(photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayoral Photo Office)
Seeing an Off-Broadway play may have saved my life. Joseph Papp gave me my first acting job in 1985, in Shakespeare in the Park, and offered the cast free tickets to Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart” running at The Public, which showed the devastation AIDS wrought on a community forsaken by governments and the press, and its fight to save itself. Seeing the play as a 22-year-old gay man, it scared me into celibacy for a few years, until safer sex guidelines were ingrained in our culture.
Off-Broadway, more than any other facet of New York’s cultural scene, shines a light on underserved communities.
It puts the city’s rich demographics on stage. Jose Llana, who played Ferdinand Marcos in David Byrne’s musical “Here Lies Love” at The Public, said, ”I’ve learned that, as an actor of color, the most daring work, where people tend to hire people who look like me, is Off-Broadway.” Off-Broadway is also an economic engine for the city. Recent Tony-winning musicals like “The Band’s Visit,” “Hamilton,” “Dear Evan Hansen,” and “Fun Home,” all originated or transferred from Off-Broadway, and those hits helped Broadway generate huge revenues, with almost $2 billion in ticket sales last year and contributing many billions more to the city’s economy each year. In the 2007-08 season—the last year a study was done, though another is expected soon —Off-Broadway itself enriched the local economy by almost half a billion dollars. But that success isn’t reflected in Off-Broadway wages.
Ironically, as Off-Broadway theaters become more inclusive in the stories they present and the artists they use to tell them, those from underserved communities are shut out from careers in the arts. Low wages hit early-career artists from working class and working poor backgrounds the hardest, barring entry for those who are disproportionately from communities of color and rural communities. A life in the theater is really available only to those who can afford it. Almost every Off-Broadway artist can tell a story of chronic economic distress: Nick Westrate was a recent Juilliard graduate when he enjoyed a continuous year of employment Off-Broadway, earning a special Drama Desk Award for his work in four different plays; three days before the ceremony, attended in a borrowed suit, he declared bankruptcy.
After two years of working exclusively Off-Broadway, two-time Tony-nominee Johanna Day lost her apartment of 14 years because she couldn’t afford it; she then painted houses in Virginia to supplement the income for her next Off-Broadway play, and still ended up losing money.
Obie-winner François Battiste, after working full-time at Lincoln Center while keeping his day job caring for homeless youth at Covenant House, and with a second child on the way, departed for more affordable Sacramento.
200 of these stories were the force behind our Fair Wage OnStage campaign in 2016, during negotiations between Actors’ Equity Association, the labor union of theatrical stage managers and actors, and the League of Off-Broadway Theaters and Producers. Our group of activists organized over 1,700 Equity members and agitated for higher wages with grassroots actions, taking to social media to tell of the hardships brought by substandard wages. Without resorting to a strike, Equity won wage gains of 14% to 81% over the five-year life of the contract.
While proud of this success, we have further to go. In a 2016 Equity survey, Off-Broadway workers reported needing $815 net per week on average, or $1129 before taxes, just to pay their basic expenses.
Only one non-Broadway, non-profit space in the five boroughs, The Public’s Newman Theater, pays actors just over $1,100 per week. Twenty-six theaters pay actors anywhere from $650 to $950 per week. Over 30 fall below $650 per week, with many paying little more than minimum wage. Trump’s tax cuts make things even worse, eliminating protections for performing artists built into the old tax code. Actors incur many unreimbursed employee expenses. The new law eliminates itemization, and expenses often go well past the new, higher standard deduction, as much as quadrupling our tax burdens, according to Sandra Karas, Equity’s treasurer and a tax lawyer who’s prepared thousands of performers’ returns. New York City can help. New York City gives more money to cultural institutions and programs than any city in the country: last year’s Department of Cultural Affairs budget was $143.8 million, outpacing the arts funding of San Francisco, our nearest rival, by over $60 million. But 70% of the city Department of Cultural Affairs budget is reserved for 31 institutions in the Cultural Institutions Group, leaving over 1,000 other organizations to clamor for the rest. These august giants soak up most of the funds, so that very little reaches the people who make up the floor of our cultural ecosystem, the artists and the small companies that nurture them. We believe New York City can do better.
We propose the Fair Wage OnStage Fund, a concentrated allocation of money within the Department of Cultural Affairs budget, to subsidize professional stage managers and actors while they are employed in New York’s non-Broadway, nonprofit theaters, making up the difference between established union minimums and what we actually need to survive. Nonprofit theaters within the five boroughs using contracted Equity workers at minimums that fall below the necessary weekly gross salary—$1,129 per week, adjusted annually for inflation—would be eligible for the fund. Theaters would be responsible for raising the money to pay established minimum salaries and benefits, and could only use the fund to pay the difference between what the artists get and what they need. As an annual allocation, the FWOS Fund would have a built-in, yearly sunset provision, so it won’t interfere with union negotiations.
By our rough estimate, just over 1,500 contracted, Equity stage managers and actors worked in non-Broadway nonprofits in the five boroughs during the previous theatrical season, grossing an average of $646 per week. To fill the gap between this and the necessary wage, the FWOS Fund would subsidize these workers with, on average, around $483 per week. A nonprofit theater contract is usually nine weeks long. The fund would pay, on average, $4,347 per contract. For 1,500 contracts over a season, the fund would disburse roughly $6.52 million, less than a hundredth of a percent of New York City’s $90-plus billion budget.
New York can afford the Fair Wage OnStage Fund.
Unlike Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Houston, San Francisco, Long Beach, and the State of Minnesota, New York City has no revenue stream dedicated specifically to the arts. If the city seeks an untapped source, a tax of a fraction of a dollar on a Broadway ticket—with 13.79 million tickets sold last season—would pay for the fund and then some. Or, since the city’s lack of affordability affects so many of us, a proposed tax on unoccupied luxury apartments, which inflate housing prices all over the city, would be a just source of revenue to support the city’s artists.
Like other Department of Cultural Affairs initiatives regarding cultural institutions—studying the demographic makeup of staff; free admissions for public school students and for undocumented immigrants with city ID cards—the FWOS Fund would encourage cultural equity. In a city whose enormous wealth drives artistic workers further to the margins (or out of the city completely), where the rising cost of living keeps many from even getting in the door, the FWOS Fund would act as a stimulus package for the artistic workers who help generate wealth, but see little in return. As City Comptroller Scott Stringer put it in his report “Culture Shock: The Importance of National Arts Funding to New York City’s Cultural Landscape,” “A robust and healthy cultural sector supports a robust and healthy democracy and economy.” The FWOS Fund will cultivate a more robust, healthier Off-Broadway, helping New York retain its artists and attain its rightful status as an example for the rest of the nation in properly valuing its artistic workers and creating equal opportunity for all.