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Call to Action, Academics!


Update 29 September 2020: We’ve compiled a list of lists that may serve us in our search, particularly for those of us who are seeking BIPOC and other underrepresented artists to diversify curricula.

This call to action, formulated over the past few months as so many theatremakers lost jobs, is published today with all due respect and in support of the movement to end racist police brutality.

We know that independent theatremakers, the lifeblood of our industry, have been struck hard by the pandemic. According to Mary McColl, executive director of Actors’ Equity Association, “Everyone who works in theatre has had their shows postponed and are worried about how they will make rent next month, to say nothing of other essentials like groceries and health care.” We also know that the field’s health—both present and future—depends on how we each choose to act now as individuals and collectively. We must lean in to our interdependence and stand in solidarity with those most impacted in our community.

Despite financial hurdles and overwhelming teaching conditions, one potential source of income for artists remains in higher education. Whether institutions of higher education return in the fall to on-campus classes, remote ones, or a hybrid of those options, inviting independent artists to “visit the classroom” offers a dynamic and responsive way to meet pedagogical goals while offering an action that helps to support the livelihoods of underemployed theatremakers. Guest teaching visits, interviews, workshops, and other imaginative intersections—created in alignment with the curriculum—are win-win-wins for independent artists, instructors in higher education, and students.

Guadalís del Carmen

Guadalís del Carmen meeting with students of Franklin & Marshall College's Latina/o/x Drama & Theatre History class on 9 April 2020.

This essay is a call to action for those currently employed in higher education to leverage their resources toward maximum paid opportunities for independent artists in the coming academic year. By inviting independent theatremakers into the classroom, you will:

  • Connect your students to professionals outside of the academy who can provide inspiration as well as practical advice, intimately describe the landscape of a working professional’s field, and potentially serve as mentors.
  • Strengthen your relationships with independent theatremakers and possibly imagine future collaborations with them.
  • Provide an opportunity for independent artists to articulate their aesthetics, creative practices, and intentions for the next generation.
  • Spark your student’s imagination by creating the opportunity for meaningful interactions with voices in our field and providing new modalities of pedagogy to the online or in-person classroom experience.
  • Expand the repertoire of your dynamic classroom with a collaborative pedagogical peer.
  • Showcase the resilience, passion, and necessity of our art form.

But you know this. You also know the unique challenges faced in higher ed. Our aim is to offer some information that might help you in your efforts to support independent theatremakers.

Guest teaching visits, interviews, workshops, and other imaginative intersections—created in alignment with the curriculum—are win-win-wins for independent artists, instructors in higher education, and students.

The Challenges

There are two primary challenges, internal and external, in terms of inviting theatremakers into our classrooms this coming academic year. The internal ones that face us as teachers involve our labor and energy—many of us are simply too overwhelmed by the rapid shift to online teaching and the added responsibilities brought on by stay-at-home policies to take on a new effort no matter how much we might want to help create this type of opportunity. Yet for those of us who can contemplate taking action, the external challenges that exist involve navigating our institutions. Academic budgets are tightening because of the necessary institutional responses to the pandemic. Budget cuts, hiring freezes, and other measures are present in the multiple scenarios under discussion at institutions of higher education throughout the country. Some fall plans and the accompanying preliminary budgets have already been presented; many are still under revision. But even as budget plans shift, now is the time to voice our concerns and make our bids for this form of theatremaker support and expansion of pedagogical opportunity.

We encourage our colleagues to work as advocates and activists for our independent theatremakers. We challenge ourselves to use our institutional positions and access to find funding that will provide vital support for our independent artists. We may no doubt experience pushback when so many institutions face existential questions about the very nature of higher education. However, if one of the purposes of education is to enable critical thinking about the human condition, then it is in alignment with our mission as educators to support the survival of an art form that has always provided vital, visceral, and necessary means in which that critical thinking is done.

Eric Micha Holmes

Eric Micha Holmes meets with a class on 29 April 2020.

Survey Shows

Results from national and regional surveys—both broad and discipline-specific—are emerging, painting grim pictures. Americans for the Arts launched the COVID-19 Impact Survey for Artists and Creative Workers “to capture financial and creative impact of COVID-19 on creative workers, highlight the resiliency and generosity of the creative sector, and make sure that the 5 million creative workers in the U.S. are supported and heard during this ongoing crisis and the eventual recovery.” According to this survey, “two-thirds of the nation’s artists are now unemployed.” This is a broad description that includes creative artists of all disciplines; nevertheless, their statistics are staggering.

Over twenty thousand artists responded to the survey, with nearly 20 percent self-identifying as theatre and performing artists. Of the respondents, 85 percent did not belong to a union (which might provide some relief), 95 percent experienced a loss of income, and 68 percent had new unexpected expenditures because of the pandemic, losing on average $20,000 per person. In terms of reserve funds, before COVID-19, 27 percent of the artists had no backup savings; since stay-at-home policies went into effect, that number has swelled to 51 percent. And, while 30 percent of the survey respondents indicated they also work in non-creative jobs to earn a living, 48 percent of those people have been laid off or furloughed from those jobs, and another 31 percent have had their hours cut. Finally, 62 percent of all who responded stated that they were completely unemployed.

We encourage our colleagues to work as advocates and activists for our independent theatremakers.

Safety Nets Can’t Patch Systemic Holes

Those who are fortunate enough to be members of our field unions, such as Actors Equity, Stage Directors and Choreographers Society, and the Drama League, will be able to request relief funds from their membership organizations. While this kind of support is truly appreciated, when fewer than 10 percent of artists have six months’ worth of savings (according to the Americans for the Arts survey), and the country as a whole is experiencing 15 percent unemployment with an accompanying backlog of unemployment insurance claims to be processed, one must wonder how theatremakers will survive until the theatres open up again.

