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Industry or Community

What Are We Going Back To?

“There was an intricate failure in the educational institutions we designers were brought up in, which told us when we started out we were going to work for free, and that was okay. I refuse to pass that on. If that means I have to stay in education institutions forever to hammer that home, I’m doing it.” — Lawrence E. Moten III

Prior to the pandemic, designers, like many theatremakers, existed in a fiscally precarious environment. There seemed to be an unspoken assumption among artistic leadership that we had other sources of income. There must have been, because if theatre institutions actually calculated how much designers are paid, and then how many projects designers would need to take on in a year to survive without outside funding, then the current pay scale would appear to be unconscionable.

However it’s very likely that institutions aren’t making these calculations at all. There is a certain willful ignorance, or blinkering, when it comes to contracted artists versus institutional staff. If a company is only responsible for a small portion of a person’s yearly income and schedule, they perhaps don’t need to extrapolate what a year, or a lifetime, of those same conditions might mean, what impact the pay and hours have on a designer’s health, relationships, financial stability, and creative resilience.

I decided to poke my nose in some colleagues’ business. I communicated with designers in different disciplines, most of whom reside in New York City and work for nonprofit companies. These are folks who work regularly in their field but don’t have a solid monetary cushion from a commercial success. These conversations unspooled ideas about making—both art and money—potential changes in relations between designers and institutions, and, of course, how much we all miss obsessing over ephemeral moments together, in the dark.

overlapping collage of plays featuring kate mcgee's lighting designs

Overwork a collage by Masha Tsimring of six recent lighting designs by Kate McGee. The photographers are: Sarah Krulwich, Emon Hassan, Kelly Stewart, Carol Rossegg, and T Charles Erikson.

All Work and Low Pay

The spring of 2020 will forever bring to mind the nightmarish hall of mirrors that constituted the “filing for unemployment” process. Most designers are paid on what’s called 1099 income, which is the standard for contractors, however in some instances, primarily on Broadway and Off-Broadway, they get paid W2 income, which is the standard employment wage format in the eyes of the tax collector. When the pandemic hit, designers who had some amount of W2 income had a much easier time engaging with the filing process, but the unemployment income system was so convoluted that following up to clarify additional 1099 income did not seem like a sane possibility for most, which meant receiving less than they were entitled to. (This has clarified one of the reasons our union has recently pushed Off-Broadway to adopt a W2 framework for designers.)

Though the unemployment income has helped, most designers cannot pay their bills on these funds alone. And, of course, immigrant designers, integral members of our community who are working on various visas, often cannot take advantage of the unemployment benefits. For example, Reza Behjat, Yana Birykova, and Kimie Nishikawa—all three working as designers in the United States on visas—have each had an experience much more convoluted than those of us with citizenship. They and those in similar situations have also been unable to accept work outside of their discipline without endangering their immigration status—and yet some have had to do just that, with no other options on the horizon.

Our designer union could have advocated for greater visibility and support for this sector of its membership but did not. Similarly, as theatre companies began to produce some digital content, prioritizing employment for the immigrant designers in their network could have provided some relief in a hopeless situation. I believe a number forward-thinking companies did that, but far too few. Thankfully, many designers have been able to take on teaching work, and organizations like Wingspace, Theatre Communications Group, and Indie Theatre Fund have provided microgrants to help keep artists afloat; See Lighting Foundation, a fundraiser started by immigrant designers, has raised money as a lifeline.

In general, many designers who make their living entirely from design have to take on so many shows that they are in tech almost every week, clearly an unhealthy proposition.

A few designers, like Kate McGee and Deb Sevigny, noted they have shaped their life to be able to absorb a high amount of risk, useful for career fluctuations and pandemics both. It is almost impossible to predict what our income will be year by year, so some weather the wild shifts by living modestly, budgeting their life based on a city’s minimum wage. (Some years they make substantially more, and other years less and less.) The oft-cited example that many are one medical emergency away from bankruptcy looms large, especially this year. If there was a way to reconfigure our companies to prioritize people over product, would it be possible to raise designer fees to the level of a livable wage, while working something approaching forty hours per week?

