On Gratitude and Compensation

by Esther Emery

When I posted last week about parenting and theatre, Lisel, Elaine and JBG all chimed in, and their comments reminded me of one very good reason why the theatre mommies of the world aren’t marching in the streets for on-site childcare and better hours. 

We have very little to bargain with.   

As a freelance artist, if you don’t want to work for a company because you’re holding out for a better or different reward, that may very well be your loss. Someone else will. 

The American theatre exists in its current form because of people who are willing to work for free or for a pittance. Some folks are happy to donate their time to something they love. We hear a lot that “we aren’t doing this to get rich.” (And isn’t that the truth!)  Other folks think of themselves as resume building, or putting in their time, looking forward to the point at which they break through to another level of theatre and start making a living wage. 

And some folks do. It’s a complicated ecosystem. There are a number of companies that can pay people enough to live on. And there are many companies that can’t. In the gray area between, there are companies that pay some folks a real salary and other folks gas money. And there are freelance paychecks that are enough if a freelance artist can just get enough of them.  

The whole system is based on a numerical imbalance between the number of artistic jobs and the number of people who want them. Actors are a dime a dozen. You’ve heard that. It probably isn’t really true. But…people who want to be actors certainly are a dime a dozen. If you don’t want it, fine. Somebody else will.  

Sometimes the work itself becomes a commodity. Opportunities and titles can make a little bit of money go further.  At MOXIE the paycheck is padded with childcare, flexibility and the privilege to bring our kids to work. That’s why I’ve talked so much about the pleasure of sharing my work with my baby. 

However, my total adoration for my son and appreciation of time spent with him shouldn’t make it sound like I stay home because I want to. In actuality, I stay home because I can’t afford not to. I’ve had two jobs in the last year that paid me enough to cover my childcare expenses. One of them was as a stage manager, which income is negotiated by my union, Actor’s Equity Association.

As a director, I have often received the signal that I’m lucky to have the work at all, let alone any crazy perks like health insurance. How can I even start talking about child care?  It’s so expensive and difficult to execute the production, that if a producing organization commits to this Herculean effort, I’d have to be crazy to ask for any additional reward. Take it or leave it.  

But if it’s my privilege to do the work, then doesn’t that mean that theatre is a hobby?   This makes the whole professional vs community theatre distinction a little less clear.  And this is why, as JBG suggested, so many of us leave the theatre, or leave and come back and leave and come back.  

So, what should we be asking for?

This is all a case for bringing back the craftsman guilds from the Middle Ages. I’d really like to be able wear a belt that tells you how good I am at my job, based on the assessment of my peers. Because as long as the value of the artist remains subjective, putting in your time comes with no guarantees, and theatre artists will continue to take what we’re given.