Sunday, April 23, 2017

Not this again...

Yes. It rears it's ugly head again. "Why can't I get paid for my art?!"

I've posted about this before here and here. I think this will probably be the last time I deal with this on the blog. Not that the problem will go away. Wow, it would be awesome if my next post was like "hey, I have this awesome idea" or "this group found a great solution" or something. But I doubt that will happen. I doubt that the issues here or the solutions (or lack of solutions) will change much. I'm not saying it's impossible... I guess I'm just pessimistic.

Anyway, this came up again on Facebook, on an actor's page, as it does every 12 months or so. Someone says "hey, you wouldn't expect bakers to bake bread for free" or "accountants to do your taxes for free" or some variation, "so why do you expect actors to work for free?" Usually (though not always) this comes with a "let's all band together"/"if people didn't do it for free people would have to pay us" etc... (which often devolves into attacking/demonizing people who are willing to act for little or no money... but that's another issue).

So yeah. Every year or so, someone posts this, and generates a lot of support, but then also people saying "hey, we can't really always do that" and then it usually goes down hill from there.

Couple things up front:
1)  I am not going to offer solutions. Some people are. Some people think Patreon is a new model that is going to solve (or help solve?) all this (to me it looks like just a new way to sell season memberships but, hey, if it works...). Others will tell you that kickstarter or gofundme or [insert possible solution] is the answer. So far, the solutions I've seen seem to fall short. Put me in the "skeptical a solution exists but hopeful it does" camp.
2) When I say "the arts" I'm mostly, but not exclusively, talking about theatre arts. This is just because that is my art form thus my perception and knowledge is skewed to that art form. Often I may use broader language, and what I say may be applicable to more art forms, but if I make a generalization that makes you go "well but in painting.." or something, just understand that's where I'm coming from, so that's mostly what I'm talking about, even if I don't explicitly say so every time.
3) Let's remember where we AGREE. Look, we all agree that artists work deserves more compensation in the philosophical sense. I've seen some OK work, and I've seen some excellent work, and I've seen some bad work. But everyone, EVERYONE I know involved in the arts thinks, as a general proposition, that artists should (as in "ought to") be able to get a living wage. Does that mean they offer a living wage? Hell no. But what I'm saying is that it's not because they don't want to, it's because, usually, they can't.

OK, on with the show.

SO - why can't artists get a living wage. There are three, intersecting forces at work here, and any approach that desires to understand the problem needs to be cognizant of all of them. They are: supply, demand, and community.

First - supply. The beauty of art, the magic and the democratic power of art, is that anyone can do it. I'm not saying everyone can do it with equal skill, but everyone can create art.

This fact is immensely powerful. That's why underground theatre and subversive music is a force that threatens capitalism, totalitarianism, and autocracies. You can limit it's dissemination, you can deride and attempt to discourage it's creators, but there's no lever you can apply that can prevent it's creation. All you need to create theatre is a story, actors, and an audience. Try and ban it, and you have to patrol every municipal park, church basement and empty storefront. Good luck.

But this very democracy means that you can't limit the supply. There is a stage actors union, of course, and if you want access to equity houses you typically need to be a member (not always, but it helps a great deal). But the vast majority of theatre in america today does not take place in Equity houses or under equity contracts. The truth is that the vast majority of Equity actors (theoretically, the "professionals") do not earn the majority of their income from acting (according to the '15-'16 AEA report, the average Equity member worked 16.6 weeks/year, and at any given time, only about 13% of AEA members are working - in acting). Why?

Well, making art, creating, telling stories, these are activities that nourish the soul. The bring a sense of community, place, wholeness to their participants. Humans need to create, to be a part of something, and to build together. And some of us need to act. We can't not. This reward, this need, means that the supply can't be limited. Because if a group (a local union, a rule, whatever) tried to prevent people from acting for less than $X per week, hour, whatever... well people would not obey. Look, I'd rather get paid than not. But if you told me I couldn't, I WASN'T ALLOWED to act for free if I wanted to, I'd laugh in your face. Try to stop me. And not because I dislike solidarity. Look, I'm not much of a joiner, but I generally support unions and their goals. But, there is something that is, for me, part of being alive. It's necessary for my happiness and well being.

