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Should I Stay or Should I Go

Job Loss for New Graduates and Young Professionals

Ally Hasselback, studying stage and production management at Carnegie Mellon University, was writing her master’s thesis on emergency preparedness—what to do in case of a fire or an active shooter. While she was on spring break, the university cancelled her upcoming production and moved all classes online. As she told me, there was no way to prepare for this kind of emergency.

Emily Dzioba, a New Jersey–based dramaturg and administrator, was working as a stage manager for a reading in New York and getting ominous text after ominous text from her collaborators. After the reading, full of anxious energy, Emily and her friend walked to Broadway and impulsively bought tickets to Hadestown. Sitting on the steps in Times Square under the billboards late at night, Emily felt overwhelmed with dread. Two days later, Broadway shut down.

Dorothy Jo Oberfoell and her mom were in the audience for the touring production of Wicked in Madison, Wisconsin. During intermission, phones lit up with the news that the NBA was cancelling the rest of the season. Dorothy Jo was supposed to board a plane to New York for a big audition the next day. She didn’t get on the flight. The tour of Wicked was cancelled the next day.

In April, the effects of COVID-19 coupled with poor government leadership pushed 14.7 percent of Americans into unemployment, the highest rate since the Great Depression. (While that number dropped in the summer, it still lingers at 7 percent.) With the theatre field shriveling overnight, a staggering number of arts workers were left without jobs. Conservative estimates wager the unemployment number for theatre workers is around 30 percent, but that’s likely an undercount.

a masked person looking onstage

Ally Hasselback, a recent MFA graduate, looks on the set of her cancelled production.

I graduated with a masters in 2019, lost my teaching job in March 2020, and was left scrambling with few jobs in the industry I had trained for. I’ve been frustrated by easy answers (“take some online classes while theatre recovers”), shallow reassurances (“the arts matter now more than ever”), and bitter rejoinders (“going into the arts is always hard, and if you can’t deal with that, then it’s not the business for you”). These responses not only fail to be helpful on a personal level, they distract from institutional shortfalls, namely massive layoffs and lack of robust government stimulus funding for the arts.

As lockdowns have dragged on, I’ve found myself more and more concerned with how the pandemic has affected recent theatre graduates and young professionals trying to get a foot in a door that suddenly slammed shut. I wondered who would be leaving the field and how others were making ends meet in a time of scarcity.

So, I started asking.

On Zoom and against backdrops of childhood bedrooms, I spoke to eighteen recent graduates and young professionals from across the United States about seeing jobs fall through and having their hopes for reopening pushed back month after month. Responses varied from interview to interview, but also within interviews, as young theatre workers expressed optimism for the future alongside anger at an unsustainable system.

Those for whom 2020 has felt like a summer vacation and a slow back-to-school are usually able to take the pause because of strong family safety nets. For others, these safety nets are not available.

Deciding on Next Steps

The rhythm of theatrical labor is maddeningly fast, and the pressure on new professionals can leave little time for reflection. For Danielle,* a sound mixer who joined IATSE just ten days before lockdown, the unexpected break allowed her to slow down enough to reflect. As she describes it:

The pandemic basically made me get out of the mindset of the sunk cost fallacy. Because you could go, ‘I spent four years in college and three years in the working world doing one thing. I should continue doing that thing because of what I put into it.’ And then the pandemic made me realize that’s not real. There is literally nothing stopping me from starting over.

And people are starting over. Danielle found that “tearful defenses” of the arts on Facebook rang hollow between news stories of refrigerated trucks parked outside hospitals as makeshift morgues. So, she asked her former backstage colleagues for letters of recommendation and applied to post-baccalaureate programs to get the science credits she missed. She’s going into medicine; as we talked, she laughed that she’ll spend the next ten years of her life in school.

