12-18 Thoughts on Theater (and my own future)

Sign in front of a pine and candle display reads "From December 2019 to December 2020, MN IATSE 13 when from 3,366 shifts to 12 shifts.  A drop of 99.65%.
A image from the Empty Event put on by the Live Events Coalition.

In December of 2019, IATSE 13 had 3,366 calls.  This year, there have been 12.

Let me try to break that statement out of the jargon a bit.  IATSE is the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees.  It is the union that covers folks like stage hands, theatrical carpenters, stitchers, dressers, lighting techs, sound techs, props folks, and a myriad of other jobs.  (It doesn’t cover stage managers, they are under Actors Equity Association.  These things are confusing.)  IATSE 13 is the local branch in the Twin Cities. 

A ‘call’ is like a shift.  There is a seniority list to getting a call.  Folks at the top get the option to take the work or pass on the work.  If they pass, it goes to the next person and so on down the list until all the slots are filled for a given event.  Some slots are specialized, like rigging, and some are just general, like loading and unloading trucks.  You have to qualify for the specialized stuff.  You have to have a pulse for the not specialized stuff.  There is a guaranteed minimum of 4 hours.  There is no maximum, though there are required meal breaks and an increase in pay after a certain number of hours.  Some calls last twelve or

A corner of a light plot reads "Empty Event" with two markers and two rolls of tape tossed next to it.
When setting up lights, we start from a light plot. Each light is labeled and drawn with a unique symbol where it will go. Then when the lights are in place, the cables and the lights get labeled using spike tape and permanent markers. Everything is attached to tie line that can be tied to a belt loop or wrist. No free objects are allowed in the grid so that no one gets hurt under the grid.

 more hours. 

So, assuming an average of about 8 hours per call, in December of 2019 there was about 674 weeks of work through the union.  Or taken another way, there was enough work to support about 170 people full time.  This year, there was about two and a half weeks of work, or not enough work to support a single person for the whole month. 

This is where we are at as an industry.  There were 12 million people working in live entertainment in 2019.  This year, there are almost none.

“That’s fine,” you might say (though I personally hope you aren’t saying that), “They can have their jobs back when we open back up!” Which is kind of true and kind of not true. 

Yes, we can pick up gigs when they become available again.  But, what does that exactly mean and what timeline are we looking at?  I don’t think I will be able to work full-time in theater until 2022 at best.

First, there are two types of jobs in theater production (I’m not counting admin or education in here).  One type is a house job – you are a W2 employee of a theater with a certain number of guaranteed hours or a salary.  Your hours often vary weekly but average out to something that is hopefully within the reasonable limits of your compensation.  The second type is freelance or overhire.  That’s what I do.  This is the epitome of the gig economy.  An overhire is not guaranteed any hours and instead responds to calls, much like the list above.  The person hiring has varying amounts of discretion about who they hire – sometimes there is a seniority list, sometimes there isn’t; sometimes it is based on skills; sometimes it is based on something else entirely.  Sometimes its just whoever is in front of the person doing the hiring when they need a body.

Two dozen cards fill the frame of the image and continue out on every side.  The cards list the title of a person in the live events industry in black with the word "Unemployed" in red underneath.
At the Empty Event, we had 48 tables with 6 chairs each. These placecards showed the titles of the people who have been unemployed since March.

For most of the people who had house jobs and were furloughed or laid off, they have been given right of first refusal to their old jobs.  And because of the unions they are part of, many of those jobs have to be re-established in a timely fashion when it is possible for theaters to generate income again.  The ones that aren’t forced to maintain a certain number of jobs by a union contract will likely be slashing back their number of employees.  Even still, those jobs will come back first and go first to the people who held them before.  That is if they still want them. 

Theaters have taken a major financial blow this year.  Many are folding.  The ones that are staying open, will be forced to be scrappier (aka, cheaper) than ever.  They are going to have to squeeze as much work out of their salaried and house employees as they can.  They won’t be able to afford to hire in overhire labor, or if they do it is going to be at a much reduced rate.  (We are already seeing this conversation playing out in the union negotiations at the Met.)

Again, taken together, this means that there will be people who had house jobs who have been forced back into the overhire pool.  This increases the size of the top of that pool while at the same time, the pay rates will be lower than they previously were.

For someone like me, this means that my solid income from being an overhire is unlikely to come back when theaters re-open.  At best, it will be a year after theaters are open before I am able to afford to work in theater again.  At worst, I can see it being five or more years.  Because even though all these changes are taking place, my mortgage hasn’t gone down nor do a suddenly not need to eat.

That is one piece of the situation.  The other piece is this: theater is a grueling industry.  When you are in it, there isn’t time to look up from the work and look around at what else you might be able to do.  We’ve had nine months without that.  We’ve been looking around.  A lot of folks are finding things that excite them outside the industry.  A lot of folks are re-training, bumping up a side-hustle to a full time job, or shifting careers another way.  There are a lot of people who might not come back to theater at all.

“But isn’t that a good thing?” a fictional you might say, “It lessens the number of people in the pool and you can charge more for your services!”  Again, kind of true and kind of not true.

Folks leaving the industry take knowledge with them.  Some attrition is normal in any industry.  Hopefully, as someone is leaving, they have the chance to pass along key pieces of information to others.  Especially in places that have quirks (every theater has quirks), these bits of information are the difference between safe and not safe or between one hour of work and six hours of work.  And we didn’t have a chance to do that information transfer.  So when people leave the industry now, they are taking this information and skill with them by accident.  They aren’t in a position to be able to pass on their knowledge.  And that is going to hurt – potentially physically – but also financially.  Institutions will not be prepared to pay three people to trial-and-error their way to the correct option that their predecessors just knew.  We’re going to spend a lot of time fumbling, which is going to further cut into those already tight funds.

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I’m trying to pull back the curtain.  Outside of the industry, I’ve found that folks don’t know how many people it takes to make art happen.  The ticket prices that you paid for a show covered at best 60% of the costs of that show.   The rest was grants.  Before covid, I thought it was important to talk about this in terms of why tickets to theater cost what they cost.  (It’s so artists can buy groceries.)

Now, nine months into this grand intermission, I think it is important to talk about it because there are so many of us who weren’t seen before and aren’t being seen now.  Theater folks are adaptable and we’re adapting, but we’re also struggling.  It would be nice to have the struggle seen, acknowledged, and assisted.

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