This is the Captain Speaking…

At the midway point in the post-mortem I want to address a few things.

I have written countless times here and on your blogs about institutional memory and how critical it is for theatre start-ups to bridge the lack of access to That Which Went Before. Which is why I’m putting our post-mortem in public. These are mistakes we made, maybe you can avoid them.

There has been some comment about the negative tone of these post-mortem posts. I warned you about the tone when I was beginning them but I’ll quote myself here: “The tone of these posts will be vaguely negative. Don’t read into that, I’m trying to break down what DIDN’T work so we don’t repeat it. The goal, as always, is to improve.

I’m not trying to beat myself up or fish for compliments and I don’t think I’ve cast aspersions on anyone else involved. It was a largely successful show, what success it had was largely from other players and rumor has it that Will will add a post-mortem post from the writer/director perspective later which is where the bulk of the success of this project lies.

Third and lastly here at recess I want to address a comment made by writer (and now director!) Dan Solomon on post mortem #2.

Dan says:

I do have one concern, though –

We would have lost money on this show anyway because we’re soft and chose to pay our performers despite the budget cut at the beginning of the process

I know we’ve talked about this a little bit, but there’s still something that I find troubling about identifying paying the actors as a -choice-, just because it’s likely they’d have agreed to work for free if you’d told them there was no money to pay them. There’s no talk of being a big softy by choosing to pay the venue instead of asking them to provide it for free, or deciding to pay the bill to Rock N Roll Rentals or Home Depot or wherever various technical equipment and hardware came from.

I’m glad the actors were paid – I thought the benefit night idea was a neat one, and from what I gather, it seemed to work out pretty well. So don’t take this as, like, calling you out – I’m just conscious of the way creative types are often told that just the opportunity to do what they love ought to be reward enough, and I think it’s important that people who don’t share that idea work to make sure that it’s not reinforced. I totally approve of the fact that your actions speak loudly on this front, though.

In response to Dan I say: You are absolutely right.

But.

Will and I are committed to compensating our performers and artistic staff. That isn’t going to change. But where do we draw the line?

Do we say that we won’t produce anything unless we can pay the performers? What level of pay gives a green light? What percentage of my budget should that be? (Stipends were about 20% of Orestes budget with the set designer, technical director, construction crew, stage manager, director, writer, and one cast slot being unpaid positions)

And let me ask the official devil’s advocate (i.e. asshole) question(s) for a moment:


We agree that actors shouldn’t be expected to “do it for the love”, nor for “the opportunity”, but if we’re all waiting for sufficient budgets to pay them appropriately (even for an indie level) there will BE no Austin indie theatre scene and the simple truth is that they ARE willing to work for free for a long ways up the talent chain. Why should I as a producer with very limited discretionary funds (and Rock & Roll Rentals and Home Depot are ALSO discretionary expenditures, space is a discretionary decision but with very real production effects that weigh toward it being a hard cost) not see the performers salaries as the soft cost that it is in the real world?

Why am I responsible for the actor’s being professional and treating themselves that way? All actors need to do to change the mindset of producers is to not show up to calls for unpaid gigs and the talent drop off would force a change.


Mr. Solomon knows that’s not my real life position, but to avoid letter bombs let me reinforce that here:
I support compensating our performers and artistic staff wholeheartedly and support ending a culture in which paying them is optional. If that means for now running the Benefit night in lieu of hard contractual dollars until we are better established so be it. But let’s not infantilize our performers, they have a choice to not work for free as readily as I have the choice to pay them or not.

  • dansolomon

    I'll break down my responses to some of your (devil's advocate's) points piece-by-piece.

    Do we say that we won’t produce anything unless we can pay the performers? What level of pay gives a green light? What percentage of my budget should that be? (Stipends were about 20% of Orestes budget with the set designer, technical director, construction crew, stage manager, director, writer, and one cast slot being unpaid positions)

    Yeah, I think that you do say that you won't produce anything unless you can pay the performers, unless the circumstances are unusual (one-off fundraiser performances for a charitable cause; performances in which no money will be charged for tickets and everyone involved is working as a volunteer; etc). But under normal conditions, I think that “don't produce anything that you can't pay for” is a good rule. I'd certainly want to give it a lot more thought before trying to pin down some arbitrary number, but that 20% you mentioned sounds pretty fair, offhand.

