$carcity in the Arts

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Shea King

For a medium built on community, collaboration, and connection, I fear I am experiencing and witnessing a lot of scarcity minded behavior in the theatre. As I travel and direct around the country I am seeing more and more artists, myself included, being asked to work for less and less compensation. Worse so than that what often people report to me or I hear from potential employers is that as much as they would like to hire someone, they just don’t have the resources. “We accept volunteers!” 

Yet many of these theatres are buying flat screen tvs, wasting resources by not saving pieces of sets for future use, and giving raises to administrators. Across the profession from community theatre to commercial venues, I would love to see people take a deep breath and start investing in the people that make art happen. It is not that you as an organization necessarily have to little in regards to resources, but instead have to little when it comes to your effort to expand your reach.

Please, people who run theatre companies and departments, make opportunities for people and make people feel that they have worth. I guarantee they will make better work with you and will want to stick around to help achieve your goals. Create ways to give people the opportunities you didn’t have when you were a freelance artist, or a struggling theatre newcomer. Start to see that the arts have the bad rep for not being a legitimate profession here in the west, only because the people running institutions choose to capitalize on people’s hopes and dreams. 

Here is a tangent that got this scarcity idea really under my skin. Don’t charge kids to be in plays. Being a young curious child artist, especially a theatrical one, should not be taught to be something for the wealthy and well to do. It should be for anyone who wants to learn and has passion for the medium. Kids bring families and friends to shows and your ads will grow because your shows are selling out. Why charge the little ones to play dress up and pretend for their parents? 

We have bought into this idea that the arts aren’t viable enough to compensate artists, especially those that work off stage, so we put that mentality onto others so that we can “keep our doors open” or the deadliest phrase of all, “it is how we have always done it.” I don’t care if you are on Broadway or you run a community theatre in a small town. Pay people for their time and value the effort they put into making your shows happen. Be the example that artists need to start putting a dollar amount next to their hours of work. Change the paradigm surrounding the arts as an option to make a living. Make this a vocation worth pursuing and that parents won’t discourage for not being sustainable. 

I recently had someone tell me they were looking for an artistic director and that it would be a volunteer position with full time hours. No joke. How fucked up is that? They seemed surprised when I didn’t jump at the opportunity. When I asked why they thought that was acceptable not to pay someone for that kind of work, she said “we have always done it that way. We don’t pay anyone. It’s theatre.” She is not wrong if we go by the pitiful stipends, benefit performance cuts for cast and crew, and less than minimum wage offers that are made to artists young and old every day. Be the change that will expand our borders to include artists of all backgrounds and passions. Find that little artist in you that just wanted to act or paint. Write the fucking check to keep people fed.