For the past few years, one of my favorite pastimes has been to read the Money Diaries from Refinery29. In it, a millennial woman tracks her spending for one week. I’ve used it when I was making $40,000 a year in NYC as inspiration for how to make my dollar stretch in one of the most expensive cities in the world (hint: food prep ALL your meals). And I’ve also used it to judge people for the dumb things they spend money on (like being furloughed and using that stimulus money to buy… lingerie from Nordstrom).
But most of all, I love how frankly it talks about money. I tried to get something similar started when I was at American Theatre, when I found six different theater workers willing to give me their annual budgets: how much they made from their theater jobs and side hustles, and strategies they used to make that low income stretch. Through these budget breakdowns, I was hoping to make talking about money in the arts a little less taboo, and for people to talk more frankly, publicly, about how little theater jobs pay and how that leads to greater inequality along racial, gender and class lines.
That didn’t happen as much as I wanted it to. Because here we are during a pandemic, one that has put millions of arts workers out of work, and yet artists are still seen as un-essential, elitist members of society who don’t need federal help.
A recent New York Times article about the state of federal pandemic relief said this: “Hands are out as Congress is set to begin negotiating a new round of pandemic stimulus. Airlines, hotels and restaurants. Military contractors and banks. Even Broadway actors. These are just a few of the special interests already maneuvering to get a piece of the next coronavirus relief package about to be taken up by Congress, which is back in session this week.”
In response, Howard Sherman, an arts administrator and American theater thought leader, tweeted this:
“‘Hands out’? ‘Even Broadway actors’? These are people and families in distress. Live performing arts comprise a major industry brought to its knees. Do not dismiss what we do or our importance to the economy. This is shameful, @nytimes. Treating the performing arts, whether commercial or not-for-profit, as if they are a frivolity looking for a handout diminishes accomplished professionals around the country. Using the arts as a flip coda to a political lede is insulting, @nytimes.”
Sherman then tweeted out an update, saying, “@nytimes has removed the word ‘Even.’ But the sting lingers. People who work job to job, in a field that will be the last to come back from the pandemic, are hardly the same as banks.”
Yes those Broadway actors, who, if they’re lucky, will make $98,000 a year—a modest salary in a city like NYC (the true take-home pay is far lower considering fees to union and agents). And they’re at the top tier of the theater profession. Most actors in theater are lucky if they’re making a living wage.
Leslie Odom Jr spoke frankly to The Los Angeles Times about how in 2015, while working on Hamilton Off-Broadway and playing a leading role, he only took home $400 a week (for a show in a 299-seat house where the tickets cost $120 each). The cast got paid eventually, but it was only after years of little to no pay to help develop Hamilton—development time is an investment expected of any artist who wants to work regularly in the business.
Many Off-Broadway actors have told me they can make more on unemployment than acting (the maximum weekly amount for New York unemployment is $504 a week).
This past spring, backstage at her hit one-woman Off-Broadway show Dana H., I asked long-time, award-winning stage actor Deirdre O’Connell how she makes a life in the theater work. Here is what she told me:
“I have a rent-stabilized apartment and I live on my Screen Actors Guild pension. I had gone away for 6 years to do some TV series and TV movies and stuff like that. I didn’t want to do it, I was kicking and screaming, but I had no money. And I feel like every Off-Broadway actor, that you ask how they’re doing it, has some sort of secret sauce. If you have a great year where you work all year, that means you’re completely broke. Basically actors are giving a non-tax-deductible contribution to the theaters they’re working at.”
And that’s only the numbers for actors; those who work behind-the-scenes, either on Broadway or in Hollywood are not exactly living the champagne life. A mid-career TV writer will make $5,000 to $10,000 an episode but they still need to pay union fees and agent fees, and they don’t necessarily work all year. A life in entertainment will net you, if you’re lucky, a comfortable middle-class lifestyle.
When I was first hired as an editorial assistant at American Theatre magazine in 2011, I was paid $30,000 a year (and when I left 8 years later, my salary was $46,000). When I wanted to write a piece about income inequality in the arts, the part about my own meager salary, was cut from the final article.
I believe that one of the reasons that the arts are considered frivolous and elitist is because the industry itself promotes that image.
It’s hard to walk into a theater building that costs $400 million, and not think that those working in it must be paid extremely well. It’s also hard, when tickets to an Off-Broadway show can cost close to $100, not to assume that the actors must be rich if the tickets are that high.
Like in many other industries, theater workers are not encouraged to disclose their salaries, and in many cases are reprimanded for it. Salary transparency is so toxic that the only time theater workers want to disclose how much they make, they only feel safe doing so in a public, anonymous Google spreadsheet.
