Argh, the sound quality, we know! We had some technical difficulties with our first set of interviews, but we still wanted to share the great things our guests had to say! And don't worry, we've got a brand new mic for Johanna, so she'll sound great moving forward!
Porsche McGovern, Elsa Hiltner, and Jessa-Raye Court join Johanna to discuss feminized labor and achieving pay and labor equity in theatre.
Feminized labor is the incorporation of womxn in the workplace under conditions inferior to men. We see this in theatre where, regardless of gender, costume workers are consistently paid less than their counterparts. There are many reasons, including that NYC costume shops aren't unionized (as opposed to Broadway scenic, lighting, and sound shops), and that we separate the IATSE union for wardrobe (Local 764) from the union for scenic, lighting, and sound stagehands (Local 1). Despite recent achievements, like reaching pay parity on Broadway and Off-Broadway contracts under the IATSE USA 829 Collective Bargaining Agreement, many areas of costume work still lag behind. This is only reinforced by trends in fast fashion, which cheapen the way costumes and clothing are seen by the public.
Resources Mentioned in This Episode:
The 2020 Survey Results
Take The New Survey!
Porsche’s Website & Patreon
On Our Team
Articles by Elsa: Inequity By Design, A Call for Equal Support in Theatrical Design
Theatrical Designer Pay Resource
Can You Sew This For Me? Instagram
Elsa’s Website & Patreon
Costume Professionals for Wage Equity
NYT Article on The Flea
Statement from Resident Artists of The Flea
Collaborator's Agreement from Johanna's Recent Show
Visit our Bookshop for reading recs!
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Donate to Dirty Laundry
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Host: Johanna Pan
Producers: Shayna O'Neill & Johanna Pan
Music: Jay Ong
Audio Engineer: Justin Sabe
Click here for a transcript of this episode.
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Johanna: Hello and welcome to Dirty Laundry: Unpacking The Costume Closet. I’m Johanna Pan and today we’ll be discussing feminized labor and pay equity in theatrical costume design and production. I became aware of this topic when I realized that my friends and colleagues in non-costume design and production fields were getting paid far more than I was for comparable work. I wanted to figure out why and I’ve discovered that the concept of feminized labor has a lot to do with it. In this episode, I’ll sit down and talk with Porsche McGovern, Elsa Hiltner, and Jessa-Raye Court to find out more.
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J: We’ll start with Porsche McGovern, a lighting designer and the author of the annual study Who Designs and Directs in LORT Theatres By Pronoun? I first met Porsche when we worked on Am I? Am I? Am I? by Ming Peiffer at The Flea Theater in New York.
J: Hi, it’s good to see you.
P: It’s nice to see you too.
J: Tell us more about Who Designs and Directs for LORT Theatres.
P: People. People design. I know that seems really simplistic, but really, uh, sometimes I think the larger theatre field forgets that. Right? That like, oh, they’re just, they magically come in and do things but they’re, we don’t actually have to pay attention to them as human beings, right, cause we’re paying them for their product. And you’re like, oh ok, but it’s a collaborative artform, right. So at the heart of it, y- if you take care of people, they’ll be able to do their best work, right, which is the hope in all these situations. Of course what would I know? I haven’t been in a theatre since January. Um.
P: Mmmm maybe it’s not like that anymore.
P: Um right uh, so who designs? Um so costumes, right, um, it’s, it’s, it’s funny to me that when I do the study people are frequently like, well, there are more numbers of he designers at the highest levels ‘cause there are more number of them at the lower levels, right. And you’ve got to pay your dues and work your way up and all those things we say. But then you look at costumes and costumes is not like that, right. From 12, uh, from the ’12-’13 to the ’17-’18 season, right, in D theatres you have over 75%, uh, she designers in costumes, but then you get to the A Plus level, which granted is much smaller, right, you know it’s something like 10 to 12 shows a season at the A Plus level versus several hundred, right, somewhere in the two-to-three, somewhere in that middle, um, at the D level you get 61, almost 62% at the A Plus level. So why does, why do the number of she designers go down as you go up if they’re more in the, right, more at the D level, right. So that argument doesn’t hold up. People frequently make that argument and then I point to costumes and go it’s not just having more she designers at the lower levels that’s gonna impact the higher levels, right. And people are like, well, give it time. And I’m like, oh ok, I’ve been doing this study for awhile now, right. It’s not forever, right. Um, but that’s the same argument people make about p- like pipeline, right. Where it’s like oh, well if we get more she designers and more designers of color in grad school, obviously it will, it will change the pools later. And I’m like mmmm, so essentially you’re forgoing any agency to make decisions now because you’re going to wait for a mythical future where suddenly you’ll achieve gender parity or, you know, whatever their version of gender parity is in a decade or two.
