If you’re friends with enough New York theater actors, you have by now seen ubiquitous appearances of the #FairWageOnstage hashtag in your various social media feeds. The current AEA Off-Broadway contract is set to expire on November 6th, and negotiations for its renewal are currently underway. You can examine the current terms here. As you can see, this contract contains five different salary tiers, depending on the size of the performance venue; the smallest currently offers a weekly salary of $566, which works out to a rate of $14 an hour*. Should that minimum salary still be in place on December 31st, 2018, it would be below the legall minimum wage in this state. Even the largest salaries are problematic – while they’d be just fine for a single man like me, it’d be difficult to raise a family on that in this country at this time, and well-nigh impossible here in New York City. Naturally, AEA is attempting to negotiate for higher salaries to reflect this. The union’s initial offer was rejected by the League of Off-Broadway Theaters and Producers, and in the weeks since that happened, the hashtag mentioned above has begun appearing as a form of grassroots lobbying, an effort for working stage actors to attempt to secure a living wage.
Now, being an actor myself, I’m hardly going to argue that we shouldn’t receive a living wage for our work. And if you crunch the numbers, I think it’s clear that commercial producers can afford the increase. But I would still like to scrutinize this a bit further – starting by pointing out that it is indeed the commercial Off-Broadway contracts that we’re talking about here. There are a great many Off-Broadway theaters, and only a scant few of them operate on a commercial model. The bulk of them are organized as non-profits, and have a whole host of separate contracts with AEA to govern them. The largest of them are comparable to the largest of the commercial contracts; the smallest of them, governing the youngest, smallest, and scrappiest of companies, offer weekly salaries less than half of the smallest commercial contracts. A friend of mine is currently playing a title role in a company operating under such a Letter of Agreement (one of these types of contracts), receiving rave reviews, and is still making less than minimum wage* despite her two degrees and years of devotion to her craft. The #FairWageOnstage posters and lobbyists may well want to change this, but the current contract negotiations wouldn’t do so.
But should they? Again, while we deserve a fair wage, we also need to ensure that these youngest smallest and scrappiest of companies are able to survive – and grow to the point where they can pay their actors a little more. I shed no tears for the commercial producers, and even fewer for those large non-profits which exploit LORT contracts to mount what are effectively Broadway productions (I name no names, and apologize for my propensity for roundabout parentheticals). But the smaller, experimental companies are crucial to the health of theater at large, and we need to make sure we have a model that accommodates them. And simply saying that they should produce Off-Off Broadway instead is disingenuous, if at the same time we’re working to raise Off-Broadway salaries we’re taking no actions to keep the showcase code workable.
It's easy for actors and producers alike to view everything through the lens of commercial theater. But theater doesn’t work on a one-size-fits-all model; every company is different, not just in their economic needs, but in their artistic goals and aesthetic. And as we work towards more equitable salaries for actors, we need to keep this in mind as well. Focusing solely on commercial offerings leads us to miss the bigger picture, where we’re drifting towards one of two possible theatrical landscapes. Either we’ll need a massive infusion of subsidy to keep all of our smaller theaters going (which would be wonderful, but not terribly likely), or we’ll have a theatrical landscape that’s exclusively commercial, with new works and classics relegated to amateur societies and reading series. And if that happens, with these avenues for new works permanently closed off, then commercial theater will inevitably grow stale and lifeless, no matter how well it pays.
We need to be honest about what we want, and choose wisely.
*Hourly rates determined by dividing the weekly salary into a 40-hour workweek. Since in most contracts, actors work fewer hours per week than this, such a determination is, strictly speaking, inaccurate. However, given that the working actor's down time is spent in preparation and maintenance of their role, not to do so is disingenuous at best.