The Mike Daisey Challenge

For the benefit of us West Coasters just settling in to our computers this morning, here’s what the East Coast blogosphere has been talking about for the last few hours:

Todd Olson from American Stage Theatre Company in Tampa has challenged Mike Daisey (author of How Theatre Failed America, as well as many, many other monologues) to balance his theatre’s budget according to the principles Daisey has been fighting for.

How Theatre Failed America talks about how years of well-intentioned decisions have gradually led to a focus more on institutions than on the art they create. This letter, and Mike Daisey’s response, sums it up perfectly.

If you’re an actor, you might be particularly interested in seeing what Olson thinks of you:

Because of the blood, sweat and tears of my staff (again read, “not actors”) we have nearly doubled our subscriptions and our overall attendance has increased 42%, in large part from young and diverse audiences…. With apologies to AEA, when I read Mike’s scoff that, “It’s not such a bad time to start a career in the theater, provided you don’t want to actually make any theater”, I had an image of going to my development staff and asking them to take a mandatory ten minute break every 80 minutes? Maybe I could supply the Marketing Director with a little cot by his desk? No wait, I’ll tell our Education Director to stop working after she reaches the 34 hour mark else she gets paid overtime. But I digress…

And Daisey’s response:

This anti-artist bigotry is getting virulent—”not actors”? The increase of your subscriptions has *nothing* to do with your performers? Or the work in any way?…. It’s shocking that an artistic director would show the level of contempt you have for artists so openly. I will give you this: you are bracingly honest about your bigotry. Most mask this…. You’ve also taken that quote out of context, but I’ll make it simple: all three directors you mention above have stability, salaries, and health insurance. You consider them staff and you treat them with respect…. Based on the way you speak about actors and artists in this letter, you do not treat them with the same level of respect. In a few short paragraphs you have mocked them over and over for the few protections they have, you are derisive, and you don’t consider them part of your institution and family.

A long but must-read.

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2 Replies to “The Mike Daisey Challenge”

  1. Dear Tim, if you really want to know how I feel about actors, then print my response to Mike Daisey. It’s long, but it’s important. And not merely as snarky as you have framed it above.

    Todd Olson

    BALANCE OUR RHETORIC:
    A Challenge for All of Us Who Care About Theatre

    Well, Mr. Daisey, I’m not sure that calling me artistically “dead,” “blind,” “a bigot”, “spiteful,” and an actor-hater is the way to honestly continue a discussion about breaking through to new, useful solutions, but let’s keep going anyway. You’re very right, I think we are giving voice to things usually unsaid, so let’s push forward and see where we get.

    Preface: Small Professional Theatres Are Not the Enemy

    After considering your response, along with an article sent to me by former Seattle-based actor Larry Ballard which seemed inspired by, in large part, your writing and statements on the subject. Much of your and Ballard’s ire was born from and directed at theatres like Seattle Rep and the Intiman (and amplified later at other similar LORT theatres). I have to say, if it were not clear before, these are SIGNIFICANTLY larger theatres than my own American Stage Theatre Company; The Intiman is six times the size of ASTC – and Seattle Rep is nine times our size. You ask how a theatre of that size could not afford to pay a wage higher than scale… and I completely agree with you. You ask why a theatre of that size cannot pay an actor more the longer that actor works for the theatre…and I also agree with you. With a $9 million budget I would surely find a way to achieve that.

    And frankly, Mr. Ballard’s anecdotes about Rep Board members were embarrassing to me; part of my job as AD is to inform and, to some degree, school Trustees in what’s authentically important within a professional theatre, steering them away from less significant, tangential issues, and tasking them with more important work within the theatre. Ballard’s anecdotes reinforce my earlier suspicion that you, Mike, have had some terrible role models when it comes to not-for-profit leaders.

    So, regardless of how I detail on these pages the financial and artistic challenges at ASTC, your anger and disgust at the actions of theatres-come-corporations will only ever be partially applicable to us. I think your disdain is mostly aimed at a kind of larger waste and misappropriation of resources that ASTC (and plenty medium-sized theatres like us) just don’t have.

