It’s Time for a New Labor Movement in the Performing Arts

With performing arts still mostly shut down due to the pandemic, it’s time to plan a better industry for when they return.

I’ll never forget the week I worked 128 hours—without overtime. There are, of course, only 168 hours in a week, and by the time you have worked your 128th, you no longer have professional standards, boundaries, or even much of an identity left. Me, personally? I was cackling at every provocation and blinking too often to chase away sleep. At the time, I was a concert sound engineer, lighting designer, and technical director, and I was in the process of opening a new concert venue (that must remain nameless) in New York City. This is the kind of job that sounds, on paper, like a dream—I got to mix concerts for some of my favorite artists in the world at the helm of a million-dollar soundsystem. This is the kind of job that nearly killed me.

The Situation as It Stands

It is no real secret that working conditions in the performing arts are terrible. From Hollywood to the music industry, theater to video games, the people who make your entertainment do physically grueling work for exceedingly long hours, and the rate of burnout is high. The usual response to any complaints about working conditions is that our industry is “glamorous,” and that the sheer excitement of working in entertainment must surely offset any negative impacts. This mindset keeps us working such long hours that we can’t be present for birthdays, weddings, funerals, and other major life events—because the show must go on, right?

“There’s an attitude from outside of the industry, which [says] well, ‘What you do is something you love, so you should just not complain about it’,” says Terri Kohler, AEA (Actor’s Equity Association) stage manager, who recently worked on Broadway’s What the Constitution Means to Me. “There is a devaluation of our work, and we internalize that [as an industry]. It’s systemic at this point.”

A stage manager’s job is a complex intermingling of tasks: organizing technical elements and crew, managing difficult personalities with conflicting needs, and running every rehearsal and performance. A standard rehearsal day for an Equity-contracted production can vary from 6 hours to 8 consecutive hours with no meal breaks. However, as Kohler points out, even if the company schedules an 8-hour day with a meal break, she (and many others on the production team who aren’t actors) work even longer: “Say the rehearsal day is 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., with a meal break in there. I’m there at the latest by 9:30 a.m, usually 9 a.m. And I’m there, probably, till 7 p.m. You get the same lunch break everybody does, but your day is also two hours longer at least. And that’s a six-day week.” 

Add in the tether of the smartphone, and many employers feel that everyone on their team needs to be “available” all the time. While some companies will acknowledge the right of professionals to have a personal life, others will not. Researchers at Virginia Tech have shown that even the expectation that employees will monitor email after work hours can have negative effects on personal well-being and relationships.

“It’s still a job. You’re being paid a salary, and you should be able to leave [the job] at work. You should not be working 24 hours a day unless you’re being paid for it,” says Kohler. And yet, in more than 20 years working in entertainment, the vast majority of my employers have sent email after hours, and a solid majority of those wanted answers right away. Sometimes this pressure was made explicit, and sometimes it was subtle—like a manager acting a bit too exasperated if you weren’t fully caught up on new production notes and changes by the start of the next working day.

The entertainment industry has also long played host to a macho, ableist attitude about how tough you need to be. “The norm in the industry, [it’s] this bravado about working all these hours. That is pervasive. Especially (in my experience) among young men,” says K. Walcott, a production supervisor at New York’s Apollo Theater. “There’s this pride, like ‘Bro, I just worked a 36-hour shift and I’m going back in four hours,’ and that’s not cool.” 

This kind of schedule might seem like something that single, healthy folks in their 20s can elect to accommodate, whether or not it is a good idea (spoiler: it’s not!). But it’s untenable for anyone else: “Anyone who’s disadvantaged, who has to have a second job, or take[s] care of anyone else, single parents, even parents that are together, it shuts out so many people from the industry because the amount of hours just isn’t feasible,” says Walcott.

The performing arts are notoriously exclusionary (and not just because acting rewards “beautiful” people). From its ableist production modes, to the difficulties faced by parents who work in the performing arts, the industry has long catered to those who are neurotypical, who lack disabilities, and who (ideally) have a source of income outside of the theatre (consider the scourge of the unpaid internship). Long hours are central to these issues; people who need extra time, or who lack extra time, simply can’t participate.

