Actors' Inequity

The Cost of Art IV: The artists onstage in Austin aren't just not paid what they're worth, many aren't paid at all

Molly Karrasch
Molly Karrasch (Photo by Sandy Carson)

"I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged."

– Peter Brook, The Empty Space (1968)

For my first play in Austin, in 1984, I was paid $93 – about $210 in today's dollars. It was one-fourth of the ticket sales for our final performance of Sexual Perversity in Chicago. Three actors stood on our rented Hyde Park Theatre stage, sipping beers as the producer/director, who also acted in the show, counted cash into four equal piles. We felt rather pleased with ourselves. In those dark days, many producers didn't pay at all.

Flash forward 30 years. I've done more than 65 productions since then and been paid for all but one. I'm now married to that producer/director/actor, Ken Webster, who now runs Hyde Park Theatre and pays actors substantially more than $210 a show. These days, many more local producers pay than did then. We even have several Equity stage companies paying actors weekly salaries under union contracts with benefits.

And yet, to this day some producers don't pay a dime. And many actors tolerate that, far more than I realized before I started asking around for this article, which is part of the Chronicle series on "The Cost of Art." (See "Nowhere to Play," Jan. 24, 2014; "Park Benched," Mar. 28, 2014; and "Road to Freedom," July 25, 2014.) It asks the question: Does the money you pay for a ticket, whether $15, or $27, or $83, cover the costs of the production?

Hollow laughter. No, it does not. That ticket is heavily subsidized by actors – and other artists – working for little or nothing.

Money's always a sticky question. But in an unscientific survey, I asked 40 Austin actors the least and the most they'd been paid in the past five years (Equity contracts excluded), plus what they considered normal or average pay for a good-sized role in a show running 4-5 weeks. From the 22 replies I received, the median "lowest" fee was $50; the median highest $800 (several actors had at least once made thousands more, usually in touring shows). Median "normal"? $500.

The high and normal figures were about what I expected. What I did not expect was actor after actor saying they often – in several cases, more often than not – worked for nothing. One told of having to persuade a producer that sold-out houses and the cast's willingness to extend the run justified paying at least gas money. They got $45 apiece.

So you'll know just how much work this involves for an actor, the average non-Equity theatre production in Austin rehearses 5-8 weeks, 15-20 hours a week, then runs 12-16 performances. That's 75-160 hours of rehearsal and 50-75 hours in performance. A survey of 11 local producers confirmed those numbers as par for the course. (For budget reasons, Equity houses tend to rehearse less and have longer runs.)

Beyond the time at rehearsals and performances, actors also must learn lines, which can add 10, 20, or more hours of homework, depending on the size of the role (and, to be honest, the age of the actor). Personally, I aim for a $1,000 fee for a small-cast show, somewhat less if it's a large cast. If someone wants to pay me less than $500, I need pretty special circumstances. So best case – best case – I make minimum wage. Worst case ... oh, I don't want to think about it.

The Milk for Free

So why do actors work for little or nothing?

Easy answer: to work at all. Acting isn't like painting or writing, an art you can pursue in bedroom or coffeehouse. You can't even practice acting alone the way a musician can practice music. If you don't produce shows yourself, you have to get cast. You have to.

I bragged about working a lot and always getting paid, but I had a lucky break: In 1984, I fell into a mutual, heart-eyes dazzle with a director/producer who was one of the first in Austin to pay actors: every time, no question. Webster produced his first play in Austin in 1981. "All actors, director, and crew made a smooth $19," he reports (that's about $50 now). "At that time, just about nobody was paying." He's produced under various companies since and has always paid actors, even when he had to take a loss. Why? "I started as an actor and felt strongly that actors should be paid for their work."

So I was lucky. Of those 65 plays I did, a third were produced by Webster. For actors without such a useful significant other, the temptation to work for free can be overwhelming. Why stress about a couple hundred bucks, which will barely cover your gas and makeup anyway, when you finally have a chance to play your dream role?

And yet. At some point, giving your work away for free or near-free feels wrong. Actor Molly Karrasch notes that when any actors in a show "are making a weekly salary or stipend that is anywhere near the price of one ticket to the show they are acting in, you have a fundamental problem."

Back in the bad old days, around 1987, a couple dozen actors, including me, met to form what we rather grandiosely called the Actor's Guild. We promised each other we'd refuse to work without some sort of payment. The "guild" was informal and didn't last more than a few meetings, but things did begin to change around that time.

Actually, that Actor's Guild – sounds something like a union, doesn't it?

Don't Mourn, Organize

In fact, it was around the same time that Actors' Equity Association, the U.S. actors' and stage managers' union, came to town. Several people I spoke to cited Don Toner, founder and producing artistic director of Austin Playhouse, as the driving force behind AEA in Austin. Bill McMillin, who was the Equity liaison in Austin for many years (Laura Walberg recently took the reins), told me, "Equity began here in earnest when Don Toner arrived to helm Live Oak Theatre. Don was a member and wanted his theatre to be 'professional.'"

