Sunday, April 22, 2012

Theater Festivals: America's Sweatshops

"T" is for Theater Festivals in the A to Z Challenge

I have been involved in a number of theater festivals through the years. They tend to be events about which the public is enthused. Most festivals are run by a board of directors. The members of these boards also tend to be enthused.

Also typically enthused are the executive or managing director, as well as local politicians, businesses, and anyone who stands to make a buck or boost their image as a "supporter of the arts".

Data will be released about the benefits to the local economy, and there will be boasts of the celebrities who have been audience members in the past. Authors, poets, politicians... even a U.S. president now and then.

Social events will be held to "thank the donors" (the thought is that you have to make them feel special so that they will continue to donate), and these events are often thinly masked efforts at raising more funds, usually for some grandiose vision of a larger facility, more equipment, or making the event bigger in coming years.

Usually, the people who are doing the grunt work for these social events... setting up tables and chairs, serving punch, maybe even directing traffic... are the very people who have been doing the grunt work to make the shows themselves happen. The technical staff for the theater festival.

See, people come from all over the country to work at these things. They are typically seen as stepping stones to a career in "the arts"; particularly in theater. And so they are willing to work absurdly long hours for absurdly low wages in the hopes of somehow "making it" in the theater world. The problem is, the "theater world" doesn't extend much beyond the experience they are currently having.

Now when I say low wages, I'm talking about a couple of hundred dollars a week, up to maybe six hundred. Interns are the ones who get the couple of hundred bucks, if they get that. Department managers might get the $600. Skilled crew members like carpenters and lighting technicians will get something in between.

In order to earn these wages, very long  hours are worked. Long days of prop or set building, creating costumes, preparing lighting equipment, etc... followed by rehearsals. And of course it is repeated the next day. An 8 hour day is rare. Something between 10 and 14 hours is more usual. This goes on six days a week normally at the beginning, and ramps up to seven days a week towards the end.

Now let's do a little math. Let's say you are in the middle of the scale, making something like $320 a week. "That's not too bad", you might think. "That's 8 dollars an hour". Yet if you were to work seven consecutive 12 hour days at McDonalds (84 hours), you would get paid 40 hours straight time, plus 40 hours at time and a half. It is the equivalent of working 100 hours. So rather than making 8 bucks an hour,  you are making $3.20. It is clear that the lowest paid people should be making in the $600 to $800 a week range, with department managers making double to triple that.

Couple this with the fact that many theater companies have penalties if you don't carry out your full contract to the end of the season. They hold money back, and if you leave early, you don't get the balance. So you might be looking at something more in the $2.00 an hour range.

There is no accounting by upper management of the actual number of hours worked. In fact when I've raised the issue, I've been told "no one wants to know".

Yes... these are the same people smiling and serving punch to the VIP guests who congratulate the board members on putting on such a fabulous productions, bringing in millions of dollars into the local economy.

It kind of reminds me of the Simpson introduction done by Banksy, in response to criticism that the long running show was produced in Chinese sweat shops by child labor:

And the funny thing is that many of these festivals are run by institutions that are supported by the states they are located in, such as state colleges and universities.

I've done some pondering on how this has come to be. How working conditions that would be protested against if they were brought to light in other countries could be so standard practice here.
There are a couple of factors. The industry is one in which people are passionate to a fault about their work. The pride in craftsmanship among theater professionals is out of this world. So even if they weren't required to work such hours, they would anyway, because that is what it takes to do a spectacular job. An everyone in theater wants the productions they work on to be spectacular. Or at least the part of it they touch.

So when someone comes up with the idea of starting something like this, there tends to be a lot of enthusiasm but not enough resource. So the people who ARE involved put everything they have into it. And people are always wishing they had an extra week or day or couple of hours to finish something precisely how they envision it.

I call it the Event Horizion of theater. An event horizon is the area around a black hole in which gravity is so strong, that even light can't escape. Since nothing can travel faster than the speed of light, any object which crosses the event horizon is doomed to be sucked down into the center of the black hole. Escape is impossible.

Anyway, it is understandable how a small local theater could tax the limits of manpower of everyone involved in putting on the production, and everyone involved will put on a good face, get their second wind, and do what it takes to make it happen. Been there. Done that.

