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The Price of Pay Activism

The following is a conversation facilitated by Wingspace Theatrical Design between arts activists Genevieve Beller, co-founder of Costume Professionals for Wage Equity, and Elsa Hiltner, co-founder of On Our Team. The two organizations recently collaborated to bring wage transparency to the online job boards at Playbill and Broadway World and have since turned their attention to Backstage.com.

Genevieve Beller: Elsa, why do you hate the arts? Don’t you want them to survive?

Elsa Hiltner: The industry is structured to ask that question when people work to change it. Right?

Genevieve: Mm-hmm.

Elsa: Or for artists and workers to be mad at each other for speaking out. People are either not doing “enough” because they are continuing to work with the bad players in the industry and maintain the status quo, or they’re doing “too much” and causing trouble. This is one way exploitation and abuse keeps happening because when workers address it, it’s easy for the story to become about how they are the problem. No. That’s not the problem at all. The problem is the theatre, and often the leader, who created the issue. None of it is the fault of the folks with the least power in the system.

Genevieve: That’s part of the scarcity model where the theatre is always in danger of not existing and it’s your fault as an artist as opposed to their responsibility as a business. Now the excuse for poor compensation is the pandemic. But before it was the 2008 recession, or “Oh, the pipes burst” or “Our wealthy donors are dying off.”

I’ve literally heard that one, “Our wealthy donors are dying.” But they put that on the artists. Why is the answer to their lack of financial stability to sacrifice ours? Where is the agency involved in finding new funding models? Especially after the recession. The world no longer works on the model where you can have more of those wealthy donors—you didn’t even need to be wealthy to keep a theatre afloat thirty, forty, or fifty years ago because the United States was a little bit better off in terms of having and giving more.

Elsa: I don’t know how you feel about your organizing path, but I feel like I’ve gotten a little deeper every single time. It started with: I have a responsibility and it’s about labor equity, and then it became: I have a responsibility and it’s about pay equity. And then: we all have a responsibility and it’s about capitalism and the scarcity mindset.

Genevieve: I don’t know that I have necessarily felt a responsibility. I try not to tap into that “fear obligation guilt” mindset. But my organizing path is very much a result of digging deeper. I remember when I was younger, working at a regional theatre, looking around and seeing all of these women who were at retirement age who couldn’t afford to retire. They had medical bills from just normal aging, but also from how much this industry breaks your body down, from this culture of not giving ourselves the time or the resources to take care of our bodies or our mental health.

The attitude when you’re starting out is, “I’m not going to be one of those angry shop ladies. I’m going to go to the gym,” because it must be their fault that they’re unhealthy and angry. Then you dig a little bit deeper and find out they’re all one financial disaster away from abject poverty, or maybe they’re already there and just not talking about it. Then you look closer and find out that’s not the case for everybody in the organization. Those people who can afford to retire and go to the doctor, are they just better at this than you are? And you just keep going deeper and deeper and then it clicks: “This is systemic.”

Elsa: And you realize it’s like this in every single company you’ve worked at so far.

Genevieve: Yeah. When we started Costume Professionals for Wage Equity, it was because of seeing all this imbalance in costume departments. But then we talked to sound designers, lighting techs, interns, etc., about how they are manipulated or underpaid or overworked. It’s endemic.

Are you tired yet?

Elsa: I mean, yeah. I don’t know if you do the same with your organizing, but I tend to find the one thing I can do and just do that. I don’t really think about the big picture more often than I have to, because if I do, it’s completely overwhelming.

I think people mostly want to do the right thing when it comes to pay equity, but often they don’t know how to do it, and on top of that people generally believe themselves to be right. So it can be hard to tell them, “No, actually what you’re doing is harmful and here’s why.”

Why is the answer to their lack of financial stability to sacrifice ours? Where is the agency involved in finding new funding models?

Genevieve: And then you have the people who see that you know what you’re doing and that you can fix everything. We’re so used to saying “yes and” in this industry, and it can be very overwhelming to have these sessions of “yes and, yes and”—it can ultimately lead to getting exhausted into inaction.

