations here. We are talking about covering next year’s health insurance, or next month’s rent.
Designers without outside income are the working poor. There aren’t enough hours in the day for a supplementary “civilian” job, so we find ourselves muttering to each other about changing professions, not while standing in the unemployment line but in airports and hotel lobbies as we race across the countryside trying to fit in enough shows to make ends meet.
What of the cost to the product? The formula is simple: high expenses plus low fees equals more shows accepted and less time spent on each. Not a breeding ground for innovative design. Is the problem inherent to being freelance? Some suggest institutionally based associate-artist arrangements, and for the short term, this is a solution. But artists remain independent not because they relish poverty but because a constant variety of challenge vitalizes their art, keeps it growing. A designer’s confinement to a single theatre space or vision should be out of artistic choice, not economic necessity. Currently, our independence is being bought at the price of subsidizing the many theatres we work for.
We are not all Ming Cho Lees, and the weeding out of the less gifted is a healthy process. But by and large, designers are a remarkably able bunch who are assured over and over of the great value of their contribution. Yet how much is it really worth if we are forced not individually but as a group to choose between designing and eating? Perhaps the American theatre should give a little thought to the care and feeding of what may soon become an endangered species: the freelance theatrical designer.
Designer Marjorie Bradley Kellogg is a contributing editor to American Theatre.
Scenic Design for a One-Set Period Show in a Mid-Size Regional Theatre
Figures culled from polling six designers:
Average Days Expended
Read script, research: 2
Rough out design in plans and sketches: 6
Meet with director, other designers (inc. travel): 3
Shopping for materials, xeroxing, posting: 2*
Build a rough model or models: 3*
Finalize the design: 2
Complete final draftings for set, props: 7*
Complete final model: 15*
Complete paint elevations: 3
Meet with scenery, prop shops (inc. travel): 4
Technical rehearsals: 8
TOTAL: 55 days**
*Areas that can be 80% covered by an assistant
*34 days for designer with assistant, full 55 without
Average Unreimbursed Expenses
After all standard reimbursements:
Research, books, tapes, photos, etc.: $80
Sketching, drafting supplies: $62
Model supplies: $58
Blueprinting paper; machine rental: $30
Xerox, polaroids, etc.: $15
Postage, fed-ex, fax: $15
In-town taxi, subway: $36
Assistant fees @ $90/day: $465
Out-of-3town expenses @ $30/day: $270
Studio space @ $104/week: $520
Studio phone @ $7/week: $35
Studio electronic, gas @ 7/week: $35
Average Fee: $3,200
Union dues @ 2.0%: -64
Less unreimbursed expenses: -$1,646
NET FEE: $1,090
For five seven-day weeks, the fee totals $218 a week. Reckoned by eight-hour days, this comes to $3.89 an hour. Average nonunion assistant salary is $11 per hour. Minimum wage is $4.55 per hour.
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