How Can You Eat When Everyone Is Starving?
It’s not easy to know how to effectively address the massive inequity I experience in theatre as an emerging artist and arts manager. I’ve encountered a wide range of obstacles and benefits in various positions: unpaid intern, office manager, artistic associate, stage manager, director, and company manager. I hid my turmoil and discontent until now because I was afraid of the potential repercussions of speaking out. After the election, I decided I had to say something. If I can’t change things within my own community for those I love and admire, how can I expect our country to change?
Whether you were a Sanders supporter or a Clinton voter, the results of the election devastated everyone. I keep sharing words from artist Vito Acconci’s Where Are We Now, (Who Are We Anyway)? to describe the post-election climate.
We felt a change in the weather—
We stayed inside—
We went out to look—
We felt the ground move under our feet—
We stood still—
Change, I wanted to say. Turn, I wanted to say. Twist of fate I wanted to say. Edge of history I wanted to say. I said. ‘News.’ I said: ‘Flash’ I said.
What do I say? What do I say? What do I say? What do I say? What do I say? (Fade).
What do I do?
After the election, the Internet was saturated with essays and updates calling artists to take up arms. Everywhere I scrolled I read some version of: “Now is the time to recommit.” “Now is the time to make work.” “We need artists more than ever.” I was enraged by this messaging. Believe me, I was as shocked as you are reading this now that this was my response. Nevertheless, I was offended to my core by this rhetoric because, with the exception of the brief celebration we held for the major win for Off-Broadway Equity contracts, no one was calling for major industry reform.
Millennial artists and arts managers are starving, broke, indebted, overworked, and wholly taken advantage of by this industry. … How can we continue to encourage people to dream this dream?
While the sentiment of these articles was intended to boost morale, I received them like a slap in the face. Millennial artists and arts managers are starving, broke, indebted, overworked, and wholly taken advantage of by this industry. We have to work other jobs just to be able to afford to work in the theatre. There is no way “in.” It’s increasingly difficult to make the work, to show work, to develop your craft, and secure the funds or pay out of pocket to fulfill the kind of call to action that was being solicited. How can we continue to encourage people to dream this dream? Would you encourage your loved ones to keep driving a car that is running on fumes? How can you eat when everyone is starving?
Drain the Swamp
Theatre needs young entry-level labor to organize and mobilize. Collectively, we need to decide what we will work for and commit to one another that we will not take work that will not support us. This isn’t an article about blame. I’ve been lucky to work for people who I consider to be the most ethical and conscientious leaders in our industry, but it cannot be solely on the backs of our arts management leadership to keep company projects and programs funded, and write a new bill of rights for us. We can help them help us.
This political moment is the opportunity of a lifetime to change our business practices, to call for organization, discourse, and reform within our own community. We can “drain the swamp.” Let’s question our institutional ideologies as they pertain to education and labor. Let’s create a space where we can ask for what we need in order for us to lead a more fulfilling and satisfying life. Let’s hold ourselves accountable to one another to fight for the life our artists and arts managers want and need. You know, those living breathing humans who need to save money, who will get sick, who will get old, who will have catastrophic accidents, who will grieve, who will burn out, who deserve to be educated and continue to educate, who deserve not to have to choose between family and business, who shouldn’t have to work three jobs and pay freelance taxes. We deserve more of a response to our cries than, “That’s just the way it is.” Let’s leave our house in better order than we received it. It’s important to imagine the kind of legacy we want to leave for the next generation.
I’ve heard a lot of “That’s just the way it is.” I’ve even been told by a former employer, “That’s why you will marry rich one day,” as a response to the massive economic injustice I expressed and anticipate feeling for a long time. I often feel there is no one observing, problem solving, and improving conditions for artists and arts managers. I want to be very clear. Saying any variation of “That’s just the way it is,” or remaining silent is permitting an abuse of power that is unsafe and harmful to the people you are in communion with.