Danielle’s not the only one thinking of medical school. Others are going to business school, swapping stage management for project management, or taking up urban planning. Some are jumping into theatre graduate programs and plan to emerge when theatre recovers, but most don’t cite theatre at all. If it’s not graduate school, it might be other kinds of programs. Strangers to each other, Ally Hasselback and Julia Bourland, an actress and aerialist based in Chicago, are training for realtor licenses. Both hope to balance real estate with the arts once theatre comes back.

Those for whom 2020 has felt like a summer vacation and a slow back-to-school are usually able to take the pause because of strong family safety nets. For others, these safety nets are not available.

For those who did have to pivot quickly into new work, some are finding relief in reliable, fairly paid work. Take Anthony,* who found support and belonging in theatre as a trans teenager but couldn’t afford to take the unpaid internships his peers could. Despite this, he hustled his way into working as a stage manager full-time. In the blink of an eye, that work was gone, and Anthony took a job at Costco. When I asked him what he thought about a future in theatre, he responded: “I’m constantly fluctuating on whether or not I want to go back after seeing what it’s like to receive benefits and higher pay—even at a beginner level in retail.”

Rebecca Meckler, a recent graduate in stage management from Carnegie Mellon, has yet to find a full-time position but has also been considering wage disparity in her concerns about the future, including getting inadvertently “boxed out” of the industry. “If theatre does come back when I’m twenty-five or twenty-six, I might want a higher wage than I’m technically qualified for,” she says, noting that she could get stuck with lower-wage jobs. “If I turn them down, someone younger will come in who is also qualified. And I also won’t be up for the higher paying, more steady kinds of things because there will be people recycling back into those.”

We don’t have statistical analysis on the loss of workers from 2020 yet, but it is reasonable to predict that the loss will be tied to class and thus to race, ability, and even sexuality.

Who Stays and Who Goes

Rebecca is right to be concerned with getting boxed out; the field is not going to run out of workers. The industry won’t lose all qualified stage managers or sound mixers, but it might lose Rebecca, Anthony, and Danielle. All three of them, or the other people I talked to, might be happier and better off with full-time work elsewhere. This is not a series of individual tragedies, and it is vitally important that it is not framed as such.

If there is tragedy here, it is broader and deeper than one person, or a handful, leaving. It is in the fact that an industry crisis does not affect everyone equally. Theatremakers without access to intergenerational wealth (a demographic category informed by race in particular and sexuality marginally) as well as disabled theatremakers face additional barriers to remaining in the arts. These barriers are both immediate, as in the inability of some to participate in current theatre projects, and far-reaching. The Deaf actor, writer, and director Michelle Mary Schaefer reminded me that some of the ways theatres are beginning to come back are inaccessible to marginalized populations. She cannot work in most companies without reading lips, which she can’t do when masks are mandated. Theatre workers with health issues similarly face increased threat coming back even under new safety protocols.

The marquee for the San Diego Civic Center

The marquee for the San Diego Civic Center.

In the long run, the people most likely to ride out a wave of layoffs and a lack of jobs to eventually gain or regain full-time employment will be those with outside financial support. It’s worth considering who these people are. In the United States, intergenerational wealth is tied to whiteness; Black and Indigenous families have faced systemic racist policy that has prevented the accumulation of wealth, from job discrimination to redlining. On average, white families’ collected income is ten times higher than Black families, and white families are more likely than families of any other racial group to have dispersed assets that form a more secure safety net, a benefit in a precarious industry to begin with and essential in a crisis.

In fact, this wealth disparity, as well as general racism, is likely one of the reasons the arts field is already less racially diverse than the general workforce. A 2018 study found non-Latinx white people made of 72.6 percent of arts workers in the United States, compared to 62 percent of the overall workforce. Additionally, disabled workers who require health insurance or expensive medication, and LGBTQ+ workers without family support, are more vulnerable to financial hardships. We don’t have statistical analysis on the loss of workers from 2020 yet, but it is reasonable to predict that the loss will be tied to class and thus to race, ability, and even sexuality. Of course, theatre is just one microcosm of the injustices and systemic failures we see all around us.