Even when venues are allowed to reopen, companies will need to be judicious about their budgets because there’s no guarantee audiences will return. According to a report conducted by Shugoll Research in early April 2020, “Most theatregoers will not immediately be ready to return to theatres even when they reopen.” The survey found that 49 percent of those questioned said they would likely wait a few months, while only 25 percent would likely attend right away. Most non-profit theatres rely on ticket sales to cover 50 to 80 percent of their annual operating budget, so a dip to 25 percent attendance would surely create limitations on the number of contracts a company can make available to independent artists.

Diana Burbano

Diana Burbano meeting with students of Franklin & Marshall College's Production Studio class for Policarpa on 17 April 2020.

It must also be noted that the artists most at risk, most in need of support, are those who have always faced the most precarious support—those who have been historically marginalized, including Black theatremakers, Indigenous theatremakers, and other Theatremakers of Color, as well as differently abled people, women, LGBTQ+ people, and immigrants. The work of these theatremakers has been systematically and routinely undervalued and invisible, both in our professional field and in our academic classrooms. The National Coalition for Arts’ Preparedness and Emergency Response (NCAPER) reflects that its support funding frequently benefits those who demonstrate “regular and ongoing work in the field as evidenced by exhibitions, sales, performances and the like; training; teaching; receipt of grants, awards or honors; or simply an ongoing track record and commitment to one’s practice.” Yet the NCAPER recommends that we “please also remember that artists who are great mentors and those who practice in folk and traditional communities or disciplines, e.g., those in Native American communities, may not exhibit these criteria.”

There is an artistic crisis in the making. That is, a crisis for artists. One need only ask any individual theatremaker to sense the devastating fallout of COVID-19 on their lives. Our field operates on the basis of an independent labor force. The majority of performers, designers, directors, and such—the ones who make the shows—are itinerant, working contract to contract. All those contracts have been cancelled.

Supporting independent theatremakers constitutes an ethical action in a time of extreme precarity because it is the creative labor, vision, and wonder of these artists that serves as the foundation of our scholarly and creative research in the classroom.

Higher Education (and You) to the Rescue

Supporting independent theatremakers constitutes an ethical action in a time of extreme precarity because it is the creative labor, vision, and wonder of these artists that serves as the foundation of our scholarly and creative research in the classroom. Supporting independent theatremakers also honors the artists we look to in our formations of justice and hope. As internet productions from the past three months have elicited, our art form will be transformed by this pandemic, provoking us all to introduce and instigate new performative avenues and approaches. A unique opportunity exists to have students engage in workshops with artists tackling online performance with questions about the very nature of live theatre.

Yes, the COVID-19 pandemic has pummeled college and university budgets and challenged how students, staff, and faculty meaningfully achieve the goals of higher education. Yet these institutions hold and exert power and, in some cases, reserves and institutional security that other fields do not have. We ask those of you who can access power and resources to share them on behalf of supporting our theatremakers. You can also do the following:

  • Look for grants in the arts and humanities.
  • Write to your dean.
  • Share this article with your colleagues.
  • Share this article on social media with the hashtag #HigherEdHireArtists.
  • Dig in to your own pockets if you can.
  • Sign your name below to show solidarity with our artists.
  • Hire theatremakers.

Independent theatremakers are not seeking handouts but an opportunity to engage in meaningful work that exerts their professional talents and knowledge. The impact of COVID-19 on our theatrical community is sure to be felt for years, so this call to action is not just for this fall. Your ongoing championship is a way to ensure that when live theatre and performance can return to our cultural realms, we have the artists ready to make it.

If you support this action, regardless of whether you can commit to putting it to work at your institution, we invite you to sign this letter in solidarity, which will add your name to the list below.

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The article is just the start of the conversation—we want to know what you think about this subject, too! HowlRound is a space for knowledge-sharing, and we welcome spirited, thoughtful, and on-topic dialogue. Find our full comments policy here

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To disclose potential bias: I am an octogenarian African American. I have accumulated professional theatre credits as a designer, director, and playwright. But I have never ever earned enough in theatre (outside a higher ed setting) to support my family for twelve consecutive months. I have survived by being a professor, academic dean and academic vice president. In those positions, I always brought in professional artists to augment my on-campus work.

Regarding “Call to Action, Academics,” Many of the academics who have signed on work at America’s wealthiest schools. At least one such person is a friend of long standing. I’m happy for all of them. I really am. Much of my career, I worked at financially not-so-well-off institutions. At colleges and universities in the bottom 80% financially, academics across the discipline spectrum are about to get pay reductions. Some non-tenured faculty will be laid off. To petition higher education administrators to hire “outside” artists as they cut pay and fire loyal dedicated employees (not just professors, but people who keep the place clean and fix the food) seems disingenuous at best. Why not petition America’s wealthiest individuals and corporations? They actually have enough to solve the problem. Remember the Government bail-out of the ones deemed too big to fail?

Thank you Professor Molette, for your thoughtful response. Yes, the call we've posted here will not serve everyone working in higher education, and we wrestled with how to capture the financial spectrum of higher ed institutions in the US. We know that in some schools the COVID crisis has threatened the very existence of their theatre departments. We also believe that some of our institutions just need some nudging in order to keep guest artist engagements in their budgets ~ and it is in that spirit that this essay has been written. Our independent artists, the ones who have no safety net, who are underrepresented in the field, who have lost their gigs, have so much to share with our students. Some of us have the ability to advocate for these theatremakers in our classrooms, without risking our own jobs. Some of us have the ability to pay out of our own pockets, even. What we've provided here are some arguments for those of us who have the platforms to use them.

And I thoroughly agree, we have to keep petitioning the one-percenters and the federal government for support for the arts and our artists. That is ongoing work. Thank you again.