When I say that it is time for the theater artist to “take back the means of production,” I’m using a term used by Marx to differentiate the social classes, and I’m using it in exactly the same way he did: to reflect the individual’s (or the group’s) relationship to ownership and control. In an industrial model, owners (bourgeois) possessed and controlled the factory (place), the technology (machines), and the materials (steel, cotton, etc.); the workers (proletariat), having no access to the means of production, sold their labor for a wage or salary. It’s this economic model that the Theatrical Syndicate instituted in 1896.
The Syndicate purchased the theaters (places); the scenery, costumes, lights (technology); and the plays (materials); the artists (actors, directors, designers, stage managers, etc.) sold their labor for a wage or salary. We need look no further than the rise of the Actors’ Equity Association, which is a traditional labor union, for evidence of the tacit acceptance of this class division: the purpose of Equity was not to restore control to the artists, but rather to make sure that the wages paid to their members were reasonable and the working conditions were humane. This was no different than the AFL, the CIO, the UAW or any other worker’s organization being organized at that time. Equity membership accepts that artists are employees (i.e., laborers/proletariat), and embraces the belief that the only power they have, like any other unionized worker, comes from the ability to withhold labor (strike), which is what they did in 1919 and 1929 to force the owners (producers) to hire only union members and follow union regulations.
The thing that differentiates Actors Equity from other unions, and that makes the job of the leaders of Equity much more difficult, is that unlike most workers, theater artists genuinely love their jobs, so it is extremely difficult to get them to exercise their power to strike. On the contrary, they will often revolt against their own union if they feel that a rise in wages will result in the owners putting on fewer productions and thereby reduce the number of opportunities to use their talent. Actors, for instance, have fought hard for the right to work for nothing or next to nothing Off-Off-Broadway, because they are desperate to have the opportunity to use their talents. In 2015, for instance, according to Playbill, “Members of Actors Equity Association in Los Angeles…voted 2,046 to 1,075 against their union’s plan to require the city’s 99-seat theatres to start paying actors a $9 hourly minimum wage. Most actors at those theatres currently work for far less, or nothing, but many oppose the pay plan because they fear the union demand will stifle the theatres and result in substantially less work.”
The strangeness of this situation becomes obvious if applied to another industry: let’s say food service. Imagine restaurant workers fighting their own union for the right to work for free at McDonald’s in the hope that the quality of their work there will be seen by the manager of Denny’s who will then hire them to serve Grand Slam breakfasts for a wage and tips, after which their enthusiasm, talent, and luck at Denny’s will lead to them being hired by the manager of a fancy, high-dollar restaurant serving the wealthy where their tips will be much, much higher. It’s silly to even imagine this scenario, of course, but that’s how it is with theater artists.
Why? Because there is one crucial difference between someone who works in the theater and someone who works in some other industry: they’re artists. The wage or salary they receive, while important for providing access to the basics of life, is secondary to the joy of creativity. The reward is the satisfaction of doing the work itself. The thrill of being in a hit play isn’t about making a salary longer, but about being able to continue to do the work as long as possible. The intensity we see in the characters of A Chorus Line is not primarily driven by economic considerations, but by the desire to be allowed to create. “To have something that I can believe in. To have something to be. Use me. Choose me.” I guarantee there’s never been a McDonald’s worker who sang such a song.
And that’s never going to change. Artists love their art. It’s what sets them apart. Which is why they will never fit into an industrial economic model of owners and workers. It drives them crazy. It drives them to vote against a $9/hr wage because it will reduce their creative outlets.
It is why artists must be in charge of the means of production.
<– Follow-Up: Robert Porterfield
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