In general, many designers who make their living entirely from design have to take on so many shows that they are in tech almost every week, clearly an unhealthy proposition. Most designers I spoke with were both thankful and horrified by how many shows they had already done by the middle of March last year, before the pandemic hit. It was helpful financially and staggering mentally. The fees allowed them to stay afloat, and perhaps the exhaustion helped numb the panic. But hitting pause on the hamster wheel has given us the time to take stock of our well-being. As Alice Tavener put it, how we were living wasn’t sustainable, so how can we move through our professional, and inevitably personal, lives with more consciousness?

“2019 was a really good year for me and a really bad year for me. I did a lot of theatre—something like twenty-four or twenty-six techs. I’ll say right off the bat that’s an inhumane schedule and is impossible to keep up. I was burnt out on a level that I hadn’t felt in a very long time. So I had a nest egg going into 2020. ” — Lawrence E. Moten III

Guest Starring at the Institution

There’s a freedom in freelancing. You make your own schedule, sometimes. You are always diving into something new. If you love your collaborators, hopefully you can keep working together. If personalities don’t mesh, you can choose to go your separate ways. You get to travel to beautiful, or just average, places, and your community becomes expansive and diverse. Oona Curley and I spoke about missing the quick intimacy we foster amongst ourselves while immersing in a soul-filling project. But the freedom comes with a price—you never know when the next offer will come, so when it does the fear of saying no is paralyzing. This results in designers taking on too many projects and being less present and generative than they or their collaborators would like. Too much work falls on associates left in one tech while the lead designer hops to another, and somehow everyone still comes out underpaid at the end of the day.

This system sputters along, with all of us too tired and too behind on due dates to stop and seriously imagine something better. We feel connected through the perpetual communication machine of designers, theatres, production managers, and agents, but are unprepared for the cold shock of that machine grinding to a silent halt.

There have been mixed feelings about how institutions have related to designers during this pandemic. A number of us had to find out that some of our productions were cancelled, or postponed to 2022, via Playbill or, worse, a subscriber e-mail blast. Then came the asks for donations, no one having bothered to take the unemployed artists off of the subscriber listserv. We are used to not being in the spotlight, certainly when it comes to audiences, but when our own employers forget that we exist…?

“We’re so invisible to the public, people don’t know what we do, they don’t know who we are.” — Oona Curley

But the freedom comes with a price—you never know when the next offer will come, so when it does the fear of saying no is paralyzing.

For many, the silence was a stark reminder of our status as contract laborers currently of no use rather than members of a collaborative family we are all deemed to be when working together—for not enough compensation, late into the night. Designers are often asked to go above and beyond a professional employee/employer relationship for the art. We share our process with donors, we charm board members, we build “community.” But in this moment when so many of us felt out to sea, these same employers had no responsibility to us and we were no longer part of their collective family, or their payroll.

“There’s some support coming from the design community and my colleagues. But as far as bigger institutions, I haven’t really noticed any presence of those in my life this year. I guess nobody knows what’s going to happen.” — Yana Biryukova

Some companies—especially the smaller, nimbler ones—did reach out, concerned for their artistic community on a human scale. They sent out surveys, asking how they could help. Some paid their artists the full fees they were contracted for in the cancelled season. Others reimagined their relationships entirely and hired a number of formerly freelance artists as staff members for a season, health insurance and all. A few designers I spoke with had been hired to create work for companies, just as artists, not for a specific show, and that invitation and acknowledgment of them as generative beings, in community, was so precious.

As we’ve been forced to move to making work digitally, a window of opportunity has opened. The format is unknown that we have had to create our roles anew. Every virtual project I have done in this time has calculated my fee based on paying me hourly, at either the New York City minimum wage or higher, and if my projected hours were underestimated, they raised my fee by the end.

