Tuesday, February 25, 2020

We Can't Pay You What You're Worth

Myron Silberstein's Paying the Piper: A New Model for Employment in Storefront Theatre follows a music directing engagement he accepted in 2010, and how an $800 stipend ended up becoming a dangerously low wage when calculated per hour:
How naïve, exactly, had I been? I still have the production schedule, filed among my mementos (after all, this production was my first entry into Chicago’s theatre scene). From first rehearsal to final performance, I worked a total of 88 hours. This amounted to an hourly rate of $9.09, barely more than Chicago’s minimum wage at the time, and well below it now. Inasmuch as my stipend was compensation for the totality of my work and was not divided between its various phases, this is the “official” hourly rate for my work on the production.
Myron goes on to look the entire system of honoraria for small theatres, and how they are failing in their responsibility to the theatre community by producing shows that they simply cannot pay for:
If an employer does not have the budget to hire staff at market rate, that employer quite simply does not have the budget to hire staff. Period. But if a collective of like-minded individuals collaborates on a venture—on all aspects of a venture, including its administration and fundraising—then the venture is collectively owned, and financial arrangements can be determined by mutual agreement.

Rather than existing separately from artists that it attempts to hire at less-than-minimum wage, a storefront theatre company could solicit artists whose passions align with its own and form a stable, consistent theatre ensemble. If a theatre company is unable to attract such an ensemble, it needs to query whether it is indeed relevant to Chicago’s arts community. Likewise, if a theatre company is unable to find a core group of artists willing to forego financial gain to fulfill the theatre’s mission, it most certainly should not ask strangers to do so. In much the same way, if I cannot find a neighbor willing to water my plants as a favor, I certainly would not expect a housesitting service to forego its fee out of an assumed passion for plants.
Myron's article raises a lot of questions and I like his solutions at the end of the article. I've been asked to do many engagements for shamefully low amounts, and have (usually) turned them down. Presenters must create financially viable engagements and positions in order that our entire profession remains (becomes?) financially viable. Otherwise it's all built on air.


  1. I completely agree. Unfortunately, the passion of a grassroots company often lacks an arts administrator (or similar advisor) to get them on some kind of fiscally productive track. I've played for music schools with no organized accompanist funding (something that could be remedied with a bit of thought), and worked for companies that operated on sheer force of personality. Helpful nudges towards people or policies that cold benefit them in the long run is really all you can do; otherwise, hold out for what you're worth, and don't agree to anything until you have a good idea of what it entails as far as your commitment.

  2. A great analysis of a serious problem.