DramaWatch: Can’t pay? Must pay.

The issue of salaries vs. contracts in a typically underpaid profession sweeps the theater scene. Plus, openings from Ashland to Hillsboro.

“To all professional theatre companies and their donors and sponsors, Susan and I will no longer donate to organizations paying less than minimum wage.”

On July 6, that simple message was posted to the Facebook page of Leonard Magazine, who, along with his wife, Susan, is surely among the most devoted of Portland-area theater fans. The pair attend multiple shows each week, and donate widely. Over the next few days, 106 comments on the message were posted by some of the Magazines’ many Facebook friends, many of them theater artists. Many comments engendered their own lengthy sub-threads of replies and exchanges.

In some regards, it’s a complicated issue. The Facebook comments raised questions about the distinctions between hourly pay, salaries and stipends; about the differing treatment of actors, designers, and running crews; about distinctions in union contracts and the demands of state labor law; about whether more stringent pay requirements may cause some professional companies to instead operate as community theaters, or at least lead to seasons full of two-handers because larger casts will be unaffordable. A recurring theme in the comments was appreciation for Don Horn’s Triangle Productions, which has made a commitment to following state wage law and has hosted discussions between theater community members and labor-law specialists.

Dale Johannes in Triangle Productions’ recent “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.” Triangle has been praised for its adherence to employment laws. Photo: Henry Liu

So much to digest. That the Magazines have made such a decision about their support of theaters and made a public declaration of principle is perhaps not as consequential as if the same move had been made by such a major arts donor as, say, Ronni Lacroute. But as an example of passionate theater supporters taking a tough-love stance around an issue that doesn’t usually get major attention, that single sentence on Facebook might create a meaningful ripple in the city’s arts ecosystem. Certainly the Magazines intend it as a spur to discussion and action, among donors and administrators alike.

But for the moment, let’s just address this: What led the Magazines to this? Well, foremost, it’s their love of the theater.

“When we moved to the Portland area, we didn’t have the money or the time for theater,” Leonard recalls. They both had an interest in the art — Susan from growing up around the music-publishing business in New York — but had children in school, and a fledgling business. Then one day, Leonard recalls, his wife came back from a work trip to Minneapolis, where she’d seen a production of Ragtime. “She said, ‘We can’t eat — we’re going back to the theater!’”

Not long after, they discovered Broadway Rose, became fans of the likes of Leif Norby from his performance in The Will Rogers Follies, then began to take in straight plays as well as musicals.

Eventually Leonard’s business became successful and they were able to buy subscriptions and donate money. They also helped organize supporters’ guilds for Broadway Rose, Profile Theater and Artists Rep.

“We’re not Ronni Lacroute or Ellyn Bye or Bob Conklin,” Leonard says, referencing some of the best-known big-dollar donors. “We give small amounts wherever we can.”

All along, they’d sought to connect with the theater community. “We made big efforts to meet and know theater artists, but particularly actors,” Leonard says.

That connection with actors broadened into concern after a 2013 production of The Visit at Post5 Theatre encountered financial problems that threatened to leave the cast without pay. “I raised a stink about it,” Leonard says.
The Magazines cite not just Triangle’s Horn, but Don Blair — the former Nike chief financial officer who played a key role in stabilizing CoHo Productions several years ago — for raising their awareness of pay issues in the theater.
There were two precipitating factors to the Facebook post, but they will reveal only one of those. One apparently involves behavior that the Magazines disapprove of, from some unspecified Portland-area theater company. But that’s as much as they’ll say (at least to ArtsWatch). “If I told you any of the circumstances, you’d figure out who it was, and I don’t want to single anybody out,” Leonard says. The other trigger was a semi-sarcastic post from the music director and composer Mont Chris Hubbard to his Facebook page: “Congratulations, all you minimum-wage Oregonians, for getting a raise this week! Condolences, all you stipend-receiving theatre performers, for falling even further behind fair pay.”

