Working in theater is a grind. But it doesn't have to be
Recently, Baltimore Center Stage had to cancel its first preview of the season. There was a problem with the giant moon in the background and the lights didn't come in time to be thoroughly tested. For artistic director Stephanie Ybarra, it was ultimately a safety issue.
"The show did not go on as planned," Ybarra said. "And it was because we were not feeling like it was the responsible thing to do."
Ybarra said it's been a tough time to be at Center Stage. Things are moving slower because there's been turnover all around the theater — from the scene shop to the marketing department.
"When we planned this show almost a year ago, we had no idea what the labor market would look like or what our team would look like," Ybarra said. "And having turned over almost the entirety of our production department over the course of the last few months, it's put a tremendous strain on our workers."
It takes a big team of people to get a show going at a regional theater. You need carpenters, lighting designers, costumers and more. The hours can be long and the pay isn't great. It's often a labor of love. But the shutdowns from the pandemic forced theater workers to ask if theater loved them back.
"A lot of people realized that their identity didn't disappear when they left theater for a year," said Rachael Erichsen, props manager at Center Stage. "And once you realize that, then you do start to weigh those options — are the long hours, is the stress worth it for me?"
Across the country, regional theaters like Center Stage are trying to tip those scales in theater's favor by making big changes. Artistic directors are looking at everything from increasing diversity backstage and onstage and better health insurance, to child care supplements for parents and shorter work weeks.
Changing the scope of a season
At Center Stage, where a normal season might offer six shows, there will be four in the 2022-2023 season. Ybarra said she looked at the labor market and the budget and concluded that, especially post-pandemic shutdowns, the theater simply couldn't do as much. The decision got a lot of blowback with people asking: Why not?
For Erichsen, who's on her sixth season at Center Stage, the move challenged the rise-and-grind culture that she and so many theater workers come up in.
"It's been a transition moving from a certain way of thinking, a certain high," she said. "You get off on the manic energy of creation-just-in-the nick-of-time."
She said she's "realizing that's maybe not a healthy work pattern that we've all been trained and ingrained in." It's a really interesting process, she said, "to retrain our brains, retrain our reward circuits to appreciate a slow, steady, creative energy versus a manic creative energy."
No More 10 out of 12s
After some prompting from the We See You White American Theater movement, Center Stage joined a handful of other theaters pledging to do away with a practice known as "10 out of 12s." It's a shorthand for the hours theater workers put in. It refers to a rule where actors can't work more than 10 hours in a 12 hour day. But once the actors are done, the crew has to go over notes and problem-solve things that didn't work. So days for backstage workers can stretch into 14 hours, 16 hours, if not more. And those last hours always seem to take the most time.
"It's also the least productive time of the day," said Nathan Scheifele, master craftsman at Center Stage, who's on his 19th season. "I would run into the problem where sometimes the Baltimore City light rail would stop running at a certain time. And I'd have to figure out how to then get home."
Center Stage moved to an eight out of 10 workday, drawing praise from Lindsay Jones, a composer and sound designer for theater and film based in New York City and a member of the group No More 10 out of 12s.
"I think that Center Stage has really shown themselves to be a leader in changing their work practices in order to model a more fair and equitable work environment," he said.
From Jones' perspective, theater as an industry has a tendency to work on autopilot and avoid any self-reflection. Jones says that when a place like Center Stage makes a move like that, it makes a broader difference.
"Their taking a stand, I believe, really did encourage others to stop and think about what they had been doing in their practices and could they make those changes," he said.
Theater is often a labor of love. But you can't pay your bills in love
When Ybarra first got to Center Stage, her first goal was to increase compensation. Low pay was something she heard about from her staff then and is still hearing about now.
"We're still playing catch-up and trying to keep up," she said.
Getting people paid more, and getting people paid equitably, is difficult considering ticket sales and memberships are down. But for Ybarra, it was a question of holding the theater accountable to its own values. For instance, Ybarra ended the theater's internship program. While the theater paid a weekly stipend and offered its interns housing, Ybarra still considered it exploitative.
"We have people in the building who talked about how they couldn't afford to buy groceries. They would rely on the leftover food from a board meeting. That's how they were feeding themselves. And that is exploitation," she said.
Listen to enough heads of nonprofits talk about values and it's easy to get jaded if nothing happens. But Bridgette Burton, an artistic producing associate who's worked at a number of regional theaters, sees something different at Center Stage.
"Because they're following up," she said.
Burton started in January 2021, at first on a contract basis, then full time. She's gotten raises with each evaluation. And beyond just the bump in pay, she says the company has also been uniquely transparent about its finances and budget.
"We get to see the budget and know what goes into it. We had a staff meeting today and there was a section on financial transparency, and that was never the case in other places I've been to," she said.
For workers like Burton and Erichsen, all these changes are reason enough to stay. And there's also the joy in making theater. At the opening night of Our Town, the big moon in the back worked. It nostalgically waned to show the passing of time.
This little tech miracle — in fact, every aspect of a production — requires a lot of different people with different backgrounds and skills to work together. For Ybarra, that's the draw.
"That sense of belonging we feel when we're making theater? It can't be beat. And I want as many people to experience that as possible," she said.
Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.
A MARTINEZ, HOST:
It takes a big team of people to get a show going at a regional theater - think carpenters, lighting designers, costume-makers, a lot more, too. The hours can be long, and the pay, well, sometimes it isn't that great, which makes for a tough sell convincing workers to stay in the industry. We've been doing a series marking the 75th anniversary of the regional theater movement, calling it The Next Stage. And today, NPR's Andrew Limbong is taking us to a theater in Baltimore, where its artistic director is trying to change how theater treats its workers.
ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: I caught up with Stephanie Ybarra, the artistic director of Baltimore Center Stage theater, at her office just a few hours before opening night of the season. And I asked her a pretty simple, how's it going?
STEPHANIE YBARRA: I mean, I'm not going to lie. This is a really challenging time to be here at Baltimore Center Stage.
LIMBONG: A couple days ago, the theater had to cancel the first preview.
YBARRA: The show did not go on as planned, and it was because we were not feeling like it was the responsible thing to do to kind of rush into a couple of technical elements.
LIMBONG: There's been turnover at just about every part of Center Stage, from the marketing department to the scene shop, and finding, hiring and training new workers just slows everything down.
YBARRA: When we planned this show, you know, almost a year ago, we had no idea what the labor market would look like or what our team would look like. And having turned over almost the entirety of our production department over the course of the last few months, it's put a tremendous strain on our workers.
LIMBONG: It's the theater's 60th anniversary, and the big season opener is the Thornton Wilder classic "Our Town," which is a play about a play, set in a small town in New Hampshire in 1901.
(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "OUR TOWN")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Emily Webb) I always expect a man to be perfect, and I think he should be.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As George Gibbs) Well, I don't think it's possible to be perfect, Emily.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Emily Webb) Well, my father is.
LIMBONG: In the play, everything seems hunky-dory, but the subtext is that these folks are on the precipice of huge social change and mass death. It's usually a hyper-minimalist play, but in this production, a giant moon in the background is supposed to change phases to show the passage of time - supposed to.
YBARRA: That tracking, literally how the moon moves, hadn't come together yet.
LIMBONG: Troubleshooting problems like this takes a lot of time. Actually, every aspect of production takes a ton of behind-the-scenes work.
RACHAEL ERICHSEN: This is our office area.
LIMBONG: A few floors down from Ybarra's office, props manager Rachael Erichsen is showing me around. In the back of the office, there's a mannequin wearing a face mask guarding the refrigerator. Towards the front, there's a heavy-duty hole puncher attached to a table and a deli container full of tiny pink petals.
ERICHSEN: We've got a whole, like, punching station that's for hand-punching all these flowers to fall from the air right now. Don't know if you can hear that. They weigh almost nothing. It's parachute fabric.
LIMBONG: Erichsen and her team spent hours trying to figure out what materials worked best for these flowers so they'd fall just right but not cause any of the actors to slip on stage. She's on her sixth season at Center Stage. But this season, Ybarra made the call to reduce the number of shows the theater produced. So where a usual season would have six shows, this season, it's four. And the shift has really challenged the rise-and-grind culture Erichsen and so many theater workers come up in.
ERICHSEN: Transitions are always hard, right? And it's been a transition moving from a certain way of thinking about theater, a certain high you get off of the manic energy of creation just in the nick of time, and realizing that maybe that's not a healthy work pattern that we've all been trained and ingrained in and trying to retrain our brains, retrain our reward circuits.
LINDSAY JONES: I think that Center Stage has really shown themselves to be a leader in changing their work practices in order to model a more fair and equitable work environment.
LIMBONG: Lindsay Jones is a composer and sound designer for theater and film, based in New York City. He's also a member of a group called No More 10 out of 12s. Ten out of 12s is a rule where actors can't work more than 10 hours in a 12-hour day. But once the actors are done, everyone else has to go over notes and problem-solve things that didn't work during rehearsal, which can lead to 14-hour, 16-hour, sometimes even longer days for production workers. After some prompting by the We See You White American Theater movement, Center Stage moved to an 8 out of 10 schedule.
Jones says that theater as an industry has a tendency to work on autopilot and avoid any self-reflection. But when a place like Center Stage makes a move like that, it makes a broader difference.
JONES: Their taking a stand, I believe, really did encourage others to stop and think about what they had been doing in their practices and could they make those changes.
LIMBONG: And changes like these can lead to a healthier work-life balance and can make a theater career more sustainable and joyful. But you can't pay your bills in joy. Ybarra says when she first got here, increase in compensation was the first goal she set, which is hard, seeing as ticket sales and memberships are down.
YBARRA: If we're doing it right, I feel like we will always be reaching for something beyond what we are currently doing. We will always be looking to improve compensation. So we're trying to catch up with our own values.
LIMBONG: Listen to enough heads of nonprofits talk about values and it's easy to get jaded if nothing happens. But I asked Bridgette Burton, who's worked at a number of regional theaters and is an artistic producing associate, if she buys it when she hears the theater's leadership talk about values.
BRIDGETTE BURTON: Oh, yeah, I mean, 'cause they're following up.
LIMBONG: She says she started here January 2021, at first on a contract basis, then full time, with a couple raises with each evaluation. And she says the theater is being transparent to the entire staff about the budget.
BURTON: We get to see the budget and know what goes into it and conversations around what happens with the budget. And that was never the case in other places I've been to.
LIMBONG: For workers like Burton and Erichsen, all these changes are reason enough to stay at Center Stage. But Erichsen understands why many haven't.
ERICHSEN: During the pandemic, a lot of people realized that their identity didn't disappear when they left the theater for, you know, all year. And once you realize that, then you do start to weigh those options. Like, are the long hours, is the stress worth it for me?
LIMBONG: At the opening-night production of "Our Town," the big moon in the back worked. It nostalgically waned to show the passing of time. No one slipped on the flower petals, which dropped from the sky with both wonder and dread. Pulling off a show requires a lot of people with different backgrounds and skills to work together. For Ybarra, that's the draw.
YBARRA: That sense of belonging that we feel when we're making theater, it can't be beat. And I want as many people to experience that as possible.
LIMBONG: Theater itself is great and all, but as one of the characters in "Our Town" puts it, everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings.
Andrew Limbong, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.