Book Marks: THEATRE WORK reimagining the labor of theatrical production

As if to illustrate the current value of theatre work in the United States, days after a panel discussion to launch this book, the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, where one of the authors formerly taught, abruptly announced that it was shutting down.

The book, “THEATRE WORK reimagining the labor of theatrical production,” by Brídín Clements Cotton and Natalie Robin, is an eloquent look at the harsh realities of building a career in theatre production, and the roadblocks, both internal and external, which prevent workers in the industry from successfully demanding to be treated as the valuable and highly-skilled professionals they are.

Purchase THEATRE WORK here.

At a book launch event hosted by the Philadelphia AFL-CIO and moderated by Zoe Cohen, co-author Natalie Robin, a Philadelphia-based lighting designer and organizer for United Scenic Artists/IATSE Local USA 829, called researching the book, “Not a hopeful project. The data supported what we thought, that people are underpaid and exploited.” The book is extremely focused on data, bringing together both an examination of historical research and new data collected in surveys and personal interviews about the changes to the labor environment during and since the pandemic shut down. Although the industry has always relied on nontraditional forms of employment and a critical shortage of benefits, the pandemic highlighted that, of all industries, live entertainment workers had among the least government support, financial support from the workplace, and personal savings to survive such a catastrophe.

Authors Brídín Clements Cotton and Natalie Robin at book launch event.
(Authors Brídín Clements Cotton and Natalie Robin at book launch event.)

Some of the issues facing production workers begin in education. Robin describes her disillusionment as an arts educator, when, after the pandemic, statistics seemed to show that 30% of theatrical workers quit. She says, “That’s hundreds of thousands of people, and I began thinking about educating people for a profession that workers are running away from. People love it, but it kills them.” The cost of college is becoming untenable for many young people, but salary expectations for students acquiring debt for a degree in the arts are currently so limited that it is turning many away from a formal education toward on the job training. That, in turn, can devalue how highly-skilled professionals are viewed, and can dampen salaries further.

"People love it, but it kills them."

Both authors were fascinated by the drivers that make people want to join the profession in the first place, and their own backgrounds in production make them sympathetic to them: communities that bond over shared deadlines and challenges, new projects that keep the work fresh, contributing creatively to endeavors that bring so much enjoyment. Unfortunately, this love of theatre is part of the reason why workers are willing to be exploited and it also creates a mindset that is not conducive to supporting protective labor laws. Author Clements Cotton, a performing arts manager and educator, explains that many theatre workers see themselves as artists rather than labor. She says, “Artists don’t join unions because they see themselves as separate from blue collar workers, but art is work!”  This exceptionalism leads to a situation where theatre professionals will work without employment basics. Few engineers, accountants, or business people would accept lack of healthcare or stable working conditions as part of “paying your dues” in the way that theatre workers do. Robin suggests this perception of artists being outside the labor movement means, “They see access to health insurance as a thing you check off as you are climbing the ladder. It is a mark of success when you get enough work, an achievement. No one else sees healthcare as a prize!”

In addition to this classism in the workplace, the authors look at other prejudices that are depriving an otherwise historically progressive industry of the equitable and diverse workforce it should have. Chapter 7 takes a look at pay equity, and the divisions within workers including gender, race, and occupations where workers are perceived as artisans versus artists. Chapter 9 deals with worker safety and the limitations on training and safety procedures which would not be tolerated in, for example, a unionized factory facility.

Although the first two sections of the book are depressingly negative in their portrayal of theatre work, they serve an important function; without recognizing the systemic problems and illustrating how they are addressed in other industries and, under certain circumstances in our own, they will continue. Section three, however, titled IMAGININGS, is substantially more optimistic. The authors discuss ways to protect the future of the theatre community with many of its members. The acceptance of change as a constant in theatre, and the intense collaborative environment, may allow the industry to improve labor conditions before theatre work becomes the preserve of a limited and wealthy demographic. However, there may be some hard medicine to take: One of the questions the authors ask is, what happens to American theatre if we allow institutions that cannot pay a living wage to fail?  

Brídín Clements Cotton is a UAE-based performing arts manager and higher education administrator, teacher and mentor. Brídín is currently Arts Instructor of Stage and Project Management at NYU Abu Dhabi. Most recently, Brídín served as an administrator and adjunct faculty member at NYU Tisch School of the Arts, where she worked with the Undergraduate Department of Drama and the Undergraduate Film & Television Department. At Tisch Drama, Brídín taught introductory stage management, led workshops in management theory and building effective teams, and developed a course titled From Concept to Curtain Call: Producing Work in New York.

Natalie Robin is a Philadelphia-based lighting designer, educator and organizer whose design work focuses on new American plays and musicals, contemporary dance and site-specific performance. She believes that design is dramaturgy and is interested in how the generative text for work can be found in movement as much as in language. My work expresses emotional narratives through light as an ephemeral and time-based medium. She uses she/her pronouns. She loves musicals.