    We agree that actors shouldn’t be expected to “do it for the love”, nor for “the opportunity”, but if we’re all waiting for sufficient budgets to pay them appropriately (even for an indie level) there will BE no Austin indie theatre scene and the simple truth is that they ARE willing to work for free for a long ways up the talent chain.

    A-1, I don't think that's entirely true – there'll be an Austin indie theater scene, but it'll be one that attempts only the sort of work that it can afford. Sets may have to be scaled down, venues may have to be considered more carefully, and expenses in general will have to be managed in a way that requires theatermakers operate within their means. But I'd posit that if you can't spare some significant portion of your budget (let's use Orestes' 20% again, for the sake of argument) to pay people for their work, you may not be ready to be making theater that people have to pay to watch.

    B-2, you're hamstringing yourself, and your community, if you accept that actors are willing to work for free, and take advantage of that. Because not all actors are, and the ones who aren't, discouraged by the lack of opportunity here, take off for cities where there's a dream worth chasing. You may have to wait tables 40 weeks out of the year if you're a working actor in New York, but for those other 12 weeks, you're building a career. You can aim for a day when you'll be working more consistently, and making more money. In Austin, if it's accepted that paying actors isn't necessary, then what will anyone ever be working toward? The chance to indulge a hobby?

    Why should I as a producer with very limited discretionary funds (and Rock & Roll Rentals and Home Depot are ALSO discretionary expenditures, space is a discretionary decision but with very real production effects that weigh toward it being a hard cost) not see the performers salaries as the soft cost that it is in the real world?

    Because you're demeaning your production as one that's not worthy of professional actors. You have to rule out anyone who expects to be paid, under those circumstances – and if more companies begin to see paying their performers (something that's vital to the emergence of a grown-up theater community) as a must, the numbers of actors who think that way will grow. So maybe you start by ruling out anyone who's ever done decent work for a company that pays, because they'll start to see it as a sign of disrespect. Which limits your talent pool to the hobbyists, which means that you're likely to make low-grade theater.

    Why am I responsible for the actor’s being professional and treating themselves that way? All actors need to do to change the mindset of producers is to not show up to calls for unpaid gigs and the talent drop off would force a change.

    I'm hoping this happens. There'll always be a large pool of actors – or creative people in any medium – who are willing to work for free for the promise of exposure, and right now their number in Austin are disappointingly large. (It's not just theater – bands play for free at exploitative venues downtown every night of the week; writers offer up their work for the promise of “exposure” to anyone with a website.) But their low expectations are a characteristic of an unprofessional community. You don't get actors who are willing to work for free unless you have a community that's convinced them that nothing they're doing is worth being paid for. And that's a dangerous sentiment to have out there.

    Ultimately, it's a matter of respect. Because the other costs are fixed – a lighting rig costs what a lighting rig costs, lumber doesn't come for free because Lowe's wants the exposure, a venue owner isn't likely to give you the space for the run of your show for the sake of art – your devil's advocate is saying, by continuing to foster a culture in which actors can't expect to be compensated, that those other things are inherently more valuable to the theater than the performers themselves. If the hardware store makes $400, guaranteed, from your production which takes $2,000 to put on, and the actors (as a collective) can't expect to be compensated on the same level as the place you buy your lumber, then the message you're communicating is that their contributions to the production are worth less than that of the wood. Even if the actors aren't children, and are allowed to accept that or not, any theater community worth supporting should not be sending that message.

    –d

  • Derek Kolluri

    In the spirit of post mortem, I submit the following, as a company member of Orestes.

    I think the spirit of “paying the actors” is, on one hand, tantamount to “pay what you can” night. It's an honor system.

    As for the sentiment of this interim blog, I find the dichotomy implicit in this passage a bit strange when juxtaposed with what I believe to be your intention by creating theatre :

    “Why am I responsible for the actor’s being professional and treating themselves that way? All actors need to do to change the mindset of producers is to not show up to calls for unpaid gigs and the talent drop off would force a change.”

