This month’s American Theatre magazine had an interesting article by Eliza Bent entitled “Equal Pay, Equal Play.” Bent talks about one of the topics a lot of people think about, but in the art world, often pretend not to care about: getting paid. The equal-pay, or parital pay, structure is one in which for every production and every full time positions, everyone is paid the same amount. Bent looks at several companies who have, at some point, used the equal-pay policy, with varying motivations and results.
Some theatres have a great experience with the equal-pay structure. One such example is Seattle’s Annex Theatre, which pays all of its employees $15 a month; all Annex employees have full-time jobs that they work in addition to their hours at the theatre. Jake Ynunza, the Annex’s communications director, says that artists stay despite the low pay “because of the quality of our work and the way we treat our artists.” A second, Le Théàtre du Soleil, has used the equal pay structure successfully, basing the payment system of the philosophy that “there is no talent hierarchy; we’re equal, but not identical.” One company, 3LD Art & Technology Company, made the change to equal pay out of necessity, not philosophy. The company was suffering from low subscription, and their answer was to keep everyone’s pay at $1,000 a week, or roughly $40,000 a year, well under the living wage in New York City. Since it was first implemented, the full-time staff has grown from 2 to 10, and it seems that the equal-pay system can save a company from financial ruin if need be.
Some theatres, however, have chosen to stray away from equal-pay for many reasons. Kevin Cunningham, executive director of the 3LD Art company mentioned above, was asked if they would stick with the equal-pay model. He answered that “different people do different duties and they deserve to get paid differently.” The company will likely return to a hierarchical pay structure when their finances have been stabilized. The Belvoir St Theatre in Sydney, Australia used equal-pay for years, decided to make the change to a more standard pay system. Brenna Hohson, the Belvoir’s general manager, says that the best part of equal-pay was that it “was a tangible illustration of what we believe – that everyone at the Belvoir has an incredibly important contribution to make.” Why change then? The reasons were numerous, but are similar to the issues in the 3LD Art, namely that wages remained too low. As a result, the Belvoir was attracting older artists with partners that made significant enough wages to subsidize their low income from the Belvoir, but younger artists at the start of their careers had to move on to their next opportunity because they couldn’t afford to stay. The benefits of the standard pay system for the Belvoir is that they can now keep their younger artists with them for longer, and “[they] are putting more money into the pockets of [their] employees.”
How can we make sense of this issue then? It seems that equal-pay, while philosophically ideal and a great tool to save a company who is struggling financially, comes at a great cost to artists in the literal sense. Artists who embrace equal pay must be willing to either have a partner to support them or work an additional job to supplement their wages, as the artists do at the Annex. In addition, equal-pay can hurt young artists who might be forced to continue on to a new company in search of better wages, which in turn hurts the theatre when their younger staff is constantly changing. On a practical level, while the motivations are very good, the challenges are so high that a company had better really think what they are willing to sacrifice for their art.
On a more interesting and hopefully discussion-sparking note, should people have equal pay? Should a theatre company be paying an actor as much for the production as they do a technical director or stage manager, who can end up working longer hours? Ideally, yes, everyone’s work is entirely equal, but sometimes it isn’t, and how does a company adjust for that to prevent resentment from forming? Perhaps the answer is hourly pay on an equal scale, but could that really work for the theatre where hours seem to bleed between what happens in the theatre and what is prepared at home?