P: Right, it’s the argument that like, well there aren’t enough designers of color who are qualified now. And I’m like, well that’s not true, right. There are plenty of designers qualified now and 10 years ago and there will be more in 10 years, right. But people don’t magically become qualified, right, which I frequently think people forget. People forget in, in theatre, right, that it’s, it’s not just you got a BFA, you got an MFA, you have an MFA from one of the elite schools and now look you obviously will be designing in the regional theatre system. That works that way for some people, but not most. Ok, I don’t know if not most, because I haven’t studied the elite grad schools, to tell you the truth. But-
J: That would be an interesting subject to study, wouldn’t it? To see like how many people from each school are still working.
J: And what, and what the mix is from each school.
P: Yeah, or even to just know, you know, ok, in this particular class what, what were your percentages? How do people self-identify. But again, it’s got to be self-identified data, right, because otherwise you, it leads to, like, whoever’s filling out the survey guessing. And we all know that doesn’t-
J: Tell, tell me more about that. Yeah, tell me more about that.
P: So with self, right, you want to know how people identify themselves, right.
P: Because unless they’re filling out the form, right, you will have people who guess based on generally appearance, right. Or name, right. Uh, long ago when I went to college, I showed up to my first day of orientation and, you know, I said my name and they went, oh we thought you were gonna be a redhead with freckles. And I went, no, um, I’m not, but where’s my, where’s my dorm room? Right, at 18, you know, so. And people over the years of the study, right, have, have very much wanted race/ethnicity data and-
P: I’ve always been like it has to be self-identified. I can’t… And they’re like, well, but couldn’t you just sort of? And I’m like, no, there’s no just sort of. There’s no way for me to personally know over, back then, 2000 designers. Right, now it’s like 2500 or something. There’s, there’s no way for me to know that with any real accuracy. It’s like yes, I think I know the vast majority of at least lighting designers of color, right, either by reputation or personally, but, I, yeah. It’s not ethical, right, like it’s not ethical for me to even pretend to guess or try. And that’s why I’m hoping, so I put out the survey this last summer hope, and I’m hoping lots and lots of people will fill it out. But even then, right, with demographic data you can’t extrapolate from, like, this 30% filled it out to, like, oh this is what the hundred percent must look like. You can do that-
P: - with things on opinion, but you can’t really do that for demographics, right. Particularly-
J: Yeah, how many people have you gotten so far?
P: 300 and like 40 something or other. Uh-
J: Out of 2500?
P: Yeah. Well, no, it’s more like 300 out of the 2500 designers and like 42 directors of the something like 800 directors. Um, I’m hoping for more. I’m hoping when the study comes out showing this next year’s data that many people will read the new article and be inspired to take the new survey.
P: I hope.
J: Yeah, it, it is, can you tell me a little bit more about why you started doing the survey?
P: Why? Uh, cause no one would hire me. Uh, that’s the short answer. Do you want the long answer?
J: Yeah, give us the long answer.
P: Alright, the long answer-
J: We’ve got time.
P: Uh, I had a kid, right, um, she turned one and it seemed like everybody in the industry figured out I had a kid, right, like it took them a year to be like oh, that’s a child. But I was not, you know, like I know secret babies happen in theatre but I was not secretive about it, um, I was just like here’s my kid, um. And there she is. And suddenly I went from fairly reliably like eight-to-12 projects a year, right, to no inquiries, no offers, um, nothing. And my child napped very well, she napped for three hours a day, but you could not make any noise. I mean, like, I could not fold laundry, it was too loud. Um, but I could very, I figured out if I was three rooms over I could very softly type, right, like very gently type.