    You believe in the power of theatre. You believe that this art has a power unlike any other; a form of communication and communion unparalleled. Yet you controvert that belief by limiting the value of your actor. Let's be candid here, there is no theatre without the doer, without the actor. Argue as you might, it's undeniable. If we're being “assholes” about it, I submit that an actor can do his or her job without designers and directors, while designers and directors have no job without the actor. Why are actors inclined to work for free? Because they are willing to prove their commitment to you. It's the same as a young lighting designer taking an ME position for no pay. It's a way of saying, “look at my dedication.” Also, like in any job, it's paying dues. Travis, you have told me on the few occasions we have actually spoken about acting, that you are trained as an actor. Never mind our conversations, you state the aforementioned in an earlier blog post. If you are trained as an actor, then you know that dedication is the benchmark of the great actor. Dedication to the script, vision, character, moment – hell – everything. This is not to devalue the other collaborators, I have the utmost respect for technical theatre and production… I work as a technician as well.

    As for how you treat your actors, well, as you state, that is a choice, and hopefully your choice honors the dedication of the actor, in how you value them as people, how you value them monetarily, and how you value the craft of acting… which is utterly crucial to the power of theatre.

    “THE DEADLY THEATRE:

    I can take an empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and that is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged. Yet when we talk about theatre this is not quite what we mean. Red curtains, spotlights, blank verse, laughter, darkness, these are all confusedly superimposed in a messy image covered by one all-purpose word. We talk of the cinema killing theatre, and in that phrase we refer to the theatre as it was when the cinema was born, a theatre of box office, foyer, tip-up seats, footlights, scene changes, intervals, music, as though the theatre was by very definition these and little more.”

    – Peter Brook

    If you want to sort out these issues you bring up, start from the beginning. What makes theatre vital? Who makes that vitality possible. If you are the Producer, how can you empower others to find vitality? I believe success in theatre (pocketbook and respect) comes by not focusing on the product. If all you can focus on is the desired end you are overlooking the true nature of our art. I don't mean to say that making money isn't important to keeping a company running, of course it is. But if you want to make money, produce vital work.

    I know the sentiment I address is presented hypothetically, and I address that hypothetical with real time strategy.

  • Derek Kolluri

    In the spirit of post mortem, I submit the following, as a company member of Orestes.

    I think the spirit of “paying the actors” is, on one hand, tantamount to “pay what you can” night. It's an honor system.

    As for the sentiment of this interim blog, I find the dichotomy implicit in this passage a bit strange when juxtaposed with what I believe to be your intention by creating theatre :

    “Why am I responsible for the actor’s being professional and treating themselves that way? All actors need to do to change the mindset of producers is to not show up to calls for unpaid gigs and the talent drop off would force a change.”

    You believe in the power of theatre. You believe that this art has a power unlike any other; a form of communication and communion unparalleled. Yet you controvert that belief by limiting the value of your actor. Let's be candid here, there is no theatre without the doer, without the actor. Argue as you might, it's undeniable. If we're being “assholes” about it, I submit that an actor can do his or her job without designers and directors, while designers and directors have no job without the actor. Why are actors inclined to work for free? Because they are willing to prove their commitment to you. It's the same as a young lighting designer taking an ME position for no pay. It's a way of saying, “look at my dedication.” Also, like in any job, it's paying dues. Travis, you have told me on the few occasions we have actually spoken about acting, that you are trained as an actor. Never mind our conversations, you state the aforementioned in an earlier blog post. If you are trained as an actor, then you know that dedication is the benchmark of the great actor. Dedication to the script, vision, character, moment – hell – everything. This is not to devalue the other collaborators, I have the utmost respect for technical theatre and production… I work as a technician as well.

    As for how you treat your actors, well, as you state, that is a choice, and hopefully your choice honors the dedication of the actor, in how you value them as people, how you value them monetarily, and how you value the craft of acting… which is utterly crucial to the power of theatre.

    “THE DEADLY THEATRE:

    I can take an empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and that is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged. Yet when we talk about theatre this is not quite what we mean. Red curtains, spotlights, blank verse, laughter, darkness, these are all confusedly superimposed in a messy image covered by one all-purpose word. We talk of the cinema killing theatre, and in that phrase we refer to the theatre as it was when the cinema was born, a theatre of box office, foyer, tip-up seats, footlights, scene changes, intervals, music, as though the theatre was by very definition these and little more.”

