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Pay equity: What’s in it for theatre companies?

With a perspective from US theatre, Elsa Hiltner believes now is the time to talk about equity in pay and that it will improve the works produced.
Pay equity: What’s in it for theatre companies? What are the benefits of equal pay for theatre companies? Image Shutterstock.

Elsa Hiltner

Thursday 7 January, 2021

The theatre industry – both non-profit and for-profit – is a system where artists are compensated as little as possible, pay inequity is systemic, and there is widespread disparity in labor support.

It is the system artists work within and the one in which administrators run their companies. But this system is not something many in either group particularly like or want to maintain. The industry has everything to gain by centring pay equity and taking steps to enact it.

The present conversation around pay equity is primarily focused on how it benefits individual artists: If pay rates across the entire workforce of a company are determined without bias, artists will be paid more fairly and in many cases will make more money – maybe even a living wage.

Artists will feel the societal respect that comes with fair pay and, in turn, society will better value art and those who make it. As the economic barriers to creating artistic work are lifted, diversity in the field will increase as more artists will have opportunities that weren’t available to them before.

But pay equity is not a one-sided equation, where the business gives and the worker receives.

There is a second and equally valuable side of the equation, where the worker gives the labor of their art and the business receives it and sells it to its audience or donors for tickets or charitable gifts. (This exists regardless of how some people dislike recognising theatre companies as businesses that run within a capitalist economic system.)

Since pay equity leads to higher quality work, any company interested in having the best product to share with their community will centre pay equity within their company because the benefits to the business are undeniable.

Enacting pay equity can appear to be an expensive undertaking for many companies, but there are many benefits aside from, as one artistic director told me, 'Doing the right thing, morally and ethically.' The cost of the status quo is often hidden.

Pay inequity does real harm to individuals, to companies, to the industry at large, and to how our society values art and artists. Enacting pay equity is not as expensive as it appears, and the industry cannot afford to ignore it.

This summer, I reached out to 154 theatre companies that are members of the League of Chicago Theatres to ask their executives for their thoughts on how paying equitably could benefit their businesses. Of those, I interviewed leaders that represented 45 companies with budgets of as little as $25,000 to several million dollars, most on the condition of anonymity. I chose to focus on this subset of the American theatre field not just because it’s the community I know (I work as a costume designer and director of development in the city), but because it’s big enough that local activism and organising can effect change on more than an individual company level.

Chicago-based organising efforts within the theatre community have shown to spread nationally, including United Scenic Artists’ Costume Committee, Not In Our House and their Chicago Theatre Standards, and On Our Team and the Theatrical Designer Pay Resource.

Given the ongoing issues within our society and the industry-wide renewed dedication to diversity, equity, and inclusion, paying equitably is necessary to growing diversity, accessibility, and a safe and inclusive work environment within theatre companies.

Most administrators I interviewed were not satisfied with where their company was on pay equity. Many spoke about 'the system' and how this is 'the way it’s always been done.' One artistic director said, 'It hurts to not be able to give artists what they need and deserve.'

Many executives and administrative leaders spoke of feeling shame about their company’s lack of pay equity. Overwhelmingly there was a real desire to do better.

The industry has everything to gain by centring pay equity and taking steps to enact it.

The Art Will Benefit

Despite the popular myth, we should all know that an artist who is suffering does not create better art. When theatre artists suffer from poor working conditions, long hours, inequitable pay, low wages, and the resulting overwork, their art suffers too. As one artistic director succinctly said, 'People who are not overworked are better at creating their art.'

Currently, many artists are overworked because theatre rarely pays a living wage, forcing them to take on many jobs simultaneously or maintain part- or full-time jobs as they freelance. This spreads artists thin, splits their focus, and often leads to an unhealthy lifestyle, so it’s no wonder this mode makes it difficult for artists to do their best work.

But when artists are paid equitably, they won’t have to overwork and will be better focused, and that will be reflected in the final product. 'When you take care of your people, the work is always better,' another artistic director noted. And one executive director put it this way: 'If artists are making more money and are able to not pile on projects in order to make it work, they’ll be able to focus more and they’ll do better work.'

A different artistic director I interviewed said that if we had industry-wide pay equity, 'We’ll have less loss of talent within the industry because of working conditions.' As it stands now, the field’s lack of pay equity quickens the impending burnout and further sidelines marginalised designers, making our industry less diverse.

Furthermore, pay equity has been proven to increase productivity. If people are paid fairly, companies will get returns on their investment with an 'efficiency wage'.

Studies have shown that employees work harder, exceeding standard levels of productivity by 19 percent, when they know they are being paid equitably, and they work harder when there is pay transparency.

One artistic director said that, 'People see value in money, and pay affects how people view their own value.' Collaboration will be stronger between artists and administrators who know they are equally valued and are on equal footing. More ideas will be presented when artists understand their voice is valued in the room.