P: Um so um, you know I had a three-hour gap where I suppose I could’ve napped, right, like thinking in retrospect I could have got, like caught up on my sleep during that time, but it never occurred to me. And I thought, well, I’ve been wondering about this question since I was, hm, a year or two out of undergrad, right. So, you know, I’d been wondering about that question for about a decade and thought well, I’ll just, you know, all the theatres will obviously have all their designers listed. I’ll just, I’ll just go try to figure it out and see what happens. Uh, and the thought was, to tell you the truth, like, oh maybe I’ll do a little thing of pie charts like on my own Facebook page, maybe even send it to a few friends. That was about it, really. Um, and then I got the numbers through a long process, uh, you know, it took me a solid seven, eight months that first year to get like, oh, to get to 70% of theatres confirming their data. Uh, you know, and stats folks have asked me later why did you pick 70%? Where did that come from? And I’m like, because when I was a kid, that was passing. Right like you passed the grade if you got 70%. And they’re like, you know you could’ve gotten 30. And I’m like, oh, nope, I did not know that. I would not have worked so long if I had known that. No, that’s not true, I probably still would’ve (mumbles). But you know, um, then I got the numbers and they were much worse than even I thought they were going to be. Right because I’m a, I’m a woman lighting designer, so I thought well, you know, I’ve been mentored by several women who are also lighting designers, and it’s gotta be in its high or at least mid-20 percents, right? Somewhere in there. And then it came back and it was like 13.9 I think that first year, and I was like, over the ’09 to ’13-’14 seasons and I was like, oooh. Oh this is bad, right, like this is, this is, um, much worse than I had imagined. But with great power comes great responsibility. So then I, I pitched it to Howlround, um, because I wanted everyone to have it, right, and I wanted everyone to have it for free. And I liked the commons model that Howlround uses and still uses today. And they said yes, um, which I’ve always been a little surprised by, to tell you the truth. Um, because I had, right, I had no writing experience. I don’t have a stats background. Um, I’m not a professor, right, and you know I, I was actually quite surprised that they were like, yes, show us, show us what you’ve got. And I was like oh, ok, here are my pie charts. And then it went out in the world and even then I thought, oh, this is going to be a one year thing, right. Because by then I started getting offers and inquiries again and I was like oh, great, I’ll go back to being a lighting designer, right? And, um, I got so much feedback that first year, mostly positive, not all positive, but mostly positive. And the ones that struck me the hardest were, uh, my fellow women designers who were like I, I had no idea it was this bad. Right because when I’m on a show, there’s always a woman on the show, right? And I, you know, I, you know, talking to my peers in my same discipline they always said well, but look at you, right, you’re working. Um, and it’s so nice to know I’m not crazy. And I was like, oh, I’m so sorry that the industry for so long has made you feel like y- you just must not know enough, right, to take your own feelings seriously. And I was like, well, I could do it for one more year. Right like, it was a lot of time, it was a lot of work, but I don’t have that many more shows coming, so I’ll keep doing it. The work has snowballed, you know, it started with one, or I started with one chart back in 2015 was the first, um, article to come out. And now I think this year’s got 49 charts? Because I just kept learning more ways to, um, look at the data and present the data and actually, you know, the data from ’12-’13 to ’18-’19 has a whole new way to look at what I’ve been calling prolificity, right, how prolific designers are. Because I get so many questions about those charts that I was like, ok, I’m going to try a whole new way to do this and hope it, it makes more sense to folks, right.
J: Yeah, because I think that the, some of the things that I think really fascinated me about the research that you’re doing, um, I think part of it was that, like, I always find that I am often the only woman or person of color on a team. Um, and I think that’s actually really, I, I and I think that was actually really interesting to see that, right, like it’s common for costume designers specifically and also coming back to this notion of feminized labor that, like, costume designers are often the only women on the team. And what does that mean for the rest of the team who’s then usually very male and in my experience usually very white. But that’s not something that we have in this data just yet.
P: Not yet, but hopefully soon, right.
J: Fingers crossed, yeah.
P: I, I am hopeful and I’m also hopeful that, like, if I, if I don’t get enough entries by when I would need to, like, ok this is when you need to start doing the analysis of numbers in 2021, maybe I’ll get them by 2022, right.
P: Uh, you know I’ve sort of committed, in my head at least, to doing this survey for 10 years. Right that, that this year will be year six and so if it takes a little longer, I’ll still be here.
J: Hey, Porsche, is there anything else you would like to plug for us today?
