A Post-Mortem of Our Industry

Updated: Mar 30

With the recent catastrophic loss of so many of our revered and beloved performance arts fixtures and institutions, our global creative community has now entered a post-apocalyptic arts landscape. In this new vacuum, there's a massive movement growing, as many are now coming together for a Post-Mortem of Our Industry.


It's something theatre artists have done after every exhibition or production ends, as ritual, to communally unpack and learn from our successes and failures. At this moment, in every corner of the Arts, we are mobilizing, dissecting and calling out the unbalanced power dynamics and oppressive systems of patriarchy, white supremacy, and capitalism that brought us to the brink of collapse.


In fact, it could be argued that for some, we're done with the post-mortem itself and are on to the next production. On new terms.


Leading the way are some recent US-based intiatives, who are confronting these insidious systems by insisting on pay transparency and labor equity. First, a national network of theater workers demands that Playbill require clear rates of pay on job site listings. On Our Team and Costume Professionals for Wage Equity, organizations advocating for pay and labor equity in the theater industry in the United States, recently released an open letter to Playbill (a global industry resource providing News, features, performance listings for Broadway, Off-Broadway, London and Regional theatre) that the company require clear rates of pay on all jobs posted to their job site. The organizations are gathering signatures to the open letter in support of pay transparency on Playbill’s job site. [3/27 Update: The campaign was SUCCESSFUL and Playbill's policy and job posting requirements have been changed]


According to the team's press release, "Playbill allows job postings to list no or vague pay information including: “TBD,” “Depending on Experience,” and “Competitive Salary,” ambiguous terms that enable pay disparities based on gender, race, ability, and other biases. “Requiring a clear rate of pay for all jobs listed on Playbill’s popular job site will promote pay transparency, help to reduce pay gaps based on biases, and combat deeply rooted pay inequity that subsidizes the industry and undermines the field’s potential diversity, sustainability, and artistic vitality,” says Elizabeth Wislar, co-founder of Costume Professionals for Wage Equity.


Playbill’s continued facilitation of pay secrecy suppresses equity and has a detrimental economic impact on the national theater industry in both the non-profit and for-profit sectors.


Requiring clear rates of pay is part of a larger multi-faceted movement by On Our Team, Costume Professionals for Wage Equity, and in tandem with other national organizations, to remove gender and racial based pay disparity and build pay equity in the theatre industry."


Elsa Hiltner, co-founder of On Our Team, said in a statement, "Wage transparency is an important first step towards pay equity, living wages, and removing the economic barrier to a career in the arts. When pay information isn’t required on industry job postings, job sites ensure that theater companies are free to offer workers an inequitable rate and is why job boards that require clear rates are so crucial to building equity in the industry.”


Taking on systemic arts inequality is also happening at the local level. In a 2020 episode of The Smartist Podcast, we spoke with arts advocate Lauren Sivak. She shared how Chicago-based storytelling & performance company 2nd Story, for whom Sivak is current Managing Director, is confronting labor equity gaps through their "Leap to 15" initiative. The stated goals of this initiative include the following:

  • Adopting a transparent pay model.

  • A multi-step plan to pay stipends based on a $15/hr rate for every artist by September 2021.

  • A commitment to evaluate artist pay every season to adjust for cost of living changes and inflation.

According to 2nd Story's website, "In April 2019, our Artistic and Managing Directors began talking in earnest about how we could close the equity gap for our artists, and how we might leverage 2nd Story’s recent growth to support this initiative. It is no secret that artists, specifically 1099 freelance contractors*, are historically an underpaid and overworked workforce, and we must address Chicago’s (and the nation’s) long history of pay inequity in the arts. This will not happen unless we don’t commit to paying a living wage** to all of our artists. At 2nd Story, we believe that art is work and that artists should be appropriately compensated for that work. Our budget is a statement of our values, and our budget says, in explicit terms, that we value artists."


The site continues with the following footnotes, "*You might be asking yourself, “How can someone make less than minimum wage?” It is a great question. This is because independent contractors are not considered employees of the organization and are therefore not entitled to minimum wage. Independent contractors—such as actors, designers, directors, and producers—work for hire, and can therefore be grossly underpaid. The Leap To 15 seeks to right this wrong and pay artists for their work.


**Chicago’s minimum wage is $13.50/hr. Illinois’s minimum wage is $10/hr. The Federal minimum wage is $7.25/hr."


Click here to contribute to 2nd Story's artist pay equity initiative.


Also on a national level, Be An Arts Hero is an intersectional grassroots campaign comprised of Arts & Culture workers, Unions, and institutions in the United States pushing the Senate to allocate proportionate relief to the Arts & Culture sector of the American economy. As their website states, "There can be no full American economic recovery without an Arts & Culture Recovery." Their platform offers 100% volunteer-led direct action initiatives, including links to town hall events, legislative communication strategies, and resources for help and relief for artists.


This kind of grassroots organization and mobilization is taking center stage as the arts world contemplates its own recovery. As evidenced by the work of these three leading-edge organizations, if we want to reverse the course of systemic injustice, exclusion, and oppression in the arts, we need to address the subject of greatest taboo and discomfort- our money.


After all, we know that Money is power. But Community is also power, friends. Transparency is power. Knowledge is power. Smartistry is dedicated to nurturing all of these things. With our inspired collaborators, peers, and friends, we are learning, and taking the power back. I hope you'll join us.


With Love and Solidarity,

Melissa