Loss of diversity matters on a personal and artistic level. If the class and intersecting demographic makeup of the industry impact the stories theatres tell, it’s possible we have more boring white family dramas centered around Grandpa’s will in our future as a generation of diverse theatre artists can’t find work and turn elsewhere. This is tragic both for the tired tropes (I’m bored of hearing about Grandpa’s will) but more significantly because of what these stories suggest about the industry’s diversity, sustainability, and future audiences.

Valuing labor extends beyond paying artists—it also means creating an environment where artists can work more than one job sustainably and feel comfortable saying “no” to additional requests of their time and energy.

A Few Suggestions

What can be done to support young theatre workers and maintain diversity in our industry? Talking to other recent graduates and young professionals, I have a few suggestions, large and small, for arts advocates, industry leaders, and interested readers. Here goes.

1. Prioritize Pay Increases for Entry-Level and Low-Tier Workers
The most obvious solution, those in positions of power should take a hard look at their budgets and allocate more to entry-level positions. This may feel premature, but the havoc wrought by the pandemic also gives managers the chance to consider budgeting shifts while rebuilding now and in planning for the future.

In a moment of interlocking crises, the ideological commitments many theatre companies made in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the #WeSeeYouWAT movement will mean little if not backed by material support for marginalized and entry-level artists. This means more than commissioning established playwrights or diversifying boards: it means paying lighting technicians, dressers, and, yes, interns. #WeSeeYouWAT specifically ties fair compensation to low-tier workers to their project for racial justice, demanding that the highest paid staff makes no more than ten times the lowest paid staff’s salary. Transparent and fair compensation enables diversity by giving new workers without financial support a chance coming out of a pandemic.

2. Get Involved in Arts Advocacy
It’s not unreasonable to ask where this money will come from, not as a politically snide hypothetical but as a real question. Certainly, some artistic and managing directors at large theatres have bloated salaries, but most operating budgets are already tight. Several people I interviewed, including Ella Mock, an actor and intimacy choreographer, talked about what government support would mean for young professionals working at entry-level rates and who are not always unionized.

Citing governments with more theatre funding, including Germany and England, Ella acknowledged that, in the United States, there is only so much funding available from private donors and non-profits, and that government support is essential. “It’s that kind of sweeping systemic change that’s really necessary,” they said. “I see so much put on individual responsibility. I’m sick of being told I’m the one who has to give—who has to give free labor, give money—in order to keep this art alive. If that’s the case, then who’s keeping me alive?”

We do need more funding for the arts, in part for theatre to be a viable career choice for those from working-class backgrounds, theatre artists of color, and disabled theatre artists. We need funding in stimulus money now, with long-term plans to increase funding permanently. Civic engagement can prompt some of this change, including voting, writing letters, marching, lobbying, and pressuring local, state, and federal governing bodies. All this feels a little more possible now with the change in executive administration. (And in an article about career shifts, I’d be remiss not to mention that I would love to vote for progressive candidates with theatre backgrounds.)

3. Invest Locally
There is a tremendous opportunity as theatres rebuild to recommit to serving local populations. I’m not the first to say now is an excellent time for theatres to become more community centered, and I hope I’m not the last. Investing locally will have an outsized impact on young workers. Without savings or significant professional networks, many of the new graduates and young professionals I talked to had moved during the pandemic, often in with parents and sometimes with partners, leaving urban centers for smaller cities or towns.

This dispersion of young and diverse artists away from elite arts centers could reinvigorate local communities but needs to be backed by funding. Arts policymakers and advocates at the national and state levels should increase funding to small cities, towns, and rural arts efforts, and regional theatre companies that hire designers and actors from far-off urban centers should look locally first as they begin to make plans for a post-vaccine world.

In the understatement of 2020, it’s a rough time for all theatremakers, young and old, new and established.

