When should performers get paid?

by Joshua Humphrey • Feb. 25

News and notes |

The Academy Awards are a hard act to follow, but I'm here to provide you with news and notes from beyond Tinseltown (though we'll splash a little Hollywood in with our theater at the end, just for good measure).

We're starting with the national scene this week, since you'll need some background before we shift back to the Twin Cities.

Jason Zinoman at the New York Times writes this week on the business model at The Upright Citizens Brigade. The UCB doesn't pay performers, which allows them to keep ticket prices in the $5-$10 range. On its face, that appears exploitative, and Zinoman is right to explore the issue in a public forum. Which, of course, has lead to a wider conversation.

Nate Dern, an artistic director of UCB, has made a response which, after reading it, has really embedded into my thinking: "I think of the UCB Theatre as comedy grad school. When you go to grad school, you forsake financial compensation for a period of time for the benefit of the experience and the hope that it will lead to a career in the field you’re studying."

I've read more on this at The Chicago Review and this blog post by UCB performer Anthony King, but Dern's words have stuck with me most. I can envision UCB as "comedy grad school," though part of me also wants performers to be paid for the work they do. Which brings us right around to...

Huge Theater has posted an open rundown of how they plan to pay performers. It's excellent insight on how Huge Theater has been running itself in the last two years as it makes its way toward financial viability. Huge lays out their goals and highlight the next steps they plan to take, namely that they will begin paying groups for shows on Friday/Saturday, retroactive to January. The UCB controversy is mentioned, along with how the situation is similar/different. All of it makes for fascinating reading, and examining how UCB and Huge Theater have decided to approach paying performers shows how different ecosystems find answers to similar problems.

My impression from reading about In Battalions, a report on new play development in England, is that development of playwrights and new plays there has taken a serious hit since Art Council England's budget cut of 30% in 2010. It reminded me strongly of the findings of the Theatre Development Fund, published in Outrageous Fortune, meaning that when times are lean (which, for American theatre, seems to be always), new play development is the first thing to go.

Welcome to Historic Equity
I stumbled across the book Performance of the Century: 100 Years of Actors Equity Association early in the week, after reading this interview with author Robert Simonson. I've spoken to many equity actors over the last few years, but the organization has always been a bit mysterious to me. I can't find a copy of it in the Hennepin library system - does anyone have a copy?

Intimacy or Disgust? Disgust or Intimacy? Disgustimacy?
The Guardian blog asked this week just how far theatre should push us, and I was reminded of Brian O'Neal's article of a few weeks ago, "In praise of disgusting theater." Both writers are looking for reactions, intimate or visceral, and recommend that theatergoers seek out experiences that challenge them.

The Gonzo Group Theatre's non-traditional staging of Long Day's Journey Into Night at the James J. Hill House fits what both writers are getting at; it was intimate in a way that was right in my face and made me feel a voyeur, which in turn made me feel a little disgusted with myself. Not a bad showing for a play released in 1956.

What show have you seen lately that's outside your comfort zone?

"When I find I am living in quiet desperation, I try to find a way to shake things up.”
So says Emily Gunyou Halaas in this profile by Graydon Royce. Emily speaks to finding balance in her life, something I've been trying to do of late. To wit: "When I go too far one way or the other, it makes me unhappy. I’m always trying to find balance. Being an artist is terrifying. It’s a leap of faith.”

It's difficult to find a reaction to Shia LaBeouf leaving the Broadway production of Orphans and then releasing e-mails via twitter that doesn't result in someone trying to find some controversy in it, although to me it seems fairly innocuous. An actor was miscast, the producers realized it and fixed it. Releasing the e-mails seems more odd than anything else – it's laundry but not dirty laundry. I do, however, think that if you don't like LaBeouf (or Alec Baldwin, who's also cast), you can dig whatever interpretation you want out of LaBeouf's e-mails. The Huffington Post helpfully has a slide show of other celebrity feuds at the end of that article, just in case we needed some examples.

I don't see much of a controversy ("Then why the hell are you writing about it?" you're thinking), But I do see just how difficult it is to separate an actor from his public persona. That baggage is hard to lose, and there have been times when it’s been difficult for me to separate the actor from the role he's playing. I saw Carl Atiya Swanson in the production of But Not For Love, and the constant refrain in my mind was "Oh, you're not really a homophobic douchebag, Carl!" Because Carl is such a nice guy and outspoken LGBT supporter, it got in the way of fully immersing me in But Not For Love for about 30 minutes. A pretty good problem to have, and I'm sure Carl's a nice enough guy to forgive me mentioning him in conjunction with Shia LaBeouf.

But, like gossip columnists, I can't resist this bit of non-news either, so let's end this week's news and notes here before I carry on much longer. Although, if you find some special insight about this "notroversy" that I somehow missed (or any of the other news items), let me know in the comments.

Until next week, happy theater-making!


Equity book

The book doesn't seem to be held by any library in Minnesota. However, Hennepin County Library should be able to try to borrow it from another library. Go to the Interlibrary Loan link: