And that pay needs to be reasonable
I don’t know of a time prior to this pandemic that the entire entertainment industry was out of work. It’s very difficult to think of when or how we will get back to work, and the grim reality is that many of the companies with which we are accustomed to receiving work will not be there when “normalcy” returns. This means that when we do return to work, there will be more of us than available jobs. My biggest fear is that producers will try to take advantage of these situations and offer new jobs at the lowest possible dollar. It’s been happening since before the pandemic, and I’m afraid the situation will only get worse when those jobs are in higher demand.
First of all, when are we going to get to the place where openly discussing pay isn’t a taboo subject?
For as long as I have been searching for jobs in my professional career, the pay is almost always the last thing I find out about. Why? Why would producers hide that information? Are they embarrassed about the rate? Is it too low? Is it illegal? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, well then, producers, I’m here to say that you’re doing it wrong. Your pay rate, benefits package, and special offers should be a selling point for you. If you’re touting your company’s great reputation, clout, and place in the industry, but you’re not willing to share pay information until you’ve almost got a potential employee hooked, I can’t help but think that you’re taking cues from the Mr. Wormwood Book of Ethics, and my theatre buddies will know that Mr. Wormwood is not good company to keep. Many of us begrudgingly go through the motions of updating our resumes and websites, collecting letters of recommendation, filling out lengthy applications, and making time for multiple interviews just to learn that after all that time, the salary was never worth it in the first place. I don’t know about you, but when that happens to me, I feel cheated and duped. I shouldn’t have to pass a series of tests just to find out what you’re willing to pay me if I’m offered the job.
Look, I get it, your company was hit hard too. You’ve had to resort to Zoom theatre and other cheap programming just to keep the electricity on. You’ve had to furlough many of your full-time staff, and you’ve been trying to live off of PPP loans for 11 months. If that wasn’t bad enough, you are going to have to beef up your Covid-19 compliance when you are able to open again, and that will mean shelling out more money. The thing is, though, there is a way to do this honestly and ethically.
If you are unable to offer a living wage for a full-time position (*protip—$30k p/y as the full-time Technical Director in Los Angeles County is not a living wage) you need to rethink your company’s structure. If having a very experienced, top-of-the-line TD is a priority for you, you need to prioritize their salary first. Commit to paying that person what they are worth, and they will commit to you. Maybe the scale of your productions needs to come down. Maybe the number of shows you produce needs to be adjusted. Maybe you need to up your grant writing and donor outreach game, but the simple fact of the matter is if you cannot afford to pay an experienced TD what they are worth AND produce your dream list of shows at the same time, then you can’t afford either, and your internal structure needs to change. If $30k is what you have to offer, and you cannot budge on that number, that means the job description needs to change. This is not reasonable for a full-time job, but it could be reasonable for a part-time job, depending on the job requirements. It could also be reasonable as an entry job for a recent graduate or even an internship. Being able to make creative adjustments to facilitate the job security of your current and future employees is a really attractive prospect. It also means that you can proudly display your pay rate on your job listings and know that you are being fair to your applicants.
Producers, you have to prioritize your people
All of us have been using this downtime to really explore those HR processes that have and have not been working. We should all be very aware by now that “must-have five years professional experience” and “$30,000 per year” for a full-time skilled job are just two points that should not exist together in the same sentence. If you’re saying to yourself, “It’s always worked for us in the past,” you should know that even if it’s been working for you, that doesn’t mean it’s working for your employees and applicants. Companies that try to get by on the lowest possible salary have a high turnover rate usually due to employee burnout. The employee that is receiving a lower than living wage rate is either trying to work as much as possible to pick up lots of overtime so they can make rent, or they’re working tons of side gigs and have little energy or will leave to perform adequately for their main company of employment.
The fact that we feel we HAVE to take the low-paying jobs so that we can get that “five years professional experience” is what creates the rat race that we desperately need to dismantle because when we all come back post-pandemic, that rat race is going to be much worse. We will shift the reasoning for taking these jobs to “so that I can eat and live” and when we do so, we will be handing over even more leverage to the producers that think the technician/designer/actor/etc. that works for the lowest dollar wins. Producers, you have to prioritize your people. Be open, honest, and fair in your job offers, descriptions, and expectations. Make sure a human is capable of living off of only your job. Eliminate the need for side gigs. Make the people the center of your budget—prioritize them. Happy employees make happy companies, and there is no other version of this very simple mantra.
Elisabeth Weidner is a Sound Designer and Composer for theatre. She served as the Sound Director/ Resident Sound Designer/Composer for 10 years at PCPA-Pacific Conservatory Theatre, before going full freelance in 2019. Elisabeth is also an adjunct professor at California Polytechnic State University SLO where she teaches Sound Design and Engineering for Theatre, and she sits on the USITT Sound Commission jury for the Current Practices and Research in Sound papers submissions. In 2020 she was elected to serve as Co-Vice Chair of the TSDCA )Theatrical Sound Designers and Composers Association). She is also the producer of the podcast: No One Likes Us. www.elisabethanneweidner.com