The Problem with Getting Paid

Small theatre companies are notoriously cheap. Convincing them that they need to pay designers is hampered by the fact that, in New York at least, there are always younger, more desperate designers that will be willing to work without pay so that they can get that elusive NYC credit on their resume. At the beginning of your career there is always a certain amount of free and cheap work to be done to build your cred and establish yourself. I've always been of the opinion that this is damaging not only to designers who are trying to work, but to the theaters who hire these designers willing to work for free. Seeing a theatre offer me $50 to design and then giving the show a $1500 budget has often enraged me. I guarantee that I'll deliver a better show with a $1000 budget, and getting paid a decent amount, than whoever they find that is willing to work for $50.

For the past few weeks I have been shotgunning resumes and portfolios to theaters all over the US in an attempt to get work for the summer, and hopefully beyond. Today I received an email from what seems to be a new company trying to establish themselves. It contained the following paragraph, details have been altered to protect the "innocent."

In order to help build Theatre X into an artistically and financial sound organization our pay schedule for the 2006 season will be contingent on our productions ending their run in a positive financial situation. This means that pay for all artistic talents are dependent on the production doing well. As plans are laid now, artistic contracts will be written to express that a set amount will paid only after all financials have been calculated for the production and only if the production made money above and beyond the cost to mount the production.

I call BULLSHIT! This arrangement is 7 shades of outrageous to me. The letter continues to state that this arrangement applies to "all non-acting talent, such as directors, stage managers, designers, and crew members." These artisans spent weeks, and in some cases months devoting themselves to shows. The clear implication of this arrangement is that the theatre in question feels that designers are completely secondary to actors in determining the success of a show. I have come to expect this sort of thinking from audiences who have trouble understanding what happens behind the scenes of a production, but to think that a professional theatre is operating with these delusions saddens me to no end. The idea being put forth is that the time, sweat, and effort made by a production team is secondary to the success of a show. However being paid for that work is dependent on the success of the show. Do they not see what an oxymoronic situation that is?

Looking at the location of this theatre, which is in a relatively small town, about 50 miles from a major metropolitan city, and looking at the shows that they are choosing for their season this proposition becomes even more risky. While I always applaud a theatre for choosing to stage edgy and forward thinking productions I also know that this type of production needs to be balanced in a season against guaranteed audience pleasers. The budget for a show should not be dependent on the success of a single show, but the success of the season. An edgy show that some people, especially in a smaller town, will find offensive is never going to make as much money as a child friendly Christmas comedy. A few of the shows that they have chosen would have trouble finding an audience even in the heart of a large city, being lesser known works from lesser known playwrights. Don't get me wrong, they are good shows, and perhaps even important shows, but saying their names to the average middle American won't instantly get them interested in the production the way say a Neil Simon, or a Shakespeare would.

The pay arrangement that they propose also seems disingenuous to me. They say that they will pay the designers "if the production made money above and beyond the cost to mount the production." Paying designers is PART of the cost to mount a production! If you were GM do you think you could get away with saying that you'd pay your lineworkers if the sale price of the car was more than the cost of building it? Disconnecting the ability to pay the greater part of the staff for a show from the supposed success of the show just seems like a way to redefine success.

This also begs the questions of what happens if you make enough money from the show to pay some of the designers but not all? Who is more important? The stage manager who attended daily rehearsals for weeks, and every performance of the show? The design staff who spent weeks coordinating their schedules with each other, and you in an attempt to make an integrated design? The production assistants who dressed your precious actors, and made sure that their props were in place so that they could perform the show properly? Do you not see that by failing to guarantee that these people get paid you may not be getting the best effort out of them? Would you devote yourself entirely to a project that was not your own if there was a chance that you'd never get paid for it? Especially when other workers on the same project ARE guaranteed to be paid for it?

Needless to say I will not be working for this theatre under these contract conditions. I am very tempted to send them a letter explaining to them exactly why I won't work under these conditions. What do you think? Am I overreacting? Is this a legitimate way to run a business? Would you send them a reply to their email?

3 Response to "The Problem with Getting Paid"

  • Effie Says:

    Hi. Yikes! I drop by your site periodically from the EDM list to check out your subway drawings... but just have to let you know you're not nuts about this hiring contract.

    I do/have done a fair amount of theater work on the local community level with established theaters (50 years old) and with more ad hoc groups -- from the backstage grunt work through costume design, stage managing, directing and producing. As someone who has sat on producing boards of theaters... You've got to be kidding me!! I work this way sometimes with very small ad hoc groups who offer to cut me a check if they have any money left... but to hinge the payment of the whole production staff on what is essentially the success of the marketing department in selling the show is CRACKED!

    Anyway... hang in there... you might consider sending the theater your opinions as to why their policies are flawed. They may not listen, but at least they were told!


  • Anonymous Says:

    What happens if they get actors that can't act, and the show sucks? Is that your fault, and not get paid as a result? Of course I would send them a reply.

  • bohb Says:

    As I understand it, only the producer is the one that assumes that kind of risk, and that is only because they are the ones who organize the venture. I can't speak for designers as such, but I don't know any technician that work without a set pay amount.

    That is also shifty because it would be so much easier to not pay someone, even if profit was made. The possiblity of getting screwed over would be so much greater for you.