    Put simply, and not meaning to let myself off any hook, if I had nine times my current resources, there are plenty of problems I would solve differently, including artist compensation.

    Part #1: Theatres Have Nothing Without Actors (Me Included)

    I could just as easily called my challenge to you, “In Defense of Staff.” My missive was in direct response to what I gleaned from your words and performance to be a distinctly actor-centric AND anti-staff posture, a self-centeredness that I think is detrimental to better collaboration in our business (actors had been “removed from the premises”…certain departments had “replaced artists who once worked there”…you wished actors would “bitch-slap the staff members”…actors were “the working poor” whom you hoped would, “pierce [the staff’s] mantle of smug invulnerability”…education departments created work that was “thin, lifeless…disgusting” etc.) Not to mention dishing smack on Trustees, audiences, and “pathological” ADs like me. And I’m the one who “talks shit”? Your words are at time classist, vaguely victim-y, and angrily dismissive of the contributions of any staff member who was not an actor. But maybe I just got everything out of context. Ok.

    By the way, ALL the teaching artists at ASTC are actors with whom we’re flexible when they’re between acting gigs. And do the Education Departments at all the LORT theatres where you work know that you think most of their work is “shit”, supported by grants “to keep [their] shitty programs alive”?

    So I felt the strong need to stick up for these folks, and write a testament to all of the other staffs out there, but especially mine. As you look at a country of failed theatres, you see over populated Development offices; I see Angela and ¾ of Shannon’s time (and that’s it). You see overgrown marketing offices; I see Andy and ¼ of Shannon’s time. We’re a dozen people doing the best we can. You say you know and appreciate what others do and my criticism was unfounded? Ok.

    Actually, reading your response reminded me of a period in Nashville when I served as Associate Artistic Director and Director of Education for Tennessee Rep. On 9-11 we were half way through the run of WEST SIDE STORY. The building closed (it was also a government building), the adjoining parking garage was barricaded, and performances were cancelled. We lost about $30,000 that week alone. No one came downtown because they could no longer park, and our subscription campaign functionally ended as people stayed at home to see what would happen next. The big topic on our actor e-newsletter week was, “why can’t The Rep hire more local actors?” Talk about not “particularly good team members.”

    My response was, “because we’re dying here folks. We’re writing doomsday scenarios so we don’t declare bankruptcy. We’re trying to keep our doors open so we have jobs for you at all in the future.” Actors have a way of seeing their problem as the central issue at hand. In reality there are just many more moving parts than that.

    So no, you’re right, despite some successes we’re “still not creating a sustained ongoing ensemble of artists or providing any kind of security or stability”…but our doors our open, we have less than 1% debt, we are slowly becoming more stable, we’ve vastly improved the staff and artist workplace conditions…and, at least for the near future, we won’t be the next Mill Mountain or Madison Rep or Coconut Grove or Jeune Lune or North Shore Music Theatre or…(keep filling in blanks). Right now, in this environment, there are just many more moving parts to address. Sorry.

    I know how to preserve jobs for actors: stay open.

    And while I’m on the subject of preserving jobs for actors, can I get another thing out of the way…the notion that I disrespect or have contempt for actors. As it happens I just gave an interview around a production that I will be guest directing later this month where I was asked about my “concept” for this particular play. My reply is very like my larger philosophy of the actor’s place within the theatre organization: “a concept is only paper…it is actors that give those ideas life, so they are more than essential. They are the heart and the blood.” Any theatre has but two products: education/community engagement…and the product on stage. THAT’S how important and valued actors are to me personally, and to all of us at ASTC.

    Mike, this is an easy one: I’ve directed three to six plays every year for about 20 years; I’m sure there are actors with whom you can speak who can either verify or contradict your knee-jerk conclusion after knowing me for all of…one letter. If I have a regret with my job it’s that I don’t get to spend more time in the rehearsal hall actually making art with actors and writers and designers. You cannot be “shocked” (“SHOCKED!”) that an AD would flippantly make a joke about the Equity cot and then conclude my contempt for those artists without whom nothing I write would get performed, and nothing I want for our audiences would ever take shape. If we ever have the opportunity to work together, I would hope you would see my respect and devotion to the actor and their process immediately.

