Elsa Hiltner pleads for transparency in theater designers’ salaries

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Last week, Theater Communications Group (TCG) announced that its job search engine, ARTSEARCH, was not would only be free to all users, but would additionally require all potential employers to provide a salary range for all posts. The announcement follows seismic changes within the theater industry aimed at dismantling inequality and financial exploitation.

It is common practice for a job seeker to respond to a job offer for an apparently full-time or contract-paid position, only to find out after receiving a job offer that the position is unpaid. , paid in “show” or paid at an allowance rate which is on average well below the minimum wage. And once they finally land coveted jobs at top theaters, they’re often dismayed to find that the salaries aren’t much better, resulting in a culture of shame and secrecy. Who wants to admit that their costly MFA in direction got them a prime spot in the best theater in town, to earn less than a mid-level manager at local McDonald’s?

More often than not, calls for pay equity have focused on the most visible members of the industry – actors, directors, playwrights and arts administrators – but often ignored a large group of working critical directors. diligently in the shadows: designers and technicians. Enter: Elsa Hiltner.

A freelance costume designer and wardrobe stylist with over 16 years of industry experience in Chicago and beyond, Hiltner is also a pay equity advocate and professional for designers and technicians, author of the viral test on HowlRound, “A call for equal support in theatrical design,»And creator of the Compensation resource for theater designers spreadsheet, which began collecting and tracking designer pay rates nationwide to demystify the process and create one of the first real data repositories.

“Much of the artistic coverage is focused on the product and not the process,” says Hiltner, who knew she wanted to be a costume designer from high school. “I’ve always loved the arts, people, personalities, and history, so the costume design was a pretty natural amalgamation of those things.”

Hiltner received his BA in Costume Design from Western Washington University in Washington State. “It was a super liberal arts school and I really liked the program there, but there was really very little conversation on the business side and the work side of things.” Throughout her career, she designed in many Chicago theaters, including Steppenwolf, Silk Road Rising, Windy City Playhouse, Teatro Vista, Lifeline, and American Blues Theater, and eventually received the business training she lacked.

When she moved to Chicago, her rent went up, and Hiltner quickly learned that she had to wear many different hats to survive. She quickly landed part-time and full-time jobs in the industry while continuing to freelance in the evenings. When she had her first child, she started working as a full-time freelance writer to take care of childcare. Three years ago she started working in development for Collaboration, where she is a member of the company, while designing costumes. Hiltner also does commercial wardrobe styling, which, unsurprisingly, pays much better than the theater.

For most of her career, she worked in a vacuum with no other designers to empathize with. But once her article on HowlRound went viral, she found out that the unionized costume designers at United Scenic Artists of America had just formed a costume committee, and she hooked up with them to compare their ratings. According to Hiltner, “If you’re having trouble negotiating a support or labor compensation contract, your situation may seem very special. Everyone faces the same or very similar issues.

One of the common hurdles in payment negotiations is that theater budgets are often set so that certain elements of the line are fixed, such as rent, utilities, and materials. The dollars for the work of the artists are the last item to be allocated and unfortunately also the most malleable. Hiltner has already experienced a contentious contract negotiation over the $ 1,500 offer for a show where other designers were offered $ 2,000. “This particular negotiation lasted about two weeks and they threatened me with legal action. It was over $ 500.

Frustratingly, if raw materials such as paint go over budget, the money is usually found immediately. According to Hiltner, “It feels like money is treated differently when it goes to individual artists rather than something tangible and visual that is seen by the audience. Part of what makes everything so difficult is that there is no accepted standard for how fees are set. Few theaters are transparent about their process and cannot explain why they choose arbitrary hourly or flat rate rates other than the “experience” metric wave.

“Experience is a very problematic term for me,” says Hiltner, who further notes, “Who receives experience is often along the lines of race, gender, sexual orientation. A company will say that they will pay unionized designers the union minimum, but the non-unionized, we will pay the lowest rate.

To further complicate the process, the amount of work for the fee can vary wildly depending on the details, such as the time period in the story that a director decides to put on the play. Additionally, roles such as costume design, which have traditionally been dominated by women, often face hurdles that predominantly male design categories do not.

For example, the role of a costume designer typically includes reading the script, analyzing the script, attending meetings, conducting research, attending preliminary meetings on design concepts, drawing sketches, and maybe a second set of sketches after receiving feedback, then possibly patterns, making the clothes and doing the fittings if there is no costume store. The majority of Chicago theaters do not have costume stores or costumed workforce support.

Unlike the traditionally male role of set designer, after the conception and design phase (sketching, drawing, modeling) they can usually outsource the work to a technical director, a team of carpenters, a set painter and a property designer. Hiltner joke, “Costume designers do multiple jobs for the same price, if you’re lucky.” Property designers, video designers, and composers are also often expected to create the product, and in the case of composers, they often have to perform the music and compose it for the same price.

The founders of On Our TeamCredit: Courtesy of Elsa Hiltner

Hiltner thinks the solution to all of this is transparency: “having a community and culture in place that allows these conversations to take place without individual artists being blamed, called out who are difficult to work with.” , that the offers be canceled, not be recalled, all the things that are happening now when artists try to negotiate on their own behalf. Some companies are starting to offer equal and transparent design fees across the board, such as Collaboraction, which each pays $ 18 an hour.

The Hiltner spreadsheet created in 2017 to break the stigma of talking about money is gaining momentum. In the last month or so, it has received a flurry of submissions, and directors in other cities have started to collect their own data and send it en masse to Hiltner. She recently added a section on executive compensation from 990 publicly available tax reports, which highlighted some interesting takeaways; for example, the range of designer pay across organizations is wide and is not necessarily tied to the operating budget. According to Hiltner, “You can have quite similar fees [between smaller organizations] and ten times the operating budgets.

The demographics of the people who participated in the spreadsheet reveal additional truths. The costumers and lighting designers who voluntarily participate in the spreadsheet are mostly women and from BIPOC compared to the industry as a whole. Hiltner explains, “It tells who benefits from transparency and pay equity.” She hopes to continue receiving even more data and start tracking and analyzing changes over time. Of course, the pandemic created a hopefully temporary hiccup in this shot.

Hiltner recognizes that actors also suffer from pay equity within a single production. “I expect directors between shows to do this, too.” She notes that her spreadsheet isn’t the only one, with others across the country starting similar Google Sheets to track salaries for actors, stage managers and other positions. She hopes to merge them one day. In January 2020, Hiltner joined other designers Bob kuhn, Christine pascual, and Ham Thérèse form In our team, an organization dedicated to “creating a united front to demand fair compensation and support for theater designers”.

“It’s really good for business,” says Hiltner. “All the science shows that people who are paid fairly, where there is pay transparency, people work harder when these things are in place. The product is better, you retain employees better, these are things that will be visible to the public and will make the difference for the results of the company, if you want to go to the terms of the capitalist school.

As theatrical productions struggle with the limits of Zoom, one can’t help but notice that productions with more sophisticated lighting, sets and costumes have the ability to turn the online experience into something more breathtaking. cinematically. Hopefully more cinemas realize the power of this advantage and pay designers accordingly.

Hiltner says, “One thing I love about the theater industry is that we all care enough to hold it accountable. v

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