Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Less than the Minimum

Marissa Skudlarek wrestles with some big questions about how we make art and uphold out political/fiscal ideals in a society where funding for the arts is so hard to come by.

Conservatives sometimes condescend to liberals by telling them that their idealistic sentiments are very noble and all, but they’re impractical for the real world. “If you’re a conservative at twenty, you have no heart; if you’re a liberal at fifty, you have no brain,” they say. Isn’t it precious that these sweet young things want to raise the minimum wage and implement universal health care? Isn’t it adorably naïve that they don’t know the harm that that would cause?

Such condescension has always irritated me, as it’s designed to do. It’s so cynical and defeatist, telling us that society just naturally chews up and spits out its poorest and weakest citizens, and nothing can be done to stop this.

Like all young idealists, then, I vowed that I would do better. If I were ever in a position of power, if I ever became an entrepreneur or a “job creator,” I would prove that you can run a successful business on liberal principles. In the meantime, I would stand in solidarity with all those individuals working to promote fairer wages and less inequality: the fast-food workers across America, the airport workers at SEA-TAC, the unpaid interns whose bushy-tailed enthusiasm is so frequently abused.

But now, I’m in a position where I need to get a lot of people to sign on to a project that I’m putting together: the play that I am self-producing this summer. And, well, I’m not revising my larger political views, but I’ve discovered that I need to make compromises, and abandon some of my most fiercely held (but most naïve) beliefs.

The play I’m producing requires nine actors, which is considered a large cast these days. (As a playwright, I love writing large-cast plays and hate that the economics of the American theater discourage this. As a producer, I’m starting to see why “smaller is better.”) Nine actors, plus a director, set and lighting designers, a stage manager, possibly other techies… that’s a lot of people, working long hours to put this show together. So, in doing my initial back-of-the-envelope budget calculations, I quickly realized that I cannot afford to pay my collaborators minimum wage. I can pay them a stipend of a few hundred dollars, which is in line with what other indie theaters pay. But to pay minimum wage would amount to about $1000 per actor, once all rehearsals and performances are factored in.

I had a mini-crisis upon seeing these cruel numbers and realizing the impossibility of changing the system single-handedly. I had honestly thought that I could succeed where others had failed! I had thought that I could support labor, support the arts, support fairness and justice, by following my ideals and paying minimum wage.

In distress, I asked some of my more experienced friends what I should do. One replied, basically, “Is this the hill you want to die on?” He suggested that if I were founding a theater company that regularly produced shows, I might have reason to be concerned about actor salaries; but because the play I’m producing is a one-off, I shouldn’t make “minimum wage” my primary concern.

Another friend tried to get me to see the distinction between McDonalds or Wal-Mart, on the one hand, and myself on the other hand. It is immoral for a CEO to refuse to pay workers a living wage when the company is raking in millions of dollars in profit; but it is not immoral for a self-producing theater artist, who certainly isn’t getting rich from this endeavor, to pay her collaborators a stipend in line with what she can afford. My paying my collaborators minimum wage won’t do anything to solve the larger problem of how to afford to make art in an expensive city like San Francisco. It would be a grand gesture, but it wouldn’t have a real effect on the overall system.

As I was writing this column, someone I follow on Twitter posted a quote by Jessica Mitford: “You may not be able to change the world, but at least you can embarrass the guilty.” It was exactly what I needed to see at this moment. Mitford was a remarkable woman: born into the English aristocracy, she ran away from home to support the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, and eventually ended up in the Bay Area, working as a muckraking journalist. Yet even she realized that one needs to balance idealism and pragmatism. I may not be able to change the world, but I can use this column to start a conversation, and I can continue to advocate in other ways for a fairer society. It’s the least that I can do.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. She’s putting together a production of her play “Pleiades” for summer 2014. For more, visit marissabidilla.blogspot.com or @MarissaSkud on Twitter.