Toward a Greater Empathy in the American Theatre

Recently, at a show I was working on, an actor arrived at their call time with food poisoning. Their face was pale, their hands shaking relentlessly. It looked like the effort it took them to stand and speak to the stage manager used every ounce of energy their body could muster, and that once the conversation was finished they would collapse onto the Equity cot.

The stage manager said to the actor: “Are you okay?” And then: “Don’t worry about it. We can call in a swing.” Followed by: “Is there anything we can do to help you feel better?”

I was moved by the stage manager’s tenderness. He spoke calmly, and, more importantly, with empathy. Even though the actor’s illness threw a wrench into the day’s schedule, their health took a higher precedent than adhering to the plan.

Rather than concerning themselves foremost with the inconvenience, the actor and the stage manager were two people connecting for a moment over something very human. Weeks later, this overheard exchange sticks with me. I’ve experienced many negative interpersonal experiences during my time in theatre, and this positive moment made me realize how badly our industry needs more like it.

an actor onstage

Yousef Al Nasser on Unsplash.

Trouble

“The American theatre is in a shit load of trouble.”

So goes the opening line of Jane Martin’s Anton in Show Business, an incisive play that takes aim at the economic and social structures that make thriving professionally in the American theatre so difficult. It is the first line of a lengthy monologue that, rather bluntly, bemoans the underfunding of the arts and thus the underpayment of artists, as well as the perceived inefficacy of Actors’ Equity, the oversaturation of performers in New York City, and the fiefdom-like structuring of regional theatres.

Anton debuted at the Humana Festival in 2000, but much of what Martin lays out in this monologue still pervades the industry today.

Actors’ Equity reported that only about 35 percent of its membership worked as actors in Equity-approved productions during the 2016–17 season, the most recent season for which this data is available. The same report shows that the overwhelming majority of Equity members who earned any money through acting that year made less than $15,000. 

A sizable portion of an artist’s income goes towards union dues. Equity collects 2.2 percent as “working dues,” in addition to other annual dues and new members’ initiation fees. For designers and technicians, United Scenic Artists (USA) currently offers membership at a $3,500 initiation fee, plus dues and other fees. Without union membership, many theatre artists are left to find their own health insurance and negotiate their own contracts, and they cannot always enjoy the standard working conditions that unions like Equity and USA require of any entity that contracts their members.

I’ve experienced many negative interpersonal experiences during my time in theatre, and this positive moment made me realize how badly our industry needs more like it.

Meanwhile, CollegeBoard lists about one thousand institutions that offer bachelor’s degrees in theatre. A thousand colleges and universities’ worth of students graduate every year, entering the American theatre’s workforce where they must contend with the realities of low wages, high cost of living, and instability inherent to freelancing. This does not account for students graduating from MFA programs, nor people who navigate their way into the industry via avenues other than academia.

I live in New York City, where in order to make ends meet I sound design, walk dogs, and write articles for websites like this one. I am acquainted with no fewer than two dozen people who work at least one day job to bolster their income as they pursue their passions for acting, playwriting, directing, dancing, and so forth. The folks I know whose main pursuit is design tend to have day jobs less often, but I have also known them to work fifty, sixty, seventy hours a week in order to make a decent living.

It’s truly unlikely that anyone reading this is unaware, at least conceptually, of the economic nightmare that is the American theatre industry. You can look at the statistics, and you can also rely on the lived experiences and anecdotes of actual working theatre artists.

Anxiety

It’s hard to tell whether economic anxiety begets unhealthy work environments, but through my time in the industry I have come to believe the two problems are intertwined.

A few years ago, I was contracted to design sound for a show at a reasonably well-known theatre company. The fee I was offered for my services was a flat rate of $375 in exchange for uncounted hours of pre-tech meetings, content creation, and visits to rehearsal, as well as eight days of tech rehearsal, notes sessions, and previews. This was, to put it as simply as possible, not enough money for as much as the theatre was asking of me.

I am not a well-known or award-winning sound designer, so it is not as though I was fielding offers, thus having the luxury to decline something that underpaid. I took the gig and did my best work, knowing every step of the way that I was going to walk away with what was certainly less than minimum wage. The other designers of this production, to my knowledge, were paid the same or similarly, while the actors were not paid at all.

The costume designer eventually left before opening to work on another project, presumably to make enough money that month to pay their rent and buy groceries. During a production meeting the day after, a staff member of the theatre scoffed and pointedly reminded everyone that the designer had left to go work on something else. The subtext was clear: by not giving their unflagging devotion to this specific production, despite the fiscal impossibility of doing so, this person did not fulfill the expectations set upon them.

American theatre can often be a breakneck industry that leaves little to no room for the many things that may impede a person’s work, like illness, burnout, and human error. Throughout the industry, people seem to believe that if you aren’t working and giving your utmost to every job, whether by choice or by necessity, your career will not advance. This idea pervades all levels of the industry, from the people who make hiring decisions down to the ones applying for the openings.

