Photo Courtesy of Forward Theater Company
Local theater companies provide wages, opportunities for local artists
The theater industry is notorious for being difficult to find steady work, no matter what aspect of the field one is pursuing. Even if you can land the rare theater gig, there’s no guarantee it pays well —or even at all. Yet, there’s no shortage of aspiring actors, writers, directors, stage managers and so on.
The median pay in 2017 for an actor was $17.49 an hour, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Though this seems like a livable wage, for many, especially struggling artists who can go months without work, it is not enough.
In 2016, The New York Times reported that Off-Broadway theaters in New York City settled to pay hundreds of actors and stage managers higher salaries after being put under extensive pressure from an aggressive social media campaign by performers.
This reform came late to the game in New York compared to Madison. The theater scene in Wisconsin’s state capital has provided high wages for actors for several years; it is a unique bubble that allows its resident artists to thrive, with various theater companies who prioritize hiring and paying locals.
Erica Berman, a local playwright and director of education and community engagement as well as artistic associate of the Children’s Theater of Madison, said Madison’s arts scene is distinctive because of its small size.
“Sometimes in cities like New York or Boston, it’s like if a tree falls in the forest … And only your friends come to see it,” Berman said. “In Madison, I feel like it’s not a blip. People notice in this city. We know what art is happening because it’s just a really nice amount — enough where you can’t see everything but you can have a pulse on what’s going on. Whereas other cities, there’s just no way.”
Berman also works full time at CTM hiring teaching artists to work with young people in the organization. She employs both locally and across the state, and sometimes across the Midwest. Berman tries to bring these beliefs to CTM to support other artists as well, especially local children.
“Ensuring that the young people who come to our plays are seeing themselves represented on stage is of extreme [importance] to us,” Berman said. “If we can hire locally, we can and we do, but [we] often will need to hire outside Madison as well.”
This hasn’t deterred her writing, though. In fact, it has allowed given her a unique perspective on how she, and therefore CTM, can support other artists juggling multiple jobs.
“I have to do my full-time job and then when I go home I have to write and have faith that someone somewhere will hear it,” she said. “You write because you have to, because you have a story inside you that has to come out … It’s never too late to explore a part of yourself, and don’t just define yourself. Because I’m a playwright, doesn’t mean I can’t be a businesswoman or can’t be an arts administrator or a teacher. Look at yourself as an expansive artist and say yes to yourself.”
For Berman, Madison presented many different opportunities and a lot of companies who took a leap by saying “yes.” Her confidence was launched by Forward Theater Company when they accepted her into Wisconsin Wrights, a local program dedicated to developing new theatrical work and awarding Wisconsin playwrights with the rare opportunity to develop their plays in a professional public reading series.
Jennifer Uphoff Gray, Artistic Director of Forward Theater Company, emphasized this localized focus of the organization as its central objective.
“Written right into our mission statement is that we provide, among other things, a home base for Wisconsin theater professionals,” Uphoff Gray said. “The biggest way in which we interpret that is by hiring Wisconsin based artists and working aggressively to pay them as well as we possibly can, even from our very first season.”
Every year, Uphoff Gray and the rest of the Forward staff hire upwards of 100 contracts, with over 95 percent of them going to Wisconsin residents. She said the company even adopted a new artists investment initiative, driven by their board, that pays artists both on stage and behind the scenes at the top of the wage range.
“I think we’ve, over the last couple of seasons, raised wages something like 30 percent,” Uphoff Gray said. “It’s not an initiative we’re done with, but we feel really strongly that having a vibrant, creative class benefits not just our company and our audiences, but our entire community.”
Part of the reason FTC is able to provide substantial pay is that the company, when founded in 2009, stepped into a very specific void in the Madison art scene. The Madison Rep — which had been the only equity theater company in the city — just closed. Uphoff Gray is hopeful that the success of the organization will trickle down to support the entire theater ecosystem.
“The artists that we employ are able to stay around the area,” she said. “They can work with all the other theater companies. The wages that we pay make it feasible for them to continue to work here with other companies because they have smaller budgets that are doing everything they can to support the artists, which is wonderful and important.”
Regardless of FTC taking the lead on paying artists a living wage, its pay on a week by week basis. Uphoff Gray explained that the company doesn’t even hire actors for an entire season, let alone for 52 weeks a year.
“A professional life in the theater here in the Midwest means cobbling things together,” she said. “It just does. We try to do as much as we can, [but] we know it’s all part of a big patchwork quilt.”
FTC is not the only company working to provide for local artists. Broom Street Theater Artistic Director Doug Reed spoke to the financial independence of BST, which is free of advertisers, grants and sponsors. As a result, expenses to put on shows and run the building are low, giving more possibilities to artists.
“We’re in this crazy, enviable position that I don’t think any other theater in Madison is in and most theaters around the country aren’t in,” Reed said. “[This] lets us give just about anybody an opportunity: first-time writers, first-time directors. You don’t have to be a proven commodity to work at Broom Street.”
In fact, to celebrate its 50th anniversary BST is experimenting with a pay-what-you-want admission price model.
“That’s the beauty of being an experimental theater,” Reed said. “We can do things like that, which in turn, makes us much more accessible than a lot of live theater, which, unfortunately, can be kind of an elitist art form because it’s expensive to put on.”
Despite differences in theater companies — size, budget, union-affiliation or not — each administrator echoed the same sentiment when asked about advice for local artists: find your community.
“It’s such a schmoozy, who you know, kind of business and I don’t mean that in a disparaging way,” Reed said. “Where there’s good theater, there’s good community and so get yourself into that community and be open to the opportunities that will start coming your way.”
Madison, though it may be smaller than the typical theatrical hub, does bring many opportunities to its citizens.
“In an industry that can really pull people down, find people who are going to lift you up,” Berman said. “It’s essential because finding people who say ‘no’ is pretty easy. But who are the people in your life that say ‘yes’ and believe in you? Then find that drive within yourself.”