Another Modest Proposal

So the catchword these days is “transparency.” Obama’s going to put the budget online so taxpayers can look it up, to see how their tax dollars are spent (provided they have time to search through all 700 pages or so). The bank “stress tests” will show which banks are healthy and which need to capitalize to survive tough economic. We’re all striving to be as transparent as ghost shrimp.


Here’s my suggestion. Theatres, large and small, should post on their Web sites a breakdown of how your ticket’s spent.

I’m not saying actual amounts. That’s proprietary information, affected by private salary and contract agreements, and so on. I’m just saying percentages. Whether you buy a ticket at Huge LORT Theatre Productions or at Hardscabble Basement Productions, you can see what percentage of your ticket goes to pay for facilities, marketing, insurance, management, and, most importantly, artists–meaning actors, designers, techies, directors, and writers. What percentage does the playwright or actors get of each dollar you lay down? This isn’t to say artistic directors aren’t artists–there’s an element of art (or at least craft) in pulling a season together. But in a time when CEO’s salaries are coming into question, I think it’s fair to separate management’s percentage from the rest of the artistic staff (though artistic directors sure as hell aren’t pulling down salaries comparable to, say, Wall Street brokerages).

What difference does it make? Well, maybe you’ll find out huge LORT theatre grants a handsome percentage to the artists, and, if you think artists should be recognized, that’s just one more reason to go there. Or you might find that a larger percentage of your ticket paid to low-overhead, tiny theatres charging you $12 or $15 actually goes to the people you see performing or pulling the lights up and down. The way it is now, who knows?

Now, this wouldn’t be a perfect measurement as it doesn’t take in scale: the LORT theatre may pay a smaller percentage to artists than the little theatre but it turns out that percentage is substantially more money, and, similarly, the little theatre may be able to pay artists a bigger percentage because their percentage of overhead is so much lower. And that percentage can’t be directly linked with artistic quality…as far as we know. If we actually had that information, we might be able to deduce relationships that are currently…opaque.

In other words, right now, we don’t know. And if we care about artists getting compensated for their work–and unless we’re going to the theatre to impress a hot date or get invited to parties–art is the reason we go to theatres, then I think it’s fair to ask.

Isn’t it?

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