Soapbox: Cutting Up the Pie

Article by Wendy Knox
Freelance Director & Artistic Director, Frank Theatre

“Fed up with complacency”. The words swoop onto your screen: Frank Theater’s website gets right to the point. I still remember my first Frank show: The Adventures of Herculina, in the winter of 2000. Looking at the credits now, I realize just how many of those people either were already very highly regarded or would become so - a testament to Frank’s tremendous place in the local arts scene. Wendy Knox is Frank Theater’s Artistic Director, founder, a national director and member of SDC, the directors’ & choreographers’ union. A brilliant and challenging thinker, Wendy pushes those around her ever forward, and we’re grateful for it. Here, Wendy muses on how we pay - and think about paying - people in the performing arts.

Pie and Photo by Diane Mountford

Pie and Photo by Diane Mountford

I’ve been thinking about the various ways in which we cut up the pie.

I recently took a job from a large arts organization that offered me a fairly paltry directing fee—not even what I would make working for my own theatre, and less that I might make directing in many academic situations. I negotiated a slightly higher fee and, for whatever my reasons were, accepted the job. Shortly after that, I learned that an actor I had cast in the production had negotiated a weekly salary on par with Guthrie’s scale, far beyond my personal scale of what Frank Theatre or an academic institution would pay. Then, I learned that the set designer’s fee was even lower than the scale of Frank Theatre. The discrepancies in the scale that we were all being paid on, for the same project, puzzled me and led me to contemplate the idea of ethical budgeting. The situation also echoed an earlier “Class and the Arts” discussion on money in the arts, the secrecy of salaries and our collective discomfort at talking about the dollar signs.

Working in the theatre, or the arts, in this country, we confront such varying correlations between the work we do and the remuneration we receive from various organizations and projects, and a huge variance in the personal satisfaction that we gain from both. Oftentimes the gigs that are volunteer, or community theatre based, where no one is paid, are seemingly the most free of the friction and dissatisfaction of many paying gigs. How many times have I worked a volunteer gig where no one is bitching about what they are not being paid or what they are being asked to do, or the shortcomings of the working situation? Simultaneously, how often do you hear artists who are working at the most lucrative joint in town complain about anything and everything about their job, including the size of the paycheck? This is not to advocate that it’s far better if we all work for free, nor to dismiss the complaints of those well-compensated artists as baseless. Our own ethics drive our choices as to whether or not we accept various jobs, and I suspect that our personal satisfaction can often be linked to our perception of the ethics of the budgeting of the organization that is employing us.

For those who cobble together their working lives on a freelance basis, the formula in evaluating whether a gig is worth it or not necessarily factors in all kinds of dynamics: Is the project itself interesting? Is the venue a place you have wanted to work? Is your bank account exceptionally low that month? Are the artists involved people who inspire you? Does the project offer you a chance to learn, to grown, to expand your own skillset? Making the decision to take on a gig usually involves a highly personal algebraic formula of many of those factors, where solving for “x” incorporates the amount of dollars exchanged multiplied by the non-monetary currency you hope to gain from the experience. Like many people, I’ve found that sometimes the gigs that pay the least can be the most rewarding while those that offer the biggest paycheck can often cost you the most in terms of non-monetary resources, i.e., be the biggest pain in the ass.