Film production is also notorious for running its casts and crews ragged, with 6-day weeks and 14- to 20-hour days. “I often get asked what we can do to improve the industry so that more women can become film directors,” says director Marielle Heller (A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood). “One of the things I say, that I think would make a really big difference for a lot of women, particularly in the feature film world, is more sustainable working hours. So many of us are parents, and these hours we tend to do, these 16 to 18 hour days, for weeks on end, months on end, are just often not sustainable for many of us. When I made my second movie, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, I was so excited to be making a movie in my home city where I wasn’t going to have to uproot my family. And yet I would leave in the morning before [my child] woke up and get home when [my child] was asleep, and I realized, like, it didn’t matter that I was home making this movie because I was not seeing my kid at all.” This problem, of not seeing family members, friends, of not having a life outside work, is pervasive for those in the performing arts.  

Unions play an important and complicated role in all this. Major productions—like those on Broadway, at the Apollo, films of the scale Heller is working on, and most scripted television—are generally staffed by union members. AEA (actors and stage managers for professional theater), SAG (actors for film and TV), IATSE (crews for all of the above), DGA (film and TV directors), WGA (film and TV writers), the Teamsters (trucking), and others have worked for decades to negotiate contracts that help set standards for production. However, while they have won some admirable victories over the years, there are still issues.

The profusion of unions, for example, means that there are many distinct contracts at play on a given production, so it can be difficult to gather workers together to fight for better conditions. Better conditions for actors don’t improve conditions for “below-the-line” team members (production crew), but joining together can build power. The SAG-AFTRA merger, which joined the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists to form the largest single performing arts union (representing all professional film and television actors), was predicated on the idea that there was greater labor strength in solidarity. However, unlike AEA (which covers both actors and stage managers in theatre), SAG-AFTRA is still an actors-only union. 

Union agreements, particularly for below-the-line talent, have historically prioritized earning more money for their members over protecting workers from egregious hours. Many productions, in both the film/TV and theatre/concert worlds, count on the crew working overtime regularly in order to save money elsewhere. In theory, this works by planning fewer days in a location or venue, or by shortening the overall shoot or event schedule, which lessens rental costs for gear. 

However, in practice, the use of overtime has become—for many productions—a crutch that prevents the union from negotiating higher base wages, as they know their members are counting on (and will receive), overtime pay. Overtime wasn’t intended to be a built-in feature of budgets, but an emergency measure—a way to discourage employers from working employees too hard. But when 40 hours at a base rate isn’t enough to really match cost of living, crew heads encourage the overtime, because it’s how their crews make enough money to survive. If these crewmembers can’t survive the cost of living in the major metropolitan areas where a lot of production takes place, this drives unwise decisions about working hours. 

In describing a concert she managed, Walcott illustrates the issue: “I had a show coming in that was going to load in at 1am, for an 8pm concert. Then it was probably going to be striking [taking apart sound and lighting systems, taking down scenery, etc.] till 5am the following day. I spoke to the union steward, and said ‘you know, this is an astronomically long shift.’ What is that, 28 hours?” A 28 hour shift is in no way safe. However, the union stewards—who are also often the leaders of their respective technical crews on a production team (lighting, sound, etc.)—have what is called the “right of first refusal”. Right of first refusal is a legal concept whereby a party in a contract agreement has the right to enter into a business transaction before anyone else. In the context of technical crews on productions, this means that if there is a 28-hour shift, the crew leaders can decide to accept the entire shift if they want to—because it means they will make a lot of money in overtime—even if it means they will be potentially risking their health and safety. If the crew leaders decide to accept the entire shift, it means that managers cannot split that crew into three shifts, so that everyone will be fresh and safe as they work. “Having someone working 28-hour shifts is dangerous,” says Walcott. Very dangerous, and production team members have died falling asleep [1] while driving home from perversely long calls. 

Brian Smallwood—production manager, Associate Professor of Theatre at James Madison University, and author of Productivity Through Wellness for the Theatre Technician (Routledge, 2020)—has studied the culture of overwork in the performing arts for years. “If you’re doing physical labor, 40 hours a week is about right [at maximum]. As long as you don’t go over 10 hours a day. You could work four 10-hour days, or five 8-hour days, and you’re going to get about the same amount of productivity, you’re going to stay as fresh,” he says. “[That’s] provided you’re taking breaks, and you’re getting downtime in between. If you’re doing knowledge work, where you’re making decisions, or where you are calculating, or being creative, you really only have 30 hours a week.” 