P: I mean, you, uh, your audience can find my work on Howlround, right. Um, it’s probably easiest to just search my name, right, which is Porsche, spelled like the car, um, P-O-R-S-C-H-E. And then you’ll see all the, all the years of, um, articles. Yeah, so I have a Patreon which lets me keep doing the study and buy things like printer ink so I can print the charts. Uh, which is super exciting for me because when you print the charts you can get the sense of trends because you can lay them all out versus, um, you know, on the screen it’s like I can’t see, I can’t even see, they’re too small. But the Patreon lets me do cool things like that, which I appreciate, and pay for software, all the things I use to keep the survey and study going. Um, so if folks want to find me there, I’d appreciate it. Take the survey! I’d appreciate that more than anything. It’ll be in the show notes because it’s long and there’s lots of numbers involved.
J: Thank you so much for talking to us today, Porsche.
P: Of course. You know I love you.
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J: We’re so grateful Porsche could join us to discuss the invaluable data that she’s collected. Now that we’ve heard a bit about the numbers, let’s talk to Elsa Hiltner, a Chicago-based costume designer and wardrobe stylist, about her experiences with labor organizing and On Our Team.
Hi everyone, and we’re here today with Elsa Hiltner, who’s a Chicago-based costume designer, wardrobe stylist, and labor organizer. And I first saw her work in an essay called A Call For Equal Support In Theatrical Design and I’ve been following her work ever since. And I’m so excited to be able to have her here today to talk about feminized labor. Hi Elsa!
Elsa: Hi, thank you so much for having me. I am really excited about this podcast and, um, can’t wait to listen to all the episodes. And I’m so honored to, um, be on it with you too.
J: We’re so happy to have you. Ok, Elsa, so if you could just share a little bit more about who you are and how you got started in all of this work.
E: So I’m a costume designer based in Chicago and, um, a freelance costume designer mostly. And I do wardrobe styling occasionally for commercial stuff, but mostly theatre. And I, um, probably about five or six years ago got really interested in, um, garment labor issues in the fashion industry and consumer issues like that. And, um, that really, um, ticked off realizing the own system that we work in as costume designers and understanding that, um, the issues that I was so passionate about that garment workers were facing were exactly the same issues that I was facing as a costume designer. And, um, just realized that there wasn’t that much written about it and, um, it was kind of something that costume designers talked about with themselves, um, but that there was some real room for change if we organized and, um, you know talked about it and put it in words, that kind of thing.
J: Yeah, it’s so fascinating because I feel like I keep trying to look for books or people who have written about this topic and there’s just so little out there that actually even talks about what it is. So if you could just for me, like, define what does feminized labor mean to you?
E: Yeah, so, um, I mean it’s, it, it feels like women’s work and the way that women’s work is defined as, um, things that, you know, like female-identified people do and also that is not, um, like, it’s not necessary to compensate that in any meaningful way. It’s just kind of expected and, um, you know, in addition it’s, um, you know, not just for women. It’s also like anybody who does that kind of work is penalized in that way that, like, we penalize people who are women or act like women or do female sort of things. Um, and so, um, you know it comes with, like, the unpaid labor of, you know, housework or those sorts of things, childcare. But then also like, when you’re looking at garment work, like the unpaid labor of, um, you know the extra work that costume designers do, how, how it’s compensated. First off, you know, like stitchers not being paid as well as carpenters or scenic painters, that sort of thing. Um and then you know it affects, um, anybody who has that job regardless of what gender they are.
J: Right, because I remember, and this is something that I think my first awakening to this problem. Because we didn’t have this problem in colleges, right, like, or at least like when we were working in the shops in school, everyone was kind of paid the same amount of money, so that wasn’t actually an issue. It wasn’t something that I ever clarified for myself in my mind. And it wasn’t until I graduated and I think I applied for a job at a costume shop in New York City and the starting rate for a stitcher for a Broadway costume shop was $11 an hour. And I, I just remember we had this thing called Field Studies in undergrad where we all came to New York City. Uh, we got to tour different theatres and, like, meet alumni and talk to them about their work. And I remember having seen a Local 1 paystub. And that was like a really big thing because when we went to visit a theatre, one of the Local 1 guys just, like, handed us his paystub and he was like, here, this is how much on Broadway. You should know this number because it’s an important number to rate everything up against. Um, and I just remember that $11 an hour being so far away from any of that. And I was just kind of appalled that, like, how could anyone make a living in New York City on $11 an hour with rent?
E: Yeah, yikes.
