Monday, May 5, 2014

Deserve's Got Nothing To Do With It

I think this has been bubbling up lately. Every so often it comes back around.  Money and Theatre.  What got me thinking about it was a post from Devra, and another post from... someone, and then the meeting about the (possible) new Carborro ArtsCenter.

There are a few standard variations on this one. Artists deserve a living wage. We shouldn't do work for no pay, you don't expect a banker to work for free. Bakeries don't give away bread, we shouldn't give away theatre.  Etc...

The basic thrust of it tends to be that people feel they ought to be compensated for producing/performing/ creating art. Because it's hard, it takes skill and training, because it's important to a community.  Let me assure you it is all those things and more. It's heart and faith and being willing to expose yourself (sometimes your physical body, but more importantly your psychic self, who you are in an honest way) which takes incredible commitment. It takes hours upon hours of rehearsal and line study, not to mention set building, lighting, etc... It takes a lot of work to make it look like it's easy.  But just because something is hard doesn't mean you get paid to do it.

Let me preface this by saying in a societal "ought" yeah, it would be great if artists (theatrical performers the only group I can speak of, being one) were paid a living wage.  I would love nothing better than having a full time job creating theatre.  Creating good theatre takes a whole team of talented, dedicated people. People with really amazing skills and training.  And I would love, LOVE for each and every one to get paid what they are worth.

But that doesn't happen, and it WON'T happen, and people just need to get over that and decide if they are willing to create and share art anyway. Even if they know that the hours they spend will get them much less money than working at McDonalds. And it's not because it's not deserved, it's just the simple economics of theatre.  Our last show was at Common Ground, which holds (in the seating arrangement we had) 56 people.  Even if I sold out all 11 shows at the maximum full price ($16 per seat) that would be a total of less than $10,000 ($9,856 to be exact).  That's with NO critic comps, NO cast member comps, NO student/senior discounts and NO kickstarter discounts.  There are venue costs, set costs, costuming costs, then we have a graphic artist, and promotional help (kickstarter video), ASM, and THEN we have cast, director, SM and designers.  We had probably 150 hours of work between rehearsal and performance (not counting work outside of formal rehearsals and work calls).  Federal minimum wage as of our production was $7.25 per hour with no benefits. That would work out to $1,087 for each actor, the director and SM. Even if we max out revenue (which won't EVER happen) there is NO way we can pay even minimum wage, no benefits and still cover costs.  Now of course bigger venues are bigger, higher ticket prices, etc... but those spaces come with higher costs too.  Theatre just doesn't scale. The reason that TV and Movies pay money is that they can show it to hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions at once, over and over again.  Theatre just doesn't and can't ever be that way with the exception of a few places (New York and London principally in the English speaking world, plus touring companies) where people will go specifically to experience live theatre and where you can rehearse a show for 6 weeks and run it for 6 months (and even then it's a precarious business).

Theatre then, is charity. Sometimes it's the charity of foundations businesses and philanthropists who donate money to regional theatres to enable them to pay actors a living wage. More often though, it's charity of actors, designers, back stage hands, spot light operators, etc... who do what they do because they love it. Because they like being in theatre and sharing it with people. Because story, creating, re-enacting, sharing story, is one of the most human things we can do.  Other animals cooperate and specialize, other animals use tools, but no other animal (as far as we know) will create and share story. And theatre really is a democratic art form.  Honestly, all it takes is an empty room, a story and a group of actors willing to put in the work.  As long as you're not trying to make a living at it, the costs can be quite small.  Small enough that I and my partner can afford the up front costs.  Small enough that if we fail, if we lose money, we don't have to declare bankruptcy.  So we do it, and we love it, and we should keep doing it, but unless you are selling toothpaste or fighting a giant robot, chances are you will ALWAYS be engaged in a charitable endeavor. Most likely it will be you donating your time, or perhaps you will be one of the lucky few whose performance is a gift to the community of from a wealthy patron or business concern. But art, theatre at least, is simply not a for-profit business.

Now I want to be clear again about what I'm not saying. I'm NOT saying artists shouldn't be paid, or that they don't deserve to be paid.  When I produce, I pay my co-artists as much as I can because their contributions are valuable and ought to be valued. I'm not saying that art isn't important, or that performance skill and training are not valuable. I'm just saying that "deserve" has got nothing to do with it.

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