This is the Prologue of a multi-part blog series called “A Strategic Approach to Increasing the Value of the Theatre Artist,” by Ron Russell, Executive Director of Off-Broadway’s Epic Theatre Ensemble, with input from the staff and artists of the organization. Working from the assumption that theatre-makers and their skills are critical to the health of our American democracy, the series explores the responsibilities of institutions, funders, and the artists themselves in increasing their impact and value. This Prologue, “A New Contract,” focuses on how Epic has re-shaped its’ contract with Actor’s Equity Association for the 2011-12 season in an attempt to better fulfill our organizational commitment to this concept.
Epic Theatre Ensemble was founded in 2001 on the principle that theatre-makers are essential. That their skills are critical to catalyzing dialogue on vital social and civic issues. That the empathy they help foster, and the imagination they excite, and the rigorous thinking they engage, are all things active citizens need. So it’s not a surprise that we’ve always tried to find ways to get artists into the places they are needed most – into communities that are disadvantaged, and disenfranchised, and disconnected from the role theatre could play in their recovery; into schools saddled with cultures of low expectations; into productions that tackle complex and often intractable challenges that our country struggles with. It’s always been fundamental to our values that the same artists work in our classrooms as on our stages.
We’ve always aimed to pay these artists well above what’s considered the minimum, or even “standard.” We paid actors $260/week on our first Off-Broadway production in our founding season (2001-02); our budget that first year was about $260,000. So on a 10-week contract, which is what we were shooting for on average, an actor was getting about 1% of the total organizational budget (and because we did extensive work in schools and communities from day one, production was only about half of our budget). I followed this as a kind of secret rule-of-thumb for many years thereafter; five years later, when we were a $600,000/yr. organization and producing Nilaja Sun’s NO CHILD…, we were paying actors $450/week. But recently, for a variety of reasons, we began to abandon that ratio, and by 2010 (our biggest season to date, including a production of Sarah Ruhl’s PASSION PLAY), we were looking at a $1.2 million budget and actor salaries were barely increasing.
So, we’re making an economic correction. For this season we’re in now, Epic has condensed almost all of our extensive Off-Broadway, new play development, AND in-school and after-school educational programming this season into one 20-week period, from January to June 2011. What this enables us to do is hire a full-time actor ensemble, 42 hours/week at $900/week, which is higher than the highest non-commercial minimum of any contract in NYC. The actors rehearse, perform, teach, and develop new work together all under a single umbrella contract with Actor’s Equity. Half are on a 20-week contract (including one Stage Manager) and they get a year of health insurance to follow; the other half work in a more concentrated timeline, at 12-weeks (including an additional Stage Manager), with 6 months of health insurance to follow. We think it may be the first of it’s kind in our contemporary era of union/producer relations, and it harkens back to that old “ensemble” idea that everyone in our field seems to dimly remember.
I can’t help but mention here what we’re DOING artistically on this contract briefly here – I am the Executive Director of a struggling not-for-profit, after all! We’re producing MACBETH Off-Broadway in a production sponsored by the NEA’s Shakespeare for a New Generation to reach 1,500 High School students, directed by Ron Russell, and featuring Epic favorites James Wallert, Godfrey L. Simmons, Jr., Lori Parquet, Aime Kelly, Devin Haqq, Scott Kerns, and Melissa Friedman as Lady Macbeth. We’ve got two “Prototype Productions” of Godfrey L. Simmons, Jr. and Brandt Adams’ DISPATCHES FROM (A)MENDED AMERICA and Jeanne Sakata’s HOLD THESE TRUTHS, both about racial identity in America, which will then be produced in repertory in Fall 2012 in the month leading up to the Presidential election. In development, we’ve got workshops of Keith Josef Adkins’ SUGAR AND NEEDLES and Michael Brandt’s FLOOD, as well as 7 new commissions (that’s right – seven!), including Nilaja Sun’s new solo piece and 4 short plays for our Spotlight: Human Rights Initiative by Dominique Morrisseau, Heather Raffo,Ken Urban, and Stefanie Zadravec, in conjunction with the Center for International Human Rights at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. We’re in-residence in four key partner High Schools across the city, sequentially serving every student every year, and each of these schools has an after-school Shakespeare Remix production program, that will culminate in four student/professional productions. And almost all of this work will be done by a core group of 10 amazing artists, providing hundreds of hours of in-school instruction and reaching thousands of young people and adult audiences.
For Epic, it’s really an extension of a core piece of our belief in taking responsibility for increasing the value of theatre artists in our society. And Actor’s Equity was quite responsive to the idea, which might surprise some people. I, too, was a little nervous to ask for a contract that embraced both Off-Broadway and teaching, but was impressed by their flexibility (special shout out here to Francis Jue and Michele Kelts, who steered the development and approval of the contract in different ways). But now that we’ve gotten there together, it seems self-evident to me: AEA is a union, after all; if we can offer their members better money in a reasonable work environment with health insurance guaranteed, why wouldn’t they want to give it a try? Neither side had to sacrifice much – we kept clauses like “More Remunerative Employment” intact to make sure people could take TV work now that there are 28 shows in NYC, and AEA gave us a certain number of lower-salary “guest” contracts for actors who won’t teach.
After this pilot year, our goal is to build two separate 12-20 week contract periods, one in Fall 2012 and one in Spring 2013, and use double the number of actors. As we build, we’ll turn our attention to creating similarly supportive contracts for writers, directors, and designers. By the way, participation in the artistic ensemble is not guaranteed to a single group of individuals: everyone from our diverse group of artistic associates has to audition for each contract, and we’ll always have significant auditions for those who are not yet our associates. I say this to address the idea that an “ensemble” has to be “permanent” to be meaningful, and the concerns that follow about strength of artistry over time. No one will have to make long-term promises in order to participate, and that’s better for both the artists and the organization. But of course it’s harder that way. And it’s not cheap. We’re paying more than we would if we kept paying Off-Broadway and Teaching Artist work separately. But in any intractable situation – which this issue of artist salaries has become – someone often has to take a radical, risky step in order to re-shape the conversation. Because Epic believes that in the American theatre, our artists are our stock in trade, we’re willing to engage in radical risk to increase their value.
The next blog in the series, Chapter 1: “Why Are Theatre Artists Essential?,” will take a look at what the true value of theatre-makers is, or could be, in today’s America.
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Thu, December 8, 2011
by Ron Russell