Williamstown Theatre Festival Sound Crew Walks Off

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This blew up locally... then industry wide... then the LA times picked it up.


It is certainly time to start talking about pay rates, working conditions, pay to work, internships, hours worked, etc for summer theatre.

So, CB world, what needs to change?
 

TimMc

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Making theatre, even when things mostly go right, is expensive. We're about to find out how much more expensive it can be.

Lot of folks think their job has some degree of suckage to it, and given a choice for better conditions/pay/benies, have little compunction to remain. Something like 40% of the labor force will have changed jobs and/or employers in the next couple of years (and it's already started).

I'm currently looking at how much to raise my day rate. All my expenses have gone up, so should my rates.
 

Dover

Active Member
Perhaps I am missing something but from what I can gather from this article the show was long on art and idealism but short on any form of competent business management. None of the problems presented in the article seem particularly hard to overcome, mostly consisting of the crew getting wet and not being able to dry off. I know how being wet can turn a hard job in to a miserable one but it does not make sense how it got this far.
The simple solution of why they could not join the cast in the building was never explained or even questioned. Was the cast so large that they filled the entire building? Did they not have tents for the equipment? Why were those not keeping the crew dry?

Now I think the actual problem is more involved with working hours but the article does not hit this head on, it is simply alluded to by a couple of quotes. Theater is a business and must be treated as such to survive, announcing "but it's ART" does not magically make a bad business decision into a better one. Great artistic visions do not always make practical business plans. Most time crunches I have seen eventually come back to poor planning or management of expectations. We can raise our rates as much as we want and a tightening labor market may support it for awhile but with out better management of the productions resources and funding all it will result in is less theater.
 

jtweigandt

Well-Known Member
Family goes to the Circus Parade every year as Ringling comes to town. For 30 years they see the same guy "Charlie" behind the Elephants with the rolling trash can
the coal shovel and the push broom. Year in year out there he is faithfully cleaning up the Elephant dung. Finally one year the Dad steps out of the crowd, walks up to Charlie and thanks him for being there every year, but asks... Why would you shovel Elephant dung for 30 years? Wasn't there something else you could do, some other career path that might not have been as unpleasant? Charlie replies.. "What?.... And leave show business !!??"
 

chawalang

Well-Known Member
I honestly believe that this will just be the beginning of organizations either burning or having to negotiate with organized labor. I remember how this went for Oregon Shakes years ago. It was long and hard for them to organize but they got their contract in the end.

Part of it is that a lot of people who are coming back will have a different perspective. Maybe I should have decent working conditions and pay?! Hmmmm?!

I hope this is the case where people do make it known that basic humanity is not worth the “art” in the end. At the same time I really hope that leadership has taken the time to revaluation their practices. I’m usually antagonistic towards leadership and not hopeful they will change, this is from my lived experience, however I really do hope they have done some self reflection during this time.

I’m also curious to see how these changes effect academia. Let’s all be honest working till 4am and running our physical and mental health into the ground is never worth it. Unfortunately there are parts of academia who still believe this because they were abused when they were younger.

Does this mean that there will be a huge push for organized labor? Maybe, the problem is most of their “teachers” never told them about the labor movement in “skool”. Does this mean they will pull walk outs like this to get better working conditions? Definetly!

In the end I view this as a good thing.
 

TimMc

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@MNicolai Thank you, that does lend some clarity. It changes the tone of my comments somewhat but I think the section about art and business is still some what valid in a general sense so I will leave it as is.

Bring down the curtain on shite shows. I said in another thread that live entertainment is the most emotionally, physically, and monetarily abusive of any industry I've worked in. "Tradition" is more than a song in Fiddler, it's a way to ensure that new people in theater get the same shitty hazing in conditions, hours, and general misery, at the hands of those who proceeded them. And "we" have perpetuated this b.s. myth because we, too, were victims and part of how we process that is to inflict it on others to rationalize it as 'normal'.

The business of art exists because without it, art would be pretty much a one-on-one thing, or at best "to-a-few". Without commercialization, making any kind of living as an artist of any kind, without a patron, king or duke would be nearly impossible.

