This is the second entry in a new column, What Is To Be Done, in which theatremakers sketch out their visions of what needs changing—and what changes might be possible—in the U.S. theatre field.
The more I think about the incredible devastation this pandemic has wrought on our world and on our industry, the more I feel called to contribute to the conversation about using this leveling blow to rebuild how theatres work and how we treat our actors. As a theatre administrator, it feels like my Jerry Maguire moment (without the morning-after regret) to lay out the harsh realities of the structure we have created and the hopeful possibilities of where we could go if we stop talking and start walking.
In the first 30 years of my career, I helped grow a scrappy start-up touring company into a $4-million playhouse. I’m a 54-year-old, white cisgender heterosexual male artistic director with plenty of baggage and privilege—and I concede that all of that stuff makes me a hugely imperfect vessel for this article. I have made a million mistakes and I have another million miles to go before I sleep, but here is my challenge to every administrator out there, no matter what baggage we carry: Let’s create radical, equitable, inspiring change in our industry from the ash of COVID. Here’s my plan.
Surviving the Latest Crisis
Most economists mark the 18 months between December 2007 to June of 2009 as the Great Recession. Many theatres did not survive this national economic tsunami and had to close their doors permanently. Of those who rallied to stay afloat, most were either small operations nimble enough to adjust or large companies who managed to pull back on their budgets and rely on large donors and endowments to help them through. Some theatres pared down to stay alive, then rebuilt themselves in the same image as the economy came back. Fewer theatres went through the same pruning process to survive the downturn and then chose to maintain those reductions in redundancies past the crisis period.
Navigating that economic upheaval was not a one-size-fits-all process. For most theatres it was an 18-month span during which ticket sales tanked and everybody scrambled to figure out how to remain viable so they could try to return to where they were before.
In 2020, we’re not talking about a mere slowdown. Instead, COVID-19 has wrapped itself around the globe, squeezing it tight enough to shut down the entire live theatre industry. The work we cherish and the art form we have cultivated has been razed to the ground—it is gone. It will come back. But here is my battle cry: Unlike the recovery from the Great Recession, this time, when live, in-person theatre comes back, it should have a radically different form. We have the chance, the opportunity, and I’m just going to say it, the responsibility, to rebuild it from the ground up and make revolutionary changes.
The first three revolutionary changes I propose are a jumping-off point for righting a history of wrongs. These ideas are part of what I eventually implemented, albeit imperfectly, at the company I co-founded in 1988, the American Shakespeare Center and the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, Va.:
- Establish a company model, instead of a bifurcation of “staff” vs. “artistic contract players”
- Commit to a 40-hour work week, five-day work weeks, paid vacation, and holidays or holiday equivalents for all
- Return to true rotating repertory
None of these revolutionary changes are actually new. Two of these three ideas are going “back to the future” to do things Shakespeare’s company did and many theatre companies used to do in the past.
Let’s take them one by one:
Creating the company model. Putting performers at the center of a theatre’s business model is a new old idea whose time has returned. It simply doesn’t make sense that we pay some folks—from artistic directors to custodial staffs—year round, with most of them working 40 hours per week for a guaranteed, 12-month salary, plus paid vacation, plus sick days, plus paid holidays, plus health insurance, while the artists who create the work that drives our business are “contract workers” or “gig workers,” usually employed as independent contractors for a few months at a pop. In the contracts for most of these folks, we usually don’t include company health insurance (some get it through Actors’ Equity, but not all), nor all of the other benefits listed above that we are required by law to give “regular” full-time employees.
On top of all that, while we are also now required by law to cap the work hours at 40 per week for these “regular” full-time employees and/or pay overtime for more hours worked, Equity contracts allow rehearsal and performance weeks of 48 work hours (not including meal breaks), six days a week, and for tech “10 out of 12” work days. This system was “normal” in the pre-pandemic theatre world. This system is messed up.
This system inherently creates an us-vs.-them bifurcation of staff vs. artistic contract players. And this, in my experience, is a monster obstacle to company unity, morale, and work/life balance. On top of all that, it’s not fair.