If you come from a wealthy family who supports your artistic career, it should not be an expectation of the industry that your family will pay your way and support your basic needs. That is an undue burden to them and you. If you are from a low-income background, like I am, you should not have to sacrifice your stability and safety to take work that cannot provide for basic needs, and you should not have to opt-out of experiences because you cannot afford to pay-in. I don’t claim to have answers. But I don’t think we are without the resources and creativity to come up with a solution.
We hand on our genes as individuals but we survive as members of groups, and groups can exist only when individuals act not solely for their own advantage but for the sake of the group as a whole.—Rabbi Jonathan Sacks from a New York Times opinion piece, quoted by Anne Bogart, March 11, 2013
Before proceeding to a proposal of the reform I would like to see, I’d like respond to the following quote from Michael Whatley’s HowlRound article:
These theatre artists and administrators have not chosen their careers with the idea that they’re going to one day own a mansion, adopt their three monochromatic nephews, and dive happily into a swimming pool of gold doubloons (that perspective doesn’t permit unfair exploitation of passionate and talented theatre workers, though, who are due a fair wage).
No, we do not hold the idea that our lives will include those things. Sometimes, I review what I dream about for my life outside of the theatre and I realize they are not dreams at all. One might even consider them basic human needs. I want my bills to be covered without side hustle upon side hustle upon side hustle. I worked four jobs and performed this summer and went three months without a day off. From time to time it would be nice to have a weekend when I’m not working my second and third jobs. I would like to have savings. When I’m thirty or thirty-five, I’d like to be able to go on vacation without my family. Some days I’d like to know if the reason I think I don’t want to have children is really my preference, or an economic consequence of my career path. Does it really come down to a Sophie’s Choice-like moment of the craft or the kid? Rationally, of course not, but it certainly feels that way sometimes.
No More “That’s Just the Way It Is”
While we all remain optimistic that our experience will be different than those who came before us for as long as humanly possible, we do expect to be forced to comply with unfair exploitation at some point. We too soon come to expect employers to greet us with an “our hands are tied” attitude when we do muster up the courage to ask for what we need. This is usually asking for twenty dollars an hour instead of fifteen dollars an hour because some of us know fifteen dollars an hour in any other nonprofit organization is the hourly wage for a paid intern. We are being asked to overextend ourselves for $38,000 a year in a city whose median household income is way above that. We are rarely offered health insurance and we are mandated to purchase it. We all have student loans. We have credit card debt for acting classes, directing workshops, or renting rehearsal space. We take what we are offered because the mission is good and we don’t want to seem ungrateful or unwilling, or that we don’t have what it takes, or we don’t love it enough when theatre is the first thing we think about in the morning and the last thing we think about at night.
Being a theatre artist means you must go to college and often, pursue an advanced degree. After college, but before your advanced degree, you’re encouraged to intern and take advanced training programs with various companies in various disciplines. Internships are largely unpaid, while training programs cost anywhere from $150 to $7,000 dollars. There are very few scholarships available to help shoulder the cost of these training programs.
I’m uncomfortable operating within the current system. I will not usher young theatre artists into a career that effectively defers advancement and economic security.
Here are three major problems to being a theatre artist that are not being addressed adequately:
- College programs are not training and connecting young theatre artists to their professional field.
- Businesses are not willing to train and on-board theatre artists on payroll.
- Unpaid internships permit mid-level career artists to accept entry-level salaries and entry-level work is being done for free—lowering the overall standard of living for all theatre artists.
These are things commonly discussed and openly accepted as “that’s just the way it is.” I’m uncomfortable operating within the current system. I will not usher young theatre artists into a career that effectively defers advancement and economic security.
There are other topics that receive less attention, but also impact so many people. For instance, after speaking to a tax attorney who specializes in artists and arts managers, I was told the tax code identifies your career as the job that has provided you with the most amount of income. This means I am a theatre artist, but I only make money as a company manager; so the IRS identifies me that way. Why does this matter? Well, the problem arises when our industry requires us to build social capital that transfers into jobs through the aforementioned advanced training programs. However, these training programs are often defined as “artistic” and are only tax-deductible to those who make their income for paid artistic work. So, if I choose to pay-out-of-pocket for a $7,000 program with a company I admire and would like to build a relationship with, said program will not be deductible because it does not directly advance my company management career. We need to fight for a change in the tax code so it will work for us.
