Pictured: Editor Regina Victor (they/pharaoh), photo by Gracie Meier.
It feels strange to share my Visions for 2022 in a moment of staggering global and industrial insecurity. I stand in solidarity with those whose hearts are dedicated to the theatre—to the art of conscious gathering. We are on the verge of another ending. Or perhaps, a beginning. We simply have yet to decide.
I believe strongly that every person reading this has the power to transform this moment from an ending, into a beginning. The creativity I have already witnessed from artists, to healthcare professionals, to teachers is what gives me the audacity and the strength to write about how we can dream bigger and better, together.
I don’t have all the answers, but in all this inconstancy I have re-learned to rely on my mind. We spent an entire four year term being gaslit, no matter what side of the mayhem on which you found yourself. Schools of thought separated us from our friends and family before we even knew a global pandemic would further widen the distance between us.
It does not matter what I am teaching. My pedagogy will always revolve around critical thought. It is the idea from which Rescripted grew, and it is where creation begins. Whenever I edit my essays, I can hear my professors saying “scratch out ‘I think’, it’s your paper, it’s all what you think.”
We are unused to speaking as though our opinions hold weight to anyone but ourselves. You can’t create a world onstage if you do not trust that you know how to transport your audience in the way only you can.
Trust yourselves. Practice your intuition with regular gut checks. Here’s a very basic tool I used when first starting out in leadership – and sometimes still rely on – easy enough anyone can do it. Hold up both hands, assign an option to each, have a friend pick. Are you excited? That’s you’re gut pick. Disappointed? Do the alternate option instead. Repeat until you realize you already know the answer.
Trust each other. Trust can be inspired as much as it can be earned. Trust that you are putting out into the universe what is expected to come to you. Trust that the colleagues you choose to collaborate with will treat you with respect, and prioritize safety in the workplace. This is not saying to turn the other cheek. This is an exercise to help you notice, and then remove yourself from anything and everyone who betrays that trust. Trust is different from vulnerability, in that you are assuming your power and creating space for someone else to share their own with the goal of creating meaningful, consensual connection. Vulnerability on the other hand requires a sacrifice, an imbalance of power that is appropriate in some situations but not in an industry where abuse is so common.
Mistreatment is so common in our industry, I found I actually needed to re-train myself to be surprised by dehumanization. I trust, and anything that betrays that trust becomes a non-issue, and a non-entity in my life. Trust that is given freely can be removed just as freely, and hopefully at little to no cost to self. Therefore giving your trust quickly is actually self protection and not vulnerability. Vulnerability means exposing your weaknesses and hoping the gesture is reciprocated. Trust, on the other hand, is not a weakness. Betrayal, deceit, and disrespect are the weaknesses. If your experience of applying this mindset is similar to mine, you’ll see those big shiny red flags waving and get out of dodge to the places you’re meant to be thriving.
I have spoken at length about imagination in the past, but the predecessor to imagination is rest. Collective Rest is the central vision I have for us, and I will tell you why.
Industrialization in general is designed to keep us exhausted. Fatigue is spoken about by many philosophers, including Simone Weil. Weil’s theory is that fatigue lessens our capacity for attention, which I understand as the emptiness needed to receive wisdom, from yourself, and from God(desses/Goddex). It is from this place of rested attention that we create. Tiredness is the enemy of our creativity, it saps our will to think, to commune, to live. Fatigue was and continues to be the key to upholding a slavery based economy.
Theatre has a central problem that explains its many grievances: its hierarchy is modeled after white supremacy. If art imitates life, then American Theatre imitates American Life. Edgar Villanueva, author of Decolonizing Wealth: Indigenous Wisdom to Heal Divides and Restore Balance helpfully identifies the ranks of philanthropy with the ranks of Antebellum economics: Plantation Owner = Boards. Overseer = Executive Leadership, Slaves = Staff/Artists/Volunteers.
Twelve to fifteen hour work days with a one to two hour lunch where you are expected to donate money back to the enterprise you work for via ticket sales or donations sounds like sharecropping to me. We have no rest, because the system upon which theatre is built cannot afford to let us rest, lest we think an original thought that might change the system..
Exhaustion and over-production does not help art, it simply helps others control its expression. Interrupt productivity, the product is not as important as you are. At Sideshow we say Process>Product. Practice saying no, when you have the privilege, when you genuinely have something better to do, when you are overbooked, when you are tired, when you have a tickle in your throat, you are not a workhorse say no whenever you are in no shape to work and let the work accommodate you for once!!! Trust that a good leader will prioritize investing in their artists and staff, advocate for yourself and help them help you!
One of my visions for 2022 is opportunity from chaos. As a freelance artist, I know the advocacy work I have been a part of has made its mark, and we are no longer accepting low pay, and low standards. In fact, I don’t think people are going to accept low standards for themselves, their communities, their bodies, minds, or hearts any longer.