Committing to 40 hours. I wrestled for years with the accepted notions that “Different parts of the organization have to operate differently”; “That’s just the way things are in the theatre business”; “We always have cycles of ‘binge and purge’ with 100-hour weeks followed by much shorter weeks.” Variations of those quotes always won out when I looked at the big picture practically, but I struggled with the inherent inequities that came with the operating system we perpetuated. Then, when confronted with impending changes in labor laws recommended by the Obama administration (changes which were eventually scrapped), we were forced to look at our operation through a different lens. Capping work weeks for administrative positions at 40 hours, while actors, stage managers, and production personnel were governed by union rules that allowed longer days and weeks, didn’t seem ethical. So I committed to changing our system.
My solution wasn’t perfect. There were still a few work weeks that were between 40 and 48 hours. And because I tried to make this schedule work without losing revenue or eliminating a large number of performance dates, it meant that many of our artistic year’s 15-16 plays received just 13.5 eight-hour rehearsal days before going into dress rehearsals. Fortunately my actors arrived at their first rehearsal off book, on point, and ready to roll.
One possible challenge to this notion: The pool of talented actors is larger and deeper than the pool of talented theatre administrators. Maybe. It doesn’t matter. Our current employment systems are antiquated, unsustainable, and profoundly unfair. As an industry, we’ve acknowledged the desperate need for systemic change regarding racial and gender inequalities (more on those in a moment), but we have not yet worked enough on the essential injustice in whom we treat as full-time employees, who gets health insurance, who gets sick and vacation days, who gets two days off in a row. Upending all of these engrained systems requires us to rethink the core of our business practices.
Another common objection might be: We need full-time, year-round admin staff, but we don’t need full-time year-round actors and production staff. Here’s where we need to do our most creative, inspired, and inventive work to reimagine huge swaths of our industry. Perhaps we need to return to structures similar to what we had at the birth of many theatre companies, when actors split the duties of marketing, fundraising, education, bookkeeping, making websites, and every other job that needed doing. Perhaps we could hire actors full-time to create the shows, use their individual superpowers in other areas, and then hire part-timers to handle the overflow of admin work when we need more help.
Unfortunately, I don’t have all the answers we need to tackle some of these core questions. But I know that we have the ingenuity and talent in our industry to find these answers when we decide that these fundamental principles need systematic overhaul and change.
One guaranteed benefit: Many theatres could shift to full-time actor employment as a way to jumpstart, revitalize, and transform their education programs. Deploy these actors as the educational superheroes they are into the classrooms, onto your YouTube channels, and inside your theatres for workshops, lecture/demos, and fundraisers during those times when their rehearsal and performance hours are lower and/or nil. Some of the actors we hire as “gig workers” on a regular basis are already masterful teachers; others just need a little training from your version of Xavier’s School for the Gifted. Others will never be teachers, but they can assist, demonstrate, and illustrate while others teach.
Education should be part of the DNA of every theatre, regardless of your particular mission. Mobilizing your full-time team of actors to turn every kid in your community into a theatre fan of some flavor (Shakespeare, musicals, classics, theatre for young audiences, etc.) accomplishes many goals: educating students for right here, right now; creating the next generation of theatregoers; turning grateful parents into your patrons/donors; and reaching underserved audiences of your region.
It simply doesn’t make sense that we pay some folks year round, with most of them working 40 hours per week for a guaranteed, 12-month salary and benefits, while the artists who create the work that drives our business are “contract workers” or “gig workers.”
The 40-hour week is likely to shrink, not expand, in the near future for the majority of the larger workforce. So it behooves us theatre workers to figure out how to drop from 48 hours to a maximum of 40 hours a week now (and we need to eliminate 10-out-of-12 and 12-out-of-14 days immediately). Anyone involved in putting up shows knows that we always want more time and we cringe at the thought of reducing the time we currently have. But all the studies show that less “on” time and more “off” time allows for better mental and physical health and happiness. We’re afraid we won’t get as much done with shorter work weeks, but I’m hardly the only one to argue what seems like oxymoronic blasphemy to some: that we can and will get more done in a shorter period of time.
Reducing work hours will allow more actors and production staff with families to stay in (and return to) the business. Providing health insurance to actors and production staff will create more stability in an industry notorious for high turnover and reliant on itinerant gig workers. If we genuinely believed that we will have happier, healthier, more enthusiastic, and more productive actors and production staff with less burnout if we switched to a five-day, 40-hour work week, wouldn’t we walk through fire and move mountains to make it happen? I strongly contend that we have unequivocally arrived at that moment.
The Beauty of Repertory. A few years ago, stage and screen acting legend Ian McKellen raised some eyebrows by giving voice to concerns shared by many old-guard actors across the theatre industry in North America and the United Kingdom when he lamented that we have lost the ability to train actors who can match the caliber of Judi Dench, Michael Gambon, and himself because of the demise of the regional repertory system. He said his years in regional rep were vital in developing his talent and that without that experience the current crop of actors is unlikely to reach their full potential later in their career.
The regional repertory systems on both sides of the Atlantic allow actors to learn and improve their craft by working as part of a resident troupe over multiple plays in a way that one-off productions can’t touch. In North America, the big Shakespeare operations—in Ashland, Ore., Stratford, Ont., and Cedar City, Utah—like many other of our nations’ top “rep theatres” implement a form of repertory theatre. But it’s not quite the same as having a group of 15-20 actors doing multiple plays together as a team. Instead, these larger companies may employ 60-80 actors whom they mix and match throughout their main seasons, with multiple shows running simultaneously so that a theatregoer can attend a different play every day (often two per day) during a multiple day visit.
Even this version of repertory is a rarity in the contemporary theatre field, in which most companies run a single title or two for a month or two at a time before moving on to a new title once those shows have closed.
One aspect of the revolution I’m crusading for is that more theatres consider running multiple plays in true rotating repertory. At the American Shakespeare Center, I oversaw the creation of year-round programming at the Blackfriars Playhouse that eventually included 16 plays in five separate seasons, with each season running three to five plays in rep. Programming multiple plays to run for multiple months performed by the same 15-20 actors can provide today’s theatre companies and audiences some of the lost joys of Shakespeare’s era and other past generations. (I usually used 10-15 actors per season during my tenure at the ASC.)
It’s not what our audiences are used to, you might say. I understand. But if someone introduces you to an entrée they love, one you’ve never tasted before, and it turns out that you love it too—you’re going to want to eat it again. When introducing true rotating rep to an already loyal audience, unfamiliarity usually fades into fandom pretty quickly.
Frequent set changeovers would be too difficult to manage, is another obvious objection. Let’s challenge and invite our designers to look at the economies that we already desperately need as we plan our rise out of the COVID-19 ashes. We may not be used to getting multiple directors and designers together and saying: How can we design these three shows together so that we retain a basic set structure for them all while we simultaneously create unique elements for each show that do not require big teams or long hours to shift between shows? Summer stock theatres have been doing it for many decades. In this time of great need for saving money, we can turn frugality into an artistic boon that becomes a win-win-win for the art, the audiences, and the staff.
But some shows have larger casts, some smaller. Yes. And right now we are often scrambling to find plays with small casts because we can’t afford multiple shows with large casts. I urge us to consider variations on the following artistic math: We can do any Shakespeare play—and almost every other classical title—with “only” 15 actors (and many plays with even fewer) by employing non-extreme doubling and tripling (a practice Shakespeare and other early modern companies likely used in the original productions). If we hire a troupe of 15 actors, we can program almost any combination of classical, modern, and new plays in rotating rep. Maybe we use those 15 actors to perform one play with all of them, plus one play with seven of them, and one play with the other eight. Or maybe we do two plays with all 15, one play with only three, and educational programming that employs the other 12. You get the idea.
Among its benefits, rotating repertory brings theatre audiences pleasures akin to those of sports fans as they watch their favorite players game after game after game. True rotating rep increases that joy, because audiences can delight in watching their most beloved actor play a king one night and a clown the next. Creative casting in true rotating repertory allows actors to stretch themselves by playing different types of roles over a season, and it also invites “spreading the weight around,” with each actor playing some large roles and some smaller roles. True rotating repertory provides a special pleasure for audiences and creative artistic challenges for the performers and designers and production staff.
Rotating rep also offers longer chunks of uninterrupted employment for actors and production staff, and addresses some of what I spoke about above—the need to end the culture of contract workers and gig laborers we’ve exploited for far too long. True rotating rep unleashes an artistic solution that also can address systemic inequities in our field.
The most radical long-term benefit of true rotating rep may be that it can allow theatre in the 2020s to stop trying to recreate the realism and spectacle of “movies onstage” and return us to a theatre of the imagination. We’ve already experienced a worldwide revival of building thrust stages that obliterate the notion of the fourth wall, putting the action of the plays more into audiences’ laps. That immediacy is at the heart of the difference between theatre and cinema; let’s capitalize on that. And if we limit our design and technical budgets with an economy of scale, we could put more money into salaries and health insurance for full-time actors and production staff. Staff, not stuff.
Equity Among Actors
Beyond my three-part plan, another radical change I propose is in direct conversation with creating ensembles who perform multiple plays in true rotating repertory: Give most (or all) actors the same take-home pay, regardless of their union status or the roles they perform. As much as I believe wholeheartedly in unions that protect workers, and as much as I believe AEA has been a guiding force for massive positive advancement in our industry in the past, the landscape for professional actors in 2020 is begging for change. Not all actors want to be part of AEA, and not every community operates the same way with regard to casting. In some cities, being an Equity member makes far more sense for some actors. In other locales, being an AEA member means you will not find work locally. And in my experience, union membership is not a tattoo that stamps an actor with a certain level of quality or expertise in the field; the U.S. is filled with great actors who are in the union and great actors who are not.
We should not be paying non-union actors less money simply because we can. I propose that we strive to create teams of actors of the highest caliber whose goal is to perform multiple shows in true rotating repertory, with everyone making the same take-home money. The stratification that currently reigns in theatres is not healthy for the industry, it is not sustainable, and most of the time it’s not fair.
One wrinkle: With the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, AEA is facing challenges from all sides, with theatres demanding clarity on safety protocols and a dispute with SAG-AFTRA over productions made for screens. It is possible that the union will morph into something different as we all navigate these unchartered pandemic waters. But among the things I think we should dismantle is the misguided notion that union actors are the “best” and non-union actors are inherently non-professional. Those of us who cast and hire and work with actors of all types know from personal experience how false this notion is.
What about the costs? you may ask. Fair question. We can’t just snap our fingers and transform our P&L magically. What I’m proposing requires a deep examination of our financial structures and an overhaul in the practical priorities in our budgets. As easy as it is for me to type, I know the pain in making these words a reality: We find the money for the things that really matter to us. If we get clear on the latter, the former should follow.
If we heed the call of the revolution, we embrace a sense of team, of ensemble, of fairness and transparency. It makes no sense to have two great actors work side by side in a true rotating repertory company but taking home wildly varying amounts of money. Most of us working on a show strive mightily to create the feeling of real ensemble, where everyone feels like we’ve got each other’s backs and we’re all moving forward together. Creating a system of pay that reflects that desire will give us a much better chance at realizing those goals. Equitable pay shouldn’t be a negotiation. Often the most loyal and hardest-working actors will accept offers “as is,” while others negotiate higher pay or better benefits because they are less invested in the company as a kind of family. Creating a real team of equals, where the pay scale is known by all and is fixed with every performance period, removes one of biggest impediments to building a unified acting company.
Who Gets to Work
Since I have spent the bulk of my career directing Shakespeare, I have been dancing with the issues of gender parity and diversity for a long time. Classical plays have more roles that were originally written for white, male-presenting actors. But in 2020, we should no longer be confined by the patriarchy or whiteness of the playwrights; we have the ability and talent available today to cast any role with actors of any gender and any race.
Shakespeare companies in particular have at their fingertips a cornucopia of classically trained women actors who can often out-fight, out-dance, and out-charisma a multitude of less talented men who get cast ahead of them simply because they are male. These women deserve their shot to play any and every role in Shakespeare without being forced to change pronouns, wear dresses, or re-gender the characters. Re-gendering is an option that has become more common today, but I posit that casting any woman in a character written as a man gives us more bang for the buck if we keep the pronouns as written. As powerful as it may be to see a great female actor play Queen Lear or Lady Hamlet, I think Shakespeare would have written different plays if he were writing these characters as females. And I find it even more of a triumph to watch a great female actor crawl inside the roles of King Henry V, King Richard III, Prospero, Hamlet, Iago, and all the many others—as written.
Women deserve their shot to play any and every role in Shakespeare without being forced to change pronouns, wear dresses, or re-gender the characters….And yes, BIPOC actors can play any character.
And yes, actors who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) can play any character. I once heard a director say, “I want Macbeth to wear a kilt, so I can’t cast a Black actor in that role.” What?! Some directors also think that if they cast a character like Macduff with a BIPOC actor, then Lady Macduff and Young Macduff need to be actors of that same race. Poppycock. Homogeneity in family groups onstage is no more necessary than it is in real life.
