In 2015, actors Carson Elrod and Nick Westrate ran into each other at an Actors’ Equity Association meeting in New York City. The room was filled with actors discussing how to get better touring contracts. On the elevator ride down, the two actors began talking and wondered aloud: Why wasn’t there a similar meeting for Off-Broadway actors? After all, they and every actor they knew seemed to face the same struggle: They weren’t making enough Off-Broadway to pay their bills and cover their living expenses.
Take Westrate, for example. The same year he won a Drama Desk award, 2012, he worked 52 weeks on Off-Broadway contracts—and had to file for bankruptcy. As he puts it, “I put my early career on credit card and rolled the dice,” he says bluntly. Westrate, who now has a regular role on AMC’s “TURN: Washington’s Spies,” comes from a working-class family with a farm in Michigan.
His story is not unique. The Off-Broadway actors’ meetings, initially held in Elrod’s living room, typically had 20 members in attendance, talking about something that’s often a taboo topic within the industry: their finances. One of the attendees was actor Adam Green, who felt a similar sense of hopelessness. He and his wife were both working actors with a daughter, but they were grossing less than $1,000 a week total working in Off-Broadway theatre.
“We were both doing shows in the city,” Green recalls. “And to make ends meet, I was getting up at 5 a.m. to do a second job. I was not at my best. That amount of stress and wear is just not good for our health or creativity.”
For these actors, many of whom had degrees in acting (and the student loan debt to prove it), it was clear: Something had to change. The seeds of #FairWageOnstage were planted. And it bore dramatic fruit: This grassroots activist group, led by 24 actors, swelled to a membership of more than 1,700 Equity members during last year’s Off-Broadway contract negotiations, and is credited with being a key mover in the “historic” contract that resulted from the talks.
Green sums up the role of the group in those negotiations between AEA and the League of Off-Broadway Theaters and Producers, which represents nonprofit and commercial Off-Broadway producers, as being two-pronged. There was an inside game: “When negotiations began in early June, we made sure that a bunch of well-known, respected actors and stage managers who worked the contract a lot were there to show support for the union,” says Green, who with Elrod was on AEA’s negotiating team.
And there was an external media component as well, with FWOS setting out to educate the public and their fellow actors on the stark realities of working the Off-Broadway contract. Throughout the fall of 2016, they released around 200 videos in which such actors as Lupita Nyong’o, Steven Boyer, Kathleen Chalfant, and Judy Kuhn laid out the case.
“The median income in New York City is $50,711,” says actor Michael Cerveris in his testimony. “Now, if an actor were lucky enough to work all 52 weeks in a year…they still would earn $20,000 less than that median income.” Though he’s worked on Broadway and on television, Cerveris said he considers Off Broadway his “theatrical home.”
Under the Off-Broadway contract that expired on Nov. 6, 2016, according to AEA, 63 percent of Off-Broadway actors were making $593 a week for eight performances a week (before taxes, union dues, and agent fees). Taking into account hours of rehearsal and preparation, actors were usually taking home less than $9 an hour, the New York minimum wage in 2016 (it’s now $11/hour, and will be $15/hour by 2018).
On Nov. 18, AEA and the League struck a deal that promised to raise wages for Equity actors and stage managers anywhere from 12 to 86 percent over the next five years, depending on theatre size. A key difference, apart from the income boost: Unlike previous contracts, which determined minimum salaries using seating capacity, the new contracts (effective from Nov. 21, 2016 to July 31, 2021) divide theatres into three budget groups—commercial, nonprofit theatres with budgets of more than $4 million, and nonprofit theatres with budgets of less than $4 million. And the rates within those budget groups were determined according to average projected box office revenue in the individual theatre spaces. Similar to past contracts, there will be a graduated salary increase every year.
For example, the largest commercial nonprofit spaces were previously paying actors a range of $593 to $1,057 per week; by 2021, the fees will be $665 to $1,182 per week. The increases are more dramatic for nonprofit theatres. For the over-$4-million theatres (which include the Public Theater, New York Theatre Workshop, and Signature Theatre Company), actors’ salaries previously ranged from $482 to $803 per week; by 2021, they’ll be $656 to $1,453. For the under-$4-million houses (including MCC Theater, the New Group, and Ars Nova), actors’ salaries ranged from $361 to $598; by 2021, they’ll be $630 to $820.
Recently FWOS released a video showing the salary increases during the past Equity contracts: the one percent increase from 2009 to 2012, seven percent from 2012 to 2016. By contrast, the average salary increase from 2016 to 2021 will be 49 percent.
Tom Carpenter, AEA’s Eastern Region director and chief Off-Broadway negotiator, attributed the increase to the advocacy work of FWOS while negotiations were under way.
“Equity has always negotiated contracts with working members at the table,” Carpenter explains. “But this was a new thing for Equity to have a group of committed members speaking with one voice in support of the union’s objectives at the bargaining table.” Having members make their case to producers directly, he says, can prove more effective than having a third party like himself do it. “When I say something across the table to our bargaining partners, it isn’t the same as when the actual people who live and work the contract everyday say it.”
Jason Eagan, artistic director of the Off-Broadway house Ars Nova, agrees. “My sense is at the very least #FairWageOnstage has encouraged everyone to think about their individual commitments to fair compensation and examine their own company values and beliefs, separate of union requirements,” Eagan says. Ars Nova recently announced a Fair Pay Initiative, by which individual artists will receive a 30 percent pay increase over three years. These plans were underway prior to the AEA negotiations, but #FairWageOnstage was a reminder that they were on the right track.
