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When Paying Dues Doesn’t Pay the Rent, How Does the Theater Survive?

Here’s how Elsa Hiltner sees that future. All theaters will end unpaid internships. Those with annual budgets greater than $1 million will meet minimum-wage rates, and eventually living-wage rates, for all workers. Compensation categories, or each worker’s actual pay, will be clearly defined and shared. The highest salary in an organization will exceed the lowest by no more than a factor of five. Schedules will be set “to the greatest extent possible” to fit within a 40-hour workweek.

Those are among the benchmarks for certification by the Pay Equity Standards, a new program developed by Hiltner, who worked in theater production for 15 years, and her colleagues at the Chicago-based advocacy organization On Our Team. Two small companies in that city — Collaboraction, dedicated to social justice, and 2nd Story, dedicated to “real stories by real people for real change” — are the first to meet all the requirements. On June 29, they received, among other things, the right to use (but only for the rest of 2022) a handsome laurel-wreathed badge in their marketing materials. Six more theaters around the country are working toward certification in 2023.

They are smallish companies. New York nonprofits with artistic directors making $1 million or more per year — and with pay spreads that may approach a factor of 50 — seem unlikely to apply. Still, as with LEED certification or fair-trade stickers or organic-food labels, the hope is that the badge will eventually help consumers of theater choose work that aligns with their values. While waiting for that to happen, theaters may benefit, Hiltner says, from a happier, harder-working staff — and from the positive response she sees from funders and donors to institutions that actually “live out their missions.”

But it’s also the case that funders and donors generally prefer to contribute to theaters that make a lot of theater. That’s one of the problems facing PlayCo, a New York City company implementing a new compensation model this year.

As described to me by Kate Loewald, PlayCo’s founding producer, and Robert Bradshaw, its managing director, the plan is designed to address not only the usual inequities by raising everyone to at least the living wage but also to adjust the misalignment of pay between staff (who may be full-time) and artists (who usually work for a month or two).

It does so, in part, by putting every job in a clearly defined and equalized pay category: A stage director is compensated at the same rate as Loewald and Bradshaw, a staff associate director at the same rate as a freelance costume designer. Because all the categories are “transparent,” everyone knows what everyone’s making, which in almost all cases is more than before. (The exception is Loewald, who took a cut.) Based on an estimate of 250 hours of work, directors formerly paid $3,500 will now be paid $7,100.

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