Thursday, April 23, 2009

I've received a response from Todd Olson of American Stage Theatre Company in Tampa Bay, which I've posted below.

A Challenge for All of Us Who Care About Theatre

Well, Mr. Daisey, I’m not sure that calling me artistically “dead,” “blind,” “a bigot”, “spiteful,” and an actor-hater is the way to honestly continue a discussion about breaking through to new, useful solutions, but let’s keep going anyway.

I agree, and thanks for agreeing to a discussion. I do have to say that if you want to address things I've said, please use more than a selection of adjectives yanked out of context and stapled next to each other—they look like pull quotes and have about as much content.

You’re very right, I think we are giving voice to things usually unsaid, so let’s push forward and see where we get.

Preface: Small Professional Theatres Are Not the Enemy

After considering your response, along with an article sent to me by former Seattle-based actor Larry Ballard which seemed inspired by, in large part, your writing and statements on the subject.

(The article being referred to can be read here.)

Much of your and Ballard’s ire was born from and directed at theatres like Seattle Rep and the Intiman (and amplified later at other similar LORT theatres). I have to say, if it were not clear before, these are SIGNIFICANTLY larger theatres than my own American Stage Theatre Company; The Intiman is six times the size of ASTC – and Seattle Rep is nine times our size. You ask how a theatre of that size could not afford to pay a wage higher than scale… and I completely agree with you. You ask why a theatre of that size cannot pay an actor more the longer that actor works for the theatre…and I also agree with you. With a $9 million budget I would surely find a way to achieve that.

I'm aware how much larger those theaters are than your theater. And I agree: the larger a theater is, the more resources they have, the more arts funding they soak up, and thus have a much larger responsibility in working for change, a responsibility the vast majority of all theaters are shirking.

And frankly, Mr. Ballard’s anecdotes about Rep Board members were embarrassing to me; part of my job as AD is to inform and, to some degree, school Trustees in what’s authentically important within a professional theatre, steering them away from less significant, tangential issues, and tasking them with more important work within the theatre. Ballard’s anecdotes reinforce my earlier suspicion that you, Mike, have had some terrible role models when it comes to not-for-profit leaders.

I can't speak for Laurence—we don't know each other well—but I've known some wonderful colleagues in leadership positions in the NFP world. Some of my favorite people in the world.

I do agree that an ADs job includes guiding the board, and that's why impressing upon ADs that the current system is unethical and corrosive toward creating the kind of theater we need in this country is so vitally important.

So, regardless of how I detail on these pages the financial and artistic challenges at ASTC, your anger and disgust at the actions of theatres-come-corporations will only ever be partially applicable to us. I think your disdain is mostly aimed at a kind of larger waste and misappropriation of resources that ASTC (and plenty medium-sized theatres like us) just don’t have.

Put simply, and not meaning to let myself off any hook, if I had nine times my current resources, there are plenty of problems I would solve differently, including artist compensation.

That's exactly right—we can't let ANYONE off the hook. All of us who work in the theater are implicated by the current system, and it's exactly why we need to fight for change on every level. If I started deciding to let people off the hook, to whom do I give passes? Small theaters? Myself? And why do I get to be the arbiter of who is and who is not fulfilling their duty?

No. Everyone is part of this ecosystem, and we need advocacy on every level. I have seen the story before of ADs moving up the career ladder who had the best of intentions, and seeing nothing change once they reached larger and larger theaters. I will not rely on good intentions any longer.

The truth is that the change is a cultural one, not an economic one—we need to value our people, and we don't: not equally or openly, and it hurts the theater terribly.

Part #1: Theatres Have Nothing Without Actors (Me Included)

I could just as easily called my challenge to you, “In Defense of Staff.” My missive was in direct response to what I gleaned from your words and performance to be a distinctly actor-centric AND anti-staff posture, a self-centeredness that I think is detrimental to better collaboration in our business (actors had been “removed from the premises”…certain departments had “replaced artists who once worked there”…you wished actors would “bitch-slap the staff members”…actors were “the working poor” whom you hoped would, “pierce [the staff’s] mantle of smug invulnerability”…education departments created work that was “thin, lifeless…disgusting” etc.) Not to mention dishing smack on Trustees, audiences, and “pathological” ADs like me. And I’m the one who “talks shit”?

Here's a lot more contextless words via selective quotation from multiple works.

I do think there's some fragments that can be gleaned from here: for example, you give as an example of self-centeredness my statement that actors are the working poor. Isn't that simply

Your words are at time classist, vaguely victim-y, and angrily dismissive of the contributions of any staff member who was not an actor. But maybe I just got everything out of context. Ok.

