When paying dues doesn’t pay rent, how does theater survive?

Here’s how Elsa Hiltner sees that future. All theaters will end unpaid internships. Those with annual budgets over $1 million will meet minimum wage rates, and eventually living wage rates, for all workers. Compensation categories, or the actual salary of each worker, will be clearly defined and shared. The highest salary in an organization will not exceed the lowest by no more than a factor of five. Schedules will be set “as far as possible” to accommodate a 40-hour work week.

These are among the credentials for certification by the Pay Equity Standards, a new program developed by Hiltner, who worked in theater production for 15 years, and his colleagues at the Chicago-based advocacy organization On Our Team. Two small businesses in this city – Collaboraction, dedicated to social justice, and 2nd Story, dedicated to “real stories by real people for real change” – are the first to meet all the requirements. On June 29, they received, among other things, the right to use (but only for the rest of 2022) a beautiful laurel wreath badge in their marketing materials. Six more theaters across the country are working toward certification in 2023.

They are small businesses. New York nonprofits with artistic directors earning $1 million or more a year — and with pay gaps that can approach a factor of 50 — seem unlikely to apply. Yet, as with LEED certification or fair trade stickers or organic food labels, the hope is that the badge will eventually help theater consumers choose work that aligns with their values. Until that happens, theaters can benefit, according to Hiltner, from happier, more hard-working staff — and the positive response she’s seeing from funders and donors to institutions that are “actually living their missions.” .

But it’s also the case that funders and donors usually prefer to contribute to theaters that do a lot of theatre. That’s one of the issues facing PlayCo, a New York-based company that’s implementing a new compensation model this year.

As Kate Loewald, founding producer of PlayCo, and Robert Bradshaw, its chief executive, described to me, the plan is designed to not only address the usual inequalities by raising everyone to at least a living wage, but also to adjust the mismatch salaries between staff (who can be full-time) and artists (who usually work for a month or two).

It does this, in part, by placing each job in a clearly defined and equalized pay category: a director is paid at the same rate as Loewald and Bradshaw, an associate director at the same rate as a freelance costume designer. Because all categories are “transparent”, everyone knows what each is doing, which in almost all cases is more than before. (The exception is Loewald, who took a stake.) Based on an estimated 250 hours of work, directors who were previously paid $3,500 will now be paid $7,100.