Getting real about economic justice in theater

Two years ago, right before COVID-19 threw the theater world (and everything else) into a state of uncertainty, four Chicago costume designers — Theresa Ham, Elsa Hiltner, Bob Kuhn, and Christine Pascual — came together to address pay inequity and other employment issues by creating the advocacy group On Our Team. Growing in part out of the Theatrical Designer Pay Resource spreadsheet put together by Hiltner (which provided crowdsourced data on the pronounced difference in pay for costume designers in comparison to other theater design disciplines), the foursome began pushing for salary transparency in job listings in publications such as Playbill as a starting point, in partnership with other advocacy groups such as Costume Professionals for Wage Equity. (They’re still fighting for pay transparency in listings at Backstage.)

Now On Our Team has taken a big next step in the fight for wage equity and safer working conditions by releasing the Pay Equity Standards, providing checklists in three areas — transparency, working conditions, and accountability — for theaters interested in publicly demonstrating their commitment to creating a more equitable workplace.

“On Our Team formed so that we could do stuff like this and do larger-scale organizing that had a little bit more weight behind it than just an individual’s name. It also really came out of the desire to build a community that recognized systemic change and movement forward, even if it was not the end goal, whatever the end might look like, but steps in the right direction that we could celebrate, ”says Hiltner .

Pascual notes that On Our Team’s work has meshed well with the goals of organizations like No More 10 Out of 12s. “Ten out of 12” refers to the theater industry practice (in union theaters) of technical rehearsals before opening where actors are called for 12 hours (with mandated breaks, it comes to ten hours of work). However, for most designers and tech crew, that really comes down to “12 out of 14.” No More 10 Out of 12s says on their website that “this way of working is not only outdated, it’s unsustainable and unethical. It’s particularly harmful to BIPOC artists, disabled artists, as well as artist caregivers trying to grow their families. By continuing to uphold this structure, we are literally forcing people out of this field as well as barring entry to the next generation of workers who can bring new life to it. ”

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