Once people start working above and beyond these guidelines, the gains in productivity they might expect aren’t actually available. According to Smallwood: “So, you start cranking up, and get to an 80-hour week. You get an initial increase in productivity, [but] it’s not one for one. It’s not like you get all 80 hours, you get, like, 75 hours in that initial bump, but it’s short-lived. You get, maybe, a week of that. Then everything starts tanking.” By the time you’ve worked three consecutive 80-hour weeks, “[they] are only as effective as three 40-hour weeks.” [2]

There is also a world of production, professional and semi-professional, that is nonunion. This includes a lot of theater companies, a surprisingly huge portion of professional concert and music studio work, and the vast majority of reality television (as well as student and “spec” projects made by people trying to break into the industry). [3] While union film and TV crews, for example, have rules about how many hours (minimum) of turnaround time workers must be provided between production calls (so people can get enough sleep), nonunion productions don’t offer this kind of protection. Union crews get a meal penalty (extra money) if the production decides to skip a meal break and work through. Nonunion crews often don’t get guaranteed breaks at all. Union crews are generally guaranteed a “four-hour minimum” which means that for any fraction of time they are required to work less than four hours, they are paid for four hours—crucial when crews often have to travel long distances off the clock to production jobs. Nonunion crews don’t always get a guaranteed minimum of any kind. And nonunion crews certainly aren’t guaranteed overtime. 

Robert Hornbostel, a sound designer in Chicago (who only recently joined the designers’ union—USA829, United Scenic Artists), has worked extensively in the nonunion theatre world. “I started here [in Chicago] in 2014, and it was so disorganized, I remember finding out the pay rate after I had worked [a particular] call. I’m filling out the paperwork, and said ‘Cool, we were here for 8 hours, what’s the rate?’ And they said $12/hour.” The living wage in Chicago today is $13.60/hour at minimum for one adult. In 2014 dollars, that was approximately $12.80. So $12/hr wasn’t a living wage, and this was for a technician and designer with a degree in theatre and high-level skills. “Then they were like: ‘Can you work tomorrow?’ and I said ‘Absolutely not.’” 

Hornbostel has been instrumental in helping to launch a Facebook group (headed by his colleague Aaron Shapiro) dedicated to getting non-union theatre design/tech professionals in Chicago a living wage, wage transparency, and other positives like guaranteed minimum calls. This is an ad-hoc group, and while he sees real advantages to creating a kind of “non-union syndicate” for Chicago production, “there’s a lot of frustration, currently. We know [Chicago theatre workers] are capable of doing the work, but [if you’re] freelance, you only have so much time in your day—you’re already hustling, there’s no time to run this management structure.” He admits that the only way he manages both design work and organizing others is by working very long hours: “I have constantly been working 70-80 hour weeks for years.”

The state of affairs in the performing arts seems pretty much like the state of affairs in a lot of areas of our late-capitalist hellscape: inequitable, exclusionary, overworked, underpaid, and careening out of control.

What Can Be Done?

Performing arts were one of the first areas of public life to shut down because of the pandemic. In all likelihood, they will be one of the last to return. If they return, in anything resembling their old forms, the pressure will be on from the financiers to make everything worse: to force people to work longer hours, and for less pay. The argument from the financiers in the industry will likely be that they too have been losing money due to the coronavirus, and sacrifices will have to be made all around. Everyone working in the performing arts right now can feel the “austerity” coming to the industry. It won’t come out of the looks of the CGI goblins onscreen—after all, the illusion still has to sell. It’ll come out of the hides of the people who make those goblins so lifelike: who voice them, animate them, edit them, score and perform music for them, write their dialog, and design the worlds they stomp around in.

Or, we can seize this moment. With the industry shut down, we are in a unique position of power to set the terms of our labor when we return, but it must be done via collective action. This will need to include the production unions, as well as a new effort to organize for the rights of the vast nonunion production world. Whether that takes the form of expansion of the current unions to include more members and classes of production (a la SAG-AFTRA), or of totally parallel and new labor organizations rising from the bottom to include these venues and companies (a la Hornbostel’s work in Chicago), we need to gather together. When I asked Ethan Kaplan—an IATSE Local 1 lighting programmer who has worked on shows like Last Week Tonight with John Oliver and Full Frontal with Samantha Bee—what we can do to improve working conditions in our industry, his answer was one word: “Unionize.” 

