Honesty, Money, and the Benefits of Knowing Your Business
If this #TheatreArtists poll has shown me anything, it’s that the topic of monetary value is a touchy subject in the artistic world. This is no surprise to me. In a profession dependent upon not only our story-telling and creative skills, but also our emotional input, money can be a dirty word. We are often caught in the cross-hairs of our own artistic moral compasses, the villainization of money constantly reaffirmed through our education, popular media, and fellow collaborators.
Before I go farther, let me share some numbers with you.
According to the BLS (Bureau of Labor Statistics, USA), the median income of the average designer is 17.89 USD/hour. This includes seasoned professionals, green horns, non-profit, those that work full-time positions within established companies or LORT theatres, Broadway, Hollywood. Just to compare for you, the going rate for a weekly 60 hour fee for a costume designer on a feature film union set is about 4,100.00 USD. This is the rate for major motion pictures, costume designers at the top of the field. That’s roughly 60.00 USD/hour. Sounds great! Sign me up.
But before you whip out your pen and sign in blood, remember: 1) That fee is a lump sum per your contract. 2) You are not paid overtime. 3) You are not given benefits. 4) You are not given retirement. 5) You work 12 hour days, six days a week, and your day off is the day you prep for the next week’s shoot list. 6) It’s often a 1099 tax form. (For those of you outside the United States, a 1099 is a form given to you by a company for freelance work that the government taxes directly from you at the end of the fiscal year, rather than through the company. It saves the company money, while it forces you to essentially pay your taxes as well as theirs.) *This is not the case if you are working for a major studio or LORT theater. 7) You are paid for the number of weeks of filming, not the eight weeks you spend prior to that researching, amassing your army, planning world domination, and crying in the dye vat.
The going rate for a professional designer working in a university setting is 3,000.00 USD per production. This rate is actually higher than the standard of non-LORT theaters, which peak around 2,500 USD. Back to educational theatre: If you are in production for four weeks, plus one for tech rehearsal, at a low-ball estimate of 35 hours per week, you would be paid approximately 17.00 USD/hour for those five weeks. However, this does not factor in prior time spent in design meetings, doing research, or rendering the show. Let’s factor in a very modest estimate of 40 hours of prep time. At 215 hours for this production, you are being paid less than 14.00 USD/hour for your highly-trained, specialized time. In my state of California, that is 4.00 USD above minimum wage.
If you worked at 14.00 USD/hour, 40 hours a week, 50 weeks a year, you would make 28,000.00 USD untaxed. In the United States, you would not be able to apply for an apartment in any city that can assure year-round work. Why? Because apartment complexes require you make three times the cost of your rent per month to be approved. At 28,000.00 USD, you would be able to pay no more than approximately 750.00 USD per month.
No no, you’re right. It does get worse.
Many young theatre professionals hone their craft doing something called 99-seat waivers in the US. These are what we could term non-profit, semi-professional companies. The 99-seat waiver refers to payment and hourly wage requirements by employers – if a theatre is less than 99 seats, the conditions of minimum wage labor are waived, and a company can essentially pay collaborators what they’re able to afford (almost nothing) and offer a budget that is wafer-thin.
These companies hold no stock, few supplies, and often have no home-base. Therefore, the amount of labor you put in personally to execute a production you’re proud of is ten-fold what a well-established theatre or studio would require. With a relatively smaller number of hours – let’s say 150 – from the educational environment, a designer in one of these theatres makes between one and five dollars per hour.
There, the numbers are out in the open! Shake it off!
Our artistic moral compass and its arch nemesis, Money.
As I said when I began that hourly wage tirade, theatre artists have been conditioned to villainize the assignment of monetary value to their work and services. We fear ‘selling out’, using our art for targeted material gain. We want to live off art for the sake of art. Our ideal is subjective fulfillment – a sort of euphoria from speaking truths that can only be absorbed through the work of our hands, our voices; the stories they tell.
I once had a roommate in graduate school that was a med student. I told her one night that she was amazing. She was going to save lives one day. After all the exhaustion of graduate school, her residency, she’d be changing lives in lasting ways. She shook her head at me, and told me something I always carry with me. “But your work is the reason people want to live.”
Her beautiful statement is true. We artists feel a higher calling in our work. We are communicating in ways daily life does not allow. We are vital to our communities, to each other. The small theatres – like 99-seat waivers – are where communities form bonds with their story-tellers, where we flex our muscles and experiment with form, subject, and delivery. LORT and other large theatres are the bastions of our history. We learn about past masters from them, and benefit from community programs and patrons the smaller companies are unable to harness. The mega-operations – Broadway, the Met, and so on – are able to reach audiences on a grand scale and introduce them to a form of storytelling they may not have considered below the mass-market line. They also employ many professionals, apprentices, young companies, and volunteers.