Michael Thornton, the co-founder and artistic director at the Gift Theatre, told me that the organisation decided early on that, as an ensemble theatre, it’s not enough to talk about taking care of each other if they’re not actually doing that. 'A budget is a reflection of ethics,' he noted, 'and being an organisation that’s committed to examining, and evolving, what pay equity can mean allows our artists to trust us, to know that we have their best interest at heart – and that we will, literally, take care of each other.'

Artists, and the Work They Produce, Will Be More Diverse

If you’re interested in diversity you need to be invested in pay equity. The current system of inequity stands as a barrier to many artists who might enter the industry. It drives talented theatre artists out of the industry and degrades the art. One managing director spoke straight to the point: 'Who can afford to work? People with privilege.'

The current system all but requires affluence, personal wealth, or a breadwinning partner in order to sustain a career. Our industry doesn’t need to be structured this way; it’s a destructive choice that we can change.

Free Street Theater in Chicago has long operated under a pay equity policy – one of the few theatre companies in the country to center pay equity of their artists and administrators – and sees pay equity as a key part of their mission to make theatre that challenges Chicago’s racial and economic segregation.

Karla Estela Rivera, Free Street’s executive director, said: 'When it comes to creating work that is by, for, in, about, and with Chicago’s communities, we found, very early in our work, that one of the major barriers to participation is economic.' Because of this, the bulk of their organisation’s budget prioritises people.

Rivera believes their ability to pay artists a competitive wage is not just the right thing to do, it’s a way of recognising that art-making is labor intensive, both emotionally and creatively, and that an artist’s time should be honoured. 'I invite organisational leaders and their boards to ask themselves: How many stories, how many artists, how many future leaders, how many diverse voices does our organization and sector stand to lose if we are not valuing them through equitable pay?,' she said. 'Are we really prioritising equity and inclusion if compensation is not a key component of our strategy?'

Companies’ bottom lines have a lot to gain from a diverse workforce. More diverse work onstage leads to a wider range of communities to engage with and, consequently, to larger audiences. And, importantly, companies with diverse leaders, workers, and boards have been found to have substantially better-than-average profits.

Pay inequity does real harm to individuals, to companies, to the industry at large, and to how our society values art and artists. Enacting pay equity is not as expensive as it appears, and the industry cannot afford to ignore it.

Talent Will Be Easier to Attract

Many artists want to work with companies that actively live out their equity, diversity, and inclusion statements. Artists, like workers in general, want to know they and their co-workers are being paid equitably and that they are equally valued. A production manager told me, 'If people know they’re being paid equitably they’re happier.'

Clutch study from late 2018 showed that workers value fair pay above all other aspects of their working environment. Artists who are treated well will return to work with companies production after production, and these deeper artistic collaborations will lead to more daring and/or more efficient work.

One executive director spoke about the efficiencies that pay equity offers, saying, 'Stronger relationships mean less work and less time spent trying to find artists who understand our aesthetic. They keep coming back and refer other artists to us.'

Risk Management and Standing Within the Community

When asked how paying equitably would benefit their business, a common response from theatre executives was that it would increase their standing within the community, both for fellow theatre artists and for patrons. Pay equity is a 'qualitative way of showing you value your artists,' said one production manager. 'If the pay you offer is generous, it helps to brand and establish credentials within the community,' one artistic director noted. 'Pay equity creates goodwill among the theatre community and a sense of pride as an organisation when we approach people about work.'

In the summer of 2020, the storytelling company 2nd Story announced a pay equity plan: a transparent, multistep strategy to raise artist pay to $15 per hour by September 2021, closing the pay gap between administrators, staff, and artists and building in long-term pay increases to keep pace with inflation and cost of living.

'For a long time I prescribed to the adage of ‘paying your dues,’ which roughly translates to "do a lot of unpaid labor before you make it in this industry,"' said managing director Lauren Sivak. 'It’s inequitable, and I looked at the pay inequities at other, mostly larger, theatres to absolve me of my own inequities.'

As the person responsible for 2nd Story’s budget, Lauren felt she could either work with their leadership and board to take steps towards paying artists equitably, or she could hope no one would catch her. 'I’d rather do something about it and be transparent in our decision-making,' she concluded.

Collaboraction, where I work as director of development, also announced this summer a transparent pay equity plan that ensures the company pays artists and staff within a living wage. Anthony Moseley, the artistic director, said, 'Pay equity benefits Collaboraction because it serves as a foundation of mutual respect.

If ‘process is the product,’ then pay equity is tending to the process, ensuring that no one is left out or behind. We must replace structures of oppression within our work and pay inequity is an important one to dismantle.' Collaboraction’s executive director, Dr. Marcus Robinson added, 'By doing so, we are all freed up to do our best work.'

In my interviews, one artistic director told me: 'Pay equity creates goodwill among the theatre community and a sense of pride as an organisation when we approach people about work.' But beyond pride and goodwill, another artistic director pointed out that pay equity makes the business environment safer for workers, as they would be less prone to physical or emotional abuse.

A company culture that allows exploitation and abuse of workers in one area makes space for exploitation and abuse in others. Not to mention, companies that operate under transparent pay equity policies will no longer need to worry about the ramifications of being exposed for pay disparity.