Elsa: Or spread too thin. For instance, our coalition of Costume Professionals for Wage Equity and On Our Team have the Backstage.com pay transparency campaign running right now. On Our Team is working on launching the Pay Equity Standards this fall, and individually I am interviewing foundations about pay equity. We’re a small group of people so we really need to choose where to put our energy.

A pink piggy bank with a black belt stands on top of a pile of one dollar bills.

Theatres rely on an idea of scarcity to keep artist wages low. "Piggy Bank" by free pictures of money is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Genevieve: It’s hard to prioritize because it is all so important. I hear that over and over again, but also I don’t get paid to do this. While it doesn’t pay me, in some ways this work does feed me. It feels generative as opposed to consumptive.

But yeah, we’re very much rapidly making ourselves unemployable as designers. We’re the squeaky wheels.

Elsa: I hardly get hired to design anymore. Which is really hard. It’s our job and also often our passion and I don’t get to design unless somebody hires me—you can’t costume design solo as a hobby, you need the full team.

I do feel like a lot of the creative process—planning, research, and collaboration—are similar in labor organizing to design. But giving up creating theatre is a big sacrifice and not everybody can afford to do it.

Genevieve: We do a lot of our work on social media, commenting on theatre job postings or social media campaigns, and a response I see an awful lot is, “Why are you attacking these nice people?” We try to make the point that of course they’re nice people. The thing is, some of these very nice people work in places that are organized around models of white supremacy and pay inequity.

Elsa: Mm-hmm.

Genevieve: So how do you deal with that? It’s very entrenched, this feeling of being attacked, of not wanting to look at the idea that they—and we, because I include myself in this—have helped to create and sustain this system.

Elsa: It’s so telling that to some people “attacking” can be just asking what the pay is. Sometimes people don’t outwardly recognize white supremacist culture in pay secrecy, but their inner reactions show the connection.

The strength of the reactions towards asking what the pay is so often is closely aligned to reactions about calling out racism or sexism. And who’s been able to afford to work for low pay or continue to pay their dues for five, ten years? People with privilege.

Genevieve: And we are both white cisgender women from middle-class backgrounds. I didn’t necessarily have a large safety net, but it was there. I have a college education and I was raised believing that of course the arts were a viable option because, “I can do anything!”

That’s where that conversation sort of centers. How many people are there who simply cannot afford to work with all of those nice people you and I have the pleasure of knowing professionally? People who are just as talented, who are just as nice to work with, but who don’t have that opportunity because we never stopped to think what a real opportunity looked like.

Elsa: The other important thing is that nobody has done everything right. Early on, I also did not do pay equity well—I made mistakes. Everybody is learning. So the fear of being called out for things you did in the past because you didn’t know better... There are times where that’s very important, obviously, but also there should always be space for people to learn and acknowledge and move forward in a better way.

Genevieve: Where do you see smaller theatre companies fitting into this conversation? The ones that want to move forward but financially feel they can’t? It’s easy to go after the organizations where you see artistic directors making $700,000 a year, but we also see job postings where there’s a desire for equity but a genuine lack of tangible assets. Scrappy young companies that are doing really interesting work.

I’ve got a friend who’s an aspiring filmmaker. I watched her get into a really heated argument on social media where she was just absolutely dragged for asking for free labor on a short she wanted to make. She made the very good point that fair pay was a barrier to her as a woman of color because she didn’t have the network. She didn’t have the resources, she didn’t have the money. It’s still not okay not to pay people, but how do we make room for that, for building companies and those fledgling artists we want to see more of?

I do feel like a lot of the creative process—planning, research, and collaboration—are similar in labor organizing to design. But giving up creating theatre is a big sacrifice and not everybody can afford to do it.

Elsa: When a company has more money, they have more responsibility. We don’t want to further marginalize marginalized groups who have not had access to the money and grants. And, also, it’s totally fine for a group of people to come together to make art without anyone making money off it.

It’s not that you can only make art if you’re being paid for it. So, how do you differentiate between companies that are businesses and companies that are actually collectives and are not businesses. Many of us want to appear successful and want our companies and the companies we’re working for to appear successful.

