This post has been on my mind for a while. Lots of things have been circulating on social media related to this topic, but I think this article is what made me really want to say something. It was circulated by a number of folks, and generated some discussion, but it kind of drove me crazy. The actual headline of the article is "Should the Minimum Wage Apply to the Arts" but to me it really should have had the title of this blog post. Because that's what it would mean for my art form.
Look, I want to pay people. I would LOVE to pay people. I've already addressed this topic on this blog here. Maybe I should leave well enough alone, but I wanted to give people an idea of what I'm talking about.
Our more recent production was a huge critical success. The audiences loved it, and every review was glowing. It was a good show. And we lost money. Even borrowing everything we could for the set, including flats, platforms, and a lot of furniture out of my home, cutting as many costs as we could, there is a certain minimum cost associated with a show, especially if you want to put on a quality production.
Here's what that looks like (I'm rounding off a bit to make the math easier to follow):
Royalties and Scripts: $1,160
Food for volunteers (load in/strike/set painting): $175
Our total revenue (including $544 of extra contributions from Kickstarter over/above ticket price):
So we lost about $1,015 WITHOUT paying our actors anything. We decided to give everyone a small check to say thank you for their work because we felt it was the right thing to do. If we had to pay people minimum wage it would be impossible. I would never have done a show.
Now you might say: well, you need to raise money. If you can't raise money to pay people from donations, you don't have the resources to put the show on in the first place. I see that point. But think about what you are also saying:
Only people who know enough people with disposable income are allowed to make this art.
Is that really what we want to say?
I admit I've struggled with these ideas personally. I really want to respect people's time, and I value the work that people put in to make my shows happen. I would love to pay people more. And frankly, I could spend more time trying to fund raise. I could formally organize South Stream as a 501(c)(3). I could hold fundraisers and ask for donations and corporate sponsors. But honestly, I haven't because what I want to be is an artist, not a fundraiser. I work a regular job. I have a limited amount of time after work. I could spending it trying to raise money, or I could spend it in rehearsal. And frankly, if I HAD to raise the money. If it was ILLEGAL for people to come together and volunteer their time on a collaborative art project, well, I wouldn't do it.
And it's not just people like me, who are disinclined. It's also people who are disenfranchised, displaced, and disadvantaged. Are they not allowed to make theatre? Am I?
The truth is, there is simply no money in independent theatre. Independent theatre is made with donations. Usually it's those of the actors and directors, the set designers and the props finders, the people who donate countless hours to make a show come together. Sometimes, it's the donations of wealthy people and corporations (and the hard work of people who write the grants and make the phone calls to make that happen). But there simply isn't enough money in the actual product to make pay anyone. So when people complain that they aren't paid for the theatrical work that they do, or they make analogies to bakers giving away bread, I mean, I'm right there with you! I agree, with your point! But also... I just can't pay you. It's not like I'm sitting on a pile of money and keeping it back from you. The money I paid to my performers (who were worth every penny and more) came from reviewing documents, not from the audience.
Should independent theatre be illegal? Yeah, I hope not. Even if it was people would still do it. Because even though you can't make money doing it, you also can't stop people from doing it. All you need is a script, a cast, and an audience. That can happen in a church basement or a public park or an abandoned lot. It can happen on a soccer field or a slum. As long as there are stories to be told, people will tell them. Not for money, or for fame, or for power, but because it's one of the most human things we can do.