I was a young struggling artist stereotype before COVID-19 struck: straight outta college and into New York City, working a minimum-wage job with tips, balancing that with my theatrical ambitions, and trying to schedule in time for enjoyment between paying bills and establishing a career. This is what starting out is supposed to look like in theatre professions. It’s not like being a doctor or a teacher, where there’s a clear progression of learning or apprenticeship that leads directly to what you want to do. There’s no one way to “make it.” And on my worst days when I question the validity of what I’m doing, the closest to comfort I get is a humble reassurance that in performing arts, that’s how it’s always been for most people. This is meant to be a solace—everyone had to pay their dues so it’s only natural. Besides, a little hard work never hurt anyone, right?
Except when you’re working 12 hour days just to pay hundreds of dollars in rent and utilities leaving just enough leftover for you to eat. Or you’re putting in that emotional labor for a theatre that pays you dust. Or you’re pressured into doing scenes that make you uncomfortable but you’re not “established” enough to be protected by a union. Not to mention the actual money it takes for professional development. Stuck in between immediate needs and future longevity, me and many of my fellow early-career theatre artists and practitioners are already working double time. The struggle’s been real since before Miss Rona’s rampage. And now that she’s here, people like me are being affected in a wholly different way than the rest of the theatre community. Shakily held together housing is falling between the cracks of our stifled secondary streams of income. For many of us, quarantine means no union, no job security, no established contacts, slim savings, loan payments to make, and no guarantee that this virus didn’t just cause us to miss our shot.
“A lot of it is who you know. The advice I kept getting from people was ‘just take unpaid internships—it sucks, but you get to know people,’ ” says Melody Marshall, who was starting her career in theatre administration and tech before shelter-in-place restrictions. “So I did, but now I’m in a pandemic, and I’m only talking to my two direct supervisors. I’m not meeting the people I would’ve been and making the connections I could’ve been, so it feels like even after this pandemic, where do I go next?”
For a living, many of us find work as bartenders, baristas, waiters, or cashiers—jobs that usually pay minimum wage (or less, if there is the opportunity for tips), and come with no paid sick leave or paid time off. Based on whether or not our positions are now deemed essential, we are now being forced into a dangerous dilemma: Either our place of work has been closed, possibly permanently…or our place of work is considered essential and we must come into work and expose ourselves to the possibility of infection or face termination. As much as we’re hailing the service-industry workers we now depend on for survival as heroes, the actuality is that many are being kept captive at their place of work under threat of unemployment.
It’s time we face the facts: Theatre is expensive, not just to go see but also to pursue as a career.
Money matters, not just for the obvious fact that people need money to live, but also for people to have the ability to further their careers. Actors need money for headshots, dancers need money for shoes, theatre technicians and stage managers may need their own supplies, self-promotion necessitates web domains, artists and administrators alike may need money for classes and workshops to further their skills and meet the “right people.” And all must be prepared to take apprenticeships, internships, and gigs that pay little to nothing. More taxing still, all of these things are peddled as vital to the survival of our careers, our future, our dreams. Yet they eat up what small income we have. And while some theatre and administrative gigs pay, unless you’re lucky, they don’t pay much. The logic behind this seems simple enough on paper: We’re paid less because we have less experience. Yet even with that, you are still benefiting from what experience and talents we do have. And if the above mentioned expenses are essential, we don’t just want more than we’ve been given—we need it.
It’s time we face the facts: Theatre is expensive, not just to go see but also to pursue as a career. We are expected to put in so much in the hopes that it’ll pay off. One of the greatest expenses of making theatre is time. But we are told we must “pay our dues”—i.e., work to the point of suffering for the sake of future success. This suffering is often worn like a badge of honor, because, let’s face it, most of us like hearing valiant stories of theatre phenoms who got their start from nothing by sheer perseverance. But it’s time for these dues to adjust for inflation. We’re not only expected to pay our dues to theatre with our willingness to put in hours of low or barely compensated artmaking; we also have to work time-consuming and exhausting survival jobs. It now takes people who are working minimum- and low-wage jobs more hours of work to afford living than it did 20, or even 10 years ago. What that means for theatremakers is that we have significantly less time to do anything that isn’t sufficiently paying us. As much as we want to be singularly focused on growing our skills and talent, that type of time is often something we simply cannot afford.
I know, I know. People around my age have long been accused of a lack of patience or sense of entitlement, pointing to our digitally enhanced upbringing as proof. And to some extent that may be true (though arguably no moreso than for our older counterparts when they were our age). But the idea that we’re opposed to hard work is insulting, because we do it every day. The encouraging theatrical mantra of “it takes time” vastly misunderstands our situations. Of course it takes a while. But how are we supposed to survive in the meantime? We quite literally cannot afford to wait. For many of us, it’s not stardom we seek but stability. COVID-19 is illustrating the danger of not having that within our community. I don’t want to wait for the next global disaster to be heard (shout-out to climate change). I shouldn’t need years of struggling to survive to legitimize my résumé. Now is the time to ideate ways to reshape what we want theatre to look like.
The theatre community doesn’t control the wages of service-industry or other “survival” jobs. Nor can it change the cost of rent or student loans or the inevitability of job insecurity. But what the community can do is think of ways we can ease some of the burdens of early-career theatre artists/practitioners and look after those early in their theatre career like a true community should.
One of the biggest things we can do as a theatre community is start adequately compensating early-career artists/practitioners for their work. “[Interns] do still have skills and experiences that are useful, and when someone works, they deserve to be paid,” says Marshall. “Yeah, you have the connections and the experience and the résumé credit, but sometimes eating is nice. I want to get my name out there but I also want to be valued for the work that I’m doing. So it’s really hard to say, ‘I’ll do every internship for free’ until someone decides to pay me. And I know a lot of people that are dealing with the same thing.” It’s important to remember that regardless of experience level, our time is still worth something.