Is that fair? I don't know. But it's a fact. The fact that art brings non-tangible rewards, the fact that people will paint or write or draw or act for their own satisfaction and personal fulfillment, plus the fact that the barriers for entry (cost of materials) is, or can be, so low means that you will be hard pressed to create any economic solution that focuses on supply.

Now, again, this doesn't talk about quality. The supply of good actors is not unlimited. The supply of good actors that meet your current specifications of age/sex/ethnicity/etc... is even smaller. And sometimes, when something is in short supply the cost can go up. This is definitely true with projects that are anticipated to MAKE MONEY. We need this person to make sure this project has the best chance of success! But if it isn't going to make much money, if the marginal difference in ticket sales between one actor and another is small, well, that brings us to the second point:

And the other side. Because I act and I produce, I'm familiar with both sides of this coin... or lack thereof.

You make art, and you expect to get paid. Great. So are you making art people want to buy? Because if you're not, how exactly do you expect to get paid? Shakespeare was writing plays for a commercial audience. Caravaggio wanted to paint the whores and musicians he counted as friends, but he was commissioned by the church, so he painted them... as saints and martyrs. Because he was producing work for money.

Virtually no art in the area, certainly no theatrical performance, can afford to pay people what they are worth, because the demand simply isn't there for live performance to consistently support paid, professional work. I went into detail about the finances of our last production here. As I point out in that post, even if I sold out every show at the maximum ticket price (and impossible task), I still could not provide people minimum wage (to say nothing of a "living wage"). And our last show was no better. In fact, it was considerably worse. We put up a show that I consider to be the equal of any show in the triangle, and in fact, of any show anywhere. A gentleman came to see Blackbird who had seen the production in New York. His response: where's the audience? All I could do was agree. And look, I'm not talking about just my own work. Many other production companies are putting on excellent work. Some have built a loyal following and a subscriber base. And even THOSE companies can't afford to pay people a real wage. The stipend is nice, but it's nothing that can support a career.

Speaking personally, we could make judgments about what to produce based solely on "will it sell?" I have plenty of respect for people who choose their season that way. Temple Theatre's slate of shows may seem un-adventurous, but they have an audience they know and want to please, and they are looking to sell tickets. Artistically - personally - I think it's unexciting. But I have nothing but respect for their choices. Frankly, IF we do produce again, we are going to think long and hard about if it will sell.

If artists banded together to demand a living wage, the result wouldn't be "producers pay a living wage for local theatrical productions." The result would be "no local theatrical productions." Because there's just no money there. That's why I'm saying this problem is complicated. Even if you had complete control of one lever (something that's impossible), you don't get the results you want.

I don't know if this is the right label, but a few of my thoughts didn't line up well with either of the other two.

What do I mean by community? Well, often the response is "well you should get funding" - apply for grants, seek donations, etc... But please know, that is MUCH easier to say than it is to do.

First - someone has to, you know, do that. Applying for grants is time consuming and costly (remember how you were going to pay a living wage? well that should apply to the grant writer too). They also, almost always, come with strings. They stipulate how you spend the money, what it can and can't be applied to, and reporting requirements to prove you obeyed the rules. These are real costs. Even the time and expense of obtaining a 501(c)3 status is non-trivial.

And the other thing: he who pays the piper calls the tune. Just as choosing a show or a season based on if it will sell is limiting - so is getting donations. Is this the kind of show our sponsors will like? Will our donors turn us down next year if we are "too controversial"? There's just as many (though different) issues with getting foundation money and donations as there are with picking "popular" shows.

And saying money - paying artists a living wage - is a requirement for art. That is problematic. Because what you are saying is that having enough free time to write grant applications, fund-raise, host gala events for supporters, sell sponsorships, etc... having all those things is a pre-requisite for making art. That's a problem too. Art isn't (or shouldn't be) just for the wealthy and the well connected. It should be for a group of people with a desire to tell a story and enough free time to make it happen. It should be for people who do graffiti as much as people who hang in galleries.

So where does that leave us? I don't know. I said at the beginning that I didn't have any solutions. I still don't.

