Throwing Coins with the Roses

Venice Theatre (née Venice Little Theatre) has had something of an open secret amongst local community theatre actors and assorted other theatre folk for a while now. This weekend, local critic Jay Handelman outed them:

While preparing to write a story about the upcoming Venice Theatre production of “Oklahoma!” I discovered that the actor playing Curly McLain, the leading male role, is being brought in from New York, provided housing and a small stipend. He’s a young actor just beginning his career and it will be good experience for him.

[…]

Then I discovered that several other performers in the show also are being compensated with what I’m told is nothing more than gas money to help cover the cost of their driving some distance to nightly rehearsals and performances.

None of this is really news to me, or to a lot of people who do shows regularly in our local community theatres (I was rather surprised to hear that The Players in Sarasota has supplied “gas money” to folks; I suppose theirs was a better-kept secret).

The article is generally an overview of the issue, asking each of the Artistic Directors of the three local community theatres (Manatee Players, The Players in Sarasota, and Venice Theatre) if and in what context they’ve provided financial compensation. Handelman poses a host of questions, clearly intending this to be a conversation starter.

Anyone who’s spoken with me much about local community theatre knows I’ve been waiting for that public conversation for a while now.

I may or may not come back to this and take on different aspects from the article, but for now, I’ll try to give this some focus by using Handelman’s questions concerning other volunteer performers. Since, you know, I am one on occasion.

I’ll take them in order, and with the obvious caveat that I can only speak from my own experience, from my own thoughts and feelings on the matter and what I’ve personally heard in a reasonable number of conversations on the topic with other theatre friends. Much as I want to, I don’t have psychic powers; I can’t tell you what everyone in the community thinks and feels.

Some personal context, to whatever extent it might influence your interpretation of what follows: I’ve never received financial compensation for a community theatre show. Venice did arrange for another cast member to provide me with a workout plan when I was Rocky in The Rocky Horror Show, but I can’t tell you if they paid her or not, because I honestly don’t know. At the time I assumed she did it for free, since she was a pretty big supporter of the theatre and the show.

I have been paid for two shows I did through PLATO, the nonprofit started at the former Golden Apple Dinner Theatre. As did every other performer in a PLATO show.

All that out of the way, let’s get to the questions:

Don’t fellow performers become resentful if they realize they’re not getting stipends that others are getting?

Not everyone, and the extent and the target of said resentment will depend on the person, but it would be silly to expect there wasn’t some resentment. Personally, I’ve never taken issue with any of my cast members who were pulling a paycheck. As I’ve pointed out before, doing a show is always hard work. It’s hard work we often love doing, but it’s still hard work. Hard work is always deserving of reward, and every person I know who’s been paid did that work.

But with rare exception, so does everyone else in the cast of the exact same show. It’s incredibly difficult not to take selective payment practices within a cast as an implicit indictment by the theatre of one’s worth as a performer. No one likes to feel de-valued.

What does that do to cast bonding?

I’ve actually never experienced a problem in that arena, but as I said, I’ve never held hard feelings toward my fellow cast members because they were or weren’t pulling a paycheck. And honestly, it’s hard to do a show, to really engage in the work of doing a show, if you’re putting up walls between yourself and cast members. Some casts bond better than others, but I’ve never noticed a paywall, as it were.

Will it mean some performers won’t audition for shows if they’re not going to get compensated in some way?

I can confirm at least anecdotally that this is the case. As I said near the top, Venice’s policy as regards payment has been an open secret among a lot of theatre folks for years. I know of several instances where folks refused to accept roles without compensation. I know people who have walked into auditions explicitly requiring payment in the case that they’re cast. I know people who don’t audition because they assume Venice will just be bringing in paid ringers for X show, anyway, so why bother auditioning?

What talent will we be missing?

From the responses in the article, the argument of Venice and — to my surprise — Sarasota appears to be that we’re missing out on the talent if theatres don’t pay.

I do know a few working performers who actively suggest Venice as a venue from which other working performers should seek employment. I know some directors who, likewise, walk into auditions with the mindset that they can hire in for X roles in a show if they aren’t satisfied with the volunteers who show up to audition. That and the response to the previous question may or may not point to missing talent in the volunteer pool depending your own point of view on the matter.

*****

In the end, mileage on all of this is going to vary. No one wants to put on a horrible show. If that costs a little extra money, maybe that’s the price of admission (and, hey, if you can defer the cost of your avocation, most folks aren’t inclined to say no). On the other hand, every dollar spent bringing in a paid performer to fill a perceived shortcoming in the volunteer talent pool is a dollar that can’t be spent expanding volunteer outreach and visibility, which may in itself mean a smaller available volunteer talent pool, and then we’re heading into Ouroboros territory.

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