How Can You Turn Awareness into Action? A Roadmap Toward Economic Justice for Theatre Folk

We all seem to understand the economy of theatre production is unsustainable. Unless you have steady work on Broadway, you’re probably struggling. Theatre artists rely on second jobs, inheritances, marrying rich, university posts, or just jumping from grant to grant, residency to residency, gig to gig. Administrators are paid a pittance compared to the for-profit and corporate worlds. Nobody is stable, and the desires of philanthropists have to come before than the needs of our communities. These conditions favor safe, inoffensive productions. They favor easy to produce plays with small casts and sets, with proven records of ticket sales. These conditions pose challenges to people with working class backgrounds, especially to women and people of color, from entering the theatre as artists and as patrons. We know all this, we live it every day, but awareness of economic injustice alone won’t help unless we can do something about.

Pieces like “How Can You Eat When Everyone is Starving?” and “Hashtag Fair Wage in the Offices Near the Stage...” and my own “Against Entrepreneurship” beg two questions. First: why are things like this? Second: Who has the power to do something about it? The answers are difficult, but simple truths. The former: because wealth is concentrated into few hands, hands that belong to people with markedly different interests than those of working people who generate that wealth. The latter: the rich and their businesses have power. They’ve crafted policies and elected politicians that serve themselves. But working artists can have power too, if we learn how to use it—organizing for collective action exercises our power as citizens and workers.

What is to be done, then? Some answers may be obvious: Unions can bargain and win within their territories. We can vote. We can fight for better wages. We can fight for the National Endowment for the Arts.

But better wages by themselves aren’t enough. After all, it was a wage increase, the (now stalled) FLSA overtime rules, that caused some panic at not-for-profits last year. Such crises call for a broader, more transformative approach. The entire economy must be included in our diagnosis, not just our sector.

And when we fight for the NEA, we’re fighting for scraps. A single fighter jet costs as much as the NEA’s entire annual budget. If you’re like me, you have friends whose jobs are threatened by cuts to the NEA, but maybe, like me, you also live in a community where there are jobs making parts for those jets. But those jobs too are under threat by the same forces, by capitalists who would seek to make themselves richer at the expense of the rest of us. If we join with the people who do those jobs, together we might achieve a better world that needs fewer warplanes.

Protesters
Protest against unemployment in the US. 

 

Thinking of our work as civic practice is not enough. Stories are important, and it is important to tell stories for justice and imagine a better world on our stages, but we must do justice as well.

We must imagine a world where artists—where everyone—has access to adequate resources to live and do their work. And we must work to bring that world into being.

 

It is a big, hope filled idea. It won’t be an easy fight, or a quick fix, but what choice is there? There are victories to be had along the way—from unionization to legislative reforms, or the simple joy of gathering in cake-filled meetings and marching in the streets. Something has to give, and it should be the salaries for those at the top—not the wages and healthcare for low-level administrators and artists.

If this sounds like a big task, the good news is we’re not alone. We’re not starting from scratch. We can join with movements that already exist. Concerned artists must link arms with others fighting for economic justice. Work for justice must extend off of our stages into the political and civic spheres. Thinking of our work as civic practice is not enough. Stories are important, and it is important to tell stories for justice and imagine a better world on our stages, but we must do justice as well. The recent threat to the NEA shows us that the arts are not isolated from the political.

As concerned artists and arts workers, we must identify with labor and fight to improve conditions in our workplaces. In making this connection between the interests of actors, craftspeople, and administrators, and the interests of working people as a whole, our demands can be both specific and broad. We can demand more equity and democracy in our workplaces: fairer wages, fewer hours, more say in decisions. We can demand that wealth be shared not among a few, but among all of us. This may be uncomfortable for those of us used to cozying up to corporate philanthropists, but imagine the freedom we would have if we shared in the wealth that now goes to CEOs and capitalists. We wouldn’t need to go, as beggars, to corporations like Delta, if they were taxed fairly.

We have history to learn from. Actors have thrown their lot in with other workers before, transforming the American theatre by striking to earn recognition for Actors’ Equity Association. For example, winning fair pay for all work would once again build solidarity across class lines, making entry level internships viable as entry level jobs. Our employers may not like it, and those of us who come from some privilege will have to give that up, but when we win we shall all have seats at the table. We will all eat.

How does this translate into specific demands? The Movement for Black Lives platform is robust and thorough. Medicare for all. Free education and abolition of student debt. A robust NEA. Workplace protections enshrined in the law. A shorter workweek. Such policies work and other nations have them. We’ve had some of them in the past: robust state funding helped build public colleges and the regional repertory system, and who hasn’t benefitted from the safety net of programs like unemployment insurance at some point? If we only work for justice within our field, we will never have it: we must work in coalition with those who share our plights. We must win a more democratic economy. We must fight whether we like it or not, as the battle lines have been, once again, drawn around us by conservatives and the Trump administration’s threats to the NEA and NEH.

 

Be aware of your background—your race, class, education, gender, experience, sexual orientation, and so on—and how it informs how you move through the world.

 

Students working around a table
Editing as Activism. Edit-a-thon at UW Bothell.