“A lot of the theaters we go to are already in compliance, so it’s not a problem,” Leonard says. “I don’t believe in cutting off my nose to spite my face,” adds Susan, “so we’ll still buy tickets for other theaters, we just won’t be subscribers or donate. I would love to have some sort of impact; I don’t know if that’s possible.”

For all the variations in ticketing, house sizes, union contracts and so on that Facebook commenters brought up, for the Magazines it comes down to a fairly simple principle. “Are you putting on a show with your friends, or are you hiring,” Leonard says. “If you have a company and have one or two people on staff, you cannot not pay other people. What we’re really saying is: Professional theater companies have to honor the law, or else we can’t honor them.”

*

A well-timed roast

Turning 50 can be a trial. (Or at least, so I dimly recall.) So why would anyone compound time’s indignity with the added slings and arrows of a roast — subjecting oneself to public mockery for the entertainment of others? How about to support your theater company’s working capital fund? That’s good enough reason, apparently, for Scott Palmer, founder and fearless leader of Bag & Baggage in Hillsboro.

*

Opening

Natural and human-made perils surround Martha (Christiana Clark) and Orson (Rodney Gardiner) in the premiere of “The Way the Mountain Moved.” Photo: Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival

After next year, when Oregon Shakespeare Festival artistic director Bill Rauch decamps for Manhattan and his new job leading a new theater at the World Trade Center, arts watchers in these parts may have a hard time deciding what ranks as the greatest part of his OSF legacy. Surely near the top of the list will be American Revolutions, the ambitious play-commissioning program that has produced penetrating, history-themed hits such as Sweat and All the Way. The latest production to spring from that rich well: The Way the Mountain Moved. Playwright Idris Goodwin explores issues around the creation of the transcontinental railroad in the 1850s. May Adrales directs a cast including such OSF favorites as Christiana Clark, Rodney Gardiner, Al Espinosa and Rex Young.

*

Bag & Baggage specializes in remixes; not a DJ’s digital legerdemain, but an historically informed approach to adapting classic plays by reference to not only the original texts but to other centuries-old adaptations or related source material. For instance: As You Like It, or Love in a Forest, adapted and directed by longtime B&B regular Cassie Greer, blends Shakespeare’s great romantic comedy with elements from Charles Johnson’s Restoration-era adaptation Love in a Forest. Among the cast members is Roxanne Stathos, who I’ve not seen in several years but who I recall being quite a terrific young actress in her teens.

*

First reading the description on the CoHo Productions website for #//<EMBEDDED>//#, a solo show by Pratik Motwani — “a one-person multimedia piece of devised theatre that examines the condition of a trapped virtual identity through the lens of a cyber celebrity stuck within the regulating algorithms of a social media platform…” — I was put off by what sounded to me like performance-art self-indulgence and a focus on technology over humanity.

But something about that phrase “trapped virtual identity” intrigued. How can something virtual be trapped, at least in any way that’s meaningful? And so I’m presuming we should pay more attention to a bit further on: “a basement dwelling computer nerd creates a super-cool virtual identity that keeps him from making real human connections because he can’t disconnect.” There’s some humanity — stunted, perhaps, but relatable.

Motwani’s extensive experience as teacher and performer includes international tours with Imago’s mask-theater shows Frogz and ZooZoo, and Philip Cuomo, CoHo’s producing artistic director says he’d had Motwani on his short list for a booking for a few years now. #//<EMBEDDED>//# will be the third of four shows in CoHo’s SummerFest series.

*

Best line I read this week

“When (Lady Dare Bellingdon) suggests to her millionaire father that he may be prejudiced when he calls Labour a party of robbers and thieves, Lord Bellingdon doesn’t disagree: ‘If a man’s got an open mind, he can’t keep anything in it.’”

From a review of the Miles Malleson play Conflict, in The New Yorker.

*

That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time.

Comments are closed.