I am writing in response to “How Theatre Work Adds Up” by Diep Tran (Feb. ’17). I was drawn to your compensation-themed issue, in part because of my former life as a LORT [League of Resident Theatres] manager, and especially because of my work with the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society (SDC), which day in and day out is about ensuring artists get paid.
I imagine that AT hopes, as we do at SDC Journal, that your readers find the time to read each article thoroughly—absorbing, analyzing, and reflecting on content therein and becoming better informed. To improve our chances of landing our audience, we add graphics and images to catch their eye and hold their attention. We want to inspire them, and feel successful when they find use in what they read. And we know that this doesn’t always happen.
It is not my intention to set up a competition for who is the most poorly compensated in the American theatre; rather the dearth of information available in our collective narrative about the earnings of directors compels me to respond.
Tran’s use of a random sampling in an effort to humanize the reality of theatre workers can be a very effective approach. But in this instance, the way in which she synthesized the information is inconsistent and creates an imbalanced and inaccurate picture. For example, the freelance stage manager and the playwright both have what one might call day jobs, earning some $68,000 a year maintaining a long-running Off-Broadway show or $70,000 a year teaching. For some reason, this income is not included in their overall income. That might be okay, except that the selected director happens to be industrious enough to run an Airbnb out of her house, and that income is included in her annual gross total. In addition, this director was recognized for her extraordinary talent and received an award of $50,000 that year, which doesn’t feel like “annual” income to me. With Airbnb and the award, the featured director is darn near thriving at twice the living wage, while right beside her a fundraiser is selling her eggs.
This true story makes palpable the desperate state of support for artists and arts administrators in this country. But I don’t understand how in the same article we cannot include an ongoing teaching gig related to one’s artistry, but include a one-time award, and then line that up with income from selling eggs? Many in this business are grossly under-compensated or squeak by on a living wage. To sample one individual from varying specialties makes it seem like under-compensation is specific to different career tracks within the industry, rather than pervasive in the industry as a whole.
In 2016, 1,037 freelance SDC members worked exclusively in the nonprofit theatre. On average they earned $14,695.04 (gross) through their work directing. In that same year, 89 members, or 9 percent, made $40,000 or more. There are exactly three freelance directors working in the nonprofits who earned $100,000 last year. The success of the anonymous freelance director featured in the article, who earned $45,000, is not typical—although we deeply wish it were. Obviously most, if not all, freelance directors are also teaching, temping, or running Airbnbs out of their homes.
Each story you tell is important. However, the way in which the stories are told and the numbers lined up side by side invite readers to draw their own conclusions—which, given the style in which the piece is written, are likely to be inaccurate.
If American Theatre would like to delve deeper into the lives of freelance directors in the nonprofit sector we would be happy to collaborate.
Laura Penn, executive director
Stage Directors and Choreographers Society
New York City
Diep Tran responds:
To clarify, I chose to include the day job of the director but not the day job of the playwright and stage manager because in the case of the latter two artists, I had them give me their income from 2014, a year when both were freelance artists without a day job. They now have day jobs, but I didn’t include that in the numerical breakdown, because that was not the point of the story. Instead I wanted to show how many gigs a theatre artist often needs to reach a living wage. My apologies if that was unclear. In addition, the point of the story wasn’t to have a competition to see who has it worst. It was to show the realities of the field and of how artists make their livings. However readers want to interpret the data was up to them, but I thought it was as valuable to include data from successful artists as from emerging ones.