I do not understand how it can be "classist" to fight for the rights of migrant contract workers who make less than minimum wage.

And I don't know about "victim-y"—in case it is unclear, I don't work as an actor. I'm an independent artist—I don't work with or through the AEA.

This isn't about me. I am defending artists and advocating for their rights because of the unethical conditions I see around the country, and because it's ruining the American theater.

By the way, ALL the teaching artists at ASTC are actors with whom we’re flexible when they’re between acting gigs.

That sounds very commendable.

And do the Education Departments at all the LORT theatres where you work know that you think most of their work is “shit”, supported by grants “to keep [their] shitty programs alive”?

You may have noticed that I'm pretty public with my views—so yes, I think they know.

I've had education folks challenge me on this, and most of the time the ones that do are people who care enough that they're working hard to make things that don't suck, fighting against mandates from schools, theaters and a million directions. And in private conversation they often concur that most theater education programs are poorly implemented, tacked on, and do very little to expose students to actual theater that might actually inspire.

So I felt the strong need to stick up for these folks, and write a testament to all of the other staffs out there, but especially mine.

That's an understandable impulse. What's regrettable is that artists aren't considered part of your staff and your team, so that you'd be in a unified position of sticking up for all of them together as a family.

As you look at a country of failed theatres, you see over populated Development offices; I see Angela and ¾ of Shannon’s time (and that’s it). You see overgrown marketing offices; I see Andy and ¼ of Shannon’s time. We’re a dozen people doing the best we can. You say you know and appreciate what others do and my criticism was unfounded? Ok.

Since you've brought it up again, I'll say it one more time with feeling: I appreciate deeply what all my brothers and sisters in the American theater do. Being critical of your family's practices doesn't mean you hate your family or its members.

Actually, reading your response reminded me of a period in Nashville when I served as Associate Artistic Director and Director of Education for Tennessee Rep. On 9-11 we were half way through the run of WEST SIDE STORY. The building closed (it was also a government building), the adjoining parking garage was barricaded, and performances were cancelled. We lost about $30,000 that week alone. No one came downtown because they could no longer park, and our subscription campaign functionally ended as people stayed at home to see what would happen next. The big topic on our actor e-newsletter week was, “why can’t The Rep hire more local actors?” Talk about not “particularly good team members.”

That's absolutely terrible. I read online about your experiences at Tennessee Rep, and it sounds like an incredible ordeal for you and for the theater.

It certainly seems like bad timing to have a newsletter not have this as the top story, but this is all pretty anecdotal: maybe they didn't get the story in time, as 9/11 caught all of us off-guard. Did they really choose to lead with that article OVER the theater being shut down? That's hard to believe.

My response was, “because we’re dying here folks. We’re writing doomsday scenarios so we don’t declare bankruptcy. We’re trying to keep our doors open so we have jobs for you at all in the future.” Actors have a way of seeing their problem as the central issue at hand. In reality there are just many more moving parts than that.

The theater was in crisis after 9/11. And today, most theaters would say they are in crisis again.

But somehow there's always a crisis, isn't there? We now know that the last few years were a boom time, and if you look at the number of new buildings built in the American theater, that's clear. But while it was happening somehow there was never any money/time/energy for any work in these areas. Why? Because the American theater culture doesn't value artists. It doesn't value people. Until we work for change within that culture, change is impossible.

And may I say: the topic, "why can't The Rep hire more local actors?" is ALWAYS an excellent question, and one that regional theaters rarely have a good answer for.

So no, you’re right, despite some successes we’re “still not creating a sustained ongoing ensemble of artists or providing any kind of security or stability”…but our doors our open, we have less than 1% debt, we are slowly becoming more stable, we’ve vastly improved the staff and artist workplace conditions…and, at least for the near future, we won’t be the next Mill Mountain or Madison Rep or Coconut Grove or Jeune Lune or North Shore Music Theatre or…(keep filling in blanks). Right now, in this environment, there are just many more moving parts to address. Sorry.

It's nice to have the failure of regional theater to achieve what it set out to do actually acknowledged, and if more ADs did this, we'd start moving in the right direction.

The excuse doesn't wash, though—we have to make these issues a priority NOW, because they've been ignored too long, to everyone's loss.

I know how to preserve jobs for actors: stay open.

That's true, but only in the smallest way. We have to think larger than this: it's not enough to simply survive, and retrench year after year. If we do that, little by little our theatrical ecosystem is worn away by brain drain, talent drain, poverty, and infighting. We need to do more than survive.

