When Taproot Theatre decided to try to remember the kind of September when life was slow and, oh, so mellow, it had no idea what a headache it would be. A local staging of The Fantasticks, the iconic Tom Jones/Harvey Schmidt musical that opens at Taproot this week, would normally be a low-key affair. Not this time. A random state audit of the theater company this spring, with the production already planned and budgeted, determined that nonunion actors and technicians should be actual employees rather than independent contractors. Until now, smaller venues had compensated cast and crew by granting stipends. Now the state auditor is telling Taproot and other low-budget groups that they've been doing it wrong and even owe back payments. The theaters find themselves rethinking how they do business—and how much business they can do.
"We have to pay the state L&I [Labor and Industries] and state unemployment and all the federal stuff," as any employer must, says Gary Kingsbury, Taproot's general manager. "Since we're not anticipating someone just dropping us more money because of the state requirements, we have to reduce the amount that we pay [actors]. And then they're getting taxes withheld right up front."
Kent Phillips, the managing and artistic director of Bellevue Civic Theatre who holds the same interim position at Tacoma Actors Guild, concurs. The sudden application of the tax law means less pay, and likely less work, for artists who haven't yet made it to Equity status.
"I don't think there's any producer in town who wants to screw [over] actors—it's just a matter of what you can afford to do," Phillips says. "It sounds weird to [debate whether] actors should get minimum wage. Well, they should—but they weren't getting anything before, so the theaters that are actually trying to pay something are being told, 'Unless you can pay them the whole amount, don't pay 'em.' That's pretty much what's being said."
While the strictly by-the-clock method is saving Taproot's skin, Phillips has taken another approach at Bellevue Civic, and he's not particularly thrilled by it.
"What our attorney says is you can also pay [actors] reasonable expenses—which is gas, parking," he explains. "And in the case of getting to Bellevue and parking in Bellevue, that's a lot of money. So, we're going to add up what that should be. In essence, we [used to pay] them about $500 to $600 a show, [and now] it's probably going to end up being half that or less."
At Tacoma Actors Guild, it also means losing a production with a larger cast.
"TAG tends to pay all their actors, but backstage they had some folks that were on stipend," says Phillips. "They'll all go to payroll. So, for the next two seasons while I'm there, I could've adjusted the budgets on all the shows or I could've just taken one show from a 20-person Shakespeare [and reduced it to] a four-person show. And that's what I did."
Kingsbury confesses a hard look at Taproot's upcoming offerings has definitely been the case. "Some things that were being considered are now off that list," he says. Meanwhile, the oh-so- mellow Fantasticks folks are feeling the crunch with reduced rehearsal time.
"The hope is that it won't impact the quality of the production," says Kingsbury. "[Director] Karen Lund came up with a schedule. It's just a lot tighter process—if [an actor] wants to come to rehearsal to see how it's going, because maybe they're in the next scene or something, that's got to be their call. We're not paying for that."
And the future?
"Just because the state changes, it doesn't mean you can change your budget automatically," Kingsbury sighs. "You just have to find a different way to live within those numbers."