What must be done is for organizations to stop making 'art' with the pretense that it is NOT a business. It is. And it costs a lot of money to throw people at a business, compensate and treat them fairly, and not abuse the concepts of internships and apprenticeships in the process.

We'll see how long this stays up...
 
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I honestly believe that this will just be the beginning of organizations either burning or having to negotiate with organized labor. I remember how this went for Oregon Shakes years ago. It was long and hard for them to organize but they got their contract in the end.

Part of it is that a lot of people who are coming back will have a different perspective. Maybe I should have decent working conditions and pay?! Hmmmm?!

I hope this is the case where people do make it known that basic humanity is not worth the “art” in the end. At the same time I really hope that leadership has taken the time to revaluation their practices. I’m usually antagonistic towards leadership and not hopeful they will change, this is from my lived experience, however I really do hope they have done some self reflection during this time.

I’m also curious to see how these changes effect academia. Let’s all be honest working till 4am and running our physical and mental health into the ground is never worth it. Unfortunately there are parts of academia who still believe this because they were abused when they were younger.

Does this mean that there will be a huge push for organized labor? Maybe, the problem is most of their “teachers” never told them about the labor movement in “skool”. Does this mean they will pull walk outs like this to get better working conditions? Definetly!

In the end I view this as a good thing.
Ya it really does start there. One reason I hate that most people who teach never worked professionally for more then a handful of years if at all. One of my college friends went right from undergrad to grad and now he is teaching at a 3rd tier theatre program in the midwest. The performance world is just as bad. We are all taught that we'll have to work long long hours for little pay and that is just how it is. Well... that isn't how it is. This is probably a good to to point out too the huge number of theatre programs out there that produce people who never actually work. The school I went to is in that bucket... only a handful of people in my programs actually went on to work in the industry. It never ceases to amaze me how unattached college theatre programs are from the real world and how much they feed into this. You are taught to do shows on crap budgets with unlimited labor, 24hr access, and essentially unlimited time which is 100% opposite of real life. Added to that everyone is taught to be a "designer" so a lot of the craft that can actually make you money is left by the wayside. Long story short, that is how we get to the place where people end up in jobs like these and take it.
 

cbrandt

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I wonder how many of these problems could be solved if we trained our theatrical administration staff a little more as managers and supervisors, and a little less as artists. These are all problems that have been solved in many other industries, but it seems that the people who end up in leadership positions are designers, not administrators. That leads to huge blind spots in planning and organization.
 

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I wonder how many of these problems could be solved if we trained our theatrical administration staff a little more as managers and supervisors, and a little less as artists. These are all problems that have been solved in many other industries, but it seems that the people who end up in leadership positions are designers, not administrators. That leads to huge blind spots in planning and organization.
Or even more likely... failed or retired onstage talent. It has always blown my mind as easy as an MBA is to get everywhere how little there are in the theatre industry. There are a ton in the R&R world but legit theatre has little to none. Added to that many companies lump artistic director and managing director together, so both "HR" and artistic are lumped together and that never works... and that person is rarely every good at both. Then there are the people who get "art administration" degrees that have so little of a handle on what actually happens boots on the ground that they cause more harm then good.
 

Catherder

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I wonder how many of these problems could be solved if we trained our theatrical administration staff a little more as managers and supervisors, and a little less as artists. These are all problems that have been solved in many other industries, but it seems that the people who end up in leadership positions are designers, not administrators. That leads to huge blind spots in planning and organization.

You're 100% right, but it's not isolated to theater. My job is in full on panic right now because of some issues that have been percolating for a while that are finally coming home to bite us, a lot of which are because a manager didn't address them. She was a dev who got promoted and had zero training, mentoring, or coaching on managing people and processes - absolutely brilliant developer and a wonderful person. But I see it a lot in IT now, and back when I was doing social work - someone who is really good at their job gets promoted to management and the thinking seems to be that they will just be good at the managing job too. Management of people and management of work is a SKILL that needs to be taught but usually isn't.
 

macsound

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What's always been frustrating for me is how certain jobs in certain industries can be "expensive" but not understanding the breadth of where that money is going.
When I worked in corporate AV, my employer charged the client $135/hr. I obviously didn't make that but I understood that it was essentially split because if you're billing 1 person but I ask for help and the secretary fields the call, it all comes out even.
What I don't understand is how in theatre you can effectively have the same balance sheet as a corporate event but have little to no idea where all the extra money goes. Waste? Needless overhead?