And while I’m on the subject of preserving jobs for actors, can I get another thing out of the way…the notion that I disrespect or have contempt for actors. As it happens I just gave an interview around a production that I will be guest directing later this month where I was asked about my “concept” for this particular play. My reply is very like my larger philosophy of the actor’s place within the theatre organization: “a concept is only paper…it is actors that give those ideas life, so they are more than essential. They are the heart and the blood.” Any theatre has but two products: education/community engagement…and the product on stage. THAT’S how important and valued actors are to me personally, and to all of us at ASTC.

I think it's one art: education and community should be interwoven with what is happening on stage, but I get what you are saying.

Mike, this is an easy one: I’ve directed three to six plays every year for about 20 years; I’m sure there are actors with whom you can speak who can either verify or contradict your knee-jerk conclusion after knowing me for all of…one letter. If I have a regret with my job it’s that I don’t get to spend more time in the rehearsal hall actually making art with actors and writers and designers. You cannot be “shocked” (“SHOCKED!”) that an AD would flippantly make a joke about the Equity cot and then conclude my contempt for those artists without whom nothing I write would get performed, and nothing I want for our audiences would ever take shape. If we ever have the opportunity to work together, I would hope you would see my respect and devotion to the actor and their process immediately.

I didn't write those sentences, nor did I cherry-pick them to put that bias on display—you did that yourself.

And just so we're clear about some of my bona fides, my undergraduate and graduate degrees are in acting, and I have been a member of AEA for many years. I will hold my list of the part-time jobs I suffered through so I could practice my craft (waiter, paper delivery, paint mixer, short order cook, car parker, graveyard shift janitor, etc.) next to anyone’s. I pounded the pavement in NYC, headshots in hand, and lived below the poverty line for most of my 20’s. I know what an act of bravery exceptional acting is, and to what lengths actors must go to play the casting game. I appreciate both at a deep level.

That's great, but now you're management, and in the end this is about management and labor. Many times in management/labor disputes management will claim intense fellowship with labor—but when the rubber meets the road, I need to hold management accountable for what they are actually doing, not give them medals for having good intentions.

I feel squeamish comparing actor and staff compensation only because we’re in an industry where everyone seems underpaid; it feels like Depression babies trying to convince the other how bad THEY had it.

We all should feel squeamish about this, because the artists doing the lifting are paid and supported as migrant workers below minimum wage. No one is arguing that staff members in theaters make good money—they don't. They suffer for the art as well. But that doesn't change the lack of commitment that theaters show to artists, and the strength they would take if they created ongoing dedicated relationships with artists whom they put on staff.

Only three of our 13 staff positions are at or above what others in their positions make in like theatres (as per TCG), and ten are below (anywhere between 8-37% less than their counterparts), and it’s taken me years to get them this close to those national averages. ADs at other theatres like ours earn about 24% more than I do.

Sidebar: Mike, why would you allow your play to be produced at a theatre who paid their actors $50 per show? Doesn’t that simply go against everything you believe in relative to “stability, salaries, and health insurance”? Are you not in some way enabling the “boss–field hand” relationship, to use your own analogy?

Everyone at Annex gets paid $50 per show—and by show, I mean the entire production. That includes the playwright, staff members, actors, designers—everyone. So I think I'm probably enabling communism or anarchy more than a master/slave relationship.

I can tell from the myriad blogs this discussions has spawned that it drives actors crazy when I point out that in a small way they enjoy something that most other theatre workers don’t:

I think what's aggravating most people is that you're directly comparing a migrant worker job with deeply unstable, broken employment rates against the much greater stability and respect of staff positions. The "benefits" don't seem so very great in that light. I also don't think people appreciated how you were speaking about artists. most actors earn what they’re worth? No. But they are protected by a union in myriad ways and receive contributions to their pension, unlike any other employees here; that 39% payment on top of their weekly salary is not an insignificant expense. AEA actors can also work about a third of a year and receive health coverage for 12 months (much better than any staff plan). AEA stage managers make more than many on my staff, and for a while some staff here did not earn what AEA actors earned. And not everyone on staff gets annual salaries (some are seasonal), and some, sadly, do not receive health coverage at all.

Once again you're directly comparing an itinerant journeyman field of migrant workers against stable employment within a community. It's a senseless direct comparison.

And speaking of which, you say very confidently that my Marketing, Development and Education Directors have “stability, salaries, and health insurance.” As it happens our Ed Director does not; she’s an actress who gets her insurance…through AEA. Our DD gets her insurance through her husband’s business. Our Company Manager does the same with his wife’s job. Why? Because all of these other health packages are better than the package the theatre can afford.

I think it's GREAT that you've already taken a small step in a direction that I would strongly endorse—you have a working artist on your staff now as the Education Director. It's a small but significant one, and more than many larger theaters have done.

