Working in the theater doesn’t have to be a chore: NPR


Baltimore Center Stage artistic director Stephanie Ybarra said it’s been a tough time to be in theater.

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Working in the theater doesn't have to be a chore: NPR

Baltimore Center Stage artistic director Stephanie Ybarra said it’s been a tough time to be in theater.

Sydney J. Allen for NPR

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 arrive in time to be tested thoroughly. For artistic director Stéphanie Ybarra, it was ultimately a question of safety.

“The show didn’t go as planned,” Ybarra said. “And that was because we didn’t feel like it was the responsible thing to do.”

Ybarra said it had been a tough time being at Center Stage. Things are moving slower because there has been turnover throughout the theater – from the stage store to the marketing department.

“When we planned this show almost a year ago, we had no idea what the job market would be like or what our team would be like,” Ybarra said. “And the transfer of almost all of our production department over the past few months has put a strain on our workers.”

Working in the theater doesn't have to be a chore: NPR

Baltimore Center Stage in Maryland recently had to cancel its first preview of the season.

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Working in the theater doesn't have to be a chore: NPR

Baltimore Center Stage in Maryland recently had to cancel its first preview of the season.

Emily Bogle/NPR

It takes a large team of people to pitch a show in a regional theater. You need carpenters, lighting designers, customers and more. The hours can be long and the pay is not very high. It is often a labor of love. But the pandemic shutdowns have forced theater workers to ask if the theater loves them back.

“A lot of people have realized that their identity doesn’t go away when they leave the theater for a year,” said Rachael Erichsen, props manager at Center Stage. “And once you realize that, you start weighing those options – are the long hours, is the stress worth it to me?”

Across the country, regional theaters like Center Stage are trying to tip the scales in theater’s favor by making big changes. Artistic directors are considering everything from increased diversity behind the scenes and on stage and better health insurance, to childcare supplements for parents and shorter work weeks.

Change the scope of a season

At Center Stage, where a normal season might offer six shows, there will be four in the 2022-23 season. Ybarra said she looked at the job market and the budget and concluded that, especially post-pandemic shutdowns, the theater just couldn’t do the same. The decision sparked a lot of reactions, with people asking: why not?

For Erichsen, now in her sixth season at Center Stage, the move has challenged the culture of rise and grind in which she and so many theater employees have appeared.

Working in the theater doesn't have to be a chore: NPR

Rachael Erichsen is accessories manager at Center Stage. She wonders if the long hours and high-stress situations in the theater industry are worth it.

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Working in the theater doesn't have to be a chore: NPR

Rachael Erichsen is accessories manager at Center Stage. She wonders if the long hours and high-stress situations in the theater industry are worth it.

Sydney J. Allen for NPR

“It was a transition from a certain way of thinking, from a certain high,” she said. “You descend on the manic energy of creation just in time.”

She said she “realizes that this may not be a healthy working pattern that we were all trained and rooted in.” It’s a really interesting process, she says, “to retrain our brain, to retrain our reward circuitry to appreciate slow, steady creative energy versus manic creative energy.”

No more than 10 out of 12

After some encouragement from We See You White American Theater movement, Center Stage joined a handful of other theaters in pledging to eliminate a practice known as “10 on 12”. It’s a shortcut for the hours theater workers put in. This refers to a rule that actors cannot work more than 10 hours in a 12 hour day. But once the cast is done, the team must review the notes and fix any issues that didn’t work. Thus, the days of behind-the-scenes workers can extend over 14 hours, 16 hours, or even more. And those last few hours always seem to take the longest.

“It’s also the least productive time of the day,” said Nathan Scheifele, master craftsman at Center Stage, who is in his 19th season. “I was having the problem where sometimes the Baltimore light rail would stop running at a certain point. And I had to figure out how to get home then.”

Center Stage went to an eight out of 10 workday, drawing praise from Lindsay Jones, a New York-based composer and sound designer for theater and film and member of No More 10 out of 12.

“I think Center Stage has really shown itself to be a leader in changing its work practices to create a more fair and equitable work environment,” he said.

Working in the theater doesn't have to be a chore: NPR

Costumes on display at Center Stage.

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Working in the theater doesn't have to be a chore: NPR

Costumes on display at Center Stage.

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From Jones’ perspective, theater as an industry tends to work on autopilot and avoid self-reflection. Jones says when a place like Center Stage makes a move like that, it makes a bigger difference.

“I believe their stance really encouraged others to stop and think about what they had done in their practices and if they could make those changes,” he said.

Theater is often a labor of love. But you can’t pay your bills in love

When Ybarra first came to Center Stage, her first goal was to increase pay. Low pay was something she heard about from her staff back then and still hears about today.

“We’re always trying to catch up and trying to keep up,” she said.

It’s hard to get people to pay more and get them paid fairly given that ticket sales and memberships are down. But for Ybarra, it was about making the theater responsible for its own values. For example, Ybarra ended the theater’s internship program. While the theater paid a weekly stipend and provided housing for its interns, Ybarra still viewed it as exploitation.

“We have people in the building who explained that they couldn’t afford groceries. They were relying on leftover food from a board meeting. that they were feeding on. And that’s exploitation,” she said.

Hear enough nonprofit leaders talk about values and it’s easy to be jaded if nothing happens. But Bridgette Burton, an arts production associate who has worked at several regional theaters, sees something different at Center Stage.

“Because they follow,” she said.

Working in the theater doesn't have to be a chore: NPR

Bridgette Burton is an artistic production associate at Center Stage and has worked in several regional theaters.

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Working in the theater doesn't have to be a chore: NPR

Bridgette Burton is an artistic production associate at Center Stage and has worked in several regional theaters.

Sydney J. Allen for NPR

Burton started in January 2021, first on a contract basis, then full-time. She got raises at every review. And beyond just the pay raise, she says the company has also been particularly transparent about its finances and budget.

“We can see the budget and know what’s in it. We had a staff meeting today and there was a section on financial transparency, and that’s never been the case in other places where I went,” she said.

For workers like Burton and Erichsen, all these changes are reason enough to stay. And there is also the joy of doing theatre. On the opening night of Our city, the big moon in the back worked. It fades nostalgically to show the passage of time.

This little technological miracle – in fact, every aspect of a production – requires lots of different people with different backgrounds and skills to work together. For Ybarra, it’s the draw.

“That sense of belonging that we get when we do theatre? It’s unbeatable. And I want as many people as possible to experience it,” she said.

Working in the theater doesn't have to be a chore: NPR

Stephanie Ybarra (left), Bridgette Burton and Rachael Erichsen are on stage.

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Working in the theater doesn't have to be a chore: NPR

Stephanie Ybarra (left), Bridgette Burton and Rachael Erichsen are on stage.

Sydney J. Allen for NPR




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