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Paying the Piper: A New Model for Employment in Storefront Theatre

photo by Eugene Chan

About ten years ago, I left an office job to establish myself as a vocal coach and piano teacher. I set myself a modest goal for the next year of earning $1,000 per month, planning to supplement that income with temp work and odd jobs.

If I could earn $12,000 solely from music during that first year and steadily increase that income over the next several years, I would feel like I was developing enough of a presence in Chicago’s music world to justify music as a full-time job. 

Just a few months after embarking on this effort, I was hired to music-direct a community theatre’s spring production. I was thrilled when I learned that the stipend, to be paid in one lump sum after the final performance, was a solid $800. Yes, the rehearsal schedule in the final few weeks was a little intense, but it was quite light during the first month of rehearsal, so I could continue to build my business while working my way toward a single payment that nearly covered the monthly earnings goal I had set for myself.

During that first month, I was in a state of glee. I read novels during the 45-minute CTA trips to and from rehearsal and taught music to a delightful group of people—never for more than two hours, and often for as little as one hour. I was doing practically nothing—and soon I’d be collecting a check for $800. I almost felt guilty for taking so much money; surely the company had been naïve to offer such a generous stipend! 

As the performances approached, my attitude underwent an about-face. My 6:30-10:30PM daily rehearsal obligation meant that I had to cancel lessons for the few piano students I had taken on. At that time, I was charging $45 an hour for lessons. My cancellations amounted to perhaps a $270 loss, nowhere near the $800 I would soon be collecting, but that money would have been earned in just six hours rather than in the twenty-or-so-hours per week I was rehearsing.

Late rehearsals left me walking on poorly-lit side streets from the CTA to my apartment after 11:00. I had no opportunity for a social life outside of rehearsal and I certainly had no availability for additional students. I was running myself ragged—and for a lousy $800? I could barely believe how naïve I had been in accepting the theatre company’s offer.

How naïve, exactly, had I been? I still have the production schedule, filed among my mementos (after all, this production was my first entry into Chicago’s theatre scene). From first rehearsal to final performance, I worked a total of 88 hours. This amounted to an hourly rate of $9.09, barely more than Chicago’s minimum wage at the time, and well below it now. Inasmuch as my stipend was compensation for the totality of my work and was not divided between its various phases, this is the “official” hourly rate for my work on the production. 

But I’m curious how justified my glee was during the first half of the rehearsal process. I worked 16.5 hours during the first month of rehearsal. If we imagine I earned $400 during this period (though, again, my stipend applied to the totality of my work), the hourly rate during this period was a passable $24.24. If we continue this thought experiment, though, and apply the remaining $400 to the 71.5 hours I worked during the second month of rehearsal, the hourly rate for this most intense portion of the production cycle plummets to $5.59.

If we factor my 90-minute roundtrip commute into the equation, my naivete appears in even bolder relief. During that gleeful first month, my commute-to-work ratio was often 3:2, and though I enjoyed reading novels during the commute, I would have enjoyed reading them at home even more. At my hourly wage, there were days that my 2.5 hours away from home earned me a whopping $9.09—minus taxes and roundtrip CTA costs, of course. And these figures do not account for offsite practice of the score or for development of rehearsal plans.

I hadn’t done these calculations at the time, so I didn’t associate my disaffection for the rehearsal process with my wages. Instead, I simply decided I didn’t have the temperament to do theatre and focused instead on teaching and on recitals and cabaret performances. I am grateful to have become, bit by bit, a familiar name in Chicago’s music world. 

Over the past couple of years, professional theatre companies have begun to approach me to discuss the possibility of my music-directing for them. The tone of their overtures always has an undercurrent of apology: “We realize we can’t pay you what you’re worth, but we’re a small-budget organization” is a common refrain in conversations I have had recently.

The hourly rate these organizations’ stipends amount to remains at somewhere between $7 and $11 per hour. Chicago’s current minimum wage, instituted in July 2019, is $13; the last time it was below $11 was June 2017.

I initially responded to these requests with polite demurrals; recently, however, I have become forthcoming about why I will not accept such offers. The conversations are always amicable; they also always spark a certain amount of astonishment on the part of the theatre company.