There’s a stigma of classism, which is part of white supremacy, towards collectives or groups that aren’t making a lot of money—there are theatre companies in Chicago with a budget of $40,000 or less even. And I think that’s okay, but also that’s not a career path and when someone hires for roles in those companies, they are not “hiring” if they’re not paying. That’s a volunteer request.

Genevieve: I have my own thoughts about the misclassification of employees as volunteers but if I go off on that tangent we’ll leave people feeling like they can’t win.

Elsa: It’s easy for critics to see our activism as destructive or negative. But it’s really actually constructive and about bringing people together. Because it can be seen as negative, it can be hard to point out the bad actors or the bad systems and also invite those same people to come join the work.

Genevieve: That’s the emotional part of our labor, which is even more invisible than the physical work. The time we’re spending to say it nicely, smile more, gently take them by the hand and lead them.

Elsa: Yes, you’re supposed to take everybody and their personal life into consideration before you say anything or call for any action and make sure it lands on them in the best way possible.

Genevieve: And meanwhile here I am furiously posting on social media every time I do something marginally productive as a designer, because even though I just had a baby I’m afraid that if I’m seen as less productive I’ll get put on the “mom shelf” and never be hired again. We’re expected to time our requests and be graceful about management’s home life when it’s “not the right time” to make change, but where is that grace when we need it?

It ties into that whole “we’re a family” narrative. Okay, well, when I’m homeless, can I sleep on your couch? Can I sleep in your theatre?

A black and white image of a flower and a raised fist drawn on a portion of a wooden door with a hinge.

“‘ Incrementalism is not the enemy of militancy; it is often the only means of expressing it.’ But then something like the inverse is also true: militancy is not the enemy of gradual progress; it is often the only means of achieving it.” — Barney Frank. "Raised Fist" by Steve Snodgrass is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Elsa: I don’t know what other people’s families are like, but I tell my family when I’m annoyed at them. Like if a family member did wrong by me I’d be like, “Excuse me? Let’s talk about this.” And then we’re going to be fine. We’re going to come to our collective understanding or agreement or change or whatever it is. If we’re “family” in theatre, why are we not doing that?

Genevieve: I think that it frames the conversation as an emotional issue. Because, number one, it keeps people from complaining—if we’re, family, we want them to succeed. So when someone does step in and say, “Hey, this isn’t right,” they just attacked family. They become disloyal, toxic.

People end up falling into this place of anxiety of, “If I bring this up, they’re not going to like me. I won’t get to be family anymore.” And it’s so hard to get out of that headspace, especially because, as artists—and also as women—we’re conditioned to be there. To make everything okay.

Elsa: And there’s the idea that we’re not going to talk about it publicly. We’re going to come up with a solution privately in our inner circle, or we’re not going to call it out on social media or put it in the newspaper.

Genevieve: Which is what has been so horrifically wonderful about the pandemic: we’re all talking publicly now. Before, it was so lonely out there, because you didn’t know who else was doing the work and what their struggles were.

Costume Professionals for Wage Equity can narrow its focus. We used to also try to take on unpaid internships, which of course are an issue, but it’s not an issue that is specific to the costume part of the industry. We’re stretched too thin if we’re also trying to solve that, if we’re also trying to work on accessibility, if we’re also trying to work on safety. We can’t be all the things to all the people. But then Lift the Curtain formed with the goal of ending unpaid internships. Theater Professionals of Underrepresented Genders started talking about sexism in all departments. IATSE has formed I don’t know how many new committees working on diversity, family life, creating respectful workplaces… Name the injustice and someone is out there trying to make it right.

So now when I see something in one of those categories, I don’t have to lead the charge. I don’t have to make the plan. I just have to pop in and listen. Then I can act and amplify in whatever way they have decided they need me. And that coalition-building has been so, so valuable.

We’re trying to get not just the fellow artists and organizations to see what we’re doing, we want the audiences to be co-conspirators with us.

Elsa: I always would rather point to something somebody else is doing than talk about what I’m doing, because it shows there’s an actual movement, there’s consensus around the topic. That consensus-building is important—this is how change happens. Community-building and coalitions are valuable.

Genevieve: And the comments sections on social media are so much less lonely. It’s not just four people being really annoying. I remember getting a text during our Playbill campaign that said: “I love that you’re cyberbullying Playbill!” Like, oh God, that’s not what we’re doing, but yes that’s what it looks like.

