Earlier this week, a New York Times article read: “Hands are out as Congress is set to begin negotiating a new round of pandemic stimulus. Airlines, hotels, restaurants. Military contractors and banks. Even Broadway actors.” That “even” hit many of us working theater artists hard. Let me tell you why.
The arts in New York City is a major economic engine. According to a study commissioned last year by the Mayor’s Office of Arts and Entertainment, theater is responsible for $1.3 billion in annual economic output, 8,409 jobs, and $513 million in salaries. The Broadway closedown, effective from March 12, has had a massive financial impact on New York, and a massive personal impact on those who work within it.
Broadway not only brings in billions of dollars in tourism, it also sets New York City apart as the theatrical vanguard of the world. We are the beating heart of the English-speaking theater world, providing 100 years of entertainment, and sometimes even truly singular works of art. We contribute to this country’s mind, heart, soul, and wallet.
Very few actors work on Broadway for an entire year. There are a few, absolutely, mostly in musicals. They are most likely ensemble members who make a Broadway minimum of around $2,000 a week. Those shows do not last forever, and neither does a performer’s contract. Shows close, have limited runs; actors are injured, or replaced.
The financial life of an actor is an inconsistent patchwork. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a New York City actor has median income of $72,000 a year: a working-class wage in this town. That number is even lower for Black and Indigenous actors, and for all actors of color.
When the coronavirus pandemic hit New York City, hundreds of Broadway shows closed immediately. While the Actors’ Equity Association was able to secure several weeks of pay and health insurance for Broadway and touring performers, many were left with nothing.
Many were also left battling COVID-19. Broadway actor Nick Cordero recently lost his battle with the virus, leaving his wife and child bereft, and a hole in the heart of our community.
The company of Moulin Rouge was deeply affected with illness and hospitalizations. These are young, healthy people: being on Broadway requires the stamina of an athlete.
We lost Mark Blum, one of my favorite actors, whose smart, specific and humane work has been a staple on Broadway and Off-Broadway stages for 40 years. He is survived by his wife, the great actor, teacher, and friend, Janet Zarish. He is gone and we will never be the same. Our job is at its essence, a large gathering. The swapping of air, fluids and touch is our paint and canvas.
Most stage managers and actors make under $800 a week, and while we made incredible gains Off-Broadway in 2016 with the #FairWageOnstage movement, most actors barely make ends meet. We supplement our incomes with side jobs, commercial gigs, a television spot when we can get it—but none of these industries is open either.
My health insurance is calculated by the number of weeks I work. Unless I can get back to work I will lose it in October, right in time for the cold weather during a worldwide pandemic. My colleagues Robert Stanton and Jeffrey Omura recently proposed that the Department of Cultural and Literary Affairs (DCLA), with their annual budget of $143.8 million, create a fund: The Fair Wage Fund.
It would be a concentrated allocation of money within the DCLA budget, to subsidize professional stage managers and actors while they are employed in New York’s non-Broadway theaters, making up the difference between the minimum union salaries and what we actually need to survive.
But now, of course, our city is broke.
It isn’t just actors: the professional theater industry in New York City is a beautiful ecosystem of stage managers, carpenters, publicists, advertising executives, designers, writers, stagehands, directors, ushers, and house managers. Many of these are working-class jobs that have all been completely lost.
When will they come back? Well, when we figure out how to safely have hundreds of people right next to each other laughing and crying while closely watching dozens of other people singing and dancing and laughing and crying in front of them. So, a really long time.
At first we heard, “Late July! We’ll be back in rehearsals,” then August, January. Charlotte St. Martin, the president of the Broadway League, told The Daily Beast in May she hoped for the spring. Now June 2021 is the latest guess.
The goalposts keep moving because as a nation we are leaderless, battling a pandemic that doesn’t obey state lines, travel restrictions, or conspiracy theories. So now we aren’t just left without a paycheck, but also without a sense of purpose, timeline or any safety net.
Our precarious lives have trained us to be ready for the unknown, but the unknowns of our lives have become exponential in the time of COVID-19. Everyone wants some time frame to cling to, but producers and artistic directors can’t make a plan until the pandemic itself recedes.