We don’t often compare the big houses to small companies, but certainly there is a mutually beneficial relationship between the two worlds and we have a commitment to one another. The artists hired to contribute to the success and innovation of the productions at big houses depend on their independent artistic practice in small companies. These companies require infrastructure and the support of managers. Entry-level employees can’t carry the burden of education, healthcare, childcare, and rent. What would happen if arts leaders and institutions at the top started making major sacrifices and shared the wealth with independent artists and arts organizations? What would it take to make that happen?
We should make enough money from one full-time job. There should be more full-time work available or better hourly pay for part-time work. Part-time work cannot be freelance. Freelance taxes are too high. Roughly one-quarter of your income a month will go to taxes if you take freelance work, and we aren’t being offered enough money to pay taxes on top of life expenses. In short, it’s fun to work from home or project-to-project, but it is not feasible to save enough for taxes. We are doomed. Please put us on the books W-2. Also, it’s extremely hard to be a committed, focused, detail-oriented manager when you have to physically and mentally be in two or three places at once, switching between mailboxes and rushing from location to location.
Salaries need to reflect a just hourly wage. You can’t hide the time-to-money ratio in an OK salary. If you pay me peanuts for a salary and I work for an unlimited amount of time, those peanuts are going to keep shrinking.
I recently applied to and was interviewed for a job with a young and successful company. My responsibilities would include: company management, accounting, operating their education department, rehearsal space, and intern program. I knew that job would take over my life, but again, I believed in the mission. Again, I thought, maybe with an operating budget of a little under one million dollars there was the possibility of proper administrative support and onboarding, health benefits, and a good salary for doing the job of five people. I quickly learned that this would not be my experience. When I brought up the salary I was offered $38,000 to $40,000 with no benefits, I knew by the time I calculated my hours at the end of the week to do my job well I would make a little over minimum wage. So for the first time in my life I leaned in and countered. I asked for $50,000. I never heard back from them again.
Salaries should consider including savings, even if it’s only $100 extra a week. I learned early in my arts management career to include X% for contingency when putting a project budget together. I’m sure every company is different. We are great at making sure our art is bulletproof. The palindrome will rise. The wall will move. We will be able to pour blood and have one million kinds of rain. We are not so good at offering salaries that extend beyond bare minimum for our employees.
Are we considering savings when we are putting together an offer for a potential employee? Are we considering what our employees will do when they or a loved one has a catastrophic accident? If someone wakes up one morning with an early onset disease or cancer, and needs in-home care or health insurance, what then? What if your employee has a stint of depression and needs paid time off? If I’m part time does that matter to you less? What about compensatory time? What if someone needs time to grieve and feels they can’t leave the office or the theatre because there is no backup plan for them to be away mid-production?
These may seem like unanswerable questions or luxuries we don’t have time to consider under other more pressing matters. Maybe what I’m about to say reveals that I’m too much of an idealist or too naïve for the scene. When I entered the theatre, when I committed, when I married it, I did it because I loved what happened on stage. But most of all, I loved the people inside of the theatre. I loved what my mentors, colleagues, and friends offered my imagination. I loved the possibility. I loved the community and family: the language, hopes, dreams, and never-ending commitment we built together. I cherish the people we house more than I cherish anything else about what we do. We are the source from which the art comes, and we must not underestimate the power of caring and advocating for one another for this reason. Thom Dunn’s HowlRound article calling for a union of arts administrators resonates with me so deeply. He wrote, “When the choice comes down to sacrificing the quality of a product, or sacrificing the physical and mental well-being of the laborers who make that product there needs to be someone looking out for the workers…” Success and desire is much less important if everyone is suffering around you. I think we must keep individual and community well-being at the forefront of our consciousness as we carry on in the next four years, so our people can continue to deliver great art-making when our world needs it most.