Support our Troupes: Workers at Smaller Theaters Win Pay & Labor Equity

Issue 263

Derek Ludovici Apr 26, 2021

As of April 2, entertainment venues in New York have the green light to resume operations at 33% capacity, with a limit of 100 indoor seats and 200 outdoor seats. Broadway theaters probably will not reopen until September, as they don’t see a limited opening as viable, but this is welcome news for smaller theaters and their workers who were laid off in March 2020. These professionals won a significant victory in late March, when the Playbill and BroadwayWorld Websites agreed to require clear pay rates on their job listings.

Costume Professionals for Wage Equity (CPfWE) and On Our Team, two organizations advocating pay and labor equity in the theater industry, released an open letter on March 5 requesting that Playbill require clear rates of pay on all job listings posted on its site. After a 21-day online campaign, Playbill announced it would on March 26.

Playbill is one of the largest theater sites in the United States. Its job listings range from brick-and-mortar theaters to cruise ships in all 50 states and Abu Dhabi. That scope makes it particularly useful for individuals looking for jobs in different locales.

“When I was younger, Playbill was one of my main go-to places to look for jobs,” says Jessa-Raye Court, an organizer with CPfWE. “I grew up in New Hampshire, so sometimes I looked for jobs in or near my hometown, because I wanted to spend the summer being a little more accessible to my parents.”

In major cities, unions like the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees set minimum rates within large companies. Many professionals in smaller theaters, however, are not represented by unions. Clear pay rates are one way that they can make sure they are getting the fee they seek.

“It’s much easier and much appreciated when they list the pay rate upfront, especially because in the theater world and the nonprofit theater world where I tend to work, pay rates can really span a very long range,” Jenna, a freelance stage manager who did not want to give her last name, told The Indypendent before the policy change. “I just had an experience where I saw a listing for a stage manager, and it didn’t list any details. It didn’t list a pay rate or the schedule.”

Playbill’s website now states: “For Paid jobs, the AMOUNT field is now required. Please enter a numerical value or range; leaving the field blank or entering TBD or similar will result in a delay in approval or rejection.”

Clear pay rates also make it easier to compare what the company is offering different workers. “About three or four years ago I was working on a project and I got a phone call from the lighting designer who I had previously worked with,” says Genevieve Beller, another CPfWE organizer. “He said, ‘Hey, do you want to compare contracts and see who’s getting what?’ Nobody had ever done that with me before. On the surface, we were getting the same design fee, but the work requirement was that I be on site for an additional two weeks.” When the fee was calculated per day, she was making less. She talked to the theatre and they increased her pay. “How many times had I miss out on that opportunity to have that negotiation by not discussing the pay?” Beller asks.

“Requiring a clear rate of pay for all jobs listed on these popular job sites will promote pay transparency, help to reduce pay gaps based on biases, and combat deeply rooted pay inequity that subsidizes the industry and undermines the field’s potential diversity, sustainability, and artistic vitality,” says CPfWE co-founder Elizabeth Wislar.

It said that while salary figures for Broadway are not published, it is “highly likely that a significant wage gap exists.”

Requiring clear rates of pay is part of a larger movement by On Our Team and CPfWE to remove gender and racial pay disparities in the theater industry.

“The largest subsidy for the arts comes not from governments, patrons, or the private sector, but from artists themselves in the form of unpaid or underpaid labor,” stated a 2019 report by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. “This requires new thinking to revise labor and social protection frameworks that take into account the unique and atypical manner in which artists work, especially female artists.”

“Concealment surrounding pay exacerbates the gender and racial pay gaps by rewarding job seekers who are able to aggressively negotiate or who have a history of a higher wage — a system that leaves women and marginalized populations at a serious disadvantage,” the letter calling on Playbill to require pay rates in job postings said. “Playbill’s continued facilitation of pay secrecy perpetuates an arts community made up of the few people who are privileged enough to have a low (or no) personal bottom line. Transparency of pay will help organizations fulfill their missions of diversity and inclusion by leveling the playing field and eliminating unconscious biases.”

Nonwhite actors also tend to have lower salaries because plays featuring them tend be relegated to smaller theaters, according to the Visibility Report: Racial Representation on New York City Stages, released in September 2020 by the Asian American Performers Action Coalition and based on data from 18 nonprofit theaters in the city. It said that while salary figures for Broadway are not published, it is “highly likely that a significant wage gap exists.”

Playbill is not the first theater Website to require job listings to include clear rates of pay. The Chicago-based OffStageJobs became one of the first major theater job posting sites to do so in 2018, with its “Post-ThePay” rule. This required employers to include the numeric pay rate, starting pay rate, or potential pay rate range of the job, or state that there is no pay.

“We are celebrating the changes Playbill and BroadwayWorld have made and the transparency it will lead to,” says Elsa Hiltner, cofounder of On Our Team. “And beyond this campaign, we’re inspired by all the action and activism by theatre workers that is leading to positive systemic change.”

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