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Working in theater is a grind. But it doesn't have to be

Baltimore Center Stage artistic director Stephanie Ybarra says it's been a tough time to be at the theater.
Sydney J. Allen for NPR
Baltimore Center Stage artistic director Stephanie Ybarra says it's been a tough time to be at the theater.

Recently, Baltimore Center Stage had to cancel its first preview of the season. There was a problem with the giant moon in the background and the lights didn't come in time to be thoroughly tested. For artistic director Stephanie Ybarra, it was ultimately a safety issue.

"The show did not go on as planned," Ybarra said. "And it was because we were not feeling like it was the responsible thing to do."

Ybarra said it's been a tough time to be at Center Stage. Things are moving slower because there's been turnover all around the theater — from the scene shop to the marketing department.

"When we planned this show almost a year ago, we had no idea what the labor market would look like or what our team would look like," Ybarra said. "And having turned over almost the entirety of our production department over the course of the last few months, it's put a tremendous strain on our workers."

Baltimore Center Stage in Maryland recently had to cancel its first preview of the season.
Emily Bogle / NPR
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NPR
Baltimore Center Stage in Maryland recently had to cancel its first preview of the season.

It takes a big team of people to get a show going at a regional theater. You need carpenters, lighting designers, costumers and more. The hours can be long and the pay isn't great. It's often a labor of love. But the shutdowns from the pandemic forced theater workers to ask if theater loved them back.

"A lot of people realized that their identity didn't disappear when they left theater for a year," said Rachael Erichsen, props manager at Center Stage. "And once you realize that, then you do start to weigh those options — are the long hours, is the stress worth it for me?"

Across the country, regional theaters like Center Stage are trying to tip those scales in theater's favor by making big changes. Artistic directors are looking at everything from increasing diversity backstage and onstage and better health insurance, to child care supplements for parents and shorter work weeks.

Changing the scope of a season

At Center Stage, where a normal season might offer six shows, there will be four in the 2022-2023 season. Ybarra said she looked at the labor market and the budget and concluded that, especially post-pandemic shutdowns, the theater simply couldn't do as much. The decision got a lot of blowback with people asking: Why not?

For Erichsen, who's on her sixth season at Center Stage, the move challenged the rise-and-grind culture that she and so many theater workers come up in.

Rachael Erichsen is the props manager at Center Stage. She wonders if the long hours and high-stress situations in the theater industry are worth it.
/ Sydney J. Allen for NPR
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Sydney J. Allen for NPR
Rachael Erichsen is the props manager at Center Stage. She wonders if the long hours and high-stress situations in the theater industry are worth it.

"It's been a transition moving from a certain way of thinking, a certain high," she said. "You get off on the manic energy of creation-just-in-the nick-of-time."

She said she's "realizing that's maybe not a healthy work pattern that we've all been trained and ingrained in." It's a really interesting process, she said, "to retrain our brains, retrain our reward circuits to appreciate a slow, steady, creative energy versus a manic creative energy."

No More 10 out of 12s

After some prompting from the We See You White American Theater movement, Center Stage joined a handful of other theaters pledging to do away with a practice known as "10 out of 12s." It's a shorthand for the hours theater workers put in. It refers to a rule where actors can't work more than 10 hours in a 12 hour day. But once the actors are done, the crew has to go over notes and problem-solve things that didn't work. So days for backstage workers can stretch into 14 hours, 16 hours, if not more. And those last hours always seem to take the most time.

"It's also the least productive time of the day," said Nathan Scheifele, master craftsman at Center Stage, who's on his 19th season. "I would run into the problem where sometimes the Baltimore City light rail would stop running at a certain time. And I'd have to figure out how to then get home."

Center Stage moved to an eight out of 10 workday, drawing praise from Lindsay Jones, a composer and sound designer for theater and film based in New York City and a member of the group No More 10 out of 12s.

"I think that Center Stage has really shown themselves to be a leader in changing their work practices in order to model a more fair and equitable work environment," he said.

Costumes on display at Center Stage.
/ Sydney J. Allen for NPR
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Sydney J. Allen for NPR
Costumes on display at Center Stage.

From Jones' perspective, theater as an industry has a tendency to work on autopilot and avoid any self-reflection. Jones says that when a place like Center Stage makes a move like that, it makes a broader difference.

"Their taking a stand, I believe, really did encourage others to stop and think about what they had been doing in their practices and could they make those changes," he said.

Theater is often a labor of love. But you can't pay your bills in love

When Ybarra first got to Center Stage, her first goal was to increase compensation. Low pay was something she heard about from her staff then and is still hearing about now.

"We're still playing catch-up and trying to keep up," she said.

Getting people paid more, and getting people paid equitably, is difficult considering ticket sales and memberships are down. But for Ybarra, it was a question of holding the theater accountable to its own values. For instance, Ybarra ended the theater's internship program. While the theater paid a weekly stipend and offered its interns housing, Ybarra still considered it exploitative.

"We have people in the building who talked about how they couldn't afford to buy groceries. They would rely on the leftover food from a board meeting. That's how they were feeding themselves. And that is exploitation," she said.

Listen to enough heads of nonprofits talk about values and it's easy to get jaded if nothing happens. But Bridgette Burton, an artistic producing associate who's worked at a number of regional theaters, sees something different at Center Stage.

"Because they're following up," she said.

Bridgette Burton is an artistic producing associate at Center Stage and has worked at a number of regional theaters.
/ Sydney J. Allen for NPR
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Sydney J. Allen for NPR
Bridgette Burton is an artistic producing associate at Center Stage and has worked at a number of regional theaters.

Burton started in January 2021, at first on a contract basis, then full time. She's gotten raises with each evaluation. And beyond just the bump in pay, she says the company has also been uniquely transparent about its finances and budget.

"We get to see the budget and know what goes into it. We had a staff meeting today and there was a section on financial transparency, and that was never the case in other places I've been to," she said.

For workers like Burton and Erichsen, all these changes are reason enough to stay. And there's also the joy in making theater. At the opening night of Our Town, the big moon in the back worked. It nostalgically waned to show the passing of time.

This little tech miracle — in fact, every aspect of a production — requires a lot of different people with different backgrounds and skills to work together. For Ybarra, that's the draw.

"That sense of belonging we feel when we're making theater? It can't be beat. And I want as many people to experience that as possible," she said.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Stephanie Ybarra (left), Bridgette Burton and Rachael Erichsen stand onstage.
/ Sydney J. Allen for NPR
/
Sydney J. Allen for NPR
Stephanie Ybarra (left), Bridgette Burton and Rachael Erichsen stand onstage.

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Andrew Limbong is a reporter for NPR's Arts Desk, where he does pieces on anything remotely related to arts or culture, from streamers looking for mental health on Twitch to Britney Spears' fight over her conservatorship. He's also covered the near collapse of the live music industry during the coronavirus pandemic. He's the host of NPR's Book of the Day podcast and a frequent host on Life Kit.