    – Peter Brook

    If you want to sort out these issues you bring up, start from the beginning. What makes theatre vital? Who makes that vitality possible. If you are the Producer, how can you empower others to find vitality? I believe success in theatre (pocketbook and respect) comes by not focusing on the product. If all you can focus on is the desired end you are overlooking the true nature of our art. I don't mean to say that making money isn't important to keeping a company running, of course it is. But if you want to make money, produce vital work.

    I know the sentiment I address is presented hypothetically, and I address that hypothetical with real time strategy.

  • Derek Kolluri

    Somewhere in between Dan's reaction and mine is a subtle balance worth noting, which is that you proliferate the dangerous sentiment that actors aren't worth anything when you choose not to pay them. Sorry for the double post.

  • DivergenceDiva

    I find it interesting that there's any debate, at all, about paying artists. Is there a debate about paying for brakes on your car? A plumber to fix the sink? Dry cleaning?

    No. Only art.

    One of the main goals of Divergence Vocal Theater is providing paying artistic opportunities to professional local and regional artists. Is it a living wage at this point? No. But when so many organizations expect work (that's what it is, folks) for free, offering performers an honorarium, becomes appreciated and important. Our budget is based on this concept – other things go so we can pay our artists. I also believe in our creativity — I am one of those whackos who does productions with no sets. It can still be compelling, beautiful, inspiring: http://www.divergencevocaltheater.org/multimedi

    Don't let the size of the organization fool you – there are large companies that refuse to pay performers (but pay everyone else in the production): i.e.: Houston's G&S Society which performs at the Wortham Center with a pro orchestra (tix average about $40). Singers get $0.00.

    Money is not some dirty thing that is going to kill art. It is simply an exchange of energy. Without energy exchange, one party (at worst) becomes vampiric, and one party dies.

    I am not, however, implying that work quality suffers one way or the other, or criticizing small organizations that choose not to finically compensate artists. But it is a choice, a company's philosophy.

  • This is obviously a better conversation over a beverage of some sort…

    I spent 90 minutes this morning trying to write a reasonable defense of not copensating performers and I really don’t have one. I'd be a bad debate team member… I'm lousy at defending a position I don’t hold.

    The one asshole position that I do really hold to is that the actor is responsible for respecting themselves enough to not work for free and for bailing on a scene that can’t support that.
    If I can’t pay on a show and that means you won’t work for me so be it. I'll learn my lesson.

    I will say I honestly think that you're wrong about any indie theatre scene anywhere being able to pay or not play and survive. The companies in this town that do pay are 10 years old. They have City of Austin and/or other grant funding. For either you need a track record. As a producer that agrees whole heartedly with the “produce within your means” mantra, I was chided at my grant review for the City for not producing more, for too many of my ideas being locked up on this page and not in reality. I will receive less (or no) City funding in the coming year because we lack that track record.

    Without performers willing to work for “opportunity” no middle class of companies could be developed.
    I agree that means (and should mean) working with a lower level of talent, but you get what you pay for.
    I want to work to work with the best I can get so we do what we can.

    And for the record? If Lowe's offered me free lumber I would take it.
    If one of the 8 venues in town offered me a free three week run I would take it.

  • dansolomon

    Oh, of course we'd all take the free lumber and the free space. But you wouldn't walk in explaining to the employees, oh, we're not going to be able to pay this time around, because we have a lot of other expenses, but once we're more established, we plan on offering compensation for the wood, with a possible and if your wood works well for us, it'll probably help you find more opportunities to provide wood for other shows, and it's possible that some of them will be able to pay down the line thrown in for good measure. The relationship between the theatermaker and the lumber dealer is defined by the fact that you need him more than he needs you.

    Since that relationship is inverted when it comes to actors – by both the overwhelming number of them, of varying degrees of talent, in relation to the number of productions at any given time, as well as by the inherent insecurities that come with choosing a career in which the ability to work is determined, at least in part, by the ability to please people in the role of director/producer – basic economics say that you don't have to treat the actors the same way you treat the lumberyard. I get that.