Similarly, onerous behavior does not only come from the people at the tops of organizations. On crew calls, a less experienced technician may be the recipient of passive aggression from someone older. Our industry’s fixation on prestigious educational milestones like getting an MFA from Yale or spending a summer at Williamstown can leave those who went to different schools and summerstocks feeling alienated.

It’s truly unlikely that anyone reading this is unaware, at least conceptually, of the economic nightmare that is the American theatre industry.

The relationship between creativity and mental illness is a well-explored subject. I have experienced serious degradation of my mental health that results from these environments, and I am but one of many people who have found themselves at the crossroads of their creative ambitions and their physical, financial, or mental limitations. Some of my friends from the industry have faced the crisis point—the “do I love what I do enough to account for what it does to me?”—and left theatre to pursue more stable employment. Others have asked the same question and soldiered on, nevertheless knowing that the question could pop up again and again for the rest of their careers.

It was only a matter of time before I had to ask myself that question: Did I love doing theatre enough?

After opening that underpaid show, after working one too many crew calls where I or someone I worked with was treated with contempt for their greenness, after becoming bitter about my colleagues’ obsessions with who got which degree from which university, the idea of entering a theatre for any purpose made me queasy. The answer was no. I did not love what I did enough to justify how awful it made me feel.

I stopped working in the industry entirely and committed to finding a job in an office, where I could enjoy things that I couldn’t before: health insurance, steady pay, vacation time, sick days. It has only been in recent months that I plotted a way back into the industry, having saved enough money from the corporate job to pad out a trepidatious return to freelancing. Even though I once again am relishing in the joy of being connected to the beauty of the theatre, our industry’s ugliness is an all-too-familiar memory.

Within the American dramatic canon, I can’t think of any better depiction of these contradictory feelings than the final monologue of Anton in Show Business. It begins with something of a confession from the protagonist, a young actor whose debut production has been canceled by a heartless corporate benefactor:

It’s so stupid, but I love to act. It always feels like anything can happen, you know? Like, something wonderful can happen. I mean, it’s just people, you know? Just people doing it, and watching it.

There’s something painful about this sentiment. If we love theatre enough to pursue it despite the economic and mental strain it puts on us, how do we make the work itself healthier and more gratifying?

Empathy

Empathy is the capacity for understanding, and even experiencing, the feelings and thoughts of others. It is seeing someone in pain and feeling their pain vicariously, understanding or attempting to understand their circumstances even if they do not align with your own.

Short of completely dismantling our oppressive economic system and rebuilding as a utopian society (something I could wholeheartedly get behind, but which, admittedly, is beyond the scope of this particular essay), one might also consider refining their sense of empathy.

To be honest, I have found artists to be among the most empathetic people I know. All of my best friends are involved in the arts, whether in theatre or elsewhere, and there is a trend of emotional acuteness among artists that I have not witnessed in other industries. But not one of us is immune to gossip, judgment, or pretension. Whether as the leaders of an organization, wrench-wielding members of the load-in crew, or students in a BFA program, we are never exempt from a capacity of being jerks to one another.

All of our interactions are potential exchanges of empathy. Empathy is understanding that a working-class theatre artist has to juggle many different projects at once in order to survive. It’s helping a sick actor feel better about missing their call time and working without judgment to find someone to cover them for the evening. It’s accepting that although people who are younger than you, or who found their way into the industry via avenues other than conservatory training, may be less knowledgeable about certain things, their less-traditional skills and experiences do not preclude them from being assets to your workplace or classroom. We each bring different experiences and histories with us wherever we work.

Short of completely dismantling our oppressive economic system and rebuilding as a utopian society (…), one might also consider refining their sense of empathy.

No matter which position in the industry we occupy, we are all facing the same crushing statistics of un- and underemployment. Consequently, we should not expect perfection from our colleagues and collaborators. Human beings are inherently fallible creatures. We miss deadlines. We arrive late. We need to make enough money to keep roofs over our heads and sometimes have to shift our priorities in order to make ends meet. We need to back out of commitments to take care of our bodies and minds. When someone fails to meet one of our expectations, instead of writing them off, we should take a moment to empathize with why it happened and whether the expectation was a fair one to begin with. Although empathy alone will not guarantee us better wages and more reliable jobs, it can go a long way toward making the hellacious landscape we all navigate more bearable.

Of course, this invites the question of how theatre organizations can take this logic and apply it structurally. To be honest, I don’t know what the answer to this is. Artistic organizations have shows to produce and struggle to adhere to their budgets and schedules if their contractors leave the job, quit outright, or miss deadlines. It’s easy to say that the organizations should pay better wages, but the economic nightmares of our industry affect them too. However, I think that any artistic director, producer, or general manager can and should be deeply invested in exploring how their organizations can become more empathetic.

More than anything else, I yearn for an industry in which people of wildly different backgrounds can pursue their art in friendly and empathetic company. If this is the economic reality in which we must live and suffer, the least we can do is lift each other upward and help each other survive.

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