We do it and we do it publicly and it doesn’t always make us look good.

We’re trying to get not just the fellow artists and organizations to see what we’re doing, we want the audiences to be co-conspirators with us. It’s hard sometimes to get people to care how the sausage is made. As artists, we’re so aware of this labor, because we’ve been dealing with it for years, but we have to remember this is very likely brand new information for audience members.

Elsa: I am sure the average audience member thinks people who work in theatre make a good living. We have completely constructed the environment to make it look like we’re all successful: You have celebrity, you have big fancy buildings, you have the ambience—

Genevieve: —high ticket prices.

Elsa: Even going into this career, I did not realize how low-paid theatre workers were.

Genevieve: Glassdoor.com lists the starting salary of a costume designer as $66,000.

I didn’t hit that until last year.

But not as a designer... As a designer, as an assistant, as a firsthand, as a shopper. All of the many, many hats I have to wear to cobble together something that, according to Glassdoor, should be my starting wage.

Elsa: I’ve never hit that. After ten, fifteen years in the industry, here we are.

I think audiences would actually care about this if they knew they were supporting this type of exploitation, the same way I don’t buy new clothing because I don’t want to support sweatshop labor. Or how I eat organic as much as I can because I don’t want to support things that are bad for the environment or agricultural workers. These are things I choose because I want the workers to be treated well.

That’s what I’m working on right now with the Pay Equity Standards, a label system where we can show audiences theatres that pay workers equitably and allow them to make a choice with their consumption patterns.

Genevieve: Have you heard Elizabeth Wislar’s sort of solution/story about that?

Close up image of a red pin cushion. Pinned to the cushion are small plastic images of a heart, a skull, and a lemon.

Wage equity in the theatre means finding a balance between the work that artists love and the pay that they need to survive. "Shrinky-DON'Ts: Dia De Los Muertos, Red Wool" by kellyhogaboom is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Elsa: I don’t think so.

Genevieve: Elizabeth has a story about how she attended a fundraising gala for a theatre, and there were photographs all over the lobby with price tags on them. Costume designer: X amount of money, air conditioning: X amount of money, carpenter: X amount of money, security for the parking lot: X amount of money… Radical transparency, allowing the audience members to see exactly how much everything costs and exactly where their money would be going, but also showing them everything they’re able to give matters. It’s important. There’s a person behind it. There’s a thing behind it. That’s the organization inviting the audience to value those things instead of trusting that they will just happen.

I would love to see more of that radical transparency—I want to know how much someone’s water bill costs and if we can get that down. If there’s an audience member who’s like, “Oh, I’ll put in low-flow toilets for free for you”—that’s a community-based solution to artistic funding.

It shouldn’t be all up to the NEA, or Daddy Warbucks.

Elsa: This comes back to trying to find the one thing to focus on, because the real problem is that we are living in a capitalist, white-supremacist society. We are completely steeped in it, and the industry is completely steeped in it, and it can feel like you have to change the whole system to change one thing.

Genevieve: What’s your incrementalism quote?

Elsa: Don’t let incrementalism get in the way of militantism and don’t let militantism get in the way of incrementalism. You can do both.

I found that idea really helpful because sometimes incrementalism is painfully slow and can feel like you’re just approving of things you don’t want to approve because you know it’s not good enough. But you have to accept that, for now, that’s fine. That can grate on me. At the same time, militantism is not always great for coalition-building or long-term strategy, but it can get stuff done.

Genevieve: It’s part of why these conversations are valuable and why it’s so important to have them in public. Because what we’re doing is building a value system, an idea of what this industry could look like at it’s very best. So that when someone is faced with a choice, they have a very strong concept of what is right and good, and they can make the choice that pushes that forward.

Elsa: Does it serve an equitable, diverse, accessible theatre industry or does it not?

Genevieve: If everybody is speaking that language and upholding those ideals, a lot of good decisions, a lot of good changes, are happening.

Elsa: Right. And this comes back to the fact that you don’t need more money to do any of this.

Genevieve: No, you need good choices.

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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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