It's unfortunate that your health insurance is so poor—I had assumed you wouldn't have a $4 million dollar fundraising campaign for a new building if you weren't happy with your employees' health insurance.

That’s right Mike: your health insurance is better than anyone’s on my staff, and you have to work 20 weeks to get it.

Just to be clear again: I'm an independent artist in the American theater. I'm not an actor and I don’t get my insurance through AEA.

And at the next staff meeting I’ll remind everyone how stable they are, and how lucky they are to have the not-for-profit salary we provide them. Our Education Director took at 30% pay cut in the last budget process; I took a 5% pay cut. No one got even cost of living raises (AEA actors did). Development is still significantly below TCG which puts us at significant risk; if a person has fundraising or marketing savvy these days they don’t usually work at a nfp. I’ve gone through three development leaders and three Marketing Directors in six years either because they moved on to something that paid much more, or they were incapable of the daunting workload that such a one-person department requires.

This is part of the talent and brain drain I'm talking about in the American theater. If theaters worked with their artists—which does not just mean actors, but includes playwrights, designers, directors and more—and created positions that involved the artists directly they could begin tapping into our talent pool and getting employees that have a reason to make an ongoing commitment to live theater, which would help immensely in keeping us from losing folks over and over again. I see this all over the country.

Sometimes I think about stability in the arts and I think we all picked the wrong profession.

I think all the professionals in the American theater feel that very, very often.

I have moved 40+ times to follow work as an actor, then director, and now Artistic Director. I have moved twice since starting a family; I have three children, each born in a different region of the country. I may have to move again some day if I ever want to earn more than I do now (maybe Joe Dowling will retire and give up his $697,000 salary?) I took a 4/5 cut in pay to go back to school to gain more skills and connections. My first AD position out of school I resigned for what I thought were excruciating work circumstances. I was downsized and artistically homeless after 9/11. I have been in one place for six seasons…and I feel like the luckiest man in the business.

Congratulations on being in a place where you feel lucky—that's great. I think most people's journey through the American theater looks at least this tumultuous, if not more so. I'm fighting to give the artists who are not Artistic Directors a chance to enjoy a small part of the stability you have, and I believe if we can do that, we'll have a stronger and more vibrant theater to show for it.

For example, it is nearly impossible for a working actor in the system today to have even one child. You have three, and you get to be with them as they grow up, and care for them. That seems like a basic human right we should be working toward in the theater for our artists, and yet it is on no institutional radar whatsoever.

Stability and security…are relative, and the grass is not always greener.

That's true...but in this specific case, between staff and artists in the American theater today, it's actually cut and dried.

Part #2: One Quick Response Before the Challenge

My sidebar to American Theatre magazine (which you called a “creepy threat”) was only wondering aloud why AT, a chronicler of the state of regional theatre and, to some degree, dependant on revenues from those same theatres, would so openly champion a person who has built his recent career, in part, on the accusations of regional theatre’s failings. Maybe they want to stir it up a bit, provide matter for debate. They have that right, of course. But AT should also know that we who work so hard to make theatres work resent the notion and are allowed to say so, just as you are allowed to say otherwise. I’m quite sure our checks to TCG over the years have not failed.

I do question AT in other ways too. A quick example: recently four artistic directors from around the Tampa Bay area got together to compare notes; how were we all doing in this economy and were we learning anything that would be helpful to others? You know what we found out? We were all doing really well, and for different reasons. So I thought it might be a worthy idea to tell the story of this one community that seems to be bucking a national trend. I sent it to AT and heard next to nothing. Maybe AT will run that story some day, but this month they’re running with a play about men and rape, the state of the art in Abu Dhabi, and all the professional theatres that have closed recently. And you. I guess our successes are less sexy than our failings. But I’ll keep looking for that good news.

I can't speak for American Theatre magazine, which I've had some pretty serious disagreements with myself—to say the least, we don't always agree. I don't know why they didn't want to run your story—you should ask them directly.


I began to put together the various facts and stats you questioned and/or requested, namely the results of our last audience survey (gender and income breakdown), info on our After Hours series, plenty of thoughts on how a libertarian tip toes through the challenging transitions we have had over the past 24 months (and can still stand upright), and how we raised $4 million. But I thought we might be getting ahead of ourselves.

I don’t discount out of hand your detailed counter offer to my relatively simple challenge, though I’m sure you can appreciate what it means to provide anyone with complete access to files, records, staff, artists, Board, and community.

I appreciate it—it's a big step, a huge one. If you're not prepared to make it, that's your choice, but I wouldn't think you'd expect any kind of a substantive answer from me without data.