A company culture that allows exploitation and abuse of workers in one area makes space for exploitation and abuse in others.

Practicing Pay Equity Will Lead to Increased Funding

In addition to interviewing theatre company leadership, in the fall of 2020 I began interviewing directors and program managers at arts and culture foundations in Chicago and the Midwest about how they view pay equity and how they envision their role in shaping equitable workplaces in the arts.

Overwhelmingly, funders want to support companies that centre equity in their art making. They believe their work includes advocacy – they should be allies to individual artists, as well as support companies, and be a part of systemic change in the industry. 'Pay equity is a current and increasing discussion among foundation program officers,' said Marcia Festen, director of the Arts Work Fund for Organizational Development in Chicago.

She added that for the Arts Work Fund, this is 'directly tied to our commitment to addressing larger inequities and systemic racism in the sector. To be better, we need to be more transparent about where the disparities are manifest and then change our practices.'

Obviously, foundations and grant-makers have a lot of power within the arts. They hold many of the purse strings, but just as importantly their grants direct the focus of work produced and call out what organisations should value and strive for. The Paul M. Angell Foundation took notice of the activism and organising around the prevalence and inequity of unpaid or low-paid internships in theatre and announced in December 2020 that they would be adding a section on intern compensation to their grant application for organisations with budgets of $1 million or more.

'At a time when our country is newly and energetically dedicated to inclusion, equity, and diversity, the limitation of internships to the wealthy is not desirable or tenable,' said Michael Angell, the performing arts program director. 'Not only does it unfairly deny access to many potential candidates, it robs the field of badly needed talent. Arts leaders, organisations, and funders must be sensitive to and active on this issue.'

Theatre executives have also been listening to the activism on pay equity and unpaid internships. Barbara Zahora, the artistic director at Oak Park Festival Players, expressed a similar goal of transparency about compensation. Zahora mentioned that while the company has been around for over forty-five years, they’ve begun laying the groundwork for better business practices over the last five.

'For example, our summer internships were completely unpaid for many years, which acted as a barrier to people who didn’t have the privilege or means to afford to not make money,' she said. Oak Park Festival Players’ internship program now pays interns a small stipend, which they are committed to growing.

Zahora added: 'We believe that transparency about pay information on both sides' – to artists and funders/donors – 'would help us set better fundraising goals for money that is needed for our artists and eventually would consistently attract quality artists to collaborate with us.'

Hayley Rice, the artistic director of Babes with Blades Theatre Company, told me that the arts needs a shift in how it is viewed. 'Theatre practitioners in the United States have continually discussed how artists and arts organisations need to recognise that theatre jobs are jobs that require a liveable wage,' she said.

'But something that gets forgotten is that the same connection or evolution of thought also needs to be made by the audiences and donors – both corporate and individuals – who appreciate the arts.' Art isn’t just a hobby, Rice said. Artists are professionals in an industry that requires liveable financial support. 'It is an insidious thing to deprogram from the collective mindset,' she noted.

Centring Pay Equity for a Stronger Industry

A common sentiment among the executives I spoke with was that there are so many worthy issues to take on and that it can be hard to prioritise between funding for pay equity, diversity, accessibility, and creating inclusive work environments. But thinking about what to 'prioritise' within a business is inherently hierarchical and does not reflect the ecosystem within a business or industry.

Theatre companies cannot have diversity or accessibility without removing the economic barrier to the industry. Without equitable pay practices, any diversity or accessibility a company purports to have or 'prioritise' is only performative.

Rather than prioritising different areas within a season or strategic plan, theatre companies should centre areas of growth. Multiple areas of improvement can be centred simultaneously, planned for, and built upon in a holistic way that accounts for how they interact within the ecosystem of a business.

More companies need to start taking action on pay equity, and the few companies that have already need to keep moving forward and improving their practices. Artists who are hired deserve a living wage, equitable compensation, pay that reflects the value of their work.

The theatre industry bemoans society not valuing the arts, but outside of the few companies that have focused on fair pay, most don’t actively value the labor, the workers, and therefore the art themselves.

One artistic director I spoke to even mentioned, 'A big barrier to pay equity in the theatre industry is that we live in a culture that doesn’t value the arts' and then went on to say they didn’t pay actors more 'because the market didn’t require it.'

Our industry doesn’t need to wait to be valued. We all need to recognise our own power within the systems we live in. As members of the industry, we can change the culture – and the first step to doing so is valuing the artists who make the art. Pay equity won’t just benefit the artists – companies will have just as much to gain themselves.

This article originally appeared in The Howlaround, read the original article.

About the author

Elsa Hiltner (she/her) is a costume designer and a writer and organiser on labour and pay equity issues in theatrical design based in Chicago. She is a co-founder of On Our Team. Theatrical design credits include Collaboraction, Silk Road Rising, Teatro Vista, Signal Ensemble, American Blues Theater, Steppenwolf, First Folio Theatre, Next Act Theatre, Lifeline Theatre, Walkabout Theater Company, Windy City Playhouse, and American Theater Company among others. She holds a BA from Western Washington University.