When I was 13 and started working backstage in community theatre in a brand new theatre that cost 65M to build, tickets were $23, $3 of which was kept by the box office.
The theatre's building cost broke even within 1 year.
When I stopped working with that community theatre, tickets were $50-80 and the theatre kept almost 30% of that.
Did the operating costs of the building increase that much or had they just become greedy?

Are people's poor wage an executive issue, an accountant issue, the employee's issue for not asking for more, the state by taxing the building or non-profit?
 

MNicolai

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@macsound, theater's often less efficient. Not necessarily in terms of tours, but resident theatre is very much "put however many hours in that you need to", which ultimately means less budget available to pay people per hour. The scenic designer can simply walk into the shop and decide to change something at the last minute and then someone's working into the night to fix that. One of the theaters here in town has a reputation for doing notes with the electricians to walk through each light they focused that day, one by one, requiring scenic, costumes, props, sound, and all the other designers to be present for that absurd exercise. Designers also often have little idea what their designs cost, which leads to more meetings and hey-what-about-this and time spent messing around only to find out that the budget can't afford xyz. I've also worked with a number of designers who simply want to design more stuff simply to scratch their own itch. They don't want to use stock goods or whatever to save on costs for a show. They want to design without constraints like college taught them to. One of my professors insisted you must only paint with Rosco scenic paint -- which is fine if you're teaching a scenic artist's class but terrible if you're trying to maintain a budget. One season he blew the budget halfway into the season and the final show ended up being stock platforms and flats because they ran out of money 3-4 months earlier after restocking the shop with Rosco paint.

Ultimately though theater schools are doing a major disservice by almost never talking about the business management side of theater. The workforce ends up being tons of people who have no idea how to value their time, value the time of others, ask for more money, say no to last minute changes/redesigns/etc. Many smaller theaters also don't understand the importance of farming charitable giving, grants, and so forth. They don't know how to play the game so they can properly fund their seasons, and as a consequence of that they've learned to exploit interns and expect long hours for low wages in pursuit of their artistic endeavor. When I was in school I tried to press my professors to talk to us about negotiating design fees and contracts and they basically refused to. Not sure if they didn't want to talk about their pay or if they were reluctant because they felt they didn't know enough about that to be teaching it to others, but they're basically just sending theater students out there into the world and leaving them to fend for themselves.
 

TimMc

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What's always been frustrating for me is how certain jobs in certain industries can be "expensive" but not understanding the breadth of where that money is going.
When I worked in corporate AV, my employer charged the client $135/hr. I obviously didn't make that but I understood that it was essentially split because if you're billing 1 person but I ask for help and the secretary fields the call, it all comes out even.
What I don't understand is how in theatre you can effectively have the same balance sheet as a corporate event but have little to no idea where all the extra money goes. Waste? Needless overhead?

When I was 13 and started working backstage in community theatre in a brand new theatre that cost 65M to build, tickets were $23, $3 of which was kept by the box office.
The theatre's building cost broke even within 1 year.
When I stopped working with that community theatre, tickets were $50-80 and the theatre kept almost 30% of that.
Did the operating costs of the building increase that much or had they just become greedy?

Are people's poor wage an executive issue, an accountant issue, the employee's issue for not asking for more, the state by taxing the building or non-profit?
If the tech costs the employer $30/hr in wages, there will be another $4-$8/hr in payroll taxes and unemployment ins, plus the hourly cost of benefits, and the costs of HR, non-billable technician wages, overhead wages (non-tech like secretaries and managers) and workman's compensation & liability insurances. The total hourly average cost to the employer may be double the hourly wage, give or take.

Also in hotel AV, the hotel usually gets 50% of the invoice as a commission. Even expensive invoices don't necessarily make big money for the in-house company.
 