For us, well, to be honest, I put in all the work of an artist. As much as anyone else could or would for my latest show. And I paid for the privilege out of my own pocket. Think about that. People are saying artists should be given a living wage (and they should!)... but I actually wound up paying money to create art. It sold for less than my cost of materials, so to speak, and that's WITHOUT paying my artists anything. (Note- we do pay money to artists if we make a profit, but we don't if we lose money, it's a collective endeavor on the positive side of the ledger, but not the negative one).

I don't like that. I don't like not paying artists, especially when my cast and crew produce work that is, in my opinion, of "professional quality." I don't like losing money either.

To be honest, something has to change for us to decide to produce more work. We will if we find something we are absolutely on fire about, but as it stands, I don't know if it's possible, if it's realistic, to expect to break even. And if that continues to be the case, I don't know if it makes sense to continue to produce.

We shall see. . .

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Thank you.

Wow. We closed another show last weekend. It was a huge effort. Enormous. This is where I say thank you to the many, many people who made it possible.

This was a huge undertaking. There are so many people who made it possible. Thanks on our website seem paltry and inadequate, but it is what we can do. Honestly, it would be impossible to properly thank them. Just know that if you enjoyed the show - you saw power, trust, honesty in  performance, you were affected by this story - it was not just the people on the stage that made that happen.

First, thank you, again, as always, to our Kickstarter supporters. For reasons that are probably obvious, this show was not an easy sell. In addition, we lost most of the first weekend to snow. So financially, this show is tough. Our kickstarter supporters, those that gave a little more to be in our program and website - thank you! You made a huge difference, and your money went directly into putting the show on stage.

Let's not forget some people who were able to help us load the show in and out. Matt Spittler, Chris Hayworth, Matt Fields - thank you!

To Josh and Michelle (and everyone at Sonorous Road)- thank you as always. You have been as supportive as anyone could hope for. Not just folks willing to rent their space, but real companions in the journey, going above and beyond to help the show in any way you could.

To Kevin Ferguson at Cardinal Gibbons High School - Thank you. Being able to rehearse in your space is a huge HUGE help to our production. One of the single biggest contributions to our show every year. Thanks also to Ian Finley and Jerome Davis for being willing to make space available for us on a fill in basis. Speaking of fill-ins - Lauren Knott and Kieth Bugner - thank you! You were both able to step in to help us when Andy wasn't available to stage manage. Thanks for giving us your time and assistance!

Thank you as always to the other theatre companies that let us rent/borrow items. Justice Theatre Project, Theatre in the Park, and RLT and some others (you know who you are). This is a theatre community that really cooperates and helps each other. So happy about that.

To a number of people who helped us in ways big and small. Jeff Nugent - thanks again. You're help is just so amazing. Letting us borrow your help and your truck on short notice, helping with little details and big ones. And Nora Kelly - thanks for being willing to help when I needed a truck. Aaron Alderman - thanks for being able to drop in and help us record a very special song with Marleigh. Such a special touch to the show. Diana McQueen for helping us hang posters. Thank you, I just ran out of time, and having another person passionate about the show and willing to help was huge.

To our technical director Todd - wow. I rely on you in ways big and small, and you always have time and patience to help me. I really appreciate that. None of our shows would have been possible without you. I designed this set - and I promise next time (if there is a next time for me doing that job) I will DO BETTER. I will measure more carefully and communicate more fully. You did well to put up with me and roll with the punches. So thanks!

Will Mikes, our sound designer - thank you! In addition to designing the pre-show music and our ni show sound cue (only one this time!) Will recorded our curtain music with Aaron and Marleigh. Sound design is often under appreciated. I loved the mood that the music set for the show (mostly Phillip Glass by the way).

To Alyssa - our ASM and our Lighting Designer (by default). Thank you. You put in so so much work on this show. The lights were perfectly awful - bleak, washed out, unforgiving. And when Todd had to spend time working on the set (because I messed up... see above) you stepped up big time. You ran the cables and hung all the lights. And in the show, the office simply would not have been "alive" without you. Thank you.