In the U.S., Equity theatres are generally referred to as "professional" theatres, a term of art that can be a bit galling to other working theatre artists. It may seem silly to categorize, for example, the Rude Mechs – whose Austin-generated work has been acclaimed from Los Angeles to Lincoln Center and Europe to Australia – as amateurs, but as AEA frames it, they are.

An Equity theatre agrees to hire a certain number of actors for each show under an Equity contract, which pays a weekly salary set by the union based on venue size. The theatre must also contribute to the actor's health insurance and pension fund.

By the early Nineties, thanks largely to Toner, Austin had 50-75 AEA members getting 45 Equity contracts a year, McMillin recalls. Equity's national office couldn't supply current numbers, but McMillin estimates 200 Equity members in good standing in the Austin/San Antonio area, receiving 80-90 contracts a year – a doubling (with the caveat that San Antonio is included in the current numbers) over about 18 years.

Today, Austin has three Equity houses – Austin Playhouse, Zach Theatre, and Mary Moody Northen Theatre at St. Edward's University – plus one Equity company without a venue, Austin Shakespeare. Because Texas is a right-to-work state, actors don't need to belong to the union to be paid under union contracts, though they usually do.

Given the strong benefits and protections AEA offers, you'd assume local actors would be scrambling to qualify. And many are – but others are not. Sometimes that's simply a matter of taste; an actor may prefer the kind of work done by local non-Equity companies than by those with Equity contracts. Sometimes it's simply a matter of numbers: Of all the roles available in Austin in a given season, few come with the Equity contract that an Equity member needs.

Still, Karrasch is making the leap to Equity. "If you'd asked me a month ago, I'd probably have said, 'No, I don't plan on joining [AEA],'" she says. "However, I think I'm going to join within the next year. It has a lot to do with being a mom and just feeling like I need to grow up and get a job with a pension. I also feel more confident now that the companies I want to work with will not be dissuaded by me having an Equity card."

Karrasch means she believes that independent producers will continue to cast her under expensive "guest artist" contracts, which can put a big budget burden on a small group. In other words, she's weighing the benefits of Equity membership against the risk of pricing herself out of some of the liveliest parts of the Austin theatre scene. (For more thoughts on going Equity, see "To Join or Not to Join.")

But for the independent producer, hiring an AEA actor can be a strain on the budget and even affect how other actors in a show are paid. "It's a huge sacrifice for our tiny organization," says Salvage Vanguard Theater Artistic Director Jenny Larson. "It does affect what we pay the rest of the team, sadly. If we are employing Equity, especially if we are employing two or more on one show, then the rest of the team is usually paid the low end of our varying rates."

Capital T Theatre Artistic Director Mark Pickell allows that that's often true for his group as well. And Webster notes that Hyde Park rarely hires more than one Equity actor per season "largely because it means the other actors don't get paid as much."

That said, some companies won't balance an AEA salary on the backs of other actors. Penfold Theatre has two Equity actors budgeted for this season, and Ryan Crowder, producing artistic director, says "the presence of an Equity actor does not influence what we pay other actors." Bonnie Cullum, artistic director of Vortex Repertory, has had only three Equity guest artist contracts in the past 10 years, but those "did not impact what the other actors were paid."

And some groups work to bring all actor fees up to the AEA level. The Rude Mechs – which was among the most transparent of all the producers interviewed for this article – have a fantastically complicated payment system based on how the show is funded and whether it tours and where; but on the whole, they're among the highest non-AEA payers in Austin. Union fees and benefits contributions "can be a burden on a tight production budget," allows Lana Lesley, one of the six co-producing artistic directors, but when the Rudes "have union folks, we do our best to make sure everyone is getting paid at their level."

That goes for some of Austin's Equity companies as well. Lara Toner, daughter of the Austin Playhouse founder and the company's artistic director, writes: "Non-Equity actors in a play are typically paid fairly close take-home (after tax) wages to Equity actors. For a first-time appearance with us, or in a large cast production, it's typically a little less per week." Zach will sometimes pay non-Equity actors at rates comparable to Equity, though Producing Artistic Director Dave Steakley states that fees vary from show to show and range from $90-520 per week, (For more on pay for Austin actors, see "Who Pays What," p.32.)

The Actor's Slice of a Small Pie

Part of the problem, of course, is that actors aren't the only budget item these producers must consider. Actor fees sit alongside expenses for the performance space (whether it's rented or owned), costumes, lighting, sets, props, sound, designer pay, marketing, and so on, which eat up a lot of budget. Pay for actors typically winds up as a relatively small percentage of a production's costs.

The Rude Mechs, Vortex, Hyde Park, and Capital T all say actor pay comprises 25-33% of their budgets. For the Rudes, that figure is closer to 50% for touring shows and was over half for their award-winning production of Fixing King John. For Austin's Equity companies, though they pay actors more, the percentage of the budget devoted to actor pay is even less. Ann Ciccolella of Austin Shakespeare reports a figure of 21.81%. Lara Toner of Austin Playhouse says: "Roughly 20% of our total operating budget goes to actor pay, including pension and health." Zach notes only that the percentage "varies widely" per show. And obviously for those producers who pay their actors nothing at all, the percentage is zero.

