A Possible Roadmap to a Less Pale, More Prosperous Future
I caused some distress a few weeks ago when, in the rowdy virtual pub that is Facebook, I offered a possible explanation for why the Canadian theatre is so damn white.
My claim, which I made way too glibly, was that the vast majority of new Canadians from Not-Europe seem more inclined to seek lucrative work in mainstream sectors like finance and technology, for instance, than to hurl themselves down the economic rabbit hole that is the arts. Whether that observation is true or not, it was wrong of me to speak of race-related matters in the flippant, generalized way I did. It was a mistake — lazy, facile, distracting — to approach such a complex issue with quips instead of rigour.
This essay, then, is the product of research and reflection to which I was compelled by my own dissatisfaction with my careless words. It’s an attempt to move past glib politicking, test intuitions with data, examine some of the economic forces at work in the Canadian theatre, and propose a speculative but potentially revolutionary model for change.
Theatre of Privilege
In Canada as elsewhere, many individuals who work in the not-for-profit arts scene, and a still greater proportion of those who succeed in the arts in the medium- to long-term, come from wealth. They’re privileged. Their families are among the so-called one-percent — or at least the ten-percent. That ten-percent covers a lot of ground: it includes suburban families whose children are financially independent but know they have a safety net if ever they become desperate, along with Rosedale families whose scions may never in their lives need to worry about money or, if they so choose, work for it. If you’re a theatre artist in Canada, you probably have more colleagues like that than you think.
Most of those privileged families, though not all, are white. As a result of their wealth, those families’ offspring have a natural advantage over many of their competitors in the arts. For starters, they can better afford to wait out the extremely low- or unpaid period of apprenticeship that may last ten to fifteen years before they become what passes for “established” in their trade. They may also have access to capital with which to start theatre companies that have substantial budgets. They know that if they lose on the gamble that is their work as an artist, they won’t want for the basic necessities of life, nor will they be obliged to sell their time for minimum wage in the unskilled job market. For artists whose families are in the higher reaches of the so-called 1%, to commit a life to art is a lower-risk proposition than it is for others. Failure is always possible, but failure, for them, is unlikely to entail the loss of comfort, ease, or the power of self-determination.
What’s more, the way the Canadian theatre is now structured, such artists are virtually the only ones who can afford to devote all their energies to the theatre over the long-term outside of a salaried management role. Stage managers, who tend to be in demand, and who work at what are basically also managerial tasks, may be an exception; so may be contractors at the Stratford and Shaw Festivals, which can guarantee artists nine months of steady work per year (though can’t guarantee multiple or consecutive years of it). Most others who work in the Canadian theatre on a freelance basis supplement their income with secondary employments, mostly in education and for-profit film and television. The division between such artists and those who come from privilege, differently expressed, is a division between artists who lack a patron and those who have one. The patron in Canada is rarely the state; our arts funding regime funnels its dollars through institutions, a strategy that creates plenty of middle-wage administration jobs and leaves independent artists in comparative poverty. Philanthropy follows the public funders’ lead. Where effective arts patronage exists for individual artists in Canada, the patron is most often the artist’s family.
The artist who wishes to devote herself exclusively to the Canadian not-for-profit theatre scene is in need of patronage because market demand for her work is generally so low, and the supply of similar work generally so very high, that her work’s direct revenues can rarely win her anything that approaches a living wage. Not only is the Canadian theatre a lottery, it’s a sham lottery, with no jackpot that’s even close to equal to the time and money gambled by all contenders: even if she’s successful, at the very top of her profession, the Canadian freelance playwright or director, for instance, can’t reliably command high earnings or much mainstream prestige. There are some exceptions among playwrights who write a particular sort of play — cheaply producible, offensive to no one, expertly crafted — that “goes viral,” gets picked up for a profitable year or two by regional theatres across North America, but those are often flashes in the pan, income highlights amid more pervasive drought. The few others who make a decent living as Canadian playwrights tend to have gained a foothold in markets more commercial than Canada’s not-for-profit regional scene: summer stock theatres, American and other international venues. But even some of those artists, like the terrific and much-missed Jason Sherman (he’s writing for TV, not dead), whom no less than Time Magazine called “the bad boy of Toronto theatre” in the late ‘90s, can’t make the numbers work on a Canadian theatre career. The economic rewards of a life in the theatre, as in most art forms in Canada, are vanishingly small. The intrinsic rewards of the art, the basic satisfactions of making, may partly compensate.
