There is much in the news these days about how artists, and the personnel infrastructure supporting the artists, need to be appropriately compensated. Los Angeles theater, of course, has become ground-zero for some of this debate. Despite claims to the contrary, you’d be hard-pressed to find a stage actor in L.A. who wouldn’t like to be more appropriately compensated. The issue is defining the term compensation: is it primarily measured in terms of dollars (Actors’ Equity’s position), or, given the minimum in “minimum wage,” does it include other things as well (the Angeleno actors’ position)?
But there are other compensation issues as well. American Theatre has published an article describing how a modification in the Fair Labor Standards Act, to be implemented on December 1, 2016, may cause additional headaches for not-for-profit theaters across the country. Central to the modification is that salaried employees who earn under $47,476 annually will receive overtime when asked to work more than 40 hours per week. The impact on the stage community from this may be huge because a 2014 Los Angeles County Arts Commission study revealed that the median average salary for non-profit theater employees was $32,799.
This median is 30% below the new mandated limit. This 30% represents a lot of hours that supported productions but were not in the budget. And the new law hits a mere 2 weeks before Equity’s new agreements for intimate theater arrives.
There’s an irony, perhaps, that those who were so certain only actors were working below market value may finally discover – too late – that the entire theater personnel infrastructure was similarly undervalued. And this personnel infrastructure cost was based on the partial volunteerism of those who neither receive applause nor mentions in reviews.
Compounding this financial pressure is an institutional squeeze on the artist’s bread-and-butter: intellectual property. Corporate entities are more and more defining how abstract things, like concepts and language, may (or may not) be used. Apple, for example, has a patent on essentially a square – and the patent has 15 inventors. (Try as an individual to get something similar through the patent office.) The NFL owns the phrase “Super Sunday” – since when is that a name of something? And earlier this year, The Wooster Group found out that securing the rights to a Pinter play for a “preview” run in New York City did not mean securing them for a theatrical run at REDCAT in Los Angeles. The L.A. run was allowed to continue without reviews. The event prompted an essay this week on copyright law entitled “Fair Treatment for Theatre Labor: A Right to Perform Plays” by Catherine Fisk, Chancellor’s Professor of Law at UC Irvine, and Alisa Hartz, staff attorney at Public Counsel Opportunity Under Law in Los Angeles. Members of The Wooster Group put out a video, shown below, reading the essay. The group includes noted actor and Oscar winner Frances McDormand.
And to create a perfect trifecta along with money and intellectual property, let’s add coverage. Deadline Hollywood reports The New York Times will no longer cover “restaurants, art galleries, theaters and other commercial and nonprofit businesses in the tri-state region.” If you are wondering what that may do to theater around a certain island, here’s a reader’s comment lifted from the story’s website:
Jeffrey Kosmacher, Director of Media Relations and Public Affairs, Vassar College • on Aug 31, 2016 4:01 pm
I can certainly understand the advertising pressure involved in this kind of decision. But there’s a Catch-22 for non-profits who would love to advertise in the Times yet can’t afford their exceptionally high rates. One small ad would eat up our entire advertising budget (and then some) for an entire year.
Our Powerhouse Theater partnership with fellow non-profit New York Stage and Film has served as a proving ground for hundreds of new theater works over the past 30+ years, including this year’s Tony winners for best play (The Humans) and musical (Hamilton). Our Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center offers high level exhibitions (regularly reviewed in the Sunday Times) and asks no admission fee. These kinds of offerings at Vassar make high quality arts experiences an affordable option for people in our region, who don’t have to take on the high costs of a trip to New York City. The reality is that even calendar listings and small blurbs in the Times have an enormous impact on getting people to value our cultural offerings, and to buy tickets for offerings when we need to charge admission. Understandably the Times needs to turn a profit, but there’s a reasonable public service role for it to play. Sure the Times could use more advertising to support such coverage, but the cost of that coverage also won’t make much of a dent in the Times’ profitabliity[sic].
This argument is vaguely evocative of similar sentiments I’ve heard about the theatrical arts since last Labor Day. It likely originated inside Kosmacher from similar passions.
Such is the situation when artistic endeavors and craft are discussed in terms that were once reserved for manufacturing output and jobs.
Originally published September 5, 2016 in Footlights.