The change was promised last year when Theatre Washington, the group that administers DC’s theater awards, announced a major overhaul to the process. After years of debate, the one-size-fits-all categories that had been standard since the awards began in 1985 were replaced by two groupings – “Helen” for non-Equity productions or shows where less than half the cast belongs to Equity (typically shows by small and emerging troupes), and “Hayes” for the largely or entirely Equity productions (which includes everything by your well-established and fully professionalized Arena Stages and Shakespeare Theatre Companies, your Woolly Mammoths and Studios).
Theatre Washington said to be eligible for awards there would be a “floor” for minimum artist compensation, but delayed announcing figures until last week. So starting in 2016, this is what any show wanting to be considered will need to pony up:
-For actors, $12.50 a day or $75 a week for rehearsals, based on six rehearsals a week, and $18.75 per performance or $150 a week for performances, based on eight shows a week.
-For directors: $750 per production.
-For designers, musical directors, and choreographers: $500 per production.
-For playwrights: Six per cent of the gross, if rights have not otherwise been negotiated.
The requirement may be daunting for small companies that can sometimes only afford to pay actors a cut of a dicey box office total or pay flat rates typically ranging from $200-$500 – per production, not per week.
“The change is really because the definition of what is professional has changed so much over the last 30 years,” Theatre Washington president and CEO Linda Levy said Monday. “It’s about whether or not the theater company or a particular production is professional defined by whether or not they compensate their artists at an industry-appropriate level.”
Levy acknowledges that the figures don’t represent a living wage. “We had to start somewhere,” she says.
Lange, though, points out that even Equity actors rarely make a living strictly from the stage. To her, that makes the Hayes mandate seem capricious.
“We all agree that we want to pay people more money eventually,” says Lange, who notes that Pinky Swear has produced 11 shows for a total of $100,000 since 2009. “That goal is not helped by being told you have to hit that floor . . . If we’d paid the scale they suggest for the ‘Tiny House’ plays,” Lange says of a site-specific show she recently staged at Boneyard Studios with 13 performers, “we would have spent entire budget on just actors.”
The “floor” would seem to pose the biggest challenge to shoestring troupes with a penchant for large-scale projects. Tom Prewitt of WSC Avant Bard (formerly Washington Shakespeare Company) points to his organization’s recent “Visible Language,” a new musical that incorporated sign language into its story involving Edward Miner Gallaudet and Alexander Graham Bell.
“It is big, and a lot of the actors had to learn two languages,” Prewitt says. “We like to take risks, and taking a risk like that, let alone doing Shakespeare with a big cast, it’s going to put us in a pinch.”
Forum Theatre artistic director Michael Dove confirms that most of the chatter so far can be categorized as “pushback,” with most of the support for the minimums coming from freelance artists. Forum has grown to the point where it is already largely meeting these minimums, but Dove understands that a lot of smaller companies are going to be affected.
“Forum, Theatre Alliance, and Rorschach Theatre are probably the smallest companies who would still be eligible,” Dove reckons. “My guess is that’s about as small as it will get.” (Update: Dove later adds at least three more troupes to the list; Theatre Washington has no ready data indicating how many 2014 productions would fail to meet the threshold under the new guidelines.)
Keegan Theater producing artistic director Mark Rhea says he’s not worried, since the figures are in the ballpark of what his company pays. And if Keegan wants to tackle one of the sprawling dramas or musicals (“Hair,” “The Full Monty”) they’ve been known to offer at the small Church Street Theater they recently purchased and are now renovating?
“We’d likely produce the show anyway, recognizing it would not be eligible for recognition by Helen Hayes,” Rhea emailed Monday. “Helen Hayes doesn’t determine whether or not we do a show; though it’s a terrific marketing tool and of course nice to garner nominations and awards for our company, they aren’t our reason for existence.”
The new guidelines on compensation follows other major changes that were implemented this year – a revamped judging process, and a gala that axed the standard awards show in favor of a trophy presentation during a giant cocktail party in the National Building Museum. Theatre Washington has announced several dates in January and February to field questions.
“Most of us have signed up to go and talk,” Lange says. “We’re aiming to be collaborative, if that’s even possible. But I don’t know how much pull we have.”
“I don’t know how open Theatre Washington is, because I don’t know what the process was,” Prewitt says. “That just feeds people’s paranoia, because it feels like certain theaters are in the loop and others are not.”
Prewitt questions whether it’s Theatre Washington’s role to define “professional.” He says another small company artistic director told him that the new categories of Helen and Hayes should have been revision enough, with “Hayes” as the largely Equity shows and the “Helens” as “everyone else.”
“The ‘everyone else,’ there’s a huge range, not only of what people pay but what they choose to devote their resources to,” Prewitt says. “I think that’s a really worthy discussion. But I feel this top down mandate is a little heavy-handed.”