J: Yeah, and-
E: I mean, I, I feel like, like, my college education really missed out on a lot of the business side and the reality side of, like, navigating the world as a freelance designer and negotiating and contracts and all of that. And, um, you know, like, colleges also have lots of issues as far as, like, the paid staff, right? I mean, it’s like maybe they pay those students all the same but faculty and staff is, uh, pretty important. Um but yeah, I mean that also, like, speaks to how important transparency is, right? Like if you had not seen that pay stub, would you have known the, like, gravity of that $11 an hour? Aside from like the actual, like, monetary amount and how to, like, support yourself. But, like, you know, would you have like known how inequitable it was?
J: Yeah, I think the other shoe finally dropped when my partner, uh, moved to New York City. And he is a sc- at the time he was looking for work as a scenic carpenter. And he was getting paid probably like 20, 22 dollars right off the bat. And this was working at Off-Broadway scenic shops. And I remember, like, there was a moment where I was so, when I heard that number I was so furious because I felt like I had been struggling to fight for $20 an hour in Broadway costume shops and he was just walking in, a fresh grad, I was two years out, he was walking in a fresh grad and getting 22 right off the bat. And I just remember being so angry, um, and I tried to express, I, I realized I didn’t have the words. I didn’t know how to articulate how unfair and unjust that moment was. And I was trying to explain to him this anger and he just didn’t get it. Uh, it was a long night and a long conversation. And he gets it now but you know it’s hard to see.
E: Yeah and it’s such a universal experience, I feel, for people that work in the costume and garment fields, you know like I feel like we’ve all had that moment. And also, like, one of the issues I have with, like, the term pay equity is that so often it’s defined as like within the same job title. And so there’s, like, you know, all, all stitchers are paid this amount and all carpenters are paid this amount and all costume designers this amount, and that’s pay equity. But it’s not actually equitable when you, like, put those things in relationship to each other. And that’s really important when you’re talking about, like, the holistic, like, space that a company takes and the way the workers work within a company and collaborate within a company. And, um, you know it’s, that’s, you know, been a little bit of an uphill battle, um, talking with companies about pay equity. They’re like oh, well everybody is paid the same within this area or this area, but they don’t look at the relationship between those.
J: Yeah, it’s hard to explain that, I guess for me a scenic carpenter doesn’t necessarily even need a master’s degree, but so many drapers do, right? And so many drapers and craftspeople-
E: Yes, right.
J: - have in costumes in particular have master’s degrees in how to make things. Because the things that we do, it’s engineering too. We engineer, basically-
J: - sculptures on humans that dance and move and do crazy feats of magic eight times a week.
E: Right, right. It’s building the directions, it’s not just following them.
E: Um, which is, uh, a big difference. Yeah, it’s just amazing that people don’t see, um, stitching work or garment making as, like, the skilled labor it is, because it’s incredibly skilled. I mean, like, to set a sleeve or a zipper? You know, those are pretty basic.
J: Oh, so hard!
E: But also, how many people can do that? Right, I mean, that’s like, you know, (laughs), that’s not even drafting.
J: There’s an Instagram account called Can You Sew This For Me? Have you ever seen it?
E: No. It sounds amazing though.
J: Oh, it’s, it’s, it’s basically like a list of conversations that people have who are like, I saw this dress online and it cost $200. Can you make it for me for $10? And it’s just like, that doesn’t even begin to cover the cost of the fabric, guys, come on.
E: Yeah, that’s crushing.
J: I guess that maybe we can talk a little bit about how the idea of feminized labor began, especially for garment workers, right. Because to me it, like, kind of starts in the Industrial Revolution. How bout, what about, what do you think?
E: Yeah, yeah, I mean that’s how I’ve always seen it too. That like, you know, prior to the Industrial Revolution, um, men had most of the paid tailor jobs. The Industrial Revolution happened, there were these garment shops, they needed cheap labor that was expendable and they brought in women to do that. And, um, that kind of set up, you know, I feel like everything, you know the Industrial Revolution changed a lot of things obviously, but you know, really set up the way that, um, women’s labor is, um, not, um valued. And, um, also interesting at the same time we have this, like, Victorian, like beginning of toxic masculinity and, you know, like all of this stuff feels very, um, intertwined. And the way that, um, you know, feminized labor’s also penalizing men who associate with women’s work. And, um, you know, very toxic masculinity in that way. Um, and so, um, you know, it’s 100 years, 150 years, however you want to define what the Industrial Revolution was. But like later, and we’re still working in this mode of, you know, having mostly women and mostly underpaid women, um, create garments in whatever field you’re in.