We must start walking the walk with folks who are BIPOC. Either we believe in the ideas behind the platitudes or we don’t. If we believe in the truths we espouse about fairness, gender equality, Black Lives Matter, and all the rest, the proof is in who we put on the stage, who we hire backstage and in the office, who we put on our board, and where we put our money. Just as thoughts and prayers do not bring back victims of inequity and brutality, our best-intentioned and buzzword-filled verbiage about equality means absolutely nothing if we don’t back it up with real change. We are what we do.
We need to invest the necessary time and money in anti-racist education and training, as well as gender-based discrimination education and training. Also: We would never think of staging the brawl in Romeo and Juliet without a trained fight director; we should now never think of staging kissing and touching without a trained intimacy director.
Some donors, board members, and audiences push back on these efforts. This cohort often idealizes a Victorian or 1950s aesthetic, which they call “traditional,” with unbridled and unbending passion. My message to these folks: It’s 2020. If you can’t see the value and the need for open casting, get out. Retire. Have a great time remembering “the good old days” and don’t let the door smack your butt too hard on your way out. It’s time. Actually, it’s past time.
The Bottom Line
Enduring success in our business depends on relationships among actors, staff, audiences, donors, and boards. As administrators, it is our responsibility, our duty, and our privilege to serve and protect our artists, who are the heart and soul of our enterprises. We can’t create great art without recruiting and nurturing great artists. Our loyalty to them should saturate every aspect of our theatres. A sense of family translates into more invested audiences and donors and board members. And that connection builds and sustains the bottom line.
In summary: Treat actors as full-time employees. Pay them more. Pay them longer. Give them health insurance. Give them five-day, 40-hour weeks. Give them paid vacation. Allow actors the same opportunity to lay down roots, build families, and be permanent parts of your community that you do when you hire full-time folks for marketing, development, bookkeeping, and all the rest. Allow actors’ talent and training to breathe new life into your educational programming. If some actors truly prefer to remain independent contractors going from gig to gig, allow for that option too (just as you make room for actors to choose whether or not they want to be in the union). Give your acting ensembles the gift of being a mixed group of longtime vets, vets who have gone away then come back, and new blood.
But how will we pay for all this? you may ask. I argue that you will reap more benefits in morale, loyalty, and an energized work force than it will cost you in dollars to make this giant leap forward. You will retain more of your production workforce, saving you time (and money) spent on training new folks how your company works. You will create more goodwill in our small theatre world and attract more and better future employees by word of mouth, saving you money in recruiting. And your actor employees will feel more invested and respected, making them better ambassadors for your mission.
Assembling and activating a full-time “actor Avengers” education team, as I mentioned above, could be your best money-making move. With ever-diminishing arts and enrichment budgets, many schools crave workshops on theatre, acting, and literature. Other schools would love to have hands-on learning time with actors, either after seeing a school matinee or in lieu of a performance during your non-performance dark weeks. And, of course, many grant sources and foundations have funds earmarked for these sorts of learning experiences. It’s an example of how taking care of our people and doing what’s right can actually be the best business practice.
As for the cost of rotating rep: If you run two or three different shows in true rotating rep (the same actors in each show), you can create a family of actors that becomes part of your community. You’ll give yourself the opportunity to sell more tickets to the same audience members who come for one title, fall in love, then buy a ticket to a different title tomorrow night. You will attract more business from out-of-town visitors because you’ll give them a reason to stay longer and see more; that’s good for your theatre and your community.
Even diversity has a bottom-line argument: Hiring more BIPOC staff and recruiting more diverse boards is not only the right thing to do, it will also help you build your audience. Humanity is not just white. Theatre, and those who get to make it, should not be just white, or even mostly white. The more diverse our theatremakers are—in every corner of our employee and board operations, not just on the stage—the better shot we have at creating art that explores all facets of humanity and allows a wider audience to see themselves in our plays. . The more diverse our audiences are, the broader our reach. A wider reach grows our audiences and generates more money. Doing what’s right can and should be great business. Doing what’s right can also change the world.
Theatre friends: It’s time for us to transform our industry, to take action to make our workplace more fair, more diverse, more kind, more inclusive, more honest, and better. No more excuses.
Jim Warren (he/him) is the founding artistic director of the American Shakespeare Center. At the ASC he directed 128 productions, oversaw the building of the Blackfriars Playhouse, and created Shakespeare’s New Contemporaries, an initiative to develop a canon of 38 new plays inspired by and in conversation with Shakespeare’s work. He is a director and consultant, currently freelancing and working on the American Globe Center project in Stratford, CT where he will put this article into practice. www.jimwarren-director.com, www.americanglobecenter.org
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