As someone who budgets for an organization, these are the ideas that bounce around in my head as I am slicing up the pie for an annual budget. I’m well aware that many artists in town simply can’t work for the money that Frank Theatre pays, and I have been told that many times. I am more mystified than anyone why we have not been able to raise enough money to pay artists a more significant amount of money, and I also know that Frank couldn’t do the work that it does without the significant contributions that the artists make simply in choosing to work for Frank. And given the pie that we have to serve up to those who work for Frank, I also know we try to make ethical and equitable choices as we slice it up. Our very first project 27 years ago was funded by a $3,000 contribution from a benefactor. That was the entire budget for the show, and anything that we took in at the box office was split evenly between all involved. As we began working on an Equity contract, the Equity and non-Equity actors were paid the same amounts. As health insurance and rate increases came into play, I begrudgingly have had to sacrifice some of that parity in the budget. When we tackle a large-cast show, I know I will have “x” number of Equity actors, and then a pot of money that needs to be divided among the non-Equity actors. Occasionally an Equity actor will ask to negotiate a higher salary, and I simply can’t do it. It forces me to confront the ethical question of how can I pay someone (who is likely working for Frank for the first time and already being paid more than the non-Equity cast members) an even higher amount when there are non-Equity folks who have worked for Frank for nearly 20 years while being paid much less? I WISH that everyone were being paid more, but I can’t help but feel that if there were extra crumbs to be spread around, they couldn’t go to the highest paid folks—they would HAVE to go to those who are making less and have a demonstrated commitment to the theatre. While I recognize that nearly everyone who is working for Frank is doing the theatre a favor by working for our paltry sums, my conscience says that those who have the longest affiliation and the smaller paychecks are the ones whose salaries need to be rectified first. The ethics that drive my budget decisions won’t allow me to simply reward those who have the most experience negotiating, or who have an agent, or who just have the most audacity to ask (and good for them!). I’m compelled to try and make equitable decisions that recognize who is involved, what their experience is, what their relationship is with Frank, what the role is, and at what point a piece of the pie becomes simply crumbs. Above all, given Frank’s circumstances, I try to be as fair as I can with our resources and as honest as I can when presenting an offer.

I recently had a non-union actor attempt to negotiate his fee from Frank. It was his first time being hired at Frank and I was unfamiliar with his work. Personally, I was happy that we had been able to budget all of the non-Equity folks at the same rate (which doesn’t always happen) that, I thought, was a fairly respectable small-theatre rate. He sent me an email, asking for a 20% increase in his fee. While it’s true that it never hurts to ask, I was a little taken aback, and my little bit of pride at making what I thought was a respectable offer took a hit. I responded that I had no room to negotiate. He quickly replied that he had been advised by a fellow actor to “always negotiate up,” but he was happy to accept the fee that was offered. I followed up with a suggestion that it also helps to know the terrain in which you are negotiating, and doing it in person or via phone would be a better idea than email. We all want to believe that the producers are offering us their best possible deal; sometimes that’s true, sometimes it’s not (as I learned in my recent experience). We want to believe that the producers are being straight with us. I told this actor what the deal was with Frank, explained that I thought I was doing good with the offer I made him, and I was disappointed that it was not perceived as good enough, and also offered that I understood that some folks simply can’t work for what we can pay. Giving him an idea of the greater context of Frank’s resources, he understood the process more clearly.  And hopefully, that exchange will help him in his next negotiation.

Unfortunately, not every producer is straight with us when we are negotiating. And we’re also not privy to the details of the budget of every organization that we negotiate with. There are different revenue streams, and different programs that require and receive different levels of budgeting. Frank runs a couple of educational programs that are funded by grants specific to their educational purpose and allow us to pay a much healthier rate then our productions do. But, in looking at an organization, I think it’s fair to want to be able to get a sense of their priorities and ethics by looking at how their budget works. If the top executive is getting paid upwards of half a million dollars to run the organization, and you are being offered a wage that is comparable to a small, local theatre, it’s fair to want to ask questions. If an actor friend is being paid a significantly higher rate for a similar role in the same show, it’s fair to want to know why. You can’t always get the answers, and asking the questions themselves can cause friction (again, an echo of the conversation of Class and the Arts discussion of how we talk about money in the arts). You may or may not get the answer you want, or, more frequently, if you are able to negotiate a higher rate, it will often come with the admonition to “not tell anyone,” thereby maintaining a secrecy about the rates at which artists are paid and keeping us in a subservient position to the producer.

I recognize that budgeting within an organization is going to vary from one theatre to the next. I also recognize that the priorities of one organization will vary wildly from one another. I maintain that there should be an ethical basis to budgeting, even as an organization maintains its own priorities and values. When you serve as an MRAC grant panelist, they offer some good advice that could come into play here. They advise that you can evaluate the proposals however you want as long as you are consistent. I would suggest that same advise can hold to budgeting: being consistent as to how you value and remunerate the artists you hire, and determine the rates at which you pay your artists and your staff from a consistent basis.

In other words, don’t serve the actor half a pie, while the director is getting a decent sized piece and the set designer gets a sliver. I mean, we’re all sitting at the same table.