So you have a successful season, and you are able to boast of the quality of the shows. Perhaps you got great reviews. Perhaps a local celebrity endorsed your show. Maybe it was an actor or writer. Maybe it was your governor. Pretty soon, people with real money start to donate, grants are awarded, maybe a Senator even pulls some strings to get some "stimulus money" flowing your way.

The problem comes in what is done with that money, and how it is earmarked. Often, the money is used for equipment or a new facility. Often it is used to make the event bigger than it was the year before. Seldom is it used to ensure that everyone working on the event is making at least minimum wage.

The responsibility is spread around thoroughly, trust me. I take my share of the blame in being involved in such endeavors. This is the beginning of my public effort to try to change that.

I believe that any organization that supports such a festival should demand an accounting of man-hours in every department. Any financial donor should stipulate that their money go first and foremost to salary. Not a tent should be rented for the VIP social, not a tablecloth bought, unless the entire crew is being paid fairly.

And then there is the whole "intern" thing. According to the department of labor, six criteria must be met for an internship to be valid:

The following six criteria must be applied when making this determination:
  1. The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment;
  2. The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern;
  3. The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff;
  4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded;
  5. The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship; and
  6. The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.

I'll go through them one by one:

1) Sure, interns learn a great deal on these events. Hell, I still do, and I've been around for 20 years. But yes, they are great learning experiences.

2) Well, the interns get college credit, and they actually learn something. So yes, it benefits them in that regard.

3) Here's an interesting one. "The intern does not displace regular employees." The reality is that the interns ARE the regular employees. Or a bulk of the staff. Without them, there is no way in hell these events could happen.

4) Another interesting one. "The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern". I'd say using the intern as a lynchpin in their multi million dollar production is an "advantage". Of course, the "employers", meaning the management staff, may not FEEL like they are getting an immediate advantage, because they are working their asses off too. But I think any objective view of number 4 would have to fall on the side of "Sorry!"

5) No, the intern is not entitled to a job. There is no job. It is like a carnival... all packed up and put in storage for next year.

6) This is obviously true.

In any case, I do not believe the way interns are used in theater festivals is in any way what the Department of Labor would sign off on. There are clear violations of #'s 3 and 4. I think this makes it clear:

If an employer uses interns as substitutes for regular workers or to augment its existing workforce during specific time periods, these interns should be paid at least the minimum wage and overtime compensation for hours worked over forty in a workweek.  If the employer would have hired additional employees or required existing staff to work additional hours had the interns not performed the work, then the interns will be viewed as employees and entitled compensation under the FLSA.

So there it is. My official "whistleblower" post. One I think is sure to make some of my previous associations displeased. It's about time.

"T" is for Theater Festivals, and April is Parkinson's Awareness Month


  1. Never been to a theater festival and don't know that much about them. You shed some interesting light on the subject. I do know that theater is often an act of love and many participants have no one to act as advocates and I'm sure are being taken advantage of. On the other hand, many times budgets are small and money is short so that corners have to be cut in every way possible.
    You have written a thoughtful post.

    A Few Words
    An A to Z Co-host blog

    My main blog is Tossing It Out

  2. The idea of doing theater for peanuts is systemic in America. I've seen very few models which break that system, short of Broadway. Even there, the money isn't all that great on the technical side of things.

    One of the best model's I've seen is Christian Youth theater. It relies heavily on volunteers, but the skilled professionals are paid well.

  3. Once upon a time a person would apprentice another for years. But they expected room and board. Interns don't even get that!
    Sadly, all of the arts are impoverished, and money pools in rich pockets. A few artists get rich, a few musicians get rich, etc..

    Mimi Torchia Boothby Watercolors

  4. This is a really interesting blog, I enjoyed reading it and thanks for visiting mine. Good luck with the last bit of the A-Z challange!