The producer often reiterates that the budget just is what it is, but they would really love to work with an experienced and established music director. Occasionally, the producer will ask what level of stipend I would accept and then balks when I calculate a stipend based on projected rehearsal hours and a modest (and legal) hourly rate. More than one producer has stated explicitly that they offer honoraria, not wages.

Such responses suggest to me that storefront theatre companies do not think of themselves as employers. An honorarium is a thank-you gift for something that the giver does not have a legal obligation to remunerate. Sometimes an honorarium can be quite high: musicians often earn several hundred dollars for presenting a master class or judging a solo-and-ensemble competition. But such a one-time service is emphatically not a job in the way a twenty-hour-a-week rehearsal obligation is.

Of course, flat fees are not uncommon for certain kinds of work; when I am commissioned to compose music, I charge a fee based on the length of the piece and the size of the ensemble for which I am writing. But in such contract work, I retain autonomy over when and where I do the work. I can write at my piano, at a coffee shop, or on the bus. I can write in ten-minute spurts or in afternoon-long sessions. My client does not dictate the details of my process, so long as the work is competent and is complete by an agreed-upon deadline. When I music-direct a production, though, rehearsals take place at the company’s rehearsal space according to a formal schedule. Just as an office job takes place at the company’s office during the company’s business hours.

Similarly, when I teach a piano lesson or provide music for a wedding, I am serving clients—and I serve them under my own name, rather than as an employee with a job title. When I music-direct a production, I am hired into a pre-existing position for an established organization. Within that position, I am accountable not to clients but to a supervisor. A music director is an executive role, but it is a role within an established and formal hierarchy. Just like middle management in an office job.

If theatrical producers do not think of themselves as employers, what do they think of themselves as? There is a tone of favor-asking to producers’ simultaneous acknowledgment of the inadequacy of their honoraria and their anticipation that I might sign on regardless. Favor-asking implies a familial, social, or community-oriented relationship. I might ask a neighbor to water my plants while I’m out of town—and although it would be nice of me to return from my travels with a thank-you gift, it’s not strictly necessary. Watering a neighbor’s plants isn’t work; it’s the neighborly thing to do. And it would be hugely crass of my neighbor to tell me how expensive a thank-you gift I should bring back. 

Now: musicians, actors, producers, playwrights, lighting designers, and stage managers are part of a community. All of us are invested in making art. And though art-making is the primary source of income for many of us, few of us are motivated primarily by income in our artistic choices. When I program a recital or compose a sonata, my first question is not how much money it will make for me but how effectively it will express something within me that urgently needs to be expressed.

A company’s suggestion that I should music direct for a rate that it acknowledges to be far beneath my professional market value has a twofold implication: first, that as a musician who is genuinely devoted to his craft, the artistic fulfillment I will glean from the company’s production will serve adequately enough as compensation to make my actual pay irrelevant; second, that as part of Chicago’s performing arts community—as someone invested in bringing inspiring, exciting, moving work to my city—I am likely to be willing to “take one for the team.”

Non-Equity theatre companies do have woefully small budgets, and if the actors, musicians, and stage crews of Chicago stipulated even minimum wage as a prerequisite of their willingness to be in a production, the vast bulk of Chicago theatre companies would go bankrupt. Storefront theatre and music in Chicago, for all intents and purposes, would disappear. And surely no performer wants that!

As to the first point: though artists certainly do engage in projects for which artistic fulfillment outweighs financial considerations, such projects are often artist-driven and artist-owned. Storefront theatre productions are often neither.

An example from my private coaching business is when a singer hires me to coach and accompany an art-song recital, I charge my standard hourly and performance fees—even if the singer is a colleague I enjoy socializing with and the repertoire is music I’m excited about—because the recital is the singer’s project, though I am a crucial participant in it. In keeping with this principle, if the singer charges admission to the recital, I do not take a cut of ticket sales. It is the singer’s recital. But if that same singer and I begin chatting about repertoire that we both want to collaborate on for a future recital and plan the event together as our recital, I do not charge a fee. Instead, the singer and I split the proceeds from ticket sales.

