“When you base pay on salary history, a unicorn loses its horn,” goes the title of a blog post by Vu Le, the mind behind Nonprofit AF, a website delving into issues facing the nonprofit world. Le’s point: that basing an employee’s pay on their salary history very often perpetuates economic disparities, and these disproportionately affect women and people of color.
Compensation and pay transparency cropped up repeatedly in an August Facebook post by New York City-based theatre director/producer Maridee Slater, in which she asked people what they’d like to change in American theatre. Replies covered the need to recognize the work theatremakers do—onstage, backstage, and in administrative offices—with a living wage. Some echoed the mission of Fair Wage OnStage, a movement that a few years back successfully advocated for increased Off-Broadway wages.
Similarly, Jenna Clark Embrey, literary manager at New York’s Signature Theatre, has created a shareable, anonymous spreadsheet for theatre artists and staff to share their salary, the city or region where they work, their title, and years of experience. “In conversations with friends and colleagues,” Embrey said, “there was a general consensus that none of us knew what the ‘norm’ was.” Embrey’s spreadsheet has already served as a resource in salary negotiations, evincing the need for such information to be transparent and readily available.
Overall, transparency is a good guiding principle. While theatres may not be eager to share all their employee salaries, the least they can do is include a salary range when they place job ads. Michael Bateman, managing director of Pasadena’s A Noise Within, said that the theatre’s move to this practice coincides with California’s prohibition on requesting salary history from prospective employees. “I think we’re taking positive steps toward pay equity, and especially toward narrowing the gender pay gap,” Bateman said.
On the subject of job ads, Tim Cynova, COO of Fractured Atlas—an organization that helps artists and organizations with “the ‘unsexy’ stuff” to make art happen—advises employers to “take time upfront in the hiring process to clearly articulate the knowledge, skills, and abilities specific to the role and the core behavioral traits that help people succeed in the role and organization.” As for that required “knowledge,” it shouldn’t simply consist of education requirements. These are “lazy,” Cynova said, and tend to favor people with specific backgrounds, further perpetuating lack of diversity, equity, and inclusion.
In crafting the salary spreadsheet, Embrey noted a distinct compensation gap between managerial and director roles. “Those gaps seem to correspond with the falloff that we see in diversity at those levels,” she said. She wants to see artistic leadership “confronting their own relationship to privilege, and recognizing that we have created a system in which only those from certain economic backgrounds are able to sustain a career in the theatre.”
While that may seem like a big ask—the collective confrontation of privilege—it doesn’t have to be. Individual theatres can be realistic and honest about what a living wage means for them and their workers. “We have worked hard to educate our board about what artists get paid and what they have to do to make ends meet,” said Bateman. “So much so that raising artist pay was a major pillar of our last strategic plan.” Not only did A Noise Within dedicate themselves to upping artist pay; they also added nine full-time staff over five years to build the theatre’s capacity. “It’s easier for staff to see themselves thriving in an environment where they’re not regularly being asked to work 60-70 hour weeks and they have support,” he said.
Growing a staff isn’t always an option. In that case, Cynova recommended assessing your organization’s existing resources as well as staff capacity. “If everyone is working 50-60 hours a week year-round, you probably need to take a hard look at what you’re doing and make hard choices about stopping some activities,” he said.
Once activities and staff capacity are in line, make sure to recognize the hard work of your people. Artist’s Laboratory Theatre in Fayetteville, Ark., uses a system of trading expectations for mini-rewards at pre-determined dates along the way, explained Erika Wilhite, founder and artistic director. “Thirty days achieved unlocks a staff breakfast spread, 90 days unlocks a staff movie night, 180 days unlocks a staff dinner and drinks, and 365 days unlocks a bonus vacation day for the full staff,” Wilhite said.
Being open with and invested in your staff, paying them a living wage, and earnestly recognizing their hard work will go a long way to fostering job satisfaction and staff retention. Theatremakers have “an opportunity to be leaders and set an example for other fields,” Embrey said, “but it will take honest communication and reflection to get us there.”
So don’t make a unicorn go hornless. Post your salary ranges when hiring, but don’t ask applicants for their salary history. Have the conversation about pay equity. Figure out if you’re requiring more of your staff than it can healthily handle. “Engaged and motivated people are what move organizations, and our sector, forward,” said Cynova. “And if you don’t believe all of that, maybe you can simply agree that Work. Shouldn’t. Suck.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this piece referred to Signature Theatre literary manager Jenna Clark Embrey as Jenna Embrey. Her first name is Jenna Clark.