Are Artists Being Exploited?

State auditors say yes. Theater companies disagree.

The most thrilling theater can be dependent on some very mundane details. And there’s no better example than SSB 5534, which Gov. Christine Gregoire signed into law last month.

The bill seeks to solve a problem that first surfaced three years ago. State auditors noticed that certain companies were compensating artists—mostly actors—with cash stipends instead of an hourly wage. Several Puget Sound theater groups, including Greenwood’s Taproot, Harlequin Productions in Olympia, and Seattle’s Civic Light Opera, were fined because they gave actors a fixed amount of money per production, treating them as “independent contractors” who get paid by the job. The state disagreed, saying the actors were employees who were being paid less than Washington’s minimum wage by their employers.

All of the groups cited were midsize theaters—semiprofessional operations that employ a collection of part-timers, full-timers, and enthusiastic volunteers. They produce theater that’s not exactly on a shoestring but also isn’t to the production level of the Rep or ACT. These smaller companies cast a few roles with members of the local professional unions (including American Equity Association and the Screen Actors Guild, or SAG) and then fill out the rest with nonunion members. In practical terms, they provide a ladder from the amateur to the professional.

Both Equity and SAG act more like guilds than traditional unions, requiring members to demonstrate professional experience before they’re allowed membership. Midsize theaters get the majority of their artistic talent from folks who don’t yet have the experience or inclination to get an Equity or SAG membership. The compensation is usually a few hundred dollars or less, enough to defray incidental expenses.

While this isn’t a bad situation for either actors or companies, it’s frowned upon by the auditors, who think the artists are being exploited. That’s also the position of several Washington artists’ unions, who fought the original version of 5534. After negotiations, the bill ultimately allowed only companies with three or fewer full-time employees to pay stipends instead of wages. That means that basically every group larger than a few people meeting at a coffee shop gets no benefit from this legislation whatsoever.

Should artists be donating their time and creative energy to theaters for less than an hourly wage? In an ideal world, of course not. But these groups have fragile economics (as we’ve seen from the demise of several midsize companies in the past couple of years). Scott Nolte, the artistic director of Taproot, says he’s cut cast sizes because of the extra cost of paying wages instead of stipends. Last season, for example, Taproot traded Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker, with a cast of more than a dozen, for the sentimental romance Last Train to Nibroc, a two-person play.

Ultimately, 5534 took aim at a practical solution, then missed. Under the current rules, artists lose the chance to learn their craft in a semiprofessional setting, producers have to scale down productions, unions get fewer contracts, and audiences get shows with smaller casts, further diminishing the theater experience.

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