Monday, December 30, 2013

Honey or Sour Grapes

The Director's Notes Blog has been silent for most of 2013. 

The main reason is the Blog's decision that if there is nothing positive to say then keep quite. I've been told one attracts more bees with honey and not with sour grapes (Although I've seen yellow jackets dive and dunk into numerous glasses of wine that's been left out for a day). 

So,  for the past year DNB has bitten its lip for the sake of playing nice instead of posting some sort of gripe or concern about how fucked up the Buffalo theater's status quo is. 

Until I recently read an article by The Buffalo News resident theater critic, Colin Dabkowski entitled "Gusto Looks Back at 2013" in which DNB's favorite agenda journalist writes about how the theater scene has seen rapid growth but has seen a downgrade in production values mainly due to a diluted talent pool. 

Dabkowski's post has me scratching my head in wonderment into what he is tying to get at?

Clearly,  he makes a general statement that the talent pool is supposedly diluted because of the increasing amount of theater companies in town. Adding that the addition of Lazarus Arena, "The region’s greatest opportunity for creative collaboration and audience building (710 Main Street)" has "buzzed to life in the past year but has understandably not yet realized potential. It has, however, hosted excellent local productions for the first time since 2008, including Road Less Traveled Productions’ Circle Mirror Transformation and Clybourne Park."

Uh huh. 710, through Rod Less Traveled, has perserved the diversity and theatrical integrity of Buffalo theater, but has not reached its "full potential" after spending 2.1 million to raise the dead? 

Colin Dabkowski has not seen every theatrical production. He reviews shows he finds personally engaging, high-profile, or seemingly needs to dissect for public humiliation. He has missed several well-done productions done by lesser-known and newly established companies. 

Dabkowski even admits to using a Buffalo News colleague to provide insight into other productions he has not seen. "...he saw many more attempts at original or innovative productions from new and established companies, and that he took this as a positive step whether or not they came off perfectly." 

As a result, Dabkowski has not seen the complete utilizing of young talent who have been capable in their execution of roles. His article refuses to identify that there has been an explosion of new talent on WNY stages because of the increased opportunities. 

Instead, Dabkowski choses to highlight the slipping of quality due to "the region’s buzzing and highly Balkanized scene has continued to add new companies at a rate that belies the current atmosphere of tepid funding and population decline." 

Indicating Buffalo audiences have keen noses for theatrical amateurism, Dabkowski throws around "amateur" as if it is a negative quality. If there is any negative connotations about being an amateur, that can be reserved for the community theater companies who have done more to dilute the talent pool and spread out the entertainment dollar with their populist theater productions. 

One can't wield a "professional" and "amateur"  scale for Buffalo theater. All Buffalo theater companies are, in varying degree, SEMI-PROFESSIONAL, and what separates each company is their budgets. The distinction between what is good theater and bad theater cannot be determined by a misusing the definition of dramatic arts professionalism. 

The discrepancy can only be determined by money, and there is a great budget discrepancy between the established, tenured Buffalo theater companies and those groups who are just starting out or been around for 1o or less years. 

Low budget companies don't have the resources (because grant and government money is mistakenly going to their high-profile peers) to dedicate to production values. Additionally, unlike their predecessors, these type of companies have to pay some sort of rent to produce works. 

As a result, these low-budget companies have to be resourceful in numerous ways including finding unknown or underutilized talent for productions. 

Yet, despite all this, these companies keep producing works. And surprisingly, these productions are better than what one might see in off-Broadway or varying distances away from Broadway productions. 

That's the positive angle you can take from 2013. 

Congrats to the new companies Dabkowski mentions, RaĆ­ces Theatre Company fills a niche, Buffalo Public Theatre is utilizing a performance space in need of revitalization and paying rent to maintain it, and a new generation company that casts Buffalo veteran actors. 

Their presence can only add to a great cultural tourist selling point nobody wants to use when pushing the wonderfully diverse dramatic arts scene. That strategy is reserved for the Shea's billboard bombardment or Musicalfare's Randy Kramer's attempts at being the only spokesperson for Buffalo theater. 

Hello status quo.  

Sadly, The Buffalo News does not have a consistent history of being supportive of original or innovative works. And now added is the fact too many theaters are making for amateur productions. 

Respectfully, Colin Dabkowski has been adamant it is not his or his newspaper's  job to sell tickets. True, but there has to be care when an article puts into the public light that the Buffalo theater talent pool is diluted because of too many theaters and therefore production values are "amateur". 

Because that type of article creates an illusion for Buffalo, Western New York and Ontario patrons the only type of theater to attend in the city is what The Buffalo News cites as being "professional", and that measurement is rooted in agenda journalism, school ties and critical cronyism.  

That honeycomb only attracts flys. 

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Labor of Love

An exercise in well-written journalism is on display in the 2013 May/June issue of The Harvard Magazine. Nell Porter Brown's Leading Man focuses on established film and stage actor, Nick Wyman, and his fight to "expand opportunities" for entry-level aspiring actors and professional actors. 