Ars Nova has also committed to paying actors above union minimums. “Their social media campaign made us confident that we were moving in the right direction,” he says.
So how did FWOS pull it off? The best way to tell the story is chronologically. At those member meetings in 2015, AEA members were finally able to speak freely about their financial situations.
“A lot of time in show business, we all pretend like it’s all going really well for us,” says Westrate. “The thing that was very cathartic at a lot of these meetings was people really exposing the ways that they didn’t have it sorted out, the ways in which they were living within an inch of poverty.”
And they weren’t just younger members; they were also respected veterans, including Tony and Obie winners. Recalls Green, “We had this party and this woman whom I’ve respected for a long time, a wonderful classical actress, came up to me and started talking to me about her credit card debt.”
That was the first step: communication. From there, FWOS began asking members specifically: How much would they need to be paid to live comfortably? The answer from 190 members, coupled with the MIT Living Wage Calculator, got FWOS to the figure they brought to AEA: $815 a week.
Claire Karpen was at the first meeting between AEA and FWOS, which lasted four and a half hours. From there, a partnership between the two groups began, with FWOS taking an advocacy role outside of the negotiating room. “We became a communications arm for them,” she says. “We also put pressure on Equity to fight for fair wages. We became the voice that said to them, ‘We want you to fight for fair wages and we’re willing to fight with you.’”
Next came delegation. As negotiations got under way in June, with members of FWOS’s leadership team in the room, duties were split up among other members of the leadership. Westrate was in charge of editing and posting the testimonial videos; actor Manoel Felciano designed the FWOS logo and infographics; Karpen talked to audience members. Everyone was doing the work pro bono, with the only money spent on web hosting and printing signs. When members had to leave for acting jobs, other members stepped in as needed. Meanwhile, the leaders were in contact with each other almost daily.
“I like to joke that actors are good at working in an ensemble,” says Karpen. “We know how to play the role we’re supposed to play. We’re good at adapting to whatever role is needed at the time.”
A common refrain among the artists who spoke for this story: “A union is only as strong as its members.” Many in the FWOS leadership partly attribute Off-Broadway wage stagnation to Equity members not being engaged with their union and not speaking up, either out of fear of recriminations from producers or because of something more insidious: shame and self-loathing.
“There’s a real culture of bitching about the union and bitching about your producer and not doing a damn thing about it,” remarks Westrate bluntly. But FWOS gave members a platform for their concerns; more importantly, it gave them strength in numbers. When 260 actors go public, and create a Facebook group with 5,000 members (Equity has 55,000 members nationwide), it’s hard to feel intimated or alone.
“We’re not blacklist-able,” exclaims Karpen. “There’s too many of us.” To its organizers, FWOS wasn’t just about convincing producers that actors and stage managers were valuable; it was also convincing their fellow Equity members, as Karpen repeatedly stresses, to “know your worth.”
“I’ve long been saying our labor is integral to the product,” says Green, “but our labor isn’t integral to the product, it is the product. We, along with the wonderful designers, directors, and playwrights, are the ones who create it. And then the actors, stage managers, and backstage crew recreate it night after night.”
Solidarity and power became especially crucial as negotiations stretched toward the deadline of Nov. 6, when the contract was set to expire. Then the deadline was pushed to Nov. 20, a Sunday; a decision was reached on Friday, Nov. 18. FWOS leaders say that the possibility of calling a strike was always an arrow in their quiver.
“They really can’t do a show without you,” insists Karpen. “And if enough of us stand up together, they can’t do a show without us if all of us walk away.”
Evan O’Brient, New York Theatre Workshop’s producing manager, who was part of negotiations on the League side, says that the producers’ organization agreed Equity members’ salaries needed to be raised, but the delay in reaching an agreement was due to caution; they weren’t sure if such large increases would be feasible. He adds that he doesn’t yet know how NYTW will budget for the 64 percent increase in pay that awaits them by 2021, admitting, “It’s a little scary, looking toward year five of the agreement and thinking about what that’s going to mean for the budgets and our ability to produce on scale that we’ve grown accustomed to producing on.”
The point, according to Green, was never to demonize producers, close theatres, or take money away from other artists. Him, and the other actors who spoke for this story repeatedly talked of their love for Off Broadway.
“We always made sure that people highlighted how much the theatres and the institutions and the producers mean to them,” he says. At the same time, the point was to emphasize that “humans just cost more now. The cost of living has gone up exponentially in this city. Theatres’ operating budgets continue to rise, and the money has historically gone to other improvements and advancements,” he points out. “Kathleen Chalfant‘s video said it perfectly: We need to have a human capital campaign.”
Paying artists a living wage isn’t just important on a moral level, Westrate points out; it’s also important to sustaining the labor pool, which in turn will enrich the art form.
“Fair wages allow all types of different people to engage in the creation of art,” he says. “Unfair wages lead to the deterioration of the participation of minority communities in the creation of art and working-class communities in the creation of art.” He adds, with emphasis: “Disproportionately black and brown artists, minority artists, come from working-class backgrounds; if those people are not supported financially, they can’t make the work. And those are the people whose perspectives we need the most right now.”
This means that FWOS’s work is not done. They’ve determined to spread their message nationally and have opened up their membership to actors around the country. And for artists looking for better wages, FWOS advocates not going at it alone.
“The members helped us organize because they all showed up,” explains Karpen. “I’m really proud of our team for engaging them and empowering them and informing them. And I’m really proud of them for showing up and I really hope that’s the kind of work that continues. Hopefully everybody wins.”