  5. This is a fascinating and disheartening read. I'm in Vancouver, Canada, but I don't imagine that our theatre festivals are run much differently than those in the U.S. Sadly, the arts are notoriously under-funded, and whenever governments make cuts, whether at the municipal, provincial or federal level, it seems that arts funding is the first to be slashed. In other areas--health non-profits, for example, when the funding dries up, the non-profit shuts its doors and the staff move on. In the arts, as you say, people's passion and commitment and dreams keep them rooted the crap wages.

    I wish you much success in turning this around. I'll be sticking around to read more.

  6. i can't say I've ever been to a Theater Festival. I've been to a Film festival though Very interesting post, thanks for sharing. Also thanks for visiting mine. BTW, my daughter actually went to see the Rocketts when she was in 3rd grade, so some schools still do this. :) happy A-Z.

  7. Excellent food for thought. Thank you.

    I'm so grateful you mentioned your posts about the arts in the A-to-Z Challenge comments today, or I would have missed you. I will be subscribing to your blog from now on. (And now I must read all that I've missed in your other A-to-Z posts!)

  8. Although its a lot of work, it's bound to be fun. My youngest is majoring in event management.

    Catch My Words

    1. Pass this post onto him. Maybe he can be part of the solution, instead of part of the problem.

  9. How very interesting. I wonder how it's done in the UK. I like the tenor of your blog, will be following. (Popping in from the AtoZ Challenge.)

  10. Just found an article that ties into this post:

  11. Thanks for dropping by--I love your A-Z theme!

  12. I worked as an HR consultant for a few years, and the government is cracking down on companies using "interns."

    It seems the definition is lost on business owners wanting to cut corners!

    I know a lot of people that work in community theatre, and they are passionate about what they do. They have to be.

    1. Community theater is one thing... it is mostly volunteer. But when professional theater companies produce multi million dollar events, that's another.

      It is the passion that is capitalized on.

      Hopefully, people will begin to speak up and point out these travesties when they see them.

  13. I've never been to a theater festival and I didn't know all that. Interesting and informative post.

    Sonia Lal @ Story Treasury

  14. Great read.

    You've just described our theatre. It is a unique building (240 years old, working Georgian theatre) run by a tiny, horribly paid staff and many, many volunteers. We do it for love (I'm one of the notionally paid), but you can't make a living.

    1. My problem is that what you are describing is accepted as being "normal". Volunteers are one thing, but when someone is being paid, it puts them in a different relation to a project. They can't just walk away. I'm simply advocating at least minimum wage for every paid worker. It shouldn't be that complex a thing to achieve... either an institution can afford to put on a show... or it can't. If it can't, it needs to raise more money... not suck the life out of a few poor souls.

    2. Exactly so. I cannot walk away from the two productions I have poised for this year. Meanwhile, I'm working x hours a week and paid only for the actual session times at the majestic rate of £11 per hour. A minimum wage for hours worked would be riches.

      The theatre is in dire financial straits (always). Funding for arts has been cut from not much at all to a lot less than that. Any funding that does arrive is project specific and to do with the fabric of the building. It never goes to people. I'm not sure what the solution is.

    3. Forward this blog post to your board of directors to start with!

  15. Hi Arthur - done for the love of it .. desire to be a part of the result - so many arts things are done in very basic settings. Writing a play is one thing - that takes forever ... then it has to be accepted, then it has to be agreed to be put on - I've met a great playright here who is putting on new historical plays - and if she's not in the performance, then she's doing the lighting. I've written a couple of posts about them ... the play and how she came to write it ..

    Today I heard a talk on the BBC about Shakespeare being put on all 37 plays in different languages - this one was in Afghan Persian .. they were talking about the process of finding Afghan actresses .. the rehearsals had to be put on in India, while the actual production means the actress will need to come to England for the performance at The Globe at the end of May ..

    One comment the actress made ... was that Shakespeare knew more about her and her life now .. ie Elizabethan England wasn't that different in these repects to life in Afghanistan now ...

    Cheers Hilary

    1. That is the very reason the exploitation persists. The people doing it are passionate about it.

      But consider this... if you have 100 people working on a festival with a $1 million dollar budget, it would only take a 30 percent increase in budget (1.3 million) to pay each of them an extra $3000. That can make the difference between getting paid minimum wage... or not.

      As an organization, it is all about how you spend your money. People, or "stuff"?