But the reality is clear: where a theatre artist lacks family patronage, low market demand for her skills, combined with ostensibly market-correcting funding structures that don’t afford her a living wage unless she’s an administrator, means she’s obliged to seek work in another industry in addition to the theatre. For many such theatre workers — playwrights who begin also to write for television, say — this need to divide one’s energy raises a question: Why not just leave the theatre and go where one’s work is, by most appearances (i.e. not just in terms of dollars), better valued? For young people who are considering a career in the theatre but who come from the opposite of privilege, the economics of the profession make it a non-starter. It’s not even a long shot, like attempting to be a pop star or a Hollywood hero. It’s a pseudo-industry, a dead end, a hobby with honoraria. Better to pursue stimulating work in a profession that pays and make art on the side, maybe.
We can debate whether “unfair” is a relevant term to describe the public’s choice to snub a trade’s products and, through its disinterest, make it impracticable for most workers to continue in that trade. We can advance arguments about whether (or for how long) government should support that industry, so those tradespeople can continue in their accustomed ways in the absence of demand for their products, and the few interested members of the public can buy those products at prices lower than what the lack of demand would otherwise allow. The fact remains, though, that for most working people, a lack of demand for their skills in a given area means simply that they must do something else — perhaps learn new skills — in order to survive. When individuals who don’t come from privilege choose not to pursue a life in the professional theatre — though they may make art, as an avocation, their whole life long — they’re behaving as most humans typically behave when attempting to get ahead, given how capricious is any society about what it values enough to pay for and what it deems superfluous.
My glib Facebook hypothesis, then, restated without glibness — that the theatre may be so white in part because not-white, first- and second-generation Canadians opt overwhelmingly to pursue more lucrative work — rests on a few assumptions:
1) that it’s in fact true that there are comparatively very few not-white folks at work in the Canadian theatre;
2) that many not-white folks decline to work in the theatre in part because they lack the backgrounds of privilege with which many active theatre artists are blessed; and
3) that there’s a correlation between that lack of privilege and the length of time such folks’ families have been in Canada — which, if correct, suggests that diversity in the theatre is likely to change organically in the coming decades, though we’d best not wait.
Do those intuitions conform to reality?
The Monocultural Theatre in the Multicultural City
The modern entity we know as Canada has always been multinational. Like the Framers of the American Constitution, the Canadian Fathers of Confederation founded a state without any claim to autochthony, no contention that their blood was in an essential way bound to the soil. The First Nations of North America do have claims to autochthony, of course, but as a modern entity distinct from sovereign Indigenous lands, Canada is a country of newcomers, ever more so since the 1970s. One out of five persons currently resident in Canada is foreign-born; one out of five persons identifies as a visible minority. In Toronto, the country’s largest city and its English-language theatre centre, visible minority persons represent 47% of the population. Our mainstream arts scenes, however, and the theatre is no exception, are home to few of such individuals’ stories (and creative expressions that aren’t “stories”). This is a loss for audiences and artists alike.
Yet if those stories are underrepresented, the data suggest that’s at least in part because the storytellers are absent from the scene. According to 2011 Census figures (the National Household Survey), only 16% of Canadians employed in “Art, culture, recreation, and sport” identify as visible minorities.[i] That number includes not only subsistence-wage freelance gigs in the theatre but also, for instance, salaried jobs in the multi-billion-dollar industry that is for-profit athletics. A broad custom study of the arts and culture economy based on 2006 Census date, funded by the Canada Council for the Arts among other organizations, pegged visible minority artists at 11% of the total arts labour force at that time. The current rate of visible minority persons employed in the arts strictly speaking, compared to the total number of persons employed in that sector, is then likely to be somewhere between 11% and 16%.
There may be a range of non-economic reasons why most members of Canadian visible minority communities elect not to become arts practitioners (as do, it must be said, the majority of white people): parental pressures, the example of peers who choose other occupations, a lack of role models in their communities who have successfully pursued arts work. I’m aware that my argument here is open to a charge of economic determinism. But the financial and generational factors strike me as, if not dispositive, awfully persuasive. To start with, consider that the overwhelming majority of visible minority persons in Canada, 96.5%, are first- or second-generation Canadians.[ii] Yes, certain communities within that broader demographic have been in Canada for a long time — the Japanese-Canadian community has the highest proportion of third-generation-or-greater members, at 32%. But the Japanese community represents only 1% of visible minority persons in Canada. If we look at the largest two such groups, South Asian and Chinese immigrants, third-generation-or-greater Canadians represent only 1.5% and 3% respectively of those communities. (First Nations arts policy is tied to a host of radically different factors and is beyond the scope of this already very long essay, not least because my understanding of the relevant treaty law and history is inadequate; I’m working on it.)