    Nonetheless, I can't help but see taking advantage of those circumstances as exploitation. Just because the deck is stacked against the performers doesn't mean that it's justified to push them to suffer indignities (like being valued less than wood). At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, it seems like using the “they should know better and they should decide not to participate if they don't want to be exploited” line as justification could extend beyond working for free – isn't that where the casting couch comes from?

    As far as the track record goes, I dunno. It's certainly possible to produce a piece on the cheap and compensate the artists involved, even without any institutional support. It just limits your options as far as what sort of work you can produce. There's a reason I directed a living room drama that my wife wrote instead of the dazzling musical adaptation of Fear and Loathing: On The Campaign Trail '72 that I've been slaving away on, you know? Without knowing anything about how their actors are compensated, I'll say that I've been impressed with the Vestige Group's approach to putting on work that keeps the production costs low without ever feeling like you're watching bargain theater.

    And you're right – this probably is a better conversation to have over a beverage somewhere. At least in that setting, I won't come off as much like a strident jerk as I think I might be here. But I am glad for the opportunity to discuss it in public, too, and foster the conversation on a wider scale. I'm still down for a talk with y'all about structure, paying actors, and whatever else comes up after No One Else closes.

    –d

  • meganreilly

    Wait if DVT is run by vampires I'll totally forgo my pay.

  • DivergenceDiva

    You're easy Megan

  • kathy catmull

    This is a really interesting conversation and I am glad you didn't keep to over-a-beer. I wanted to say two small things.

    One is that I agree that actors ought not work for no money (in 25 years I have worked for no money once, for a great role, and I still slightly regret it). But the reason they don't isn't lack of self respect, I think, but lack of the chance to work otherwise. You can't act unless someone casts you in something. You can't act alone in your room (like a writer) or at an open mic night (like a musician) or in any way at all except being cast in a play. So actors get a little desperate to act, and a producer can take advantage of the desperation, but (as I think we're all saying) that's arguably a creepy thing to do.

    Second, I wanted to say about this: “The companies in this town that do pay are 10 years old. They have City of Austin and/or other grant funding.” That is true. But I did my first play for Ken Webster (just a handy example) in 1984, when he was 27 and had no grant money. He paid me $93 (that's $192.72 today! w00t!), which was awesome. He pays a good bit more than that now, because he has more resources, but in all those years since he never once did a show where he didn't pay actors, even when when that meant he didn't pay himself or the money came out of our tiny-to-nonexistent savings. I don't say this just to brag on Ken (although that's always fun) but to say you're not the first producer to come up against this problem without resources, and things will change if you stick with it.

  • First: I get to your mask issue in the VERY NEXT post. I apologize for not getting back to you, I'm not a very diligent correspondant.

    But to the topic at hand: I take great pride in paying our performers. I don't do it for them – I do it for me. I am exactly opposite of you, I've only been paid on two shows in my life.

    The hardest thing to overcome for me in this situation was pride. It's hard accepting that this is all we have to offer, when it doesn't really cover gas… for the first few shows I did it felt more like an insult than anything else… in that “we paid $40 for your coat here's your $30” sort of way that Dan talked about above.

    But eventually you just need to swallow that and give what you can. Or in the case of Orestes give the community an opportunity to give what IT can.

  • I meant to reply here before! I should clarify that I have worked for way too little money, many times. I have worked for a cut of the box. I have turned down an offered Equity card twice, because it meant I couldn't choose to work for interesting theaters that pay way too little. Also, when I could afford to, I would sometimes accept my wee stipend and then donate it back to the theater company in question. But the money has to _be_ there, for me, or yeah, as derek said– what am I, less than the lumber to you?

    Also–and really this relates to your post above but — I really liked those masks! I mean I did wish them bigger but I also loved them as they were. You are too hard on them.

  • I meant to reply here before! I should clarify that I have worked for way too little money, many times. I have worked for a cut of the box. I have turned down an offered Equity card twice, because it meant I couldn't choose to work for interesting theaters that pay way too little. Also, when I could afford to, I would sometimes accept my wee stipend and then donate it back to the theater company in question. But the money has to _be_ there, for me, or yeah, as derek said– what am I, less than the lumber to you?

    Also–and really this relates to your post above but — I really liked those masks! I mean I did wish them bigger but I also loved them as they were. You are too hard on them.