When talking about theater, the industry places its shiniest faces forward: the glittering buildings, the lead actors, the star-studded award shows. That’s normal, after all, fewer people click on articles about stagehands and front-of-house crew—all of the other people who help make the work happen and whose incomes aren’t as high. Kids who love theater usually want to be actors first, before they realize there’s a wider theater world than on stage.
At the same time, it helps maintain the illusion that the arts, and the people who work in it, are elite. Theater has leaned into the glamour, to the detriment of its workers being seen as human beings. That is why funders and rich people would rather pay for new buildings than better wages for the people working in those buildings. And why because of that low-pay and long hours and passion required for the job, many people burn out and leave the industry.
Or as one arts administrator told me:
“One BIG problem in non-profits is that funders very rarely want to fund overhead. They want to fund specific projects, not staff salaries. And websites like Charity Navigator make a percentage of money to salaries/overhead a part of their rating, which means even individual donors keep an eye on that and are turned off by companies that a) actually pay staff reasonable salaries, and b) prioritize staff health.”
The theater industry is a microcosm of the entire country at large: a country that for too long has divested resources away from people and into things—buildings, larger budget shows, bigger galas. And it has created an ecosystem where a majority of workers are on contract, going from job-to-job with little financial security.
And like many corporations, during a pandemic, many theaters have laid off their lower-level staff members while maintaining the employment and salary of those at the top. The Kennedy Center, despite receiving a $25-million bailout from the federal government, has laid of 30% of its staff, aka 64 employees, while its president Deborah Rutter is taking a 75% pay cut from $1.2 million, so she now earns $300,000.
That is why in the face of a global pandemic where the arts are shut down and artists are jobless, disaster is looming. Because these workers had been living paycheck-to-paycheck. Said set designer Kimie Nishikawa, who helped launch the See Lighting Foundation to help immigrant theater artists during this time (I’m writing an article about them that will come out soon):
“I hope that people or institutions invest more in the people and not the product. There are so many shows that I have done, where my fee is $2,000 for a whole set design, and my [production] budget is 30,000. And just the gap between how much the institution pays for their people and how much they care about advertising and the product itself is too big. We were all hanging on by a thread. When this pandemic hit, most of us were like, ‘Wow, I don’t even have enough money to pay rent for next month.’ And we’re all working on big Off-Broadway shows. We are supposedly the ones who made it but the industry cannot support their artists and I think that really has to change.”
Many are rightly concerned with the well-being of institutions. After all, if these large theaters fold, where will these artists work after COVID is through? For me, I am more concerned about immigrant artists who may have to go back to their home country, about individual artists who have no job security—people at risk of leaving the field and finding new employment, whose creativity and vision cannot be easily replaced. The death of institutions may be tragic but an exodus of artists and workers will be catastrophic.
I was recently asked by two different people about what I think will happen to the theater industry in the future, post-COVID. I answered that I’m not in the prediction business. But I can tell you all what my hopes are. What I hope for are more frank and honest conversations about how difficult it is to make a living in the arts. I hope more people follow the strategy of the #FairWageOnStage campaign and openly talk about how much a life in the arts pays, or doesn’t pay. I hope those who give money to the arts understand that funding personnel, payroll and overhead is just as important as funding a production or a building. I hope in the future, our society as a whole will value people more than products.
I hope there is a conversation around class, alongside the conversation around race and equity, and more strategies for eliminating the class barrier in the arts (aka pay your interns). If theater is truly for everyone, then everyone must be able to make a life in it, and everyone must be able to afford to go see it.
Let radical honesty be a regular artistic practice.
The arts are nothing without the people making it happen. So I hope for a humanity-driven artistic practice, even a slower artistic practice, that prioritizes the well-being of the people making the art happen. I hope for care and love that starts from the bottom up.
Already I see some change happening. Baltimore Center Stage in Maryland recently announced they were eliminating 10 out of 12s (which is 14-hour days for technicians and 12-hour days for actors, during tech rehearsals), and instituting a five-day rehearsal week instead of the typical six. Producers shouldn’t be announcing productions for the future, they should be figuring out how they can help artists survive right now.
And if in the near future, universal basic income and healthcare become a reality, then perhaps a life in the arts will seem less elitist and more normal. If we’re all more frank about how much money we make, then those who work in creative fields will be seen as part of society, instead of above it.
I hope when this is over, people will realize that while it was doctors and essential workers who saved our lives during COVID-19, it was the people in film, TV, theater who created work that nourished our souls.
And in the words of two-time Obie Award-winning actor April Matthis: “When the dust starts to settle—and I’m not talking about just theater, I’m talking about TV and film—let’s support small businesses. I’m a small business as an independent contractor.”