Though it doesn’t provide a complete explanation, generation status seems to have a lot to do with the fact that visible minority persons in Canada comprise only 13% of the income category by which we defined privilege above, the top decile of earners.[iii] According to a 2010 Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) study, “the earnings gap for [Canadian] visible minorities (relative to third-and-higher generation Whites)…is greatest among the first generation, decreases with the second, and falls even more among the third.”[iv] Other studies, to be sure, complicate the OECD data: a 2014 book by economic historian Geoffrey Clark, with title-of-the-year The Son Also Rises, suggests that while Western states may offer their citizens some mobility between income quintiles, social status more broadly understood — measured by such indices as education, family assets, and health — may be very slow to change.
Whatever the truth of social mobility may be, it’s clear that Canadian young people who identify as visible minorities are statistically unlikely to come from backgrounds of privilege. Now consider that the chance of an art career landing them in the top 10% of earners — which represents a before-tax annual income above $80,420, not a pittance but not a fortune in a city like Toronto, where the average cost of a home in July 2015 was over $600,000 — is around 6%. As an engineer, the chance of landing in that top decile is 40%. If you’re a young person without a background of privilege and you’d like to live as well as or better than your parents, you may not choose the lottery that is a life in the arts. If you do, chances are that you’re highly motivated, have a real calling, and the arts will be much improved by your presence. But probably you won’t be surrounded by peers who share your background.
Not until more visible minority communities in Canada enter their third generation, anyway, and the children of engineers and bankers — a majority of whom happen, by then, not to be white — reject the coarse logic of capitalism and commit themselves to a life in the theatre, their marginal existence enabled by their parents’ cash.
There’s little desire to wait for that to happen, though, scant patience in a city like Toronto where theatre practitioners glance around a streetcar or rock concert and see a diversity that isn’t reflected on local stages, where theatre managers note huge potential audiences who don’t go to the theatre at least in part, perhaps, because their stories and worldviews aren’t reflected there. But their stories and worldviews aren’t reflected because their communities, for non-obscure reasons, don’t produce a high volume of aspirants to storytelling as a full-time line of work. Outreach efforts to those communities, attempts to make young people aware of the theatre as a possible profession, are crucial, but they’re bound to be ineffectual if they neglect the economic structures that discourage a young person from pursuing a theatre career.
The real task, then, for anyone who’d like to see a greater diversity of artists populate the Canadian theatre, is to find a way to incentivize aspirants from diverse communities. That doesn’t mean a guarantee of a good salary: however skilled and hard-working she is, an artist will always find her professional life to be something of a lottery, since her success depends on vagaries of popularity and taste in a way that the success of an accountant or plumber, say, doesn’t; and since in a prosperous country, far more people want to be artists than any arrangement of the arts professions can accommodate. But the trick is to make it a fair, not a rigged and prize-less lottery, to ensure that there are spoils to be won by those few who are lucky and committed enough to win them. For a person who isn’t born into privilege, like most visible minority persons, the theatre has to offer real odds to persuade her not to pursue a more secure and lucrative profession. When dealing with those who have watched their parents struggle each month for rent, to smile sagely and say, “There are many non-economic rewards to a life in the arts,” just doesn’t cut it. If we wish to broaden the diversity of the theatre in all respects, we need to restore to the theatre the chance of mainstream prestige and prosperity outside of administrative roles.
And that’s possible. But it requires a major restructuring of how money flows through the profession. It requires a new, or rather a renewed, relationship between the theatre and the market.
When Workers are Owners…
To propose a fundamental restructuring of a profession’s economics is, perhaps inevitably, to suggest that a number of people who now have jobs shouldn’t have them. This tends to displease the people who have those jobs, who also, not coincidentally, tend to hold power. That power can do many things; crucially, for our purposes, it can be used to drive change. So let’s not alienate those people altogether, though we may challenge them. The speculation that follows doesn’t mean to deny that many individuals and institutions do excellent work within the current arrangements of the Canadian theatre. Instead, as a thought-experiment, it tries to illuminate a few basic structural problems that inhere in those arrangements.