Jennifer... well of course thank you. Those amazing AMAZING images? Jennifer did them all. The photography, the layout, the design, the look, everything. It was an incredibly professional job. Really blew me away. She also helped create the "color story" of the show (both the colors in the set and the colors worn by the actors) and she designed the costumes. You simply don't understand how important these things are until you have someone who knows what they are doing walk you through it. SHOW you. And then you see. If that wasn't enough, she also took the promotional images. And of course... well she supported me. Thanks for reminding me to center myself when things got crazy.

Andy, our stage manager, thank you. You have been a part of almost every production we have done. Your skill, professionalism, and humor are simply unmatched. There is a reason you are on the very short list of the area's best stage managers and directors. Thank you.

Marleigh - wow! we were so SO lucky to have you. To have an actor of your experience and caliber work with us is always special. One of the hallmarks of a great show is having great actors in supporting roles. Your work was invaluable to the project, it simply would not have been the same without you. And thank you also to Page Purgar and Steve McDonald for letting Marleigh participate in this show (and driving her back and forth...). We were so lucky to have all of you involved. [EDIT: I can't believe I forgot this paragraph in my initial posting! One of the dangers of doing these things is that you can forget people and feel horribly embarrassed and guilty after - please forgive me! The omission is one of my incompetence, not a lack of good will or your importance to the project]

Katie, thank you for being a wonderful actor and a wonderful human being. This is not an easy show for any young woman to take on. It is a great role, but one that is challenging not just in terms of line load, but the emotion you must take on. Una is not a comfortable person to live with for an hour, much less two months. Thank you for committing so fully, so bravely to this process and this script. Thank you for speaking your mind and your truth in rehearsal, in public, and on stage. Thank you for being a damn good actor and friend, and for working with us on this show.

John, of course, thank you. You know what a big undertaking this was for both of us. Your work on stage, and as a production partner... what can I say. We did it again. What we put on stage was simply the best work we possibly could have done. The standard of quality of that production was among the highest I have ever seen in the region (or outside of it for that matter). That final performance - I mean, I am biased of course, but it was easily among the best things I have ever seen performed. Good work.

And finally, thank you to our audience. It wasn't the easiest show to see. Not all art is. But that show had a power and yes, a beauty that I hope you appreciated. So thank you.

I'm going to take a nap.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

The Reviews Are In, Blackbird Is A Hit!

Opening weekend was tremendous. The weather discouraged a few people, but those who came witnessed (in the words of Areon Mobasher) "a work of moving, captivating, and profoundly human art." Thanks Areon, I couldn't have said it better myself (and I tried!).  It's really great to hear that kind of praise from a fellow artist. The local critics were also out in force, and they loved what they saw:

Triangle A&E:
Pamela Vesper and Kurt Benrud call John and Katie "Simply superb."

Alan Hall didn't really provide anything blurb-worthy, but he liked it. Don't believe me, CLICK HERE to read it (SPOILER WARNING - this review describes the plot a bit too much imho).

News & Observer

Indy Week:
Byron Woods gave Blackbird "★★★★" and called the show "A thorny garland of questions with no easy answers."

Our first weekend was a critical success. Will it be a commercial one?

This is a tough play. One of the things we were worried about was: "would people come?" We decided that if we produced a great show. One with truth, and clarity and heart, audiences would respond. I think we did that. I hope you join us. If you like good theatre, this is a show you won't want to miss!


Monday, January 9, 2017

Ticket Prices

Due to a miscommunication with the venue, tickets were available for an incorrect (and cheaper) price. The ticket prices on our website, our facebook page and our press release were the prices we intended to charge. The text of Sonorous Road's website was correct too. But the wrong information was input into ticket leap. As a consequence, some people got a discount. So congratulations! You saved some money! Some press reports also took the price from the website and reported it incorrectly, so we honored the discount for tickets sold at the door Friday night (we made all tickets $10 on Sunday anyway because of the weather).

SO - The correct prices for tickets are:

$20 for general admission
$16 for students/seniors

Which leads us to a natural question: why? Our general admission prices have been going up steadily from $15 for our first show, Copenhagen to now. Why are we charging more? 