4. Accommodate Part-Time Workers
As theatre workers have picked up jobs elsewhere, and given that reopening theatres will be a slow process, professional theatres need to find ways to accommodate part-time schedules and honor labor boundaries. Some local and community theatres can provide models for how to work with a variety of timetables. Too often, though, even hobby theatres don’t actively encourage open communication on needs and boundaries.

Valuing labor extends beyond paying artists—it also means creating an environment where artists can work more than one job sustainably and feel comfortable saying “no” to additional requests of their time and energy. Many of these additional requests fall disproportionately on theatre workers of color expected to do equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) work for free. Yes, pay EDI workers for this labor, but also cultivate an environment where workers can say “no” to additional demands without fear of retribution.

5. Change the Narratives of Success
This is the most intangible of my suggestions, but also the one I heard repeated again and again in my interviews. We need to end the stigma around finding work outside of the arts sector. Jordan Nicholes, a friend who left the grind of professional acting behind for a career in sales, told me that, he felt like his fellow artists were always keeping tabs on each other, and “if they don’t make a living or pay their bills doing this art—acting, for example—then they’re a failure.” He laughed at the absurdity of it, “Oh man, that’s a losing game though! Because you know nine out of ten are not going to pay all their bills with just acting, and zero out of ten are going to do that during COVID.”

a person outside

Ally Hasselback at work as a production manager and audio technician for an outdoor immersive show this summer.

For some mentors working to realistically prepare students for an arts career, this will be a familiar refrain, but let’s sing it just a bit louder right now: stop reinforcing the binary that you are either “making it” as a theatre artist, which means paying your bills with your art and only with your art, or “not making it” as a theatre artist, by supplementing your income. Ella said they know that binary model is toxic, but it still affects them. “There is this notion of, ‘If you’re supposed to be here, you’ll stick with it. If you’re cut out for this line of work, you don’t give in to your backup,’” they shared. “I feel like that concept is really haunting me.”

We can do away with these haunts. With so much pressure to find success by making “a living” in the arts, let’s remind our students, our friends, and ourselves that we are making a living by breathing, pumping blood through our bodies, and finding joy in a poem or a cat video. We are making a living regardless of where we get our paychecks. It’s a good reminder for any year. It’s a vital reminder now.

In the understatement of 2020, it’s a rough time for all theatremakers, young and old, new and established. In fact, young theatremakers who don’t have kids or mortgages can usually be more mobile in responding to the pressures of the pandemic, moving and reimagining careers altogether. This mobility is one of the benefits of being on the outset of a career without many ties to a specific place or network, and these career shifts are an act of survival but can also be fulfilling to those seeing the downsides of arts work. There is a wide world of career possibilities for those trained in theatrical arts, and many of these career prospects offer better salaries, better work/life balance, better benefits, and more stability. The blessing of new professionals’ relative mobility, though, may curse the diversity of the field. Without clear statistical data on long-term effects yet, I still feel reasonably confident in calling it: as vulnerable young professionals pivot to other fields, the theatre industry will lose diversity. In a time of widespread reckoning, theatre professionals with advanced careers need to consider how to support the upcoming generation as the upcoming generation considers how to support themselves, both in and out of the theatre world.

 

*“Danielle” and “Anthony” both asked to be identified by pseudonyms.

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This is the most direct exploration I've seen of how the pandemic has affected American theatre and also the American arts in general. Covid-19 in this country has not only spread unexpected tragedy, it has accentuated (severely accentuated) a multitude of systemic flaws already in action. The author Kristin Perkins has with empathy and masterful language targeted some of these flaws within our theatre community, and the future steps she suggests will remain essential well after our curtains rise again.

Thanks so much Christopher! Both for your compliment and for your engagement with the piece. I agree, the pandemic has only accentuated problems that were deeply ingrained in our systems for a long time from the obvious (health care) to the more opaque (devalued arts labor). Isn't it flabbergasting how interconnected this world is?