Remunerating hard work in an equitable
and fair manner.
Pay every member of a theatre company equally.
The idealism and ideology to this method are palpable.
Pay remains low; plus different people work
differing amounts, which can breed frustration.
Various approaches tailored for each company.
When you think about it, paying everyone in a theatre company the same amount of money isn’t all that radical. In fact, most of us involved in theatre used to receive equal pay—that is, back when we did it for nothing at all. In middle school, on the playground, during high school and college, the joy of creating theatre was payment enough. Some still do it for free, in community playhouses and ensembles around the country. But once you start getting paid to make theatre—once you make that professional leap and start carving out a theatre career—it’s hard to go back. The question of pay scale becomes an increasingly thorny one.
Smaller companies and ensembles tend to have an easier time paying all those involved in the work equally. (No fewer than five New York City–based ensembles chimed in that they pay everyone equally when I put out an informal question on Facebook.) Annex Theatre of Seattle is another example of an organization that believes in across-the-board financial equality. The 25-year-old company operates as a democratic collective of theatre artists, and everyone on staff, from the marketing director, to the bar manager, to the artistic director, gets equal pay. In the case of Annex, though, that’s $15 a month—hardly enough for a meal, much less to live on. “We all have regular day jobs,” Annex communications director Jake Ynzunza explains, admitting he typically works 45 hours a week for Amazon.com. “All the actors and designers get paid $50 for the production of a show.”
How is this different from community theatre, given that the fees are so…paltry? “For one thing, community theatre is often better funded,” says Ynzunza with a chuckle. “But we’re a professional theatre, and our work gets recognized.” (Seattle’s Gregory Awards recently nominated three Annex productions for “Best New Play.”) Ynzunza continues, “People keep working with us because of the quality of our work and the way we treat our artists. We make theatre that is exciting and pushes boundaries—I think that’s why talent and audience keep coming back.”
Ynzunza, who describes himself as a professional actor, estimates he gives Annex about 10 to 20 hours a week depending on what’s going on. “But I’m crazy,” he concedes. He’s also only 29. One would expect Annex (which relies heavily on recent graduates from BFA programs such as Cornish College of the Arts, University of Washington, and Seattle University), to have a high turnover rate, but Ynzunza doesn’t observe this. “Annex is a great place to work,” he insists. “We have fun. We have a dance party after the closing of every show, we’re a democratic collective. I get a strong sense of community with Annex and that’s what I like about theatre.”
Perhaps it’s easier to practice an equal-pay policy with ensembles and companies abroad. France’s famed Le Théâtre du Soleil, led by auteur director Ariane Mnouchkine, is one such well-known example. In Crossing Cultural Borders Through the Actor’s Work: Foreign Bodies of Knowledge, Cláudia Tatinge Nascimento writes, “Since its inception all members of the Théâtre du Soleil receive equal pay. And as Mnouchkine said to Irving Wardle in an interview, ‘With our way of working, talent is easily shared. So there’s no talent hierarchy; we’re equal, but not identical.”
The Belvoir St Theatre in Sydney, Australia, is another example of a theatre abroad with an equal-pay policy. Saved from redevelopment by a group of theatre artists in the 1980s, the Belvoir’s founding ethos was intricately tied to a system of pay parity, which lasted from 1984 to 2010. “The best thing about the parity pay structure was that it was a tangible illustration of what we believe—that everyone who works at Belvoir has an incredibly important contribution to make,” says Brenna Hobson, Belvoir’s general manager, which is the Aussie equivalent to an executive or managing director in the U.S.
Why did Belvoir move away from parity pay? The main challenge was that the wages were very low. Belvoir has a full-time staff of 38. Moreover, “It meant that we had a staff and artistic base made up of a combination of people at the beginning of their careers and those whose partners were earning significant amounts, and were therefore able to subsidize their employment with us,” says Hobson. “That puts you in real danger of a culture of dilettantism, the exact opposite of what the equal-pay policy had been set up to promote.” Over time, as other Sydney-based theatre companies’ costs rose, Belvoir’s costs stayed the same, which made government support harder to attain. “Essentially the people who could least afford it—employees and artists—were subsidizing Belvoir’s operations,” Hobson explains. When the transition to differing pay scales finally arrived, Hobson says it was done with a lot of careful planning and discussion.
Hobson doubts Belvoir will move back to equal pay. “Making the switch has extended the amount of time our younger staff members are able to stay with us,” she says. “More than anything else it means we are putting more money into the pockets of our employees, and that’s a really good thing.”
Not all companies that implement an equal-pay system do so with rosy-eyed communal cheer. 3-Legged Dog, in New York City, introduced an equal-pay policy after the company suffered serious financial setbacks. According to 3LD executive artistic director Kevin Cunningham, the financial collapse of 2008–09 resulted in a 72-percent loss of funding for the company, which is located in Manhattan’s Financial District. “We’ve been through a few boom-and-bust cycles,” he says, noting how 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy directly affected 3LD. “We decided to refinance all of our debt and put debt payment directly in line with revenue,” says Cunningham.
That also meant stabilizing the cost of full-time staff. “In the depth of the recession we were down to two full-time staffers and many volunteers. Now we’re back up to 10 full-time employees,” Cunningham notes, adding that staff receives $1,000 per week, or an annual salary of $40,000. “It’s not a living wage in New York—especially for people with families. The pay scale in New York City should be double what it is elsewhere, due to the cost of living here,” Cunningham declares.
3LD is currently working on building its revenue and reengaging with the philanthropic community in addition to taking on freelance jobs. (The company has worked on tech-heavy projects at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian, and the New York Public Library.) “Sometimes we say ‘market communisim’ is our business model,” says Cunningham.
Does he foresee the equal-pay-scale model continuing on? After a hearty chuckle, he says, “Different people do different duties and they deserve to get paid differently, depending on how much gray hair they grow!”
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