It’s an odd fact, seldom remarked, that the only artist in the Canadian theatre whose income is directly tied to the market is the author. In Canada, the standard contract for a professional playwright (or any other sort of author of a dramatic work, e.g. a non-text-based “deviser”) affords her 10% of a production’s gross box office revenue, usually augmented by a modest guaranteed advance against that 10%; for its members whose work is produced at institutional theatres large and small, the Playwrights Guild of Canada insists on a minimum guarantee of $2000. Grants, residencies, and commissions — in most cases, public funds — can help Canadian playwrights to make ends meet. But such funding is typically set at fixed amounts well below the cost of annual subsistence in a big city; alone, it can’t provide a living wage for an adult, certainly not if that adult has even one dependant. In the wage structure of Canadian theatre, shaped considerably by Canadian Actors’ Equity Association (CAEA) — the union-style professional association that represents actors, directors, stage managers, and dancers — only playwrights’ compensation is pegged to the market success or failure of a production.
Under the CAEA’s Canadian Theatre Agreement (CTA), which governs contracts for theatre productions at companies that are members of the Professional Association of Canadian Theatres (PACT), most actors at a small-to-mid-sized venue will earn between $700 and $900 per week, depending on the venue’s weekly box office potential. A director in one of those same venues, present only for the weeks of rehearsal, will make $4500-$8500 flat, plus 3% of her flat fee for each week of performance. A stage manager will make between $840 and $1030 per week.[vi] To repeat, a Canadian author who’s a member of the Playwrights Guild of Canada will receive from a PACT institution a minimum advance of $2000 for the rights to her work, against her 10% royalty, but she’s not assured of any compensation for her time in the rehearsal hall; between that time and the months-to-years spent writing and revising her play, she’s likely to earn a fee equal to Ontario’s minimum wage of $11.25/hour only if the production sells plenty of tickets.
The top management staff at Canada’s biggest regional theatre companies make between $200,000 and $299,000 per year. Top staff at mid-sized regionals make between $120,000 and $159,000. You may recall that the highest decile of all Canadian earners make more than $80,420. Managers at mid-sized theatres, then, are in the Canadian top 5%, which represents a gross income greater than $102,305. A few managers at the country’s largest theatres are card-carrying members of — you got it — the Canadian 1%, with a gross income greater than $191,147. (Feel free to reflect on this fact the next time you attend a large theatre to watch a moralizing play about the awful depredations of the rich.) Only when we look to comparatively small theatres, like most of Toronto’s new-writing institutions — home to a great proportion of what we understand as “new Canadian theatre,” which public subsidy for the art form is largely meant to support — do we find salaries capped in the modest $40,000 to $79,000 range. Among institutional leaders, those charged primarily with shepherding new work — promoting the visions, ideas, and narratives of Canadian artists — are often paid the least.
Now, before we get all righteous about public servants who earn six figures, let’s bear in mind: money aside, those top theatre manager jobs can be kind of shitty. For the most part, they’re under-resourced desk jobs. Artistic directors, managing directors, development and finance officers — these folks are administrators in a business where the numbers don’t really work. Such a life can be a death by a million paper cuts. It’s possible they find less creative satisfaction in their work, in many cases, than freelance artists find in theirs, when the latter get the chance to practice their craft. (Lots of kids dream of being a professional actor or dancer or writer when they grow up; few yearn to be an associate development coordinator.) Such managers will never earn less than their annual salaries while they hold their jobs, but they’re also unlikely to earn much more; they choose stability over possibility, as far as finances go. A person is free to weigh such considerations when she chooses or changes her profession.
Still, the degree of wealth connected to some of those top management positions is pretty striking — and we may be justified to get a little righteous when we observe that public funds make no small contribution to that wealth. This fact jars especially when we look at theatres whose programming is essentially commercial: this year’s 50th anniversary season at Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre, for instance, includes A Christmas Carol, Broadway chestnut West Side Story, a revue of Leonard Cohen songs, and Alice Through the Looking Glass. It’s anyone’s guess why Canadian taxpayers are subsidizing revivals of West Side Story; it’s a bit more serious a question why Canadian taxpayers are contributing to salaries of $250,000 to $299,000 for the Citadel’s top management staff who facilitate such offerings, even if government grants constituted only 20% (a trifling $2,543,267) of that company’s 2014 revenue.
This isn’t an argument against arts subsidy. I operate on the assumption, plausible since funding for “culture” is rarely an election or protest issue, that the Canadian public supports or is willing to tolerate existing levels of tax revenue deployed to fund the arts. The question is whether the current use of that revenue is actually conducive to the alleged goal: the creation of new art for the public, at prices that make that art accessible not only to an elite. Commercial runs of West Side Story and similar popular musicals suggest that such work is quite capable of funding itself through its box office income alone; new Canadian plays, on the other hand, are expensive to produce but have a relatively small audience base, which means that without subsidy, each audience member would have to pay a relatively large share of the costs of bringing a given play to the stage — which would, in effect, render new drama a luxury accessible only to the rich, or, should the rich prove unwilling to pay the high real cost of tickets, eliminate new drama as a professionalized art form. If the public wants the option to attend new plays in professional venues, regardless of whether it chooses to exercise that option, the case for subsidy is clear.
