Living wages and the arts

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Perhaps it’s the over-prevalence of holiday parties this time of year, but I’m finding myself answering the question of what I do for a living more than usual. My response has changed of late. It’s always been an awkward question because I never have just one job, and in the past I’ve usually responded that I “have a bunch of jobs” or that I do freelance writing and some teaching and acting and theater stuff. But now I just drop the second two answers, saying simply “I’m a writer,” or “I’m a blogger,” or something like that.  

It’s not that I don’t do theater anymore- I’ve done about the same amount for the past seven years- one or two shows a year, little side projects here and there, and occasional other gigs. For the larger projects, I get some sort of payment, a stipend, which is maybe a few hundred dollars for a project that lasts a couple of months. When you count out the hours, it’s less than minimum wage, but really it’s considered more of a token appreciation for the gas money and time put in.

The stipend money is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it’s nice to have some money in your pocket after working so hard. On the other hand, it kind of gives you a false sense that it’s some sort of job, that at some point you might live off your art if you stick with it. That’s true for some people — there are indeed some theater artists in town who make a living, but there are also a whole lot of people who work indefinitely in that space in between — not really professional, not really amateur.

I’m in the process of accepting that I’m not a professional despite my two theater degrees and years of experience. I do it for the love of it, because it’s my form of expression, because I’m passionate about it, because I enjoy the other people who do theater.

I haven’t totally embraced theater as a hobby but I’m getting there. Still, for many people it’s not a hobby, and they’re doing show after show for little or no money as they work at their day jobs. Some eventually are able to break into the next tier of professional theater, where they’re making closer to a living wage.

The argument is that these small theater companies can’t afford to pay their actors that much. Maybe some can’t, but what would happen if we suddenly said you have to pay everybody for the time they put it? Or even — if you get a grant, you have to budget in, if not minimum wage, at least something that approximates the actual time put in? I’m not totally on board with this, just because it is nice to get a little money even if it’s not a lot. I think I’m like a lot of people, in that I’d rather the opportunity was there even if it wasn’t huge pay. On the other hand, this doesn’t feel healthy for the arts community either, especially because it tends to draw only from a pool of people who can afford to support their arts career by some other means.

If you really are working for nothing because you love it and it’s a hobby, that’s one thing. But if you’re doing it to “pay your dues” in hopes of getting to the next level, there’s a problem of access, and it becomes just another way in which privilege proves a barrier to those who lack the financial stability to make that kind of commitment without adequate compensation. I don’t have an answer here, but I wonder how our theater and arts ecosystem can actually support artists who are first starting out.