Labor Fairness: Unpaid Actor Edition
by New Dealer
The Flea Theatre was founded in New York City in 1996 by Sigourney Weaver and her husband Jim Simpson. Since then, they have grown to be a firm and popular presence in the New York downtown theatre scene from their perch in the formally industrial and now very chic and expensive TriBeCa neighborhood. TriBeCa stands for Triangle Between Canal and became the area where people fled when they could no longer afford SOHO because of factories turned into fashionable loft spaces. They are hoping to start performing in 2015 in a new theatre that will cost 18.5 million dollars. Nearly 9 million dollars will come from the New York City and State Governments. The rest will come from private donations.
There is one problem. The Flea does not pay their actors and never really has. Rather they use an unpaid company of largely young actors called The Bats.
Disclaimer: I was a literary intern at the Flea Theater when in 2003-2004 when I was a young would-be director. They were largely gracious and kind to me and I always saw them be gracious and kind to the BATS.
I’m not sure how I feel about The Flea being able to raise 18 million dollar for a new theatre while still relying on free labor in terms of acting talent (something any theatre needs) and free office labor (something every theatre needs).
Here are some cold facts. Theatre and all other creative industries will always be tough industries where demand of people wanting jobs vastly outpaces the supply of jobs. Most people who are paid theatre artists do not make much money. Many if not most artists know this and are willing to make the trade-offs. It is also true that the BATS program does offer real opportunities for young theatre artists to work on very ambitious projects and also with talented and professional playwrights and directors. Most of these young actors would probably still be in New York and going on auditions or performing for the umpteenth no budget version of Hamlet in a small 5 floor walk-up theatre even if the BATS program does not exist. Every year hundreds if not thousands of young people go to New York for theatre and other artistic dreams and many might try and start their own theatre companies. A few will succeed, most will fail. Unlike other programs, the Flea seems to be providing real experience and training.
However, the Flea is no longer an upstart theatre, if indeed they ever were. They were partially founded by a very famous movie star (and she is also a very sweet person who liked my hat and bought me a cookie). They produce daring and experimental plays but also have enough cache to be able to lobby multi-million dollar donations from the New York City and New York State governments.
I do not blame the Flea for lobbying the government for this money or for private donations. People seem to be willing to give money to fancy buildings because buildings are permanent structures and you get your name on a wall somewhere. It seems much harder to get people to pay into some kind of endowment or trust fund so a theatre can pay actors and designers and playwrights and directors. This is more abstract than a building but necessary. What is an 18.5 million dollar building without any actors? Certainly not a theatre.
I was never the best director in the world and even with my grad school education, I am probably not as good as I think I am. Who knows whether I would have been successful or not if I continued with theatre instead of heading to the safety of law school? Even with the law school crisis, I am doing much better financially than I ever did in theatre. There are also a lot of people who do theatre for passion and always know that they will have day jobs or night jobs. Sometimes these people do community theatre, sometimes it is very hard to tell the difference between a community theatre and a semi-professional one in terms of talent and skill level. The Flea is a professional theatre though. They were founded by people with serious theatre backgrounds, they are located in the heart of the American Theatre World (being in NYC almost makes any classification as a community theatre impossible. There are some theatres in NYC without much respect and are often mocked but that is another story), they get articles written about them in the New York Times and their plays are reviewed by the Times. And all of that adds up that they should find a way to pay their actors even if it is a small stipend of a few hundred dollars.
This is probably something I care about more than the rest of the Ordinary Times crowd because of my former attempts at trying to be a theatre director. It is also harder to be outraged at the idea of people acting for free over the wages of fast-food workers and Wal-Mart employees but to me it is all part of a large group of symptoms and that is that we don’t care for labor in this country and that can lead to very bad things happening. Almost everyone likes some kind of performance from TV, Film, to Music, and Theatre. These depend on more than just a handful of stars who can command top dollar. You also need people to play small parts and background artists and these people deserve just as much respect as the big names.