Theatre-ing While Disabled

Contracted Artist Edition

In this series, Kate highlights some of the twenty theatre job titles she’s held over the years, rating them based on their level of awesomeness / non-awesomeness through the lens of her physical disability. Each position is ranked on a scale of one to five possible canes.

I get to do something I love, and you’ll pay me? Yes! I’m living the life of my dreams!Me, before I do the math.

Note: Though I’m writing this installment primarily through the lens of a dramaturg, this piece is less about any particular job title and more about a mode of work: freelancing as a contracted, non-union artist.

Though I’ve ‘turged for years in an “other duties as assigned” capacity (or, more often than not, by inserting myself forcefully into dramaturgical processes any time I see an opening, because I Heart Dramaturgy), it’s only recently that I’ve been contracted for a production and given the official title of “dramaturg.” I was over-the-moon to get this gig. Icing on the cake: It was with a group of people I really like and whose work I’ve long admired.

Because I often have to take stock of my physical and emotional capacity, I’ve recently decided that this vein of delightful contract work, for me, is not worth it.

I was contracted for three meetings with the playwright, to shape the script and help with research and rewrites. Apart from lurking around at the first read-through and one rehearsal, these three meetings were all that was expected of me. Pretty low-impact gig, and I get $100 for this thing I’ve been really excited to do.

Then, one day as I was walking to a (not enumerated above) meeting, I started to do the math. If I have one piece of advice for my fellow artists (of all levels of physical ability), it’s this: Never do the math.

It unfailingly appears at the outset that any contracted, non-union gig will pay roughly $33 an hour. Not just in dramaturgy, but in anything where your check stub indicates “Artist Fees.” However, by the time you go to the training and the planning meetings (a solid five separate instances of additional places you need to show up at a specified time), and have the phone calls about the things, and help with marketing the production and writing those emails to the guys about the stuff, it turns out you just did thirty-one and a half hours of work for that $100. And you spent $48 of it on Metro fair. And you still haven’t paid taxes on it.

This is just the money part of the math. There’s also the spoon theory part of the math. A notion popularized in 2003 by Christine Miserandino in her blog, “But You Don’t Look Sick,” “spoons” have become shorthand for many people with chronic illness or disabilities to describe a finite unit of energy allotted for the day. Once you’re out of spoons, your day needs to be over, whether it’s really over or not. Getting showered costs a spoon, walking to the Metro costs a spoon, going up a flight of stairs costs a spoon, going to happy hour costs a spoon, doing the dishes costs a spoon, sitting in on that conference call costs a spoon, etc. Different people account for their spoons differently (perhaps stairs make you feel energized; more power to you), but in spoonie culture, it’s agreed that you don’t get a ton of them and they go pretty fast. In Miserandino’s original essay, the sample amount of spoons for the day is twelve, which sounds about right to me. Non-disabled young people, conversely, are allotted approximately one bajillion spoons (or some number that’s high enough that they never have to do the math). When you have a disability or a chronic illness, you have to strategize your spoon usage pretty carefully.

If your gig paid in spoons, I would say yes to it twice.

Contract gigs at small non-profits tend to require a lot of spoons, regardless of how much we support the mission, enjoy the work, or respect the artists. And we of course support the mission, enjoy the work, and respect the artists immensely, otherwise we wouldn’t happily do it for $100.

Regardless of circumstance, all of us have limited time and resources. If you’re reading this blog, it’s probable that you have chosen to invest yourself in this industry with the full knowledge that you’ve likely forfeited any chance at riches and leisure. We’ve decided that it’s worth it.

Because I often have to take stock of my physical and emotional capacity, I’ve recently decided that this vein of delightful contract work, for me, is not worth it. Your mileage may vary depending on your daily allotment of spoons and the size of your trust fund. You may do the math and decide that this is the sort of thing you’d like to do “for fun.” However, at what ends up being $1.65 per hour, I can no longer reasonably say this is the sort of thing I do “for a living.”

Conclusion: I give contracted dramaturgy and its ilk a Disability Awesomeness Rating of 2 out of 5 canes.

If I suddenly found myself to be a wealthy baroness, this is how I would spend all my leisure-spoons. The work itself is rewarding, life-affirming, intellectually stimulating, and a generally good time, but the logistical accoutrement and the literal return on investment weighs the gig down mightily.

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Thoughts from the curator

Kate Langsdorf writes about her experience with different jobs in theatre.

Theatre-ing While Disabled

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Thanks for integrating spoon theory and dramaturgy - it's a pretty common conversation here at PTC. I'd highly recommend negotiating contracts in this case, and referring potential collaborators to the LMDA Employment Guidelines, which help make the work more visible and hopefully better valued. Of course there are companies that are operating without funding who struggle to offer accessible working conditions... but articles like this help to quantify the artistic collaborators they are missing out on by not being aware of the barriers they are creating in their process design. Great series!