    And just so we’re clear about some of my bona fides, my undergraduate and graduate degrees are in acting, and I have been a member of AEA for many years. I will hold my list of the part-time jobs I suffered through so I could practice my craft (waiter, paper delivery, paint mixer, short order cook, car parker, graveyard shift janitor, etc.) next to anyone’s. I pounded the pavement in NYC, headshots in hand, and lived below the poverty line for most of my 20’s. I know what an act of bravery exceptional acting is, and to what lengths actors must go to play the casting game. I appreciate both at a deep level.

    I feel squeamish comparing actor and staff compensation only because we’re in an industry where everyone seems underpaid; it feels like Depression babies trying to convince the other how bad THEY had it. Only three of our 13 staff positions are at or above what others in their positions make in like theatres (as per TCG), and ten are below (anywhere between 8-37% less than their counterparts), and it’s taken me years to get them this close to those national averages. ADs at other theatres like ours earn about 24% more than I do.

    Sidebar: Mike, why would you allow your play to be produced at a theatre who paid their actors $50 per show? Doesn’t that simply go against everything you believe in relative to “stability, salaries, and health insurance”? Are you not in some way enabling the “boss–field hand” relationship, to use your own analogy?

    I can tell from the myriad blogs this discussions has spawned that it drives actors crazy when I point out that in a small way they enjoy something that most other theatre workers don’t: do most actors earn what they’re worth? No. But they are protected by a union in myriad ways and receive contributions to their pension, unlike any other employees here; that 39% payment on top of their weekly salary is not an insignificant expense. AEA actors can also work about a third of a year and receive health coverage for 12 months (much better than any staff plan). AEA stage managers make more than many on my staff, and for a while some staff here did not earn what AEA actors earned. And not everyone on staff gets annual salaries (some are seasonal), and some, sadly, do not receive health coverage at all.

    And speaking of which, you say very confidently that my Marketing, Development and Education Directors have “stability, salaries, and health insurance.” As it happens our Ed Director does not; she’s an actress who gets her insurance…through AEA. Our DD gets her insurance through her husband’s business. Our Company Manager does the same with his wife’s job. Why? Because all of these other health packages are better than the package the theatre can afford.

    That’s right Mike: your health insurance is better than anyone’s on my staff, and you have to work 20 weeks to get it.

    And at the next staff meeting I’ll remind everyone how stable they are, and how lucky they are to have the not-for-profit salary we provide them. Our Education Director took at 30% pay cut in the last budget process; I took a 5% pay cut. No one got even cost of living raises (AEA actors did). Development is still significantly below TCG which puts us at significant risk; if a person has fundraising or marketing savvy these days they don’t usually work at a nfp. I’ve gone through three development leaders and three Marketing Directors in six years either because they moved on to something that paid much more, or they were incapable of the daunting workload that such a one-person department requires.

    Sometimes I think about stability in the arts and I think we all picked the wrong profession. I have moved 40+ times to follow work as an actor, then director, and now Artistic Director. I have moved twice since starting a family; I have three children, each born in a different region of the country. I may have to move again some day if I ever want to earn more than I do now (maybe Joe Dowling will retire and give up his $697,000 salary?) I took a 4/5 cut in pay to go back to school to gain more skills and connections. My first AD position out of school I resigned for what I thought were excruciating work circumstances. I was downsized and artistically homeless after 9/11. I have been in one place for six seasons…and I feel like the luckiest man in the business.

    Stability and security…are relative, and the grass is not always greener.