Yet, though changes in government policy may swell or shrink arts council budgets, there’s a finite amount of money in the public arts funding system at a given time. Unlike box office revenue, subsidy can be a bit of a zero-sum game: a dollar to subsidize West Side Story is a dollar that doesn’t subsidize a Chinese-Canadian writer’s new play about how alienated she feels by West Side Story. It’s true that big commercial productions may themselves subsidize riskier new writing in a theatre’s season, but there’s no such thing as a sure thing in the theatre, and investing public funds in commercial projects in the name of subsidizing less-commercial projects is a rather ambiguous move. The perversity of such a policy might be clearer if theatres were investing Canada Council arts dollars in, say, a balanced portfolio of index mutual funds. The return on those might be higher than the return on Beauty and the Beast, after all — more new plays could be funded — and the private sector would be happy to bring Beauty and the Beast to those who want it: win-win. Point is, the $26.5-million the Canada Council for the Arts allocates to theatre grants isn’t distributed in an inevitable or “natural” way. It’s distributed in a way that established interests reinforce and protect.
Those interests, which are managerial, aren’t always aligned with the interests of audiences or artists. (That many theatre managers are also artists doesn’t change this fact.) The arts manager seeks the growth of his company, but he also has a very strong incentive to protect his job; other jobs like it are scarce, and it pays a whole lot better than freelancing would do, in the industry as it stands. His decisions, then, like most people’s, are bound to what promotes his survival, and his survival as a manager is tied to a thoroughgoing pragmatism, which often manifests as a conservatism. Contrast this with the freelance artist, who must innovate or starve; her survival is promoted by her constant activism in behalf of her own cause, her hustling, her dreaming up her next transformative idea. If the freelancer remains still, she can’t afford groceries; if the manager moves too erratically, his board may urge him to cool it — and glance towards the door. This is a simplification, of course. But the tension between managers’ and artists’ interests is real.
When I ask how this system might be reformed, I look first, as I’ve done in the structure of this argument, to the role of the theatre author, be it a single playwright or an ensemble. This is partly an occupational bias, no doubt: I’m a playwright myself, and I wouldn’t be one if I didn’t believe the theatre author has a worthwhile function. But I also believe, more generally, that authorship is the wellspring of an ethnically and otherwise diverse theatre culture. While I don’t deny the importance of tactics like colour-blind casting the classics — there’s no reason that productions of Shakespeare need be pale — it seems to me that what’s wanted are original artworks that, explicitly or implicitly, reflect the worldviews of individuals from diverse communities. And indeed, a first-generation Pakistani-Canadian playwright’s worldview may illuminate not simply the concerns of her own ethnic community, but rather her particular experience of ethnically plural Canadian civic life. To embody that experience, it may be useful to employ performers who understand it because they’ve lived it, along with a director who, because of her own life experiences, has a deep intuition of the play’s perspective. Unless a play is devised collectively, the author’s creative work is prior to those other jobs and is the source of them. When such authors are more broadly representative of Canadian society than they are today, so too will our theatre be as a whole.
To bring her art to the public, a playwright (let’s say) needs two things most of all, which she may turn to an established theatre company to provide: a venue and an audience. The rent of the former tends to be prohibitively expensive in big cities, and the latter can be difficult to attract, given all the urban competition for discretionary dollars and attention spans. An established theatre will often have a lease on a venue and a developed roster of subscribers, huge assets both. But that institution itself isn’t fundamentally what allows the playwright to make her living: in theory, if she could secure a equivalent venue and audience on her own without accruing a mountain of debt and devoting all her spare time to that cause, she would be paid just as well, perhaps better, for her work. I speak about playwrights, but if actors’ wages, for instance, were tied to the box office revenue of a production as playwrights’ wages are, there would likewise be no incentive for actors to work with institutions except to the extent that those institutions provide a venue and an audience.
A radical rethink of Canadian theatre economics, then, could involve the following seemingly counter-intuitive question: what if a large part of those 26,500,000 Canada Council theatre funding dollars, along with millions of other current federal and provincial and municipal theatre funding dollars, were divested from salaries and artist fees and invested in heavily subsidized venues and massive marketing of the theatre as an art form?