It is no secret that the artistic economy is crippling its artists. We often resort to blaming faceless corporations and established theatres, stingy government funding, and dwindling grants. This is in large part because many artists are not educated on how to be a business person. In our training, we are taught to wear visors, focusing only on the artistic portion of the design process. As my graduate mentors always told me, when you walk into a room, everyone should know that “The Artist” has arrived
Taking this at face-value is dangerous. Let’s unpack this statement.
Being The Artist in a room means you are an authority, a force to reckoned with. The moment a producer realizes you don’t know the stipulations of the standard union contract, you become vulnerable to misleading bias in the information he or she gives you. When a shop manager mentions his or her labor budget breakdown and you aren’t able to sort through figures in an efficient way, it will raise flags of uncertainty in your logical grip on the production. If you promise your director the moon and the stars, but only deliver the moon and a bunch of twinkle lights because you weren’t able to prioritize his or her needs, it won’t matter how artistic and creative you are. You will be seen as a professional liability. It is up to you to support your art through smart business practices and relationships.
If you take this approach to being The Artist in the room, you will find that business expertise is just as important to a healthy career in design as if your art. Both must share the reins, a left and right hand, to guide your career.
Okay, the long-winded part is over. Let’s get to the practical stuff. How do you protect yourself while informing producers and directors about your participation in a constructive way?
First thing’s first. What are your strengths? Are you a clear and efficient renderer while shopping is your crutch? Or do you shop like a feind, but have little confidence with sketches? Think about your personal demons – what tasks are as slow as molasses versus what preparations for production are a breeze.
Self-evaluation is critical in our business. We don’t have a boss, regular work hours, or performance reports. A designer’s lack of self-awareness can lead to black-listing in shops and theatres at the extreme, or worse of all, no recommendation for another job. Reputation is everything in our business, and most jobs are acquired by word of mouth.
So how do you tackle a low-ball offer without burning valuable bridges?
From experience working in one of the most difficult cities in our business, I know there are three basic levels of employment responsibilities. I offer producers and directors service packages. The general breakdown is this:
Consulting – The budget and fee are small, and might cover my gas expenses. I will only do consulting for collaborators I’m already familiar with.
One production meeting, One dress rehearsal, research sheets for actors to pull from closets, one fitting, supplemental shopping, no cleaning or strike services
Part-Time Design – The most common of my offers. These projects have no shop or stock support, and usually no assistant. Essentially, I’m working alone.
One production meeting, All dress rehearsals, research and sketches, one fitting, limited custom build, minimal actor pulling, largely rented, no cleaning or strike services (except rental pickup)
Full-Time Design – Most universities and established theaters. There is at least some shop support, accumulated supplies and stock, and usually an assistant. This is what we should strive to have for every project. A designer should not be an island.
All meetings and dress rehearsals, research, full renderings, complete backstage logistical control, two to three fittings, custom build and assistant/stitcher services, strike and end-of-run dry-cleaning
These services, of course, fluctuate due to many factors. How large is the cast, how many roles, special effects, period or contemporary, long or short run, distance from my studio, and so on.
But money isn’t the only currency, is it? There are three traits crucial to whether you should take a job or not. If you’ve got two out of three, you’re good to go. The three golden traits are: Fulfillment, Network, Money.
I sound like a real bull on the subject of business-oriented artists, but I also choose my battles. For example, a dear friend of mine, a writer/composer up-and-coming in New York, called me this year while I was adjunct faculty at a university. He asked me to fly to New York and design his Off-Broadway debut. I had designed the workshop two years prior. I wanted it badly, but I was teaching costume design and in the middle of a production during the travel dates. Working with him again and seeing the show come to full fruition was enough for me. I told him I couldn't fly out, but I’d design from afar and the entirety of my fee could be spent in hiring a local assistant to do the legwork.
He pitched the offer to the producers, and I was turned down because I couldn’t attend dress rehearsals. Fair enough. I still gained part of my goal. I wanted a stronger relationship with a talented colleague, and got it because of my honesty and willingness to work within my limits.
Honesty is always always always the best policy.
I have been told an appalling number of times in my design education that talking money and practicality is potential poison. When talking to a director about the design process, avoid money talk at all costs. These conversations are for fostering creative juices. The sky’s the limit.
WRONG. The sky is NOT the limit.
Creative people crave limits. The definition of creativity is the ability to transcend traditional ideas, rules, patterns, and relationships to form meaningful new ideas. In other words, when we are given limitations, we find solutions to overcome them. This is the space where originality is formed. Recognizing the limitations of a production, and discussing them with your director, can garner amazingly inspirational results while keeping your workload fair and manageable. You become a more efficient designer, a more reliable collaborator. This will, in turn, bring you respect and trust.
In conclusion, all I can say is go out there and kick some butt! Be smart about business, about your time, and how to make your art soar. We are all our best and worst advisors. Give yourself a framework to keep yourself consistent.
Never sell yourself short.
Always strive to be The Artist in the room.