Paying Performers: How We Got There and Where We’re Going

I’m happy to report that HUGE found an answer to how/when to pay shows and performers, and let our current performers know a few weeks back. All the details, right down to who gets paid what, are in the following post.

Meanwhile, it’s impossible to cover this topic without acknowledging the recent Upright Citizens Brigade controversy, which has sparked a great deal of conversation about the value of opportunity versus money.

I have a Venn diagram in my head of the similarities and differences between HUGE and U.C.B.

Similarities: We offer tons of shows for $5-10 a ticket to encourage audiences to take a chance on new performers and formats. In addition, we recognize that shows subsidize each other, and we make the stage accessible both to veteran performers and to developing talent.

Differences: HUGE doesn’t have to cover Manhattan rent. Also, our stage is unlikely to land performers a sitcom deal at NBC.

Speaking only for myself, I’m as grateful for the differences as for the similarities.

From yesterday’s New York Times article: “There’s a creative vibe at U.C.B., and to maintain it, we can’t pay people,” Mr. [Matt] Besser said in an interview. “If you pay, then you have to assign worth to shows, and then people will resent that.”

Oh, shit! Will paying performers create conflict and ruin the community we’ve built? Are we headed for disaster? (These are honest questions.)

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The real post follows. Thanks, as always, for your interest. I look forward to your comments.

– Molly

About five months ago the Board at HUGE looked at our finances and realized HUGE would be able to start paying performers in 2013. Great news!

So, how do we do this fairly, and without jeopardizing the stability we’ve all worked hard to achieve?

That simple question generated all manner of lengthy spreadsheets and new metrics, from percentages of ticket sales to butts-in-seats. Not to mention the existential crisis of trying to define “market rate ” knowing it has nothing to do with actual value.

Performers at HUGE have lent their patience and professionalism to the theater, in addition to their talent and hard work. We at HUGE owe a debt of gratitude to everyone who has performed at HUGE. That hard work and talent are what allowed the reputation of this theater to grow as a place to see some of the best entertainment in the Twin Cities. And it has contributed immensely to our shared goal of furthering the art of improv.

So here it is. The complete story. It was a tough nut to crack, but I think well worth the effort.

Background on HUGE’s payment model

HUGE Improv Theater is committed to supporting the improv community. As included in our 3-year strategic plan, one of the ways we seek to support this community is by paying performers market rate, either for their skills in teaching, performance, or other theater responsibilities.

Since opening in December 2010, HUGE has paid:

  • Teachers $60/class for teaching, or $600 per 10-class section. This assumes there are enough students/tuition to cover the costs of offering the class.

In August 2012 the theater met its goal to have a minimum of 3 months basic operating funds in cash reserves. At that time HUGE began paying:

  • Administrators approximately $1,000/month, as long as the theater meets its financial goals that month. Currently only Butch and Jill receive a paycheck. Nels and Molly are slated to begin receiving a $400/month stipend, under the same terms.
  • Box Office Manager and Bar Manager earn $100 month
  • Techs, House Managers and bartenders earn $15 a shift
  • Box officers are typically trading hours for classes – they also get a share of  tips from the bartenders

To start, we are paying out shows on Friday and Saturday nights. This is true to our model of using other nights to grow shows: Improv A Go Go on Sundays, plus HUGE Wednesdays as a development space. Under this pilot plan, Show X is not a paid show.

Backdating to January 2013, HUGE will begin paying Friday and Saturday shows. Determining market rate is tricky since most improv companies are run very differently from HUGE.

  • Typical improv model has house players who earn $14-25 per show
  • Brave New Workshop has adopted a salaried structure.
  • Bryant Lake Bowl and other venues give a cut of the door after a minimum, with the performers taking on all production and promotion risk.

The models are different, as is the level of risk and cost the venues take on for production and promotion. What started as a simple idea in our strategic plan to “pay market rate” turns out to be pretty complex. Two conclusions easily reached are: 1) performers should be paid, and 2) very few performers earn income via performance alone, usually it’s the smallest share of income primarily earned through teaching, grants and administration.

Without realistically comparable data, we looked to how we make all our financial decisions. We are continuing our model of paying according to the theater’s ability based on actual income and evaluated month to month. To this end, HUGE will pilot a show payment system based on our current situation, which is:

  • The theater is still working toward long-term financial viability
  • Our current ticket pricing structure for Friday/Saturday nights is unlikely to change in the next year
  • We won’t be able to change that model and take the next step in growth until we are consistently selling out shows

Based on current pricing structure, the Friday/Saturday 8:00 and 9:30 show ticket sales/influence upon each other cannot be realistically tracked independently of one another. Rather than continue to go in circles trying to figure out how to make that happen – efforts to date include a survey, attempts at accurate seat counting, and an evaluation by an PhD candidate in economics and statistics (not a joke) – we are counting these shows as a single $10 block.

The 10:30 show is counted as a single $5 block.

For the pilot program, HUGE will pay out the $10 block based on 75 or more tickets sold. It does not matter which sells out or at what point in the night; only that 75 $10 tickets were sold that evening. (Same for 10:30 show; 75 $5 tickets sold.)

We understand this is imperfect.

Statistically 8:00 sells more tickets and has more audience than 9:30 – that appears to be the nature of audience behavior independent of what shows we offer. Also we’re aware there are other inconsistencies, such as the 8:00 p.m. show is 1:15 versus :45 and typically features a larger cast than the 9:30 p.m. show. Still, we want to get started and need to start somewhere, so this is our approach for now.

Any 75+ ticket night earns:

The 8:00/9:30 p.m. block:  $150 per show – or $300 total split evenly between the groups

The 10:30 p.m. block:  $75 per show

Payment schedule and logistics

Lump payments will be made to each group every 8 or 9 weeks, at the conclusion of most show runs. Groups may opt to have HUGE pay individual performers equally or receive a lump sum check to allow the show’s producer/director to divvy up appropriately. (The second option is most relevant for groups with varying line-ups.)

As an aside, we considered a model that would vary the amounts per week based on the number of tickets sold, but we felt a simpler flat-rate would be more transparent and easier to understand. To that end, we chose a model that rounds up to the maximum amount for performers.

What’s next?

We’ll pilot this system and evaluate how it’s working, based on the theater’s financial health, as well as feedback from performers. We will adjust along the way as needed.

In the end, the process helped us articulate not just what we want to do, but how we want to do it. As a theater, we:

– Pay only what we can afford, but start as soon as we can afford it

– Keep our calculations understandable, and communicate them to everyone with transparency

– Make systems that are as simple and fair as possible. When those ideals come into conflict with one another (as it did in calculating payment share), choose simplicity.