This is a model of collectivization and collaboration. In contrast, when a producer holds auditions for an actor or interviews for a music director—an opening that a qualified stranger could fill—the producer is operating not as a community member but as an employer and needs to operate as one at all levels, including financially.

If an employer does not have the budget to hire staff at market rate, that employer quite simply does not have the budget to hire staff. Period. But if a collective of like-minded individuals collaborates on a venture—on all aspects of a venture, including its administration and fundraising—then the venture is collectively owned, and financial arrangements can be determined by mutual agreement. 

Rather than existing separately from artists that it attempts to hire at less-than-minimum wage, a storefront theatre company could solicit artists whose passions align with its own and form a stable, consistent theatre ensemble. If a theatre company is unable to attract such an ensemble, it needs to query whether it is indeed relevant to Chicago’s arts community. Likewise, if a theatre company is unable to find a core group of artists willing to forego financial gain to fulfill the theatre’s mission, it most certainly should not ask strangers to do so. In much the same way, if I cannot find a neighbor willing to water my plants as a favor, I certainly would not expect a housesitting service to forego its fee out of an assumed passion for plants.

As to the second point: the League of Chicago Theatres reported 230 member theatres in June 2018. The Chicago Vocal Arts Consortium lists 25 opera and art song companies and 22 choral ensembles. This is a tremendous number of organizations to be competing for the limited funds of the Illinois Arts Council, Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, and individual arts donors. While I do not want these organizations to disappear, I do not think it would be bad if Chicago’s theatrical and musical scene were a little less glutted with underfunded and underpaying productions.

If providing an appropriate rate of pay for artists becomes an expectation for organizations that choose not to collectivize, some companies may be unable to find an artistic or administrative model that allows them to continue operations in the manner they currently do. But there are solutions other than closing up shop:

  • Companies can prioritize small-cast, minimal-set productions. 
  • Companies can reduce the number of productions per season. Even one production a year, if it exemplifies the company’s mission and shows the company to be a distinctive, necessary artistic voice, can attract the kind of support that enables a company to grow.
  • Companies can join forces with like-minded companies, pooling resources and staging joint productions. This does not mean that companies will merge as institutions. Instead, companies with overlapping goals can embark on overlapping activities when appropriate. A fine example of this was Caffeine Theater and Chicago Opera Vanguard’s 2010 Jeff Award-nominated co-production of BOOJUM!. Caffeine Theater’s mission was to “mine the poetic tradition to explore social questions.” Chicago Opera Vanguard specialized in overlooked or marginalized opera repertoire, often with literary inspiration. BOOJUM!, which simultaneously adapted Lewis Carroll’s “The Hunting of the Snark” and explored Charles Dodgson’s inner life, fit the mission of both companies but would have been impossible for either company to produce adequately on its own.

These suggestions are practical, operational adjustments that will allow companies to function as legitimate employers of artists while navigating the dearth of funding available to the arts. However, the adjustment most needed is one of mindset. Companies that employ artists must recognize themselves as employers and must make an absolute priority of attaining the funding needed to pay their employees fairly. In no other industry can an employer acknowledge that their pay is grossly below market rate yet expect to attract top-tier employees. Yes, some charitable-minded attorneys and doctors offer a sliding scale so that inability to pay does not leave unserved those most in need of crucial services. Likewise, a piano teacher may offer a scholarship to a promising but cash-strapped student. But a theatre company is not such a client. Artists should not be asked to provide a sliding scale to theatre companies that do not have the budget to pay for artists’ services.

Though most of my corrective suggestions are directed toward theatre companies, performers are equally in need of a change in mindset. Too often, our belief is that if we do not take a low-paying gig, someone else will and therefore will receive the reviews, awards, and career advancement we are pursuing. Too often, our pursuit of reviews and awards causes us to overlook our compensation.

Performance brings with it pride, fulfillment, and many other intangible rewards. So does successfully curing a patient’s illness; so does teaching a child how to multiply fractions; so does helping a customer find a flattering necktie. But for doctors and math teachers and clothing-store salespeople, pride and fulfillment is an overlay on a baseline of monetary compensation. Let us not be so blinded by the joy of our craft that we forget that our craft, though it is truly a joy, is also a job.

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