There’s an arresting line in Paul Simon’s song “The Coast,” a mostly uplifting, major-key ode to spiritual transcendence in the face of inequality, compromise, and environmental degradation. Beginning with the image of an apparently itinerant “family of musicians” taking shelter in a church amid lush natural wonders (“rose of Jericho and the bougainvillea”), the lyric goes on to speculate sympathetically on their lot: “This is a lonely life / Sorrows everywhere you turn,” before offering a blunt calculation: “And that’s worth something / When you think about it / That is worth some money.”
Easy for a rich white pop star to say, you might retort. But that intrusion of pecuniary realism on the song’s poetry always strikes me with a salutary jolt; after all, it would be far easier to romanticize the artist’s life simply as an exchange of intangible goods, of striving for its own sake, of inner rewards that have no price tag, and so on. All of which is fine as far as it goes. Who would deny that art has value that is ultimately immeasurable? Or that the marketplace is at best a crude and blinkered arbiter of quality?
But for all its spiritual value, art is not made by spirits or sprites, and is not (yet) directly beamed to our brains. It has countless human handmaidens and mediators, from the usher to the fundraiser, the seamstress to the dramaturg, and all require material things like food, shelter, and security, and furthermore deserve less tangible but often material-contingent goods like dignity and self-determination. Yes, artistic expression is ever the end, the goal, the raison d’être of the whole enterprise; but somewhere along the way to the opening night or the book release party, a deal must be struck that makes all the ends meet, or there won’t be another play or book or opera or film after the first heroic, back-breaking effort.
The nonprofit art world, theatres included, essentially scales up the model of the artist’s life—unfettered expression as the end, a practicable living arrangement as the means—to an organizational level, with “mission” and “revenue” as rough stand-ins for “dream” and “wage job” (it’s best when these two coincide, of course, but not necessary). Contrary to what too many funders and even many practitioners intuitively assume, a nonprofit is not a business that never quite makes enough money, but a business with aims other than profit (or, as some have half-helpfully tried to reframe it, “social profit”). But whatever its tax status, any business must strike a fair and equitable deal with its workers. In the for-profit sphere, market forces—and to the extent that they still have power, collective bargaining agents like unions and guilds—govern the deals that are struck. In nonprofits, market forces are still a factor, as are unions, but because the bottom line is not profit margins, the question of fair compensation requires something more: a conscious commitment to fairness and equity. It is this that has shaped agreements between the nation’s resident theatre movement and Actors’ Equity over the last 50 years, and which guided the activists of #FairWageOnstage and New York’s Off-Broadway theatres toward a deal last November that will spell historic, long-overdue pay increases.
Inspired in part by that latter milestone, this issue offers a series of stories on compensation in the theatre, profiling companies that have made it a priority to pay their workers more than absolutely legally or contractually required—and have found the money to do it. We’ve also frankly looked at the balance sheet for a variety of theatre workers around the country, and profiled artists who’ve made a go of New York City without inherited wealth. What we hope emerges is a portrait of work in the theatre as something noble, sure, but also something eminently billable. Something that’s worth some money, when you think about it.
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