Your gut reaction, especially if you happen to hold a theatre administration job or work regularly in CAEA’s jurisdiction, may be that such a policy will take food out of people’s mouths. Yet consider that this proposal doesn’t remove a cent of funding from circulation. It just moves it around so it supports artists’ enterprise through major infrastructure development. Put differently, this proposal suggests that through unprecedented investment in marketing and through venue subsidies that allow for extremely low ticket prices, it may be possible to increase Canadian theatre attendance by a full order of magnitude — and that this structure will profit artists more, because audience growth in it is theoretically unlimited, than fixing their wages at artificial levels while theatre audiences stagnate or disappear. This model reconnects the theatre to the market, creates a real possibility of prosperity for the most successful artists — not just the most successful administrators — and, by converting the lottery of the theatre from a sham to a real one, incentivizes the participation of artists without backgrounds of privilege.
It’s not clear, after all, that a traditional hierarchical management structure is the most effective way to make theatre and deliver it to the public. Established theatres act as brands, in theory, claim to assure the public of a certain standard of quality, but there’s no reason why an individual artist or team of artists can’t be just as credible a brand. Imagine a theatre culture where there were fewer barriers between artists’ creativity and the stage, no administrative gatekeepers between the artist’s offering and the market’s (i.e. the audience’s) judgment of its value; where individual creators and collectives offered their work directly to the public, reaped the full economic benefits of the public’s approval, and were supported by major government investment in the popularizing of their art form.
In a bit more detail, the basic move here, the revolutionary shift, would be to take the millions of public dollars now invested in theatre administration and reallocate them in two ways:
1) to pay the year-round rent of a broad range and large number of attractive, modern performance venues, which artists could use rent- and fee-free; and
2) to create an independent firm, populated by marketing professionals, devoted to advancing the profile of theatre in Canada, with a high budget for digital, mobile, TV, cinema, billboard, transit, and other advertising.
This firm would advertise the venues and the kinds of work that take place in them; audiences would begin to see those venues as destinations, whose offerings they’d sample more or less capriciously, led by whim and word-of-mouth, the way they browse Netflix. Admission would be no more, and perhaps slightly less, than the cost of a movie ticket; in each performance space there would be plenty of seats, so the producing artists would make the same $4500 per night from a sold-out 450-seat space with a $10 ticket that they’d make from a sold-out 150-seat space with a $30 ticket. Theatre would become again, as it’s been for most of its history, a popular form. In those audiences would be young people from all the diverse communities that comprise Canada’s cities. And those young people, because they’d have discovered the theatre as a magnetic and exciting use of their leisure time, because they’d have seen many plays (thanks to those cheap tickets), would start to create theatre themselves.
To produce her play, to be an entrepreneur in the popular theatre, a young playwright (say) in our model will try to attract the best talent she can; she’ll send her script to actors and directors she admires, anyone who will read it. If she doesn’t yet have a track record, perhaps she’ll have access only to the smallest venues; once she’s sold out those, she’ll win access to larger ones. To get into the game, she’ll need only talent and time and whatever cash she’s able to invest in her own publicity and production design. Philanthropy may help her with those costs, especially as she becomes more successful: donors will subsidize individual artists they admire or find promising, without institutional intermediaries. At no point will our young artist have to worry about the rent of a rehearsal space and performance venue, since government subsidy will grant her access to those facilities rent-free.
She also won’t need to worry about artist fees, since the other artists involved in her play’s production will be co-owners of it with her and partake of its success or failure, its risks. Our playwright — or director, or ensemble, or whoever initiates the project — will offer shares of the production to those with whom she’d like to work. Perhaps to secure a nationally celebrated actor she’ll need to offer a very large share, say 60%. To a young, ambitious peer she might offer a smaller share. She (or she and her co-creators) will assign shares however she sees fit — including to those who may act in supporting administrative roles. What matters is that all parties have the chance to negotiate their involvement on their own terms, and to walk away if no terms are offered that they wish to accept. The companies that form to produce theatre, then, will be fluid; they’ll be born and die and be reincarnated, recombined. The artist will remain a free agent. The only theatre workers with static, salaried jobs will be marketers and venue managers. Those subsidized jobs will be low-to-mid-level and paid as such; they won’t direct the industry. The industry will be directed by its artists and by the audience’s appetite for what those artists make.
Though I mentioned that the playwright is the only theatre artist whose earnings are at present tied directly to the market, you’ll notice that I haven’t suggested we fix the playwright’s wages; I’ve suggested instead to let everyone else’s wages float like the playwright’s do now, to give all artists a different kind and degree of skin in the game. (A universal minimum income for all citizens — an idea that has prominent champions even on the right of the political spectrum — would make an excellent, fair foundation for such a wage structure.) The model I’ve proposed exists wholly outside union regulation, but it isn’t anti-union. It substitutes collective ownership by artists for collective bargaining with management. This kind of collective ownership of a production is already possible under CAEA’s auspices, through its Artists’ Collective Policy. My model amounts to a huge expansion of that policy with robust subsidy from government, requiring no increase to current funding levels.
It doesn’t exclude the possibility that an independent producer, with access to private capital, might mount her own production and seek to hire artists as contractors. In such a situation, there would be a clear role for CAEA’s oversight. The producer would agree to pay CAEA rates in exchange for retaining full ownership of her production, which would mean that once those wages were paid, any profits would be hers alone. In such a two-tier system, an artist would have a choice: invest his time in a publicly subsidized co-ownership production and reap unguaranteed but uncapped earnings, or work at Canadian Actors’ Equity rates that are guaranteed but not a living wage unless he’s employed at them year round. Keep in mind that right now, year-round employment at Equity rates is impossible for virtually all CAEA members, since there just isn’t enough public funding or private capital (or audience!) in the system to sustain the high levels of theatre activity that could employ a significant numbers of actors, say, on a full-time basis.
Indeed, as it stands now, the public funding bodies, PACT theatres, and Equity collude to ensure that there can be only a low, static level of remunerative theatre production in Canada. They don’t mean to, of course, but they create a stifling web: Equity insists on wages that companies can’t afford unless they have public funding; the arts granting bodies, in turn, insist on business plans that revolve around those fixed Equity rates and deny significant subsidy to companies with alternative compensation models; the PACT theatres, by agreeing to Equity’s and the councils’ terms, command a vast amount of the public funding available: little funding then remains for startup theatre companies, whose revenues vanish into high urban venue rents, and who struggle to build their audiences because they lack the capital to market their shows properly. The whole structure favours the already established.
To liberate funding from these calcified channels, to use it to underpin entrepreneurship instead of proffering it as a prize for those who play by existing rules, would unleash a flood of new theatre creation. Increased competition for increased rewards would raise the average quality of the work, which would draw new audiences. Not all of the work would be well paid, to be sure, since not all of it would be successful. But plenty of actors, I suspect, asked to choose between working 20 weeks in the year (if they’re lucky) at Equity rates and 50 weeks of the year at variable rates but with the chance to make many times the Equity standard — to choose, that is, between waiting for the phone to ring and plying their trade year-round — might opt for the latter.
And the chance of earning a living wage in this way would be real. Above, we considered a 450-seat venue with a $10 ticket price. A sold-out run of twenty-four performances in that space, three full performance weeks, would gross $108,000. Recall that venue costs, including technician costs, would be covered by subsidy, as would most marketing costs. Even with some costs remaining to be assumed by the production owners, a controlling share in that production, such as a very popular playwright or performer or director might command, could be worth more than $50,000. A 10% share, more typical, could garner around $10,000 for six or seven weeks’ work including rehearsals. Even if not every show were that successful — and most wouldn’t be — six-figure annual earnings for an in-demand theatre artist wouldn’t be unheard of. Our much-maligned artistic directors, they of the current six-figure earnings (in some cases), might yet remain in their income bracket: most of them are experienced directors. But they’d be paid for their work as artists, not compensated for the whole or partial sacrifice of their art to the omnivorous cycles of administration.
It might be observed that theatre workers would assume more risk in this model than they do now. But we shouldn’t pretend that the profession as it stands is low-risk. Besides the obvious risk that an artist won’t succeed in relative terms within the closed loop of Canadian theatre, it’s a giant gamble for a young person to devote the first decade or two of her working life to a trade that, it late becomes clear, may not allow her to feed a family even if she’s very successful — unless she becomes a manager.
The model I’ve described may sound implausible. Yet even now, there exists a successful theatre enterprise that looks a whole lot like it: the Fringe.