Designing the Future

Designers are full of ideas but not full of optimism. In this pandemic pause, there has been introspection, there have been conversations (so many), there have been panels, and countless souls have been searched. We all agree that we have worked too much for too little. We are brainstorming ways of being paid equitably and keeping a more humane schedule, and we hope our institutions are having these conversations as well. The lack of hope comes from a lack of transparency. Can our companies invite more designers to the table to discuss and construct a workable future? For the moment, many designers are not depending on institutions to partner with them and are seeking other paths forward. Having discovered or rediscovered alternate avenues for our skills in the industries that are still functioning or flourishing—podcasts, television, corporate work, project management, graphic design—many don’t imagine going back solely to a theatrical career.

“To be this far along and still have resentment towards it? I want to keep my portfolio diversified. Theatres just do not have that foundation of equity, no matter what they do. They can’t even process that we’re not just contract laborers who are in and out. They can’t process how to approach someone so that that person gets paid a fair wage. Which is tough because they have employees who do get paid a salary.” — Palmer Hefferan

Can our companies invite more designers to the table to discuss and construct a workable future?

There have been many conversations about budgets as moral documents. From city councils to corporations big and small, where funds are allocated speaks volumes about the priorities and ethics of any organization. We are all waiting to see how this will translate to our industry. The designers I spoke with are interested in seeing theatres place more value in people and trust them to work creatively within smaller budgets for the material realization of the design. It becomes difficult for designers to put in the hours of labor at, if lucky, minimum wage when leadership salaries, budgets for the execution of the designs, and the amount spent on framing the work through press, marketing, and events are so much higher.

No one would argue that these other expenditures are frivolous, but the chasm between the makers’ pay and the rest of the budget lines has become hard to swallow. In tandem, there is a desire for greater transparency and honesty between the institution and those making the work. If we were less siloed in our conversations—from budgets to audiences to timelines—we could create an environment that is hospitable to creative problem-solving, together.

“The creators of an upcoming project I’m on are talking about something really interesting: massively cutting the production budget and then paying everybody in the process enough to block out three months. Why aren’t we operating more like that? Why aren’t we putting money into people? Money and time!” — Kate McGee

There are ideas for a greater connection between designers and institutions—for example, Deb suggested a rotating roster of temporary resident designers and an expanded guest lecturer/designer role at many training programs, which would provide more stability for designers and a deeper connection for the company. On the other hand, some designers, like Kimie, have moved towards making their own design companies, to work across a number of industries while pooling their resources, gigs, and expertise. Doubling down on competition and scarcity will not lead us into a bright new day.

“For the collective I’m part of, Dots, we don’t get credited by our individual names anymore. A little bit of that is a ‘fuck you’ to individualism and being competitive in this theatre world. I don’t really think it’s normal for one person to be responsible for everything, and actually it’s not true. It’s kind of a trap. — Kimie Nishikawa

One thing is certain, everyone wants change: within our own practice, our employers’ practice, and the practices we are passing down to the designers who are just discovering our world. Like all struggles towards justice, ours is complex and intersectional. There is no easy fix, and we are not expecting money and time to manifest out of thin air. But if we theatremakers are to hold up a mirror to the world, we have to hold up a mirror to ourselves as well. To be artists, we have to be conscious humans first, and that requires all of us working towards labor standards that will make our humanity possible.

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Thoughts from the curators

What would it mean to have a culture of justice in theatrical design? This week, we are uplifting the work of the design community, both on stage and off. This series aims to build a deeper understanding of what work is being done and engage in discussions around the impact of structural oppression on our communities, the social position of designers in the larger theatre industrial complex, the interconnectedness of artistry and advocacy, and strategies for co-creating a roadmap into the future. There’s a lot to cover. We’re not going to get to everything or everyone this time around. Luckily, this is only the beginning.

Design (in a Time of Reckoning)


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