TimMc

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@macsound, theater's often less efficient. Not necessarily in terms of tours, but resident theatre is very much "put however many hours in that you need to", which ultimately means less budget available to pay people per hour. The scenic designer can simply walk into the shop and decide to change something at the last minute and then someone's working into the night to fix that. One of the theaters here in town has a reputation for doing notes with the electricians to walk through each light they focused that day, one by one, requiring scenic, costumes, props, sound, and all the other designers to be present for that absurd exercise. Designers also often have little idea what their designs cost, which leads to more meetings and hey-what-about-this and time spent messing around only to find out that the budget can't afford xyz. I've also worked with a number of designers who simply want to design more stuff simply to scratch their own itch. They don't want to use stock goods or whatever to save on costs for a show. They want to design without constraints like college taught them to. One of my professors insisted you must only paint with Rosco scenic paint -- which is fine if you're teaching a scenic artist's class but terrible if you're trying to maintain a budget. One season he blew the budget halfway into the season and the final show ended up being stock platforms and flats because they ran out of money 3-4 months earlier after restocking the shop with Rosco paint.

Ultimately though theater schools are doing a major disservice by almost never talking about the business management side of theater. The workforce ends up being tons of people who have no idea how to value their time, value the time of others, ask for more money, say no to last minute changes/redesigns/etc. Many smaller theaters also don't understand the importance of farming charitable giving, grants, and so forth. They don't know how to play the game so they can properly fund their seasons, and as a consequence of that they've learned to exploit interns and expect long hours for low wages in pursuit of their artistic endeavor. When I was in school I tried to press my professors to talk to us about negotiating design fees and contracts and they basically refused to. Not sure if they didn't want to talk about their pay or if they were reluctant because they felt they didn't know enough about that to be teaching it to others, but they're basically just sending theater students out there into the world and leaving them to fend for themselves.
Mike, your post takes me back to my occasional rant about "designers" and the amount of freedom they are given (and the commensurate amount of pain they can inflict on the shop, painters, and budget). A couple years ago a company I know never played their first show of their season with a completed set - because the designer was allowed (by the director) to make constant changes. The result was the shop was never able to complete and install the final revisions before the show closed. Oh, and it was a "throw away" set to boot, so no way to recover some of the cost overrun via rental.

Different company, a show that features anthropomorphic household objects that sing and dance. In the big production number the "plate rail" flies in. Great! Lovely look that mimics the original staging... but it flies, and in This Old Flyhouse, the double purchase system has a limit of about 450-500 lbs per line set... and the set piece weights about 1200, fully assembled and loaded. Houston? We have a problem here. Ultimately the venue TD informed the show that he would not approve the show-suggested marrying of 3 pipes and they could either put the piece on a 400 lbs diet or cut it from the show. They had no way to shrink the weight so the capstone of the musical number was cut. The real stinger is that the set was designed to maximize the useful space backstage, but nobody bothered to see if the flying pieces weighed too much, or had sought engineering approval before move in day.

The first company, different show... carpentry move in - show portal doesn't fit to proscenium. It used to, before it was re-purposed from another show and the designer made a couple of modifications, duly implemented by the shop carps before the portal was sent to the theater. "This one's too big!" "This one's too small!" Third time's the charm, eh? It was just right... all while a stage full of company carps and local crew are standing around while Genius Designer figures out how to use a measuring tape and v3 of the modified piece is built, painted, and sent over. Had GD bothered to seek the advice of the company head carp before issuing drawings and orders, the portal modification would have been built right the first time and gone up in the projected time.

Universities train designers because the teachers are often designers. And think about it, there aren't many aspects of theater one can free lance while still teaching... but I agree that what has happened over the decades is the indulgence of people who have no idea what their "art" costs, either in dollars or humanity, and most don't care that they do not know.
 

MNicolai

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Universities train designers because the teachers are often designers. And think about it, there aren't many aspects of theater one can free lance while still teaching... but I agree that what has happened over the decades is the indulgence of people who have no idea what their "art" costs, either in dollars or humanity, and most don't care that they do not know.
My professors generally did some freelance work, but that didn't change the fact that they had no education in business and didn't feel comfortable enough about that side of things to provide any instruction to students about that. There was one day in the shop I was talking with someone about a job offer I got to go full-time after I graduated and was talking to one of the students about 401k matches and such and I was emphasizing to them that the first few years out of college matter a lot because if you can squirrel away some money into retirement savings early on, that makes huge 6-digit differences 40-50 years down the road. Professor overhears it, laughs, and says that at age 45 he has no retirement savings whatsoever.