We are led by a vain, feckless demagogue who can only see as far as the next news cycle. While countries like Germany and South Korea have successfully reopened theaters with distancing, temperature checks and contact tracing, our only choice seems to be, wait for an effective vaccine.
No one in charge will say this publicly, but it’s what we are all privately acknowledging. How could we come back before that? Infection rates would have to be decreasing rapidly. Easy cheap rapid testing would need to be available at rehearsals, alongside temperature checks.
But how do you regulate everyone’s behavior outside of rehearsal? Or off set? You can’t discriminate against people who live with older family members, or who have immune suppressed children. I keep hearing how we can explore “socially distanced theater” pieces, but I don’t know how that could possibly work—not on an industry-wide scale that would sustain our theater companies, Broadway, touring productions and the vast number of workers they employ.
The only path forward is sustained financial relief until the virus is under control, and our industry must be taken seriously.
The persistent and pervasive problem we face when it comes to arts funding in America is that someone working in the Arts is not taken seriously. We aren’t just drama nerds in high school having fun in the auditorium, we are workers fueling an industry that brings in more ticket revenue than all our area’s professional sports teams combined. We love what we do, so it is thought that should be payment enough. It is not enough. A labor of love is still labor.
The devaluing of labor over the last 40 years has been the rot at the centers of both American and British cultures. This has led to a hobbling of our labor unions and a greater feeling that we need to be “grateful” to even have work.
Workers across the country are pitted against each other in a frantic rush for the few crumbs. We take to social media to tear each other apart in order to distract ourselves from our dwindling paychecks and opportunities. And now, when we ask for strategic relief from our elected leaders, journalists call it a “hand-out.”
I was very moved by the calls for arts relief in the United Kingdom. My friend, the brilliant actor Noma Dumezweni, brought it to my attention. They have secured £1.57 billion ($2.1 billion) for varied cultural institutions: a drop in the bucket, but a start.
I have also been heartened by the #ArtsHero campaign that is sprouting all over social media calling on the United States Senate to earmark specific and substantial relief for arts workers across America.
We must secure continued and sustained pandemic unemployment assistance for arts workers not only because we aren’t coming back for a long time, but because our industry is vital to the souls and the economies of every single state.
In Wisconsin there are 96,651 arts workers. The arts are 2.5 percent of Maine’s Gross State Product and in New York State the Arts and Culture sectors add almost $120 billion in value to the state economy. We are a vital workforce that needs to be cared for with direct financial assistance, not just grants to institutions or gifts to charities. We can’t live on one-time $1,000 grants from one charity.
We need sustained support or we will not only lose the bravest, smallest theaters that produce the most daring and underserved material, but an entire generation of young artists, especially artists of color who are proportionally disadvantaged and unable to just “ride it out” with no jobs, health care or government relief. We are not just losing our dreams, but our vocations, our trade, our life’s work.
I have learned from the #ArtsHero campaign specific ways we can help the Arts and Culture sectors in America. We need direct grants distributed by the NEA, NEH and Corporation for Public Broadcasting to arts workers and institutions, specifically targeted to underserved communities who have fewer opportunities to engage with the arts.
We need funding for people, not buildings. We need government support to help sustain our unions’ health funds so that the poorest among us are not without healthcare during a pandemic: that means a full COBRA subsidy.
We need rent relief for arts workers and cultural institutions, especially for smaller ones that serve underserved communities. Sustained investment would ensure that our nation’s invaluable cultural institutions can return to the communities they serve in the same integral way, and provide the same economic force that spurs state economies to rapid growth.
The New York Times’ “EVEN” pierced artists like myself so hard because we know we aren’t valued in this country. But we are starting to learn how to value ourselves. Our community must stand together and demand the same level of relief being allocated for every other sector of the U.S. economy. We’ve earned relief proportional to our economic contribution and we need it now.
The airline industry got $50 billion of relief, yet the arts and culture sector adds $265 billion more in value-added to the economy than the entire transportation sector. But they’ve got better lawyers. We aren’t asking for “hand-outs,” we are demanding investment in an industry that is integral to our identity as a nation, and our economic survival.
If we are going to come out of this pandemic with anything to live for, we must support and provide relief to arts workers until there is a vaccine. Even The New York Times should be able to see that.