Maybe if we were drowning in red ink and needed wholesale reinvention from top to bottom, and maybe if we had the opportunity to lay ourselves bare to a consultant with a long reputation of successful organizational turn arounds…I would be quicker to complete this handshake with you.

So I’m pausing, but only for the moment.

But this pause should in no way preclude you from at least addressing my challenge, even philosophically, before you get the keys to our building:

So your terms now are that I still have to answer all the original questions, without any of my own questions answered?

What the hell. Let me see what I can do.

-Can you at least tell me what salary above the AEA-prescribed scale you think it’s fair for an AD to budget for actors (this year AEA scale for SPT-6 theatres is $357/wk)?

In brief, I think you need to be thinking about creating staff/artist hybrid positions, to some degree similar to what you have already begun in the education department. You currently have two working artists on staff: yourself and the education director. Over time you should extend this to more working artists, making them part of your ensemble, and seeking out extremely talented individuals who are willing to make long-term commitments to your theater.

The question of AEA salary levels is a red herring—I'm looking for much deeper change than this, and so are the artists of the American theater.

-Because you and Mr. Ballard seem to think that by reducing all ticket prices to $15 (or pay-what-you-can…even though we have found that on those nights ticket revenues average only about $9 per ticket), that young people and others will then fill theatres everywhere, I think it’s fair in this challenge to reduce single ticket income by at least 55%, or about $336,000. Can you give me any ideas on how you might make that sum up?

I do believe that ticket price is a huge barrier to larger theatrical attendance, but what theaters can do to change that paradigm varies from community to community and is highly individual. It's backwards to simply hack the ticket price by 55% without changing any of the programming—we're talking about the core assumptions of your theater. Affordable ticket prices grow out of designing for them with that as a goal, and I think changing nothing EXCEPT your ticket price would be a great way to get your ass kicked.

I'd recommend a capital campaign to raise money to create lockboxed endowments to pay for these ensemble artist positions. This insulates your artists against economic shocks, and since they will in time be the backbone of your theater it will help ensure that their salaries don't get shaved down when times are tough.

The system is similar to endowed chairs at colleges, and development directors everywhere have ample examples and models to use in fundraising and structuring—they don't currently do this because it isn't a priority in the American theater. It must be.

-Attached is our organizational chart. This year the cost for 12 full-time staff and 3 part-time staff members is $452,215. I want to know if you see any fat or redundancies in our staff model that might offset the adjustments above.

Actually, if the capital campaign is successful your staff costs will go down year over year, as the endowment will grow to cover them. Instead of playing a zero-sum game where the world is constantly shrinking, your yearly budget will eventually have the room to take on new challenges.

On any of these subjects, if you could, even in the most philosophical way, talk about how you would bridge these chasms or restructure for better workability. If you can then let’s consider your consultancy begun. My promise to you is, if your answers sound like there is a hint of promise worth pursuing (and budget work started Monday, so I’m up for all good suggestions), I will enter into this relationship more, just as you suggested.

The broadest strokes are outlined above, and there are more incremental steps that I think should be taken sooner, which can be implemented within a year to begin the process of change. If we continue to work together I'd evaluate what I determined would be necessary and make recommendations per my original conditions.

Attached is our organizational chart, the TCG salary survey comparing our salaries to all other theatres our size, and last year’s budget complete with all worksheets (strictly an internal document). My hope is that you would keep these as reasonably confidential as I would expect from any consultant.


And let's not get bent out of shape about the nature of budgets. Of course theatre is not commodifiable, but it must be quantifiable; every artistic decision IS a financial decision. The first step in the budgeting process is to identify our dreams for the coming year, and then find a way to support and actualize them. It may be “just business” but it’s one of those processes that make art possible. When it works, it is a kind of art in and of itself; and when great art doesn’t have it, it crashes.

Well said. But the dream itself is not commodifiable, and it must never be—the struggle is to rise above it, not by ignoring the world but by responding to it.

I believe when ticket prices rise and rise we're doing the opposite of fiscal management—we're ignoring the truth of what our culture at large is willing to pay. When we cannot find audiences it is often because we are ignoring what our culture is compelled to witness. We need to dissolve the boundaries between artists and staff so that true theatrical ensembles can thrive.

I'm trying to get the American theater to dream a new dream for itself—a larger one, more inclusive of the people who work within it, that respects their sacrifices and works together for cultural relevancy, dramatic imagination, and the living moment. We all need change, and we need it badly.

And to all in the blogosphere, we are not precious about good and helpful ideas, so if there are any out there…

Thank you Mike.

Todd Olson
Producing Artistic Director
American Stage Theatre Company