OK, But What Can I Do?
Here are some tangible steps you can take:

  • Refuse unpaid (and underpaid) work. If you’re a theatre company or institution, make every effort to only hire people if you can pay them a living wage—and that includes college interns. Taking unpaid work makes it harder for people who don’t have financial stability to enter the field, which disproportionately impacts women and people of color. Be transparent about wages when advertising jobs.
  • Elevate women, people of color, and people from working class backgrounds in your institutions. Hire those who haven’t had access to the same institutions that people from wealthier backgrounds have had, and give them adequate training and support.
  • Talk to your colleagues about your working conditions and wages. Go to meetings. Host your own gatherings to discuss these issues. Talk to your friends and families. Imagine what it would look like if your workplace was more democratic, and think through what it would take to achieve that. Make a plan. If you’re in a union, discuss these issues with your union colleagues and organize with them—as Fair Wage on Stage did. If you’re not unionized, reach out to some unions and talk to them about what you can do in your workplace. For example, several NYC not-for-profits are part of the UAW Local 2110.
  • You can pressure elected representatives by calling them and going to town hall meetings, but it’s even better to…
  • Attend rallies, events, and actions hosted by groups like Movimento Cosecha and the Democratic Socialists of America. Find organizations working on issues in your community, your neighborhood, and engage with them. Attend their meetings. Support their work. You’ll be working for change in your community even as you learn skills you can use in your organizing, come to a greater understanding of how the same issues impact people in other types of work, and build the alliances we need to win in the long term
  • Invite your colleagues with you to these events.
  • Be aware of your background—your race, class, education, gender, experience, sexual orientation, and so on—and how it informs how you move through the world. Whether you’re entering into a space dedicated to social and economic justice, or even just trying to make a more inclusive theatre space, check these things at the door and be willing to listen to folks who’ve been more marginalized, who have different experiences of the world, and who have more experience organizing than you do. The road to justice is long, and some folks have been on that journey for generations, but by joining together we will win.

Bookmark this page

Log in to add a bookmark

Interested in following this conversation in real time? Receive email alerting you to new threads and the continuation of current threads.

subscribe

Comments

3
Add Comment
Newest First

In theory, I agree with the idea that we all deserve to be making more money. But in practice, I can't avoid low-paying/ unpaid work. There are relatively no writers or actors who have climbed the latter of artistic financial sustainability who didn't spent years doing free work. Virtually no one is paid at one of the major comedy theatres in Chicago...but to not perform there would cut me out of the community. Not worth it. Additionally, this theatre would sink if if had to pay all the performers. It simply isn't that profitable. So I want a stable life...but is it possible there's not enough demand from the public? If the price of an hour long improv show goes from 12 to 25 dollars to pay actors...no one would come.

"A single fighter jet costs as much as the NEA’s entire annual budget."

As someone who has been saying things like this in the comments of Howlround articles (as well as those on other sites) for years, I was so glad when I saw this quote!

In fact, as the main character in the play that I'm just finishing (which explores these themes) says, "You can't live in a bomb... or eat it."

Alas, the article soon devolves into the usual diatribes, including the all-purpose generic (but seldom defined) "capitalist" boogy-man. (Although I give further high marks to the author for acknowledging that simply passing a law requiring theater people to be paid more could actually cause more harm than good, given that many theaters couldn't afford it.)

"...maybe, like me, you also live in a community where there are jobs making parts for those jets. But those jobs too are under threat by the same forces, by capitalists who would seek to make themselves richer at the expense of the rest of us."

The fundamental problem is not (conveniently unnamed and unseen) "capitalists", but all those jet-plane (and other weapons) manufactures and workers coast to coast that vote to keep the war-mongerers in office, rather than (heaven forbid!) ensure jobs for themselves and their neighbors by buying American instead of cheap foreign products.

For, despite what we have all been told our whole lives in government-run schools and by the government-licensed mainstream media, every war from World War 1 to all the recent ones in the middle east has actually done more harm than good. (Except, of course, from the point of view of the weapons manufactures, who have profited immensely. As have [through massive campaign contributions] the politicians who are in their pockets .)

Yes, theater and other artists may get a billion dollars (or whatever it is these days) from the National Endowment for the Arts. But step back and realize that so long as we live in a world where the government can force people to give us a billion dollars, that power will be used to give hundreds of billions of dollars a year to the merchants of death... meaning that people have hundreds of billions less to spend on the arts (and other necessities).

Or, to put it another way: We have been so brainwashed to be thankful for the crutches the government gives us that we can't see that it is the government that keeps breaking our legs in the first place.

Lynn Nottage's play "Sweat" is a fine example of how powerful it can be to tell the stories of working people. I live in an economically depressed city in Pennsylvania which is quite similar to Reading PA. I made a special trip to New York City to see this play. Now that it has finished its Broadway run, it will be interesting to see if regional theaters in Pennsylvania will dare to include this play in their main stage productions. I suspect they won't because some of the issues it raises like union busting are extremely controversial in my community, which is Trump country. From my perspective, this was a really bold, provocative, and revolutionary play. I'm kinda surprised it even got produced and became so high profile as to appear on Broadway.