And if you’re not paying your interns, there should be a level of flexibility to that internship. An unpaid internship can’t and shouldn’t be treated with the same stringent gravity of a job because of the obvious reason that it’s not. Don’t put us in a position where we’re struggling to survive on a full-time internship that leaves our bank accounts empty. That applies to internships paying below the minimum wage as well. If you’re selling us an unpaid internship on the grounds that it’s a great networking and learning opportunity, you absolutely need to make sure you’re delivering on that.
Guidance and mentorship can be a big help to those of us just starting out in their career. I, for one, have absolutely no idea what I’m doing. I know what I can do, what I want to learn, and where I want to be, but threading those three things into the tapestry of a career is something I could use some insight on. “I got to go to a professional theatre company and learn how it’s run,” says Irving Torres-Lopez an actor, playwright, and executive office assistant at the Public Theater. [My program’s] former interns could be found anywhere. That’s one of those things where it’s like, ‘Oh, [this program] is on your résumé? We know the same people?’ So that’s a good thing to talk about at the interview.” Torres-Lopez also noted how helpful it was that this position was also paid. Among the most instructive parts of his internship, though, was a session with the theatre’s head of human resources. “Because he was like, ‘I’m the one that hired all of you. This is how to write a résumé, this is how to write a cover letter, this is how to interview someone and I took all of that advice and I applied [to a theatre] and I got the job.’”
“It would be smart if a lot of nonprofits kept these theatre-specific relief grants throughout the year.”
Even as he recounted his positive experience, Torres-Lopez was adamant about how lucky he was, understanding that many do not share his experience. That’s unfortunate, because more internship and apprenticeship programs should strive for a model more like the one he described. Tips for applying to jobs in the field, hands-on experience, and creating a network of former interns, employees, and collaborators for your current interns to access are the kinds of opportunities that should be accessible within your program, paid or otherwise. For an internship, there’s a necessity for this guidance to be fairly structured and decidedly pointed. But outside of that, any individual theatremaker can be a resource and advocate for those early in their career. Being able to provide a resource for all of your interns, apprentices, and early-career theatre workers goes a long way toward nurturing their success.
Career development is integral to anyone in the field, and those starting out aim to keep their talents honed and expand into their potential.
“The thing I worry the most about is being out of practice—making sure I stay on top of my technique,” says actor Sienna Aczon. “Even just like a class to watch over Zoom would be helpful…. They can be very expensive but very helpful and often overlooked.” Right now many institutions and individuals are offering free or affordable opportunities for career development online, and it’s definitely something worth continuing whenever possible, especially for emerging artists. Pre-COVID, it was pretty pricey to participate in workshops, classes, vocal or acting coaching, or even just finding a space to practice that wouldn’t disturb neighbors (or roommates). Offering free space in your theatre to emerging artists when you can, or offering some discounted or free classes or coaching, is a concept we should take away from our quarantines. It would go a long way toward relieving the economic pressure of bettering one’s artistry between gigs. And now that we’re doing it, we know that it’s possible.
Perhaps one of the most helpful things—maybe the only one—to come out the COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdown is the grace we’re now giving one another. Not just when it comes to affording more flexibility to how we work but also the financial help and relief funds that have come forward for those who never had them.
“It would be smart if a lot of nonprofits kept these theatre-specific relief grants throughout the year,” says Twi McCallum, a New York-based sound designer. Indeed, emerging artists, especially those who aren’t yet union-affiliated, need support systems when something goes wrong or they have to drop a show, be it due to injury, a personal emergency, or whatever else. “I think if they were maintained through a year-long basis it would be easier for newer artists to apply for things like this. Even when it’s not a global crisis.” In the spirit of leading by example, McCallum is creating a nonprofit specifically to fund emerging, underrepresented, and often underpaid theatrical designers, which will launch in early fall 2020.
There’s even a case to be made for ideating a union-like legal structure that would be available to those early in their career that could provide some sort of advocacy and support. Especially when it comes to navigating the beast that can be job contracts. “I am constantly worried that there is gonna be a tricky contract someday,” says Aczon. “No, I’ve never run into problems, but that’s not to say I’ve never been anxious reading through a contract every time I sign one.”
For early-career artists, theatre contracts are a new element of artmaking that they have to navigate. We should start to imagine what it would look like to have a way to support emerging artists through a union or service specifically designed to help and advocate for their needs and safety.
All told, my situation is far from ideal. But even still, I’ve been blessed. I come from a middle-class family, escaped the clutches of student loan debt (at least until grad school), was able to spend time saving up enough money within a single summer to move to New York, and have an amazing departmental team at my internship always willing to offer me advice, point me in the direction of jobs, help me polish my résumé, and shamelessly plug me in front of any and all of their connections. But I know that’s not the reality for everyone.
We can no longer rely on the fact that this is how things have always been. Theatre artists and practitioners are far too creative as a community to accept the status quo. Look at us: We are every currently working theatre practitioner 10, 20, or 30-plus years ago. We are the future. Instead of asking what you’d say to your past self, think about what you’d do for your past self.
If you’d like to find out how to help artists and theatre workers in need, especially those from marginalized populations, go to One Fair Wage Emergency Fund, Resource List of Emergency Funding for Free-Lance Artists, NYC Low-Income Artist and Freelancer Relief Fund, COVID-19 Mutual Aid Directory: Hire Independent Artists, Artist Relief Fund, and NYFA’s List of COVID-19 Emergency Resources.
Ciara Diane is an intern with TCG’s department of Equity, Diversity & Inclusion.
Support American Theatre: a just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. Please join us in this mission by making a donation to our publisher, Theatre Communications Group. When you support American Theatre magazine and TCG, you support a long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!