We need to be clear about what we are asking for, because asking for “better working conditions” isn’t terribly meaningful. Marielle Heller, for example, has shortened most shooting days on her films to 10 hours, which allows her to see her child either in the morning or at night, and usually shoots only 5 days a week. “It was Melissa McCarthy who said to me, ‘Have you ever worked French hours?’. French hours on a film set are a 10-hour straight day, where you don’t break for lunch,” she says, making sure to clarify also that everyone gets to eat, just that the entire production team doesn’t stop at once to eat—they eat in rolling shifts. Heller points out that this may be a way forward for film production in an age of social distancing: “Coming back from Covid, gathering 200 people to all eat a meal is obviously not going to be safe. So people are talking about French hours, about doing what we did, where people get their lunches in a box and eat on their own.”

K. Walcott agrees that it is time to rethink how our entire industry works: “Now, with social distancing…we can’t even have that many people in a room anymore, so we have an opportunity to relook at how we can divide and conquer the work, and make it into shorter shifts for people. [To] get creative about ways [to do production] that don’t involve constant overwork.”

Making change will involve a lot of people, and will change a lot of how we work, but we clearly can’t go on like this. While we’re considering how to disinfect and properly distance on a set or a stage, we need to consider how to set boundaries so that everyone who works for a living makes a living wage and has the right to a life outside of their job. We need to consider how to build an industry where we don’t constantly lose valuable contributions to our culture because people who don’t already have a trust fund are burned out and can’t keep making work (or can’t even enter the industry, because they couldn’t afford to do the unpaid internships). We need to consider what it means to be human and a performing arts professional at the same time. 

When production restarts, we must call on the performing arts industry to (at minimum):

  • Adopt 5-day maximum production weeks. This means that no person needs to work more than 5 days in order to be part of the production. If the production or organization needs to work more than 5 days a week, it needs multiple shifts, and needs to figure out how to switch teams intelligently rather than burning one team out.
  • Adopt the 8-hour maximum day (10 at the very longest with overtime). As the original 8-hour movement used to say: “8 hours for work, 8 hours for rest, 8 hours for what you will”. I can’t believe we have to say this again, but apparently we do. Having an equal amount of time for rest and leisure as the time you give to a paying capitalist overlord (even if you love your work!) shouldn’t be a radical demand, but it is. We must demand it.
  • Abolish the unpaid/low-paid internship. If you can’t afford to pay someone a living wage, you can’t afford to have them laboring for you. Interns do labor. They need to be compensated.
  • Achieve equity and representation in casting and hiring. Okay, so this is a problem everywhere in America, but the famously “liberal” entertainment industry is very white and male. Heller quoted statistics that state that, depending on who you ask, the percentage of film directors that are women is either 9 percent or 4 percent. The audio industry (where I do a lot of my work) is, according to the Audio Engineering Society, approximately 7 percent women. This is abysmal. Providing childcare, medical care, and humane hours will go a long way towards fixing this problem, but we also just need to hire underrepresented people and let them tell their stories. Full stop.

This is a short list. It is an incomplete list. It is my list for right now, and for this article. The truth is that there are myriad other areas we need to improve. Stuntpeople die every year in productions. Crewmembers are crushed by falling staging. Bigotry in all its forms is still running rampant on and off sets. I could go on and on and on.

We’ll never have an industry that treats us with respect until we demand it, until we organize, and until we refuse to be treated any other way. We must gather together, and refuse to be worked to the bone. We must build a new labor movement in the performing arts.

[1]  In the wake of Covid, SAG-AFTRA’s Industry-Wide Labor-Management Safety Committee Task Force (formed in response to the driving drowsy problem) has issued recommendations for how to safely return to work. And among other things, they call for shorter work days, and fewer consecutive work days when possible. This is a very positive step, though we will see how the industry responds as it attempts to reopen (about which, more later).
[2] Smallwood clarified that these numbers were not taken from direct observation of the performing arts—a set of research that really hasn’t yet been done (he’s working on that for the future). These numbers were taken from the construction industry, but the parallels between construction and the performing arts are many, especially considering the balance between “knowledge” professions (director, designer, architect, construction manager) and “physical” positions (stage crew, truck drivers, construction crew). 
[3] The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t track union membership percentage in the subcategory of Performing Arts (it estimates that the overall sector in which “performing arts” falls has a union membership of 6.6 percent, but based on personal experience, this number seems low, since most professional productions are union productions).

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