Nurturing Small Professional Theatres for 20 Years

Paying artists doesn’t close theatre doors. On the contrary, statistically speaking, paying actors results in increased growth.

My experience nurturing small professional theatres dates back to 2000. I’ve negotiated the Off-Broadway contract five times, including leading the teams in 2009, 2012 and 2016. I was on the original ANTC negotiation team, creating the most successful not-for-profit contract Equity has ever produced.  ANTC was founded by nine Letter of Agreement (LOA)–referenced to Off-Broadway– theatres with budgets ranging from about $0.5M to $1M. They operated on full Equity agreements with P&H contributions that were all individually negotiated based on the Off-Broadway contract. The Off-Broadway agreement is used by both commercial and not-for-profit theatres, and ANTC wanted to collectively bargain a purely not-for-profit model tailored to theatres their size,  with a clear path for growth. Equity and ANTC worked together to negotiate one of the most successful not-for-profit contracts we have ever produced, eventually creating tiers that would allow theatres to graduate to the full Off-Broadway agreement over time.

Indeed, over the years several ANTC theatres did move on to the full Off-Broadway contract. And as the ANTC theatres grew upward, Equity created another contract, the Transition Agreement, to fill in the vacuum created at the bottom of the contract ladder, to help move theatres from Seasonal Showcase onto contract. The Transition agreement is essentially a minimum wage agreement with P&H, which increases over three years with more allowed rehearsal hours each year (and thus a higher wage). After that, companies move onto the LOA-OB until they stabilize at that level, and then make the move to ANTC.

Nearly every not-for-profit contract company in NYC ascended the contract ladder from nothing, which simply added to their growth. But with that growth comes the responsibility to those who helped achieve it. I’ve worked in this arena for 20 years, nurturing and guiding companies to grow and thrive.  I am thrilled at how far many of these companies have come, but that progress has been buoyed by stage managers and actors who in every case subsidized the theatre’s business model on their own dime, without even getting a tax write off for their contribution. Every time a working actor empties a savings account, pays a bill with a credit card, or puts off an IRA contribution they are essentially subsidizing their employer. Credit cards and missed retirement contributions cost exponentially more over time, leeching away the actor’s money every month through interest payments and lost dividends. Actors who devote their lives to this work continue subsidizing into their retirement while they live on less retirement savings, lower Social Security benefits, and lower pensions.

I understand the challenges facing growing small and mid-sized professional theatres, and that experience will be valuable in guiding them as they recover from the shutdown. That experience also warns me that as a theatre re-grows, its first obligation must be to pay artists a living wage, not mount capital projects.  In the coming reopening (and we will reopen) theatres must share that recovery fairly with the stage managers and actors whose work fueled it. Equity must insist on a business model and timeline for restoring artists salary levels, with a moratorium on capital projects until a theatre has made whole every artist who worked for sub-standard wages during that theatre’s recovery period.

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