More than 1,000 members of Actors’ Equity Association have signed an open letter seeking a “historic” pay increase for actors working on an Off-Broadway contract.
Actors’ Equity Association, the union that represents actors and stage managers across the U.S., is currently negotiating a new agreement with Off-Broadway theatres. The current contract expires November 6.
The grassroots campaign #FairWageOnStage, launched earlier this year by members of AEA, is bringing to light the personal stories (and financial hardships) of actors who make their livings in the Off-Broadway sphere.
By contract, Off-Broadway is defined by the seating size of theatres, ranging from 100-499 seats. At the low end, 100-199 seats, pay currently starts at $593 a week. At the high end, minimum salary is $1,057 a week for theatres with 351-499 seats. Some not-for-profit Off-Broadway theatres are on a separate contract that has different rates. (Some theatres pay as little as 361 a week.)
According to #FairWageOnStage, 63 percent of Off-Broadway contracts pay actors $593 a week. In a survey conducted by AEA earlier this year, members responded that they could not live in New York City on the current wage.
Among the spokespeople for the #FairWageOnStage effort is actor Nick Westrate, who received a Drama Desk Award for being a Highlight of the Season (in which he performed in four Off-Broadway shows in a row). That same season he was forced to file for bankruptcy because he could not make ends meet as a continuously working Off-Broadway actor.
His video was among the first to be posted.
#FairWageOnStage has gathered more than 100 videos of testimonials and support from notable members of the theatre community including Eve Ensler, Tracee Chimo, David Cromer, Dana Ivey, Brandon Dirden, Judy Kuhn, Maddie Corman, Tonya Pinkins, Theresa Rebeck, Jessica Hecht, and Dominique Morriseau. In addition to Westrate, Diane Davis, Kellie Overbey, and Robert Stanton serve as spokespeople for the campaign.
“We started doing labor and cost of living research, and we realized how crazy this wage was,” Westrate told Playbill.com. “Since 2006, the cost of an apartment has gone up 41.4 percent, a metro card has gone up 53.3 percent, and the Off-Broadway contract has only gone up 17 percent.”
Based on a survey conducted by AEA of actors and stage managers working on the Off-Broadway contract, over 190 respondents reported average basic minimum expenses of $815 per week after taxes and commission. (Actors and stage managers also have 2.25 percent deducted immediately for union dues, actors 10 percent for agent commission—a necessity.)
Earlier this summer AEA members sent a letter to Off-Broadway theatres and producers ahead of the contract negotiations. It was signed by up-and-coming artists, alongside high-profile names such as Olympia Dukakis, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Estelle Parsons, Jonathan Groff, Patrick Page, Lily Rabe, Frank Wood, Jayne Houdyshell, Sherie Rene Scott, Jane Krakowski, Lynn Cohen, and others.
It read, in part:
“Because the current Off-Broadway model cannot cover those fundamental needs, we are returning to day jobs in middle-age, taking early pensions, and piling up debt. Under the current Off-Broadway model, we cannot sustain ourselves in New York City.
“We are not hobbyists. We are highly trained and skilled professionals. We are not part-time workers. We work this contract year round, but end up with nothing in the bank, struggling with debt. Our work wins raves, awards, and acclaim for your productions, but we must take second jobs to survive. Our successes boost your sales and enhance your fundraising efforts, while some of us are declaring bankruptcy. The current Off-Broadway model does not support us, nor does it adequately value us as working professionals.
“When Actors’ Equity met with the League of Off-Broadway Theatres and Producers on June 9th, our Chief Negotiator Tom Carpenter asked the attending League members whether they could live on what the Off-Broadway League proposed to pay us. The question was met with silence.”
Representatives from Actor’s Equity and the Off-Broadway League declined Playbill.com’s request to comment on the wage increase due to ongoing contractual negotiations.
Westrate pointed out that Off-Broadway’s non-profit theatre companies are constantly fundraising to support operational costs, playwrights, and other artists working at their theatres, and it is time that actors are supported accordingly.
“There’s this idea that actors will work for nothing because of competition, or this idea that we’re interchangeable, or because there are so many actors,” he said. “I think that my contribution to a play or a production has always been honored by artistic directors, and writers and colleagues, but it’s a hard pill to swallow. We are asked very frequently to come in and do readings for free, to perform at benefits for free, or come to a donor meet the cast for free. It’s difficult to help the theatres year after year raise money and to not feel like you’re a part of shared growth.”
In addition to a new online petition, #FairWageOnStage is also educating patrons and donors who financially support Off-Broadway’s leading institutions, including The Public Theater, The Signature Theatre, MCC Theater, Second Stage, Playwrights Horizons, and more. Those theatres allow donors to specify how their money is spent.
A note on the #FairWageOnStage site reads:
You have the power to allocate a donation to be used ONLY for ‘Actor and Stage Manager Salaries.’ Please make sure that is noted if you donate to these nonprofit Off-Broadway theatres.
Playwrights including Bathsheba Doran, David Henry Hwang, David Ives, and Christopher Shinn have also shared video messages for #FairWageOnStage, which echo these sentiments.
“The institutional theatre has been able to support itself and sustain itself for the most part, and you have staffers and administrators in these theatres who are often able to make a middle class living,” Hwang said in his video message. “But the actors, in many cases, subsidize the theatres through their contributions, which are underpaid, and they are not able to make a middle class living from the work they do in Off-Broadway theatre. And that’s why it seems to be only fair to support the #FairWageOnStage movement.”
Westrate added, “There are certain plays that don’t get made without these actors because they’re who the writers are writing for. The theatres love them, and we love these theatres, we have relationships with these theatres, and we have long-standing artistic partnerships. We’re not dispensable. If you look the enormous contribution from the actors in The Apple Family Plays at the Public… If you think of their enormous, years-long contribution to those works, it’s remarkable. There are so many examples of that.”
For Westrate, this isn’t just a wage correction for actors currently in New York. Union members say they are taking a stand to ensure that the next generation of up-and-coming actors will be able to support themselves Off-Broadway. “Our collective work will suffer if only the privileged get to tell the stories,” he said.