Fringe Festivals, which exist in cities across Canada and around the world, provide venue services and extensive marketing support to independent performance companies, usually for an entrance fee under $1000. They tend to be fairly high-profile civic events, with cheap tickets and a street-party vibe. They’re subsidized by government and/or philanthropy. That subsidy pays for no artist fees; it’s dedicated to infrastructure, marketing, and relatively low staff salaries. Top Fringe manager salaries are in the same $40,000-70,000 range as those at small institutional theatres, though Fringes tend to have fewer staff members: with a 2014 budget of around $1.5-million, the Toronto Fringe has only seven full-time employees and one part-time; employee compensation represented only about $261,000 in 2014, or 17% of revenue. Compare this to Toronto’s Factory Theatre, a legacy PACT institution with a budget in the same ballpark ($1.2-million in 2014), of whose revenue full-time staff salaries alone represent 52%.
Not only is subsidy invested in Fringe Festivals efficient at supporting art creation without high admin expense, but it may also breed box office revenue more prolifically than those same grant dollars invested in some institutions. In 2015, the Toronto Fringe Festival returned over $467,000 to artists from ticket sales; 64,000 tickets were sold during a run of just 12 days. By contrast, Toronto’s Theatre Passe Muraille, another historic PACT company that offers a multi-play season over the greater part of the year, with a mainstage general ticket price of $38 vs. the Fringe’s maximum $12, reported $375,096 in earned income for the whole of 2014.
My speculation above is in many respects a massive expansion of the Fringe model, with significant extra subsidy for infrastructure and marketing. (Journalist and playwright Rob Salerno also has thoughts on this theme.) Much easier said than done, of course. But the success of the Fringe, an affordable and popular civic event, shows that a mainstream audience for theatre is out there, even in the age of Netflix, provided it’s targeted smartly and the price the right.
Perhaps, as it turns out, the solutions to the problem of diversity in our theatre won’t at all resemble the fanciful picture I’ve sketched as a spur to thought. Perhaps they’ll be less about structural innovation and more about shifts to cultural attitudes, achieved through activism, education. Whiteness will no longer be considered normative, and many cultural gate-keepers will themselves be not-white; the others will become more conscious of their biases and better able to neutralize them. My emphasis on economics isn’t meant to deny those biases or the non-economic privilege from which members of historically dominant groups benefit. But it reflects a realism about the difficulty of eliminating prejudice in individuals. It’s a search for a workaround. If we can’t get rid of bias, how can we rethink production structures so they leave as little opportunity as possible for bias to manifest itself in harmful, limiting ways? How do we decentralize authority so artists aren’t as beholden to a small number of (inevitably prejudiced) decision-makers? How can we ensure that the broadest range of work makes it to the stage and is promoted, so that popular taste has a chance to broaden with it?
Cheeky essay titles aside, I don’t claim to have a definitive answer. But I suggest that by…
…restoring meaningful contact between the theatre and the market…
…using public subsidy to offset rents and aggressively advertise the art form, thereby providing the infrastructure to support entrepreneurship…
…making artists owners of their own work, not labourers in the service of capital (pools of subsidy) in private hands (theatre managers’)…
…and rendering the lottery of the theatre a fair one in which real wealth is possible and is connected to the making and not just the administrating of art…
…the theatre could become an appealing career choice for individuals without a background of privilege, which describes most Canadian persons of colour.
Our theatre will be snow white until we reshape the economic forces that make it so. And indeed, we would have little cause for pride were our theatre to become less pale but perpetuate structural inanities that suffocate the art form and restrict its audience; irrelevance is still irrelevant in another hue. The problem of diversity points beyond itself to remind us that the theatre must transform or die. If it’s not to be swept into obsolescence and carry its practitioners along for the ride, it must renew itself as an enterprise attractive to our country’s brightest citizens, whatever be their ethnicity or the colour of their skin.
Sources cited but not linked above:
[i] 2011 National Household Survey (Tabulation: Visible Minority (15), Age Groups (10), Sex (3) and Selected Demographic, Cultural, Labour Force, Educational and Income Characteristics (315) for the Population in Private Households of Canada, Provinces, Territories, Census Metropolitan Areas and Census Agglomerations)
[ii] 2011 National Household Survey (Tabulation: Selected Demographic, Sociocultural and Labour Characteristics (1411), Income Statistics in 2010 (3B) and Total Income Groups (7) for the Population Aged 15 Years and Over in Private Households of Canada)
[iii] 2011 National Household Survey (Tabulation: Selected Demographic, Sociocultural and Labour Characteristics (1411), Income Statistics in 2010 (3B) and Total Income Groups (7) for the Population Aged 15 Years and Over in Private Households of Canada)
[iv] Hou, Feng and Picot, Garnett. “Seeking Success in Canada and the United States: Labour Market Outcomes among the Children of Immigrants.” Equal Opportunities? The Labour Market Integration of the Children of Immigrants. Brussels: OECD Publishing, 2010.