    Part #2: One Quick Response Before the Challenge

    My sidebar to American Theatre magazine (which you called a “creepy threat”) was only wondering aloud why AT, a chronicler of the state of regional theatre and, to some degree, dependant on revenues from those same theatres, would so openly champion a person who has built his recent career, in part, on the accusations of regional theatre’s failings. Maybe they want to stir it up a bit, provide matter for debate. They have that right, of course. But AT should also know that we who work so hard to make theatres work resent the notion and are allowed to say so, just as you are allowed to say otherwise. I’m quite sure our checks to TCG over the years have not failed.

    I do question AT in other ways too. A quick example: recently four artistic directors from around the Tampa Bay area got together to compare notes; how were we all doing in this economy and were we learning anything that would be helpful to others? You know what we found out? We were all doing really well, and for different reasons. So I thought it might be a worthy idea to tell the story of this one community that seems to be bucking a national trend. I sent it to AT and heard next to nothing. Maybe AT will run that story some day, but this month they’re running with a play about men and rape, the state of the art in Abu Dhabi, and all the professional theatres that have closed recently. And you. I guess our successes are less sexy than our failings. But I’ll keep looking for that good news.

    Part #3: THE CHALLENGE

    I began to put together the various facts and stats you questioned and/or requested, namely the results of our last audience survey (gender and income breakdown), info on our After Hours series, plenty of thoughts on how a libertarian tip toes through the challenging transitions we have had over the past 24 months (and can still stand upright), and how we raised $4 million. But I thought we might be getting ahead of ourselves.

    I don’t discount out of hand your detailed counter offer to my relatively simple challenge, though I’m sure you can appreciate what it means to provide anyone with complete access to files, records, staff, artists, Board, and community. Maybe if we were drowning in red ink and needed wholesale reinvention from top to bottom, and maybe if we had the opportunity to lay ourselves bare to a consultant with a long reputation of successful organizational turn arounds…I would be quicker to complete this handshake with you.

    So I’m pausing, but only for the moment.

    But this pause should in no way preclude you from at least addressing my challenge, even philosophically, before you get the keys to our building:

    -Can you at least tell me what salary above the AEA-prescribed scale you think it’s fair for an AD to budget for actors (this year AEA scale for SPT-6 theatres is $357/wk)?

    -Because you and Mr. Ballard seem to think that by reducing all ticket prices to $15 (or pay-what-you-can…even though we have found that on those nights ticket revenues average only about $9 per ticket), that young people and others will then fill theatres everywhere, I think it’s fair in this challenge to reduce single ticket income by at least 55%, or about $336,000. Can you give me any ideas on how you might make that sum up?

    -Attached is our organizational chart. This year the cost for 12 full-time staff and 3 part-time staff members is $452,215. I want to know if you see any fat or redundancies in our staff model that might offset the adjustments above.

    On any of these subjects, if you could, even in the most philosophical way, talk about how you would bridge these chasms or restructure for better workability. If you can then let’s consider your consultancy begun. My promise to you is, if your answers sound like there is a hint of promise worth pursuing (and budget work started Monday, so I’m up for all good suggestions), I will enter into this relationship more, just as you suggested.

    Attached is our organizational chart, the TCG salary survey comparing our salaries to all other theatres our size, and last year’s budget complete with all worksheets (strictly an internal document). My hope is that you would keep these as reasonably confidential as I would expect from any consultant.

    And let’s not get bent out of shape about the nature of budgets. Of course theatre is not commodi-fiable, but it must be quantifiable; every artistic decision IS a financial decision. The first step in the budgeting process is to identify our dreams for the coming year, and then find a way to support and actualize them. It may be “just business” but it’s one of those processes that make art possible. When it works, it is a kind of art in and of itself; and when great art doesn’t have it, it crashes.

    And to all in the blogosphere, we are not precious about good and helpful ideas, so if there are any out there…

    Thank you Mike.

    Todd Olson
    Producing Artistic Director
    American Stage Theatre Company

  2. Thanks, Todd! I wrote a post that calls out the relevant clarification re: actors in the post itself and then links to your entire letter, as well as Mike’s round two.

    I’m glad you guys are having this conversation and allowing it to unfold in public. It’s an important one, and it’s fascinating.

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