Hick With A Master's Degree: Starving the Local Artist:
When the play finally opens, the actors will be exhausted by their schedules and broke due to the costs of transportation, parking, meals, and in some cases babysitters and loss of income due to time off for the show. On stage they will probably wear at least one garment from their own “costume wardrobe” at home, and very likely shoes that they have provided. They will wear makeup they bought. They will pay their way to and from the theater every night. And still they will not be paid for their work.
This is a given in theater. It is accepted. It is mentioned and occasionally debated. But nothing is ever done about it. Every show begins with high hopes and plans to pay all the artists, and ends with the producer passing the hat to buy wine for the closing night party. Everybody in theater knows this. But, over the years, I realized that I just couldn’t take it.
More and more, the feeling I associated with theater was shame. I tried harder and harder to write scripts that actors would like to perform. I made the characters as vivid as I could, and made sure every actor had at least one great line, one great moment. But it wasn’t enough to make me feel good about what I was asking them to do. For after all the costs were rung up, and all the rent was paid, there was never enough to fairly compensate the artists.
I tried dividing up my fee and giving it to the performers. But since the fee was small to begin with, it didn’t amount to much, spread over an entire cast. And then I tried not taking any fee, just throwing it into the budget. And still the actors were not paid more than an “honorarium.”
So imagine how it feels to read an article like the one that appeared today in the Seattle Times. One theater company here is asking the public to give them a million dollars by the fall, and another million and a half by next spring. The Artistic Director is not threatening to quit and go back to the East Coast, but the managing director insinuates that holding onto a prize-winning and sought-after AD like theirs requires big-time funding.
Two and a half million dollars, and the money is supposed to come, primarily, from individual donations. So, I’m thinking: Okay, there are rich people in Seattle. All artists know that, and many of them spend inordinate amounts of time trying to figure out how to appeal to these rich people: What will they like? What will they pay to see? How much can we charge them for tickets? A couple of local companies have gone broke and out of business, trying to appeal to rich people while ignoring the theatergoers in their own neighborhood.
Maybe it is unkind, but I think those companies deserved to go out of business for ignoring their neighborhood. Theater is not glamorous; it is visceral and it is present, but it is not glamorous. It is not international, no matter how far word of it travels. Theater is local, at all times. And if a company is lucky enough to afford its own theater, then it had better find out what people who can get to that theater will and will not find intriguing. This is not pandering. It is listening. And it has been a long, long time since our big companies listened.