In the last few years, I have devoured books written by women to inspire their readers to dive into their work and go for what they want. Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg, Bossy Pants by Tina Fey, Yes, Please! by Amy Poehler, and the latest The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer. All these books have inspired me so much and, at this point in my life, have lit a fire under my ass.
The theater business covers so many different levels of professionalism. There are groups that put on a show simply out of fun. There are million dollar companies that pay thousands of people healthy salaries. And there's everything in between. What's more, most people don't even realize how much goes into a production. If you look at any business or company, no one in surprised when it employs thousands of people. But I have watched people look in wonder as I explain how many people are involved in just producing costumes for a show. Unfortunately some of these people are theater makers themselves.
What all these books have taught me is that how you approach your work plays a huge part in how other people treat you. Also, it plays a huge part in what type of work you are willing to do. These women all talked openly about their path and their struggles, offering up their experiences as an offering and a way to learn from their mistakes and discoveries. Anyone in the arts can commiserate.
A friend recently posted about a job she was offered. It was a small theater company with very little money, but something bothered her about the contract they were offering her. She was concerned that they seemed to want all of the rights to her work while only compensating her $100. Yes, there are no missing zeros in that number. $100. With small theater companies this is not unusual, and under Actor's Equity Showcase Codes in NYC, the amount of money you are allowed to pay a designer is limited, so $100-$250 is not unusual. But the spirit of that agreement - that the producers keep all the rights to your work - was extremely unusual.
At this point of my life, I have a handful of people and companies for whom I will work for that small amount of compensation. Because let's be serious, that money is just a token, and I usually use it to invest into the show anyway. The exchange is that they respect my work as an artist, we're going to do great work together, and it's gonna be lots of fun. The reality of theater in New York City now is that these small productions don't get much exposure outside the community in which they exist. This is really too bad, as there is some amazing art happening! So, if I'm going to contribute my art. For art's sake, I want those involved to come to the table with their whole heart as well.
The other side of this is that I do need to make a living at my art. It's all I do. At this point, it's really all I'm trained to do. And, if I do say so myself, I'm good at it and worth a high price. But people in my business are notoriously bad at asking for or receiving fair compensation. We under-price our skills. We agree to do more than we should for one fee. We are afraid we'll lose a job if we stand up for ourselves. My friend contemplating that $100 job had not had a design gig for a while and really just wanted to do some theater! It's such an understandable position; at once why we do our work (we love it!) and our biggest downfall.
There comes a time, though, when you have your price. You know how much money you need to live your life comfortably - not just bare bones. You're in the middle of your life, you want things that your friends with real jobs have like a house and a family. You take a hard look at your choices based on not just what you need to survive, but also what you need to thrive. I now weigh every decision I make based on that bottom line. Why not? Is that not how a business works? Because I am not only an artist, I am a business.
I am now proceeding on a new journey with my art. I have been reading business books, sometimes the same book over and over, to get a better understanding of how that side of the world works. It's terrifying when you start writing down the numbers and quickly realize you are selling yourself too cheaply! But it has also opened my eyes to new ways to approach the exchange. How can I mix the art with the business? How can I make money but also be creative? When can I work for free and what is the exchange for which I am willing to ask instead? I'm still answering these questions.