On Thursday, September 10th, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a push to increase the state minimum wage to $15 an hour. On the heels of Fight for 15’s victory in New York, a movement led by fast food workers demanding $15 an hour, we can all celebrate a major victory for working people in New York. In the theatre, many of us work part- or full-time low wage service jobs to support ourselves while we create work at night, and many of us can expect a raise if this bill becomes law. A living wage will certainly make a life in the arts more attainable for many.

However, a $15 wage also highlights the state of pay within the arts: it is far above what many professional theatre artists and actors, especially those early in their career, earn. A recent contract paid me $300 for an entire show, which—only counting time spent in the rehearsal room and in performance—works out to about $3 an hour. I was paid a stipend as an independent contractor (meaning this sum was even lower come tax time) for what amounts to over a month of full time work. Independent contracting provides a convenient loophole for theatres who want to pay actors but can’t afford wages, but such arrangements are far from sustainable.

I don’t fault small theatres for this—it’s a tricky situation. Artists want to make work. Theatres with small budgets want to pay people. We’re all struggling to make the best of a bad situation when it comes to funding. In New York City, Actors’ Equity Association’s (AEA) showcase code allows union actors to work for no pay to “showcase” themselves for future employment. Depending on your point of view, this might be a way for interesting work to get made by folks who are between jobs, or a way to exploit highly skilled artistic laborers. The reality is somewhere in between, as reflected in contentious changes to L.A.’s 99 Seat code. Things are often much worse for actors working without union protection, especially in cities where future employment under an Equity contract doesn’t exist.

We can think of this in terms of the market: if you can’t afford to pay actors a meaningful wage, you can’t do the project—but where does that leave work without broad commercial appeal, or young artists without the infrastructure to secure funding? Many young theatre artists are engaged in a level of entrepreneurial risk while developing work, often over extended periods of time—investing their labor for potential return when the work is shown. These shows occasionally break even on costs, but if you include the unpaid labor in your math, that picture changes drastically. Still, regardless of wages, they have an ownership stake in the work and thus have a different relationship to production than many directors, actors, and designers working for hire. Some artists are finding their own way to navigate the economy, and maybe make a living, but our institutions are failing. Even with Kickstarter and Indiegogo, the current economic landscape appears unable to support a life in the theatre for most of us who have chosen it and invested heavily in our training.

In many ways, the current stratification of many poorly paid and underemployed actors with a few full time folks at the top mirrors trends in the other sectors of the economy. In higher education, a field where many artists seek refuge from the poor pay of the art world, most courses—over 70 percent—are now taught by adjuncts and other contingent faculty often making less than minimum wage. Meanwhile the middle-class ranks of tenure track faculty stagnate—even as administrator salaries go through the roof. So it is in theatre: some actors make a decent living, many as members of AEA or in other media, while most support themselves with other employment. The apparently vast labor pool of actors even occasionally produces some anti-labor rhetoric from AEA.

Crowd of striking actors on 45th Street, NYC, in 1919. Photo from George Grantham Bain Collection
(Library of Congress).

AEA’s current campaign encourages consumers buying tickets to national tours to “Ask if it’s Equity.” What this often implies is that the tours are of lower quality because the actors are not union. While it ostensibly targets producers and presenters, it nevertheless shames working actors by relying on consumer perception to pressure presenters. This is AEA’s latest response to the on-going issue of national tours, from the loss of union jobs to the introduction of lower paying contracts to win those jobs back (audiences might be better advised to ask what tier the Production Contract is). AEA, just like every other theatrical institution, is attempting to make the best of a bad situation—while failing to realize their fundamental strength as a union.

AEA could organize actors. Whether led by Equity or not, such a drive may be the only way to push the economy forward. Actors across the country are mostly unprotected, un-unionized, low wage workers—a situation not far removed from the one that occurred one hundred years ago when Equity was formed, when actors joined in solidarity with the working class of New York City and made acting on Broadway a safe and stable profession. Union membership alone will not change these conditions (indeed, many actors work for little or no pay under AEA’s own membership candidate program): our demands must be some kind of broader restructuring of the economy, such as a renewed National Endowment for the Arts—the body that Equity once helped create.

The economies and structure of the entertainment industry have changed in enormous ways in the last century. We now have a theatre industry structured primarily by non-profits and precarity. While we will all be less precarious if we’re working at $15 an hour in our day jobs, we will still be artists only part-time. A living wage means more people will be able to afford the arts in their life, to both attend and participate in theatre: a massive democratizing impact on our field. But this victory is only the beginning of the fight for a truly sustainable theatre: we need more public funding, more investment in infrastructure, and more long-term security for workers. Unlike other sectors of the arts world, the performing arts benefit from being organized into strong unions that could fight for change. At the end of the day, there’s one thing we need to create thriving, vibrant, high-quality theatre: jobs.