Not all people, leaders, teammates, or institutions are going to be able to live up to our new standards of self and relationship. Artists will raise their rates. Companies will close. It may cause chaos. Radical acceptance that the shared goal is better treatment will be key to moving through the uncertainty.
In my experience, the budgetary deficit for personnel is quite large, arguably twice a company’s budget. Equity and regional houses are not spared from this fact. This is true not just for small houses, but the large as well. During an apprenticeship at a multimillion dollar theatre here in Chicago, I recall being asked to speak at a board meeting. There, the Executive Director proudly shared they were saving hundreds of thousands on labor, because the apprentices did the jobs of professionals they would have to pay twice as much.
At the non-equity storefront level, stipends are low, and typically the pay of the staff is even lower. I have asked a lot of leaders, and the numbers that follow are my own crowdsourced observations of my peers. Compensation levels I most commonly heard for companies with budgets under $300,000 is $0-$1000 for Artistic Directors, and $0-$600 per month for staff. One hundred dollars per month was the average staff salary for the smaller companies I know. In other models the Artistic or Executive Directors are full or part time employees with annual salaries ranging from $30,000-$50,000 per year. These models that do compensate 1-2 people so highly are able to function due to the support of a passionate ensemble, or a mostly volunteer staff. In contrast, the average storefront show budget is approximately anywhere from $10,000-$40,000 including artistic compensation.
In order to properly pay staff and artists a low hourly wage and respectable stipends (let’s say, $1500 per person), many of these theatres would need to increase their budgets by three hundred to five hundred percent. Meaning a $120,000 theatre with a small staff and two productions a year needs to be $350,000 to achieve both pay equity and production excellence.
Example: If a theatre currently pays 8 actors $300 to perform in the run of a show their actor budget is $2400. Now, they want to raise stipends to $1500 – an extremely reasonable and still low rate for 20-30 hours per week for 2-3 months. 8x $1500 is $12,000. Right now, these budget increases are the responsibility of the executive/artistic leaders and board members who manage the day to day business operations and fundraising for the company.
My final vision is inspired by the pressures that are created by the economic tensions stated above. When it comes to creating an equitable arts landscape, I envision that foundations, government funding, and private donations rise to the occasion. Theatre is about community. When schools cut arts programs, we are the first teachers to volunteer our time. When racism runs rampant in our offices and classrooms, we are the first to get EDI certification and intervene. When companies are in need, we are the first to fiscally and physically support each other.
When it comes to funding, we cannot help ourselves if we want to create a sustainable economy. We need assistance from other industries and sectors of society. Leaders are doing everything in their power to convince funders that the artist is equally if not more important than the art they create, but these arguments seem to mostly be met with silence. Some are slowly changing their values, and others like 3Arts have accelerated the artist-focused work they’ve been doing all along. Since 2007, 3Arts has granted over 4.5 million dollars to artists in unrestricted grants. In 2020, they opened artist applications for unrestricted COVID crisis grants. In 2021, they bested themselves and distributed over $1 million dollars to Chicago artists in a single year. We need more people to step up to the plate like these folks because I will happily admit I would not have made it through this year without their emergency funding and resource support.
I envision a national theatre community where every theatre’s budget as it currently stands would be matched by outside funding. I envision a society that understands its relationship to its artists, instead of this inability to see us because we walk among them. This work is not frivolous. This fight is the genesis of the fair wage fight happening in all industries across the country: Our energy, skills, creativity, and individuality, are the root of true productivity and should be valued as such.
The theatre is the perfect place to ascribe value to the work of the imagination. After all, the current governmental structure, the White House, our cities, the electronic device you’re reading this piece on, all originated as ideas in someone’s imagination. Theatre is not essential, but ideas are. It’s disrespectful to dismiss theatre as simply its product, when theatre is the medium through which human relationship, societal construct, and even spiritual and scientific discoveries are studied emotionally and collectively understood. It so happens there are thousands of presently underpaid theatre professionals trained in the generation and expression of ideas through the medium of theatre, who just need some support to carry us forward.
This year, we will receive the support we deserve, and so desperately need.
This year we will embrace the chaos that comes from inspiring radical change.
This year we will protect our creative energy with abundant rest.
This year we will trust that we have the personal and communal power to create change in ourselves, and our society.
This year we will be different, we do not yet know how. There is power in the unknown. The same power that emanates from a ghost light on a black stage. The same power that occupies the behemoth red curtain. The same power that radiates from a lone actor poised to speak, the audience waiting to hear the words that will reveal a previously undiscovered truth about their world.
I wish you all a very Happy New Year. Stay focused, stay safe, stay at ease.
Love and Light,
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