Paying artists just isn't a priority for some producers, writes Barbara Chisholm, who has been an actor in Austin for 30 years, was also involved in the Actor's Guild back in the day, and, full disclosure, is married to Chronicle Arts Editor Robert Faires. Indeed, artist pay "seems to be the last budgetary consideration, not the first or even the first three or so, so of course when producers get to that line item, there's no money for artists."

That problem is compounded when no one speaks up about it. "Artists, especially actors, are so loathe to complain about pay or anything else that we'll notoriously eat all kinds of shit with a big smile and thank you. We're just so hungry to do the work," she adds. "And if you're not a white male in the 20-40 age range, the number of opportunities to do (good) work is so rare that we're even more reticent to speak up for (justified) fear that we'll be blackballed."

So when Chisholm decided to mount a show herself some years back, she took a different approach. As a producer, she writes, "I made the conscious decision to create budgets that were Artists First in their construction. That is, I made my list of costs with competitive artists' salaries at the top of what I considered fixed costs alongside things like rent, hard materials, marketing, etc., etc. Now, I know I have the luxury of producing on a schedule to my liking. I'm not trying to sustain a theatre and the accompanying seasons a regularly producing theatre requires. I also do not have infrastructure costs such as regular building rent, upkeep, utilities, etc., etc. To date, I've only produced shows with one performer. The list of what I am not responsible for goes on and on and on and on. But what I am responsible for is paying artists."

"Then Why Do the Art at All?"

If you think I'm here to bring down these producer fat-cats raking in the bucks on the sweat of hard-working actors, then I've misled you. Remember I'm married to one of those cats, and he's not raking in anything but long, long hours at the theatre, longer than I've ever spent as an actor. Over the years, I've sometimes donated all or some of my fee back to the broke producer.

Crowder of Penfold notes that his company's founders "were so dedicated to the idea of paying others that they never asked for payment themselves. It wasn't until years after our founding that we were able to hire and pay our staff a regular wage." Beth Burns of Hidden Room Theatre says, "I do not take a salary as a director or as an artistic director."

Burns – who pays actors "what we can, and at a loss" – wrote movingly of a dilemma that many small producers face: "Of course, the question becomes, then why do the art at all? If you can't afford to pay a good living wage, then you have a bad business model, and you shouldn't do the art. And I do see the reason in that, and I think about it all the time. It's a major struggle for me, and if it weren't for the fact that I feel compelled to continue to do the work, that the Hidden Room family continues to want to make the art with me, and that I do believe there is a better future with more financial stability on the horizon, I certainly would have given up many years ago, simply because I can't offer the type of pay that I believe the artists and technicians deserve."

Artists First – Really?

So how realistic is an "Artists First" budget for all producers? For companies like Capital T and Hyde Park Theatre, it works in part because their artistic directors both prefer small-cast shows. But it can be a challenge even there; Chisholm notes that her own status as a member of AEA has meant that "I haven't figured out a way that I can afford to hire myself as an actor in my role as a producer."

As for those small producers who dream of spectacle and period costumes and casts of a dozen or more, Artists First may not be, especially when they know that the landlord and the fabric store will want cash, but actors will work for free ....

Still, what I've seen looking back at the history of actor pay in Austin is that nothing changes unless there's a change of mindset, whether on the part of the artists or the producers: Webster splitting the house, actors forming a guild, Toner committing to AEA. A commitment has to be made.

Pickell says that Capital T has made sure to "compensate people for their time and talent ever since our first production. I started paying actors a $250 stipend, and as we have slowly built a fan base and received other sources of income I have continued to pass it on to the actors who make the shows we produce possible. If I can help [actors] piece together a life in Austin collaborating on great work, it might convince them to stay in Austin instead of taking their talent elsewhere." Cap T is now among the highest-paying independent groups.

Cullum of Vortex says, "We pay the actors more each season," adding dryly, "Of course, the way that would be easiest to pay even more is to produce fewer shows, but most actors don't like that solution."

It may mean starting small. Norman Blumensaadt of Different Stages has just begun paying actors for the first time in his company's 30-plus-year history. The amount is "a very small stipend. Like, tanks-of-gas-or-less stipend," he says. "But I thought it was a place to start." Why start now? "To maintain artistic standards," given that so many other producers now pay.

An Austin where all theatre budgets start with an empty stage and a decently paid actor or two, before anything else – even before the other artists involved – may be just a dream today. But it's a dream worth thinking about, if only because there is no play without the actors. The actors, and the empty space.

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The Cost of Art, Ken Webster, Hyde Park Theatre, Molly Karrasch, Don Toner, Austin Playhouse, Lara Toner, Actor's Equity, Bill McMillin, Mary Moody Northen Theatre, Dave Steakley, Zach Theatre, Ann Ciccolella, Austin Shakespeare, Jenny Larson, Salvage Vanguard Theater, Mark Pickell, Capital T Theatre, Lana Lesley, Rude Mechs

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