Well the first answer is our costs have gone up, significantly. We paid $600 for our single weekend rental of Common Ground in 2012. We paid twice that $1,200, for a single weekend at Sonorous Road. Our venue costs have gone up 100%, and venue costs are the number one line item in a show's budget. We also are putting more money into the set, costumes, and design. Not a LOT more, but we have made a conscious decision to spend more on our set to get it right. We sweat the details more. Of course, we still could not do this show without the generous contribution and help of other theatres letting us borrow (or rent at very low rates) furniture, props, flats, etc, but keep in mind, the only set pieces for Copenhagen were three chairs. This set requires a lot more money than that:

The set of Blackbird consists of a bit more than 3 chairs. Photo by Areon Mobasher

But the main reason is very simple: this show is worth it. I don't like to make comparisons when it comes to art, but I feel comfortable saying that this production is among the very best theatrical presentations in the triangle. I would put this up there with every production in last year's top ten according to the INDY (including our own Time Stands Still). Tickets for touring shows at DPAC start at $30 (plus fees) and go up from there. Tickets for Playmakers start at $15 if you want to sit in the corner, but seats comparable to our performance will cost you $57 (again, plus fees). Tickets to Theatre Raleigh are $30. Even tickets to Raleigh Little Theatre run $24 general admission. 

This show is every bit as good as anything you will see on those stages, and probably better (in my admittedly biased opinion). This is a chance to see a show of incredible quality at a price that is cheap by local standards. Is it more expensive than a movie? Sure. But it costs more per seat to produce. And it is worth it. If you value theatre, if you think it is a worthy medium, if you think it should matter, come see this show. You will not be disappointed. 

PS - if you are concerned about price, there are still opportunities to see the show for FREE. Sign up to volunteer by clicking here!

Sunday, January 8, 2017

SNOW DAY SPECIAL! The show will go on!

South Stream's production of Blackbird by David Harrower will go on at 3PM today, Sunday, January 8, as scheduled. 

Come see the show that critics are already raving about! 
"Tour-de-force performances" Martha Keravuori and Chuck Galle
"Simply superb" - Pamela Vesper and Kurt Benrud

ALSO- for today only, we're having a Snow Day Special!  ALL TICKETS ONLY $10!
(there may be some fees if you buy on line)

We know some people are still snowed in, and we don't want you to take any unnecessary risks, so if you have tickets and would like to move your reservation to a different date, we will happily accommodate you. Just email us at

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Show Cancelled Tonight, Saturday January 7

Friends and patrons,

We hate to lose a show, but we have decided to cancel tonight's performance (Saturday, January 7) due to inclement weather.

The safety of our audience is important to us, and while the winter storm is not nearly as bad as anticipated, there is enough snow and ice on the roads to make coming to/from the performance more dangerous than it needs to be.

If you bought tickets online or by phone - we will be offering a full refund. Alternatively, we will be happy to honor your ticket at any other performance.

If you got tickets through our kickstarter rewards - we can't offer a refund but please join us for any other performance.

SUNDAY - We are keeping an eye on things, but at this time it looks probable we will have a show on Sunday. More time for crews to plow/salt the roads plus being able to travel to/from the theatre in daylight should make things much safer for you and for us. If you have tickets for Sunday and want to reschedule please contact us at the email below. We will be happy to see you at a different performance if you do not feel comfortable driving to the theatre.

If you have any questions, please send an email to

Friday, January 6, 2017

Opening Night for Blackbird is a GO!!!

It's here! It's here!

Opening night for Blackbird is finally here. We have put a lot of work into this production. A LOT. And we are very excited to share it with you.

Some important information:


YES! I know every weatherperson in the triangle area is thrilled to be leading the news cast, but every forecast I've checked says that it will remain above freezing until well after midnight. The safety of our cast, crew, and audience is very important to us, and we wouldn't hesitate to cancel if we thought it would be unsafe for our guests, but things really look fine tonight.


If you have tickets to Saturday's show we will make a final determination by 3:30 PM. We will make a decision before then if we can, but expect an update on this website no later than 3:30.

For Sunday's performance, we will make a decision no later than 12:00 noon.


Please get there early. PLEASE GET THERE EARLY! Leave extra time for parking. There is plenty of parking available if the main lot is full. Please see THIS HANDY WEBSITE with the theatre location and a parking map.

I think that's it. See you at the show!!