People who don't respect their own time and value won't respect the time and value of anyone else around them either, and that so-called work ethic gets instilled in students and perpetuates across the industry indefinitely.
 

gafftapegreenia

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Ya it really does start there. One reason I hate that most people who teach never worked professionally for more then a handful of years if at all. One of my college friends went right from undergrad to grad and now he is teaching at a 3rd tier theatre program in the midwest. The performance world is just as bad. We are all taught that we'll have to work long long hours for little pay and that is just how it is. Well... that isn't how it is. This is probably a good to to point out too the huge number of theatre programs out there that produce people who never actually work. The school I went to is in that bucket... only a handful of people in my programs actually went on to work in the industry. It never ceases to amaze me how unattached college theatre programs are from the real world and how much they feed into this. You are taught to do shows on crap budgets with unlimited labor, 24hr access, and essentially unlimited time which is 100% opposite of real life. Added to that everyone is taught to be a "designer" so a lot of the craft that can actually make you money is left by the wayside. Long story short, that is how we get to the place where people end up in jobs like these and take it.

I agree with you completely, mostly because it echos my own experiences in undergraduate and low-budge theatre. The entire system is fundamentally flawed, and I see a huge part of that as resting on the culture that lives at the collegiate level. There are far too many sub-par programs churning out "designers" with no skill, no clue and a pile of debt. At the same time these programs rely on the small percentage of their students with any technical inclination/motivation to get all the work done. Let me tell you from my own experience that leads to a quick burn out. Being young and idealistic doesn't last as long as you think it will when you're 18. I don't need to rehash the whole argument point by point because I think all of us in the prime of our careers already know the writing has been on the while for a while now.

The other point I want to make is that there is SO MUCH WORK in film, events, conventions and installations. Those shops are absolutely hungry for people, and most actually pay decent wages with benefits, at least when compared to the world of "legitimate" theatre. However, it took me the better part of a decade to realize just how many of those types of shops were out there, what exactly they do, and to get over my own prejudices. Yet it seems that when you tell most theatre educators about the possibilities that exist for their students in this world, some almost seem offended because it isn't theatRe.
 
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egilson1

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Just for discussions sake, Other expenses an employer will have is the development and maintenance of employee documentation like handbooks, job descriptions, benefits documentation, etc. I’m currently in the middle of creating our employee handbook and I can tell you it’s not cheap.

That being said, I can also see how companies who are working their people to the bone probably aren’t developing these documents, as they already have shown disregard for doing business the right way.
 

What Rigger?

I'm so fly....I Neverland.
Bring down the curtain on shite shows. I said in another thread that live entertainment is the most emotionally, physically, and monetarily abusive of any industry I've worked in. "Tradition" is more than a song in Fiddler, it's a way to ensure that new people in theater get the same shitty hazing in conditions, hours, and general misery, at the hands of those who proceeded them. And "we" have perpetuated this b.s. myth because we, too, were victims and part of how we process that is to inflict it on others to rationalize it as 'normal'.

The business of art exists because without it, art would be pretty much a one-on-one thing, or at best "to-a-few". Without commercialization, making any kind of living as an artist of any kind, without a patron, king or duke would be nearly impossible.

What must be done is for organizations to stop making 'art' with the pretense that it is NOT a business. It is. And it costs a lot of money to throw people at a business, compensate and treat them fairly, and not abuse the concepts of internships and apprenticeships in the process.

We'll see how long this stays up...
Tim, I love to see this! Even as a student, I was seriously bummed at how my university completed acted like the commercial aspect of "show business" did not exist. "Oh, hey go to this audition. Go to the U/RTA interviews. I mean I know we're 20 miles from Hollywood, but no....we don't talk about- even a little bit- how to put food on the table with your art let alone avoid exploitation."
 

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