October 7, 2012

On the Economics of Small Theatre

My friend Karen replied to my earlier blog post about small theatre companies who don't/can't offer compensation to their cast/crew by offering an intriguing question. What if these companies gave audiences the option to pay an extra $5 per ticket, and all that extra money was then split amongst the artists?

The practicality of this solution is debatable. But it did get me thinking. Although much of our audience is each other - our fellow theatre colleagues, our families, friends and co-workers - the rest is the general public, who by and large are unaware of the economics of small theatre.

And I should take this moment to talk more about those economics, lest my previous post be considered to be a blanket indictment against these small companies.

It costs a lot to produce a play in Boston.

A three-week rental of the area's various blackbox and small spaces costs between $2,400 (Factory Theatre) to over $6,000 (BCA Plaza Theatre). Dramatists' Play Service's average royalty rate for a full-length play is $75 per performance. Then there's budget for set construction, costume budget, and props. There's publicity - postcards and/or posters and occasionally advertizing space. There are other miscellaneous expenses, particularly if they're utilizing the theatre's in-house tech staff or equipment.

How much is our audience aware of the expense in producing the play they're watching? Are they aware that in many cases, nobody (actors, crew, designers, director, or even producers) gets paid?

What benefit would there be, if any, if these small companies were transparent with their audiences about where their ticket prices go? If they approached their audience with the dilemma they face - wanting to keep ticket prices low but then having little or nothing left for the artists - would they be open to paying a few dollars more? Would they be more open to making donations? Would they be willing to be more supportive of small theatre in general? Get their employers to underwrite productions? Lobby their state/local politicians to create more arts funding?

You never know if there's a theatre lover in your audience who has a lucrative job at one of the Boston area's tech, finance, legal or healthcare companies, who has no idea that box office income never covers the cost of production and the artists involved are largely working without compensation.  This transparency could be the start of productive dialogue that could be a watershed moment for Boston theatre.

October 3, 2012

My Non-Equity Actor Manifesto

Dear Boston-area non-Equity theatre producers:
I am a non-Equity actor. I call myself a professional due to my two decades' experience, training, attitude and ability. I made a choice to work a full-time career outside of my art from economic necessity. I neither expect nor demand a living wage in exchange for my services.


My time is valuable.
In addition to my full-time job, you're asking me to spend 4-6 weeks in rehearsal and 2-4 weeks in performance. When I'm working on a show, I leave the house at 8:30 am and roll in after 11pm. This is time away from my friends, family and partner. My cats miss me. My laundry and dishes pile up. My milk goes bad. I miss other people's shows. I miss family gatherings. I miss concerts, movies, museum exhibits, TV shows, and other cultural events. I spend money on gas, tolls, parking, bus fare, cab fare and subway fare to get to rehearsal.

My skill set is valuable.
Check out my résumé. I don't need any more exposure or experience, thanks; I've been at this for twenty years. Trust me. I've got plenty.

There is a limited set of circumstances under which I'll work for free.
It's my first time working with you.
I'm excited about the play, the role, the cast, the director, etc.
There's a realistic chance you'll bring me on board as an artistic associate, let me direct someday, etc.

You really should pay your actors.
If you don't already, I strongly suggest you make it your mission in the very near future to do so. This may mean more active/aggressive fundraising, a slightly higher ticket price, or choosing plays with smaller casts. Even if it's only a $100 or $150 stipend, it's a start, and it's meaningful and beneficial to us actors.

I know it's not (always) your fault.
I understand that there are economic realities at play, especially in this city. Performance space is expensive and limited. There's nowhere to rehearse. It costs a lot to put on a show, and I absolutely respect that you want to reach a broad audience and keep ticket prices low. I know you're investing as much if not more time and sweat into this as we are, and quite often you're not making a dime on this either. I don't accuse you of deliberately exploiting the actors of this city; I trust that the vast majority of you would pay us if you could.

But the more that actors are willing to work for free, the more that theatre producers become accustomed to actors working for free. When we set our value at zero, eventually our worth becomes zero.

When you pay your actors:
  • You attract better actors, which usually improves the quality of your productions, which usually raises your profile.
  • You make the theatre scene more competitive, but in a good way; actors with less experience are motivated to improve their skill set.
  • You stymie the attrition of the area's talent pool. You give a reason for early and mid-career artists to stay around, and for artists to settle here.

Until that happy day when someone opens a checkbook and creates a complex of affordable blackboxes specifically for the emerging/small/fringe theatre scene, when the local university theatre programs are more willing to share their spaces and resources, and when there is increased mentoring between larger and smaller theatre companies, a major step in pushing our theatre scene forward is paying the artists you hire. And for our local actors to take a stand and demand compensation.