Hot Topic: Seattle Theater Faces Challenges

Posted by: Staffon 2005/6/23 11:25:29 4705 reads Seattle Theater Faces Challenges
Could other cities, including Houston, face similiar?
Are you an 'artist' or 'employee'?

With the large number of theaters in Houston, only a handful have the means within their budget to hire actors as “employees”. Most mid-size/Indie companies run on a shoestring budget, but feel their artists should at least be compensated with a small stipend. Mid-size theater companies in Seattle operated much the same until just recently. The state of Washington declared it illegal for theaters to not pay actors and stage technicians as regular employees.
This controversy surfaced after the state Employment Security Department issued audits and fines to some theaters for classifying their artists as independent contractors rather than employees. The mid-size theater companies are fearful that they could be faced with similar audits and some have even cancelled productions requiring a cast of 15 and limiting it to a cast of 2. Could this potentially wipe out the mid-size Seattle theater scene? Does the enforcement of the law actually protect the artists? Could Houston ever face a similar problem?

Presently, the answers to these questions are still up in the air. We do know that community and Equity theater houses will not be affected. For one, community theaters typically run as all-volunteer organizations. Two, Equity houses offer both independent contracts and they hire full-fledged employees. It seems that the main problem with offering small stipends lies in the fact that the theater companies ‘avoid’ paying the costs of unemployment-insurance and worker’s compensation taxes. The state of Washington adamantly declares that the audits were done randomly.

Some say the law benefits the actor or theatrical artist because it would require theaters to pay at least minimum wage for their services, but how feasible is this really? Some theaters such as, the Empty Space Theater, were close to folding if it were not for an “emergency fundraiser” to help keep them alive. Lauri Watkins, managing director of Theater Schmeater, expressed what it would mean for her theater to classify an artist as an employee, “it would probably end up quintupling our budget”.*

The reactions among the artists have been split. Some are content with being classified as a “volunteer” while others feel Seattle could be facing a major step backwards. Scott Nolte, artistic director for Taproot Theater was quoted in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer as saying, “Seattle has had such a great and rich theater environment…If we refer back to we only have (unpaid) community theater and only the big boys, that’s a totally different artist ecosystem that we have had for the last 20 years…take Seattle off the map”.

There is much confusion on the interpretation of the law. Would payment also include rehearsal time? What about the time spent learning lines?

Where do things stand now? The Washington State Arts Alliance issued a statement, “These are complex legal issues and we are currently gathering information and developing a strategy on how to respond to the audit findings. WSAA and our lobbyists will be meeting with the Department of Revenue. Any necessary Legislative changes cannot occur until next January, so we have time to plan appropriately”.

Theatreport has contacted Actor’s Equity to see if they have any comments or insight on this matter. We plan on following this story and will keep you updated.

While this is affects the West coast, could it ever effect Houston?

Seattle Post-Intelligencer:
The Seattle Times

*This article compiled by Staff. and brought to you by!