Composite of four leaders of On Our Team with Pay Equity Standards badge in center
The four founders of On Our Team (clockwise from left: Bob Kuhn, Elsa Hiltner, Christine Pascual, Theresa Ham) with the new Pay Equity Standards seal. Credit: Courtesy On Our Team

Two years ago, right before COVID-19 threw the theater world (and everything else) into a state of uncertainty, four Chicago costume designers—Theresa Ham, Elsa Hiltner, Bob Kuhn, and Christine Pascual—came together to address pay inequity and other employment issues by creating the advocacy group On Our Team. Growing in part out of the Theatrical Designer Pay Resource spreadsheet put together by Hiltner (which provided crowdsourced data on the pronounced difference in pay for costume designers in comparison to other theater design disciplines), the foursome began pushing for salary transparency in job listings in publications such as Playbill as a starting point, in partnership with other advocacy groups such as Costume Professionals for Wage Equity. (They’re still fighting for pay transparency in listings at Backstage.)

Now On Our Team has taken a big next step in the fight for wage equity and safer workplaces by releasing the Pay Equity Standards, providing checklists in three areas—transparency, working conditions, and accountability—for theaters interested in publicly demonstrating their commitment to creating a more equitable environment.

“On Our Team formed so that we could do stuff like this and do larger-scale organizing that had a little bit more weight behind it than just an individual’s name. It also really came out of the desire to build a community that recognized systemic change and movement forward, even if it was not the end goal, whatever the end might look like, but steps in the right direction that we could celebrate,” says Hiltner.

Pascual notes that On Our Team’s work has meshed well with the goals of organizations like No More 10 Out of 12s. “Ten out of 12” refers to the theater industry practice (in union theaters) of technical rehearsals before opening where actors are called for 12 hours (with mandated breaks, it comes to ten hours of work). However, for most designers and tech crew, that really comes down to “12 out of 14.” No More 10 Out of 12s says on their website that “this way of working is not only outdated, it’s unsustainable and unethical. It’s particularly harmful to BIPOC artists, disabled artists, as well as artist caregivers trying to grow their families. By continuing to uphold this structure, we are literally forcing people out of this field as well as barring entry to the next generation of workers who can bring new life to it.”

Pascual says, “What we’re working towards with pay equity, they’re interwoven and related. If you’re working more than 14 hours a day, the pay just gets lower”—given that most freelance designers work on a fixed stipend for the production, rather than an hourly wage. 

One of the goals for the Pay Equity Standards is to break down the silos between union and nonunion talent. In the same way that the Chicago Theatre Standards from Not in Our House provided guidance for nonunion companies to establish safer working conditions for all members of the production team, on and offstage, On Our Team’s standards are designed to apply “to all staff, employees, theatre workers, artists, and teaching artists hired by the organization for a season, production, or project, regardless of whether a person is classified as a W-2 employee.” 

Pascual notes, “To get in the union, you need to pay initiation fees. And if you’re always paid less or not enough or equitably, you won’t have the funds to get into the union. Also I feel like [pay equity] should not matter if you’re union or not.” The standards require that a certified theater “does not set different pay rates for union and non-union workers within the same role or commensurate roles within a production.”

The standards are broken down into two categories: one for theaters with budgets over $1 million, and one for those under $1 million. They encompass items such as: full transparency on all pay rates, with an expectation that the companies pay a living wage for the area or demonstrate a five-year plan to get to that point; full funding for all design materials (it’s not uncommon for designers to dip into their own funds to finish a costume to the original specs, for example); and commitment to not using unpaid interns. For the bigger-budget companies, there is also a requirement for the board of directors to undergo training on pay equity and an annual independent audit of salary and hiring practices. 

Companies that wish to maintain the Pay Equity Standards seal of approval will need to reapply annually in order to keep the badge. Currently, no theater has started the certification process, though Hiltner notes that several have said they plan to. (The standards were just released on January 18.) On Our Team also plans upcoming Zoom webinars to introduce the standards and the process for getting certified to the community. They had initially planned on doing a community town hall before the standards were released, but COVID changed that.

However, the shutdown did give the organizers more time to focus on what pay equity looks like.

Ham says, “We have been working in the industry for years and the industry rolls on like a train. We don’t have time to really step back and reflect on what it means to be a part of this, because you’re so busy working towards the next job. So when you’re not doing that, you actually have time to say, ‘Well, what do I feel right now in this pause? And what do I like about it? And what do I not like about it? And how do we work towards getting a more balanced existence in this industry?'”

New leadership at BoHo and Filament

Elizabeth Swanson Courtesy BoHo Theatre

Late last week, BoHo Theatre named Elizabeth Swanson as their new artistic director, succeeding Stephen Schellhardt, who announced his plans to leave in September. Swanson is a freelance director whose many credits include Head Over Heels with Kokandy Productions, I Know My Own Heart with PrideArts, and work at Second City, About Face, Victory Gardens, and several other companies. Their first BoHo production will be National Merit by Valen-Marie Santos, which received a virtual reading last May. The dates and location for the production are TBA. BoHo has produced at several locations in recent years, including the now-gone Heartland Studio Theatre and the Greenhouse Theater Center. In the press announcement, Swanson also said, “We will be offering at least two ASL interpreted performances of each production and incorporating touch tours, as well as thinking more expansively about how we can improve accessibility in every possible way.” Additionally, they indicated that BoHo will be moving toward “more multidisciplinary performance, such as clowning, physical theatre, music, and improvisation.”

And over at Six Corners, Filament Theatre names Reji Simon as associate artistic director. Simon is a longtime resident artist and collaborator with the youth-focused company and will continue working with artistic director Julie Ritchey in Filament’s goal to “decentralize artistic leadership through centering the perspectives of young people.”