If you cannot afford to pay, you cannot afford to hire.
Let’s end the cycle of unpaid/underpaid work in theatre.
While attending theatre school in New York, I witnessed a lot of artists taking on unpaid work. I thought this is just how it is, how you “hustle”, that all these unpaid positions dropped imaginary points in a piggy bank in the sky and after doing enough of it I would get my payout.
After all that’s what everyone said-
“It’s paying your dues”
“We’ve all done it”
“How else will you get your work seen?”
Like many I not only participated- I wore it like a badge of honor.
I was collecting these imaginary points that would get me closer to the pearly gates of theatre prosperity.
I did the severely underpaid work. I took internships where the responsibility load would easily offer 50k in any other industry but I got $50 a week.
I signed ludacris year long contracts to associate/assistant produce theatre festivals and got paid less than one month’s rent.
New York theatre has created a predatory system that uses young artists as essentially free labor. And once those contracts end or they become the wiser, these institutions drop them and open their arms to the next crop of kids fresh out of theatre school.
“Well I went through it” is no longer acceptable. “We all have to pay our dues'', does not pay the bills. “There’s no money in theatre, what can we do?” is a gaslighting excuse for making the choice to allocate money to production value rather than to real people.
Then- I became part of the problem.
Once I was able to be on the other end of it, I engaged in these practices. In my own work I looked for collaborators who were also willing to do the work, “for the love of it” and not the money. I put more money into a set or costume budget than to the real life people doing the work.
I helped perpetuate the system. And now I want to abolish it.
When asking around a fellow theatre artist told me:
“I did a "Production Internship" at Signature where I spent a lot of time house managing for various rental companies (this is way back when Signature was operating out of the Peter Norton space). I think the pay for that internship was $75 a week, which felt luxurious after the zero dollars I got from The Public. I ate dollar pizza for lunch every single day.”
“I ate dollar pizza for lunch every single day.”
This phrase hit me like a brick wall. Because I’ve heard it a thousand times. Throughout my years in theatre I heard variations on this-
“Thank God for dollar pizza”
“I couldn’t do this internship without dollar pizza”
“I can only afford dollar pizza”
If your Artistic Director makes more than 120k and your company is sitting on $2 million in the bank then the interns who run your fellowships, develop your outreach curriculums, and run your residencies should not be living off dollar pizza.
If this pandemic has taught us anything it is that we should put people first.
It took a pandemic for me to realize that I was feeding into a problematic system.
And so I say to my peers who also drank the Kool-Aid:
It is okay to say, “I didn’t know better, but now I do”
Together let’s commit to doing better. Instead of exploitative practices, let’s scale back our programming. Instead of a flashier set, let’s let our designer eat more than dollar pizza. Instead of perpetuating the system, let’s break it.
Instead, let’s do better.
Vinny Eden Ortega is a New York City based theatre director, playwright, and artistic director originally from Clearwater, Florida. Ortega is a member of the Lincoln Center Theater Directors Lab. vinnyedenortega.com