Wyman has been part of the theatrical labor of love game since first graduating from Harvard in '72 with 15 broadway credits, regional appearances, commercials and film roles including the part of terrorist Mathius Targo in Die Hard With A Vengeance. Receiving his AEA card from a traveling production of Grease, Wyman has remained active in the union and became AEA president in 2010. 

A post Wyman does not receive any compensation for, but is as committed to the position as much he would on a stage or film role. "I realized the people making the decision had a direct impact on my life and livelihood." Wyman states in the article. "I am enough of a control freak that I wanted to be part of that decision." 

In Western New York, union actors find little to no work within a season, and so lack the incentive or look outside the area for work. Although the region boasts of having 22 professional theater companies, a scan of the production programs will show a lack of AEA actors, stage managers or directors. 

Semi-professionals and amateurs will often find a check at the end of a nine-week commitment that barely scratches an one-week, minimum-wage-job, paycheck. Although some companies will compensation near-union wages, and the allure of working at an established WNY theater for $1,000 may entice most actors in this region, when one considers the amount of unpaid rehearsal time, transportation costs, lost hours from the "real" job, the reflective scale of labor to pay is skewed as well. 

For the region AEA has setup a special appearance agreement that pay is based on a particular company's "tier" (One to Four) structured on box-office revenue:

Base on these tiers, these are standard salary configurations:

If an AEA actor is called into a Tier One theater, a company then would pay $1,392 for 7 weeks of employment. Additional cost would come in the form of whether or not the company has a payroll service and/or includes health care into the deal. 

Sounds respectful?

The $174/week is less than the $181.25/week an individual working a minimum wage job at 25 hours/week. The $226/week at the Tier Two company can be compared to the 30 hours/week minimum wage paycheck of $217. 

This would explain why an AEA actor wouldn't find the incentive or turn down work in a Tier One or Two theater company. Work at a higher tier company makes more economic sense and if a Tier Four company is bringing in an union actor, chances are this would be for a major role worth the creative challenge and economics. 

Western New York theater is not a region saturated with AEA actors. Those who carry a "card" and are in demand will find work at the higher Tier companies. What the region has is a deep pool of semi-professional and amateur actors who are just as talented but lack the union label. If a company is faced with making a decision between hiring an AEA actor at $2,500 or bring in an non-union actor at $1,500, the latter choice is a matter of economics and, truthfully, a "no brainer". 

What this economic imbalance means is that companies with deep pockets can offer in-demand, semi-professional actors contracts that are $1,000 below equity scale (and will not pay for rehearsal), offer $700, for rehearsal and entire production, to actors in secondary roles, then give $400, same schedule, to gleeful out-of-college and amateur actors for ensemble work. 

The pecking order fallout continues. 

Semi-professionals and amateur actors then chose to take roles for $700 over a chance to play a major role in a company that can only pay $300 per show leaving companies to cast those who are either truly committed to their craft but have great day jobs, or unproven, unknown talent established companies won't risk the investment on. 

In the article Leading Man, Nick Wyman understands the "economic difficulties and downward pressures" facing companies and the AEA as both strive to find a decent working wage. He also understands that companies are in the awkward position of now having to field commercially accessible works to remain  financially viable. These companies are generating profit but creative new works are being ignored. In the process, more emphasis is placed on profit and not opportunity. "The rich get richer and the poor go out of business." Wyman states in the article. 

I recently spoke with an young actor about taking roles for a company that doesn't pay as well as the established theaters. The actor informed me that although the roles presented in the past were challenging (and through recognition brought other opportunities) the pay was not worth the time and commitment involved. 

It was about money. Fair enough. 

Later in the month I saw this actor doing a local TV commercial, and knew the pay for doing this spot and perhaps others was a lucrative opportunity overshadowing any creative, craftsmanship. 

It was about money. 

In the theater business there is a fine-line between the work being a labor of love and receiving compensation for craft. The idea that in Western New York theater there is this salary cap which companies measure for value, and the remaining pay-scale is based on illusion, has to be reevaluated. 

If the AEA operates in Western New York Theaters, then all theaters should adhere to the union pay-scale based on the tier system. All actors should then demand to be paid fair wage otherwise refuse to work in that particular theater. Unfortunately, going back to Wyman, the commercial companies would remain rich and those who seek to bring originality to stage would go out of business leaving several talented non-union actors less opportunities to follow their craft. 

The other option would be for tier one and two companies to agree to set a unified pay-scale for non-union actors. This would allow continuation of opportunities, wage-friendly scales to counter the downward pressures facing theater, and the elimination of mercenary actors only looking for the best paycheck not challenge. 

Theater is a labor of love, and those in the business do it because there are no other choices as best described by Wyman in the article, Leading Man, "We do this because we are junkies. We have to. We've gotten a taste of this in elementary or high school when we were on stage and people laughed, applauded or cried, or that most of precious audience moments: utter, breath-holding silence."

This is theater, but if an actor can skillfully provide all what Wyman says then a reward should be given. The challenge for Western New York theaters is to start agreeing on what this reward should amount to. 

In the end such an agreement can only strengthen the theatrical community and continue to provide opportunities to both union and non-union actors, stage managers and designers.