Theresa Ham and Genevieve Beller
Theresa Ham and Genevieve Beller Credit: Courtesy the artists

Back in 2019, I interviewed Chicago set designer Arnel Sancianco for a short Reader profile. In the course of our discussion, he mentioned that, while creating a sustainable career as a designer is never easy, he felt that his peers in costume design (a profession that tends to have more women in its ranks than other design fields) had a harder road. They frequently work without the benefit of full crews, leaving the designer to do a lot of the hands-on work of making and even sometimes maintaining costumes during a show’s run. And they tended to be paid less overall.

How much less they’re paid has come to light in recent years, thanks to the efforts of organizations like Costume Professionals for Wage Equity (CPWE) and the Chicago-based On Our Team. Elsa Hiltner, one of the founders of the latter, created the anonymous crowd-sourced Theatrical Designer Pay Resource spreadsheet to collect data on who gets paid what and where in American theaters. 

When Reader freelancer Sheri Flanders spoke to Hiltner last October, she was celebrating the fact that Theatre Communications Group had agreed to list salaries for all jobs posted in ARTSEARCH, the job search engine run by TCG. Now CPWE and On Our Team have convinced two more major theater publications—Playbill and Broadway World—to require salary ranges to be listed for all industry job postings.

As Flanders noted in her article, “It is common practice for a job seeker to respond to a posting for a seemingly full-time or contract paid position, only to discover upon receiving a ‘job’ offer that the position is unpaid, paid in ‘exposure,’ or paid at a stipend rate that averages out to far less than minimum wage.” In 2018, OffStage Jobs began requiring salary information for listings, and the League of Chicago Theatres soon followed suit.

Genevieve Beller of CPWE and Theresa Ham, one of the cofounders of On Our Team, know that transparency in listings is just part of the battle for wage equity. But even getting that victory on the board took major effort. Beller notes that CPWE “reached out to Playbill with a letter in December of 2019 that over 800 people had signed. And we sent that letter to the editor in chief at the time, who is no longer with them, as well as every member of their board that we could find information for. So we received zero response. Which is pretty much par for the course.” 

Joining forces with On Our Team and using the bully pulpit of social media helped the campaign. Beller says, “Something that I had been inspired by as far as action that might work—the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra musicians have been engaged in a social media campaign basically spamming all of the Met Opera social media posts about what they pay their musicians and sort of trying to publicly shame them. I’ve been engaged in a lot of conversations with audience members of the Met on those posts trying to raise awareness about why it’s important.” (After going without salaries for 10 months, the Met musicians finally reached an agreement with management last month to receive partial compensation, though they are still facing the prospect of further drastic concessions.)

Talking about who makes what (and where and why) has often been shrouded in secrecy in the arts—even as arts organizations pat themselves on the back for their commitments to equity and justice. 

As Ham points out, “Publicizing what people make is just not something that theater people talk about and it’s definitely not something audience members even think about. And so what we noticed as costume designers was ‘oh my gosh, you know, set designers aren’t talking about this, and lighting designers aren’t talking about this, and directors aren’t talking about this, and how do we get this conversation more public?’ Because once we started even talking to our colleagues about this, they were appalled. ‘Oh my gosh, you make how much money?’ We were like, ‘Yeah. 30 percent less than you.’ They were so surprised. Our colleagues. People we work with all the time.”

Getting colleagues and industry publications on board with transparency and advocating for equity is one part of the battle. I asked Beller and Ham if they’re worried that companies will use the pandemic shutdown as an excuse to continue “business as usual” (or even go backwards) in the upcoming months. They note that it’s already happening: designers who had done work on shows that were put on hold are being asked to come back and redo the designs with cheaper materials, and at no additional pay. 

“We’ve seen companies all across the U.S., and this is not just Chicago, furlough, lay off, fire their labor employees, right?” says Ham. “So now we have the difficult task of rehiring those positions, and it puts the company at a huge advantage, because they can renegotiate wages. They can post the job at whatever wage they want, even if their employees had been there for years and had had a certain amount of wage. They’ve furloughed them or fired them, and these companies can now just slice positions out. Scene shops and costume shops and prop shops are seeing positions vanish.” At the same time, Beller and Ham note, few top administrators at theaters have been furloughed or had their six-figure salaries cut in response to the COVID disaster.

What Beller and Ham would love to see is public pressure on producers not just from within the professional design community, but also from patrons and audience members, to advocate for living wages. Ham says, “Especially if they’re in Chicago and they’re a theatergoer, writing a letter [to theater management and executive boards] is huge. Theaters listen to their patrons.” 

She adds, “There’s some sort of disconnect between what fundraisers think they should be advertising funds for and what the audience really will give money for. That’s actually an argument for transparency. If you open up your books and you tell the people who you’re raising funds from ‘This is where your money goes,’ they can feel good that the designers and the technicians are making a living wage.” On Our Team also provides information on pay equity resources on their website.

Beller adds that crediting the work of designers in the social media accounts for theater companies can help. “It takes five seconds to tag the team on Instagram. The amount of time you spend trying to figure out the perfect hashtag, you could be tagging the Instagram handles of your crafts artisans who made that really cool crown. And maybe someone wants to commission their own piece of artwork from them.” 

The We See You White American Theatre (We See YOU W.A.T.) movement also intersects with the pay equity and transparency demands from CPWE and On Our Team. Beller notes, “All of these theaters now have diversity and inclusion statements. And we are able to contact them or publicly post when they put up these job ads, and we’re able to say, ‘You have committed to diversity and inclusion. What you are doing is antithetical to that commitment that you have made. So if in fact you are committed to a more diverse, inclusive, equitable theater industry, if you want to come back better, then put your money literally where your mouth is.'”

Black Men Unscripted 

Black Lives Black Words unveils a new monthly online panel discussion series, Black Men Unscripted, on Saturday at 3 PM CDT. Curated by BLBW cofounder Reginald Edmund, the first installment features Keith Artur Bolden, Terrence Spivey, Dominic Taylor, and Matthew Xia. Collectively, their resumes span the U.S. and the UK, with roots in directing, writing, teaching, acting, and producing. 

The goal for the series is, according to BLBW, “to freely, honestly, and truthfully address systematic issues in the social-political sphere without barriers.” Attendance is free, but reservations are required for a Zoom link. The initiative joins the other tools in BLBW’s kit for fostering global visibility for Black theater artists and social justice, including the Beyond the Canon playreading series curated by Simeilia Hodge-Dalloway.  v