J: And it’s also fascinating because women, it’s not like the Industrial Revolution happened and women started making clothes starting at the Industrial Revolution. Women have been making clothes since the beginning of time, but it’s men that were paid for this work-
J: -earlier, before the Industrial Revolution. And it wasn’t actually until the Industrial Revolution that women really started getting actually paid to be dressmakers.
E: Yeah, yeah, I think there was like a, like a pretty good, like, cottage industry sort of thing, at least in Western history, you know. Like women would, you know, would like work out of their home, you know, like that kind of thing.
J: But not well-paid.
E: Not necessarily, like, in a-
E: In like a professional capacity that like we recognize as, you know, contributing to society and all of that.
J: I would love to talk a little bit about why feminized labor is problematic and specifically, like, how, like how the way that we view feminized labor and how it’s problematic for us and how we think about our clothing and the way that we dress.
E: Part of it is we can buy clothes for so cheap, right? You can get a blazer for like $15 at Old Navy. And because you can get a blazer for $15, when you ask a costume designer to build a drafted blazer, it seems like a very simple, easy thing. It’s gotta be quick. You know, what’s $15? Like maybe that’s an hour of work, uh, maybe? And that’s kind of like how people think about it and, um, and so that affects, you know, how we value people’s time. And then also, like, this idea that, um, you know there’s all of this unpaid labor that goes into this, because obviously you can’t build or, you know, pattern a blazer in an hour. Um, all this unpaid labor that goes into it. And, um, you know, whether or not it’s being explicitly asked for, it’s being asked for. And, um, you know the way that women can’t, or don’t feel like they can, um, ask for, um, more hours paid or higher pay. And, um, you know obviously it’s not just women, it’s um, you know, pretty much any, uh, group that’s been marginalized in, in whatever way they’ve been marginalized. I just want to be, like when I say women it’s not just, it’s not just women in the, you know, in that sense.
J: Yeah, I remember there was this story that I heard from a design, from a different designer. Because it, like, affects our budgets, right? Like it goes all the way up. And producers-
J: -the way they set our budgets, they kind of assume that we’re going to be shopping at Old Navy, at H&M, at Forever 21, and that’s the price of how much they budget for an outfit of clothing. So for example, like, so many budgets I get-
J: I get given maybe $50 to $100 for a contemporary show per person. And that’s like all of their looks too, so you’re assuming that there’s a stock to pull from, uh, and you’re also assuming that all of this clothing is coming from places where clothing is cheap and, and the cheapness of the clothing comes in the labor and the conditions under which that clothing is made. The cost of the clothing comes out of the environment, in terms of synthetic materials and like cheap fabrics that we use to make, to make that clothing. So this idea of feminized labor, just, it kind of trickles down and it affects so many more people than just us as costume designers or costume technicians. Um-
E: Yeah, definitely.
J: The story I remember, it was so fascinating because this designer basically walked into a room full of producers who had told her that her budget was smaller than she wanted it to be. Um, and she went around the room asking each producer to tell her how much money their suit cost, how much money their shirt cost, how much money their haircut was, and their glasses, and their cufflinks, and their socks and their shoes. And she asked them each to add it all up and then tell her how much money that outfit that they were wearing into the room cost.
J: And basically broke it down. And she made her case and she got more money in her budget, because she was able to show them that a good outfit that looked expensive or, like, represented something that was not just cheap contemporary clothing wasn’t cheap.
E: Yeah. That’s a, I mean that’s a great way to do it. And I, I mean the disconnect, right, that happens is just astounding. That you actually have to ask people to add up what they wear to, you know, make that connection for them. Yeah, that’s amazing.
E: I think the other thing is, like, you know, as somebody who’s concerned about labor issues and women in garment work and all of that, like, I don’t want to buy clothes from Old Navy.
J: I don’t!
E: Like, I don’t want to support the garment industry. And it, obviously it’s not just Old Navy, it’s like pretty much anywhere you buy clothing. But, like, I don’t wanna do that. And so, um, I end up thrifting a lot. It’s better for the environment, obviously. And um, then I know that I’m not supporting, um, you know, like this garment industry that’s just so, um, toxic to the people and the environment that, um, it’s in. And, uh, you know that also takes more time.
E: And, you know it’s, uh, not necessarily cheaper, but it’s definitely better. Um and so, you know, also that tends to be, it’s like, you know as a costume designer, like, I will take on that unpaid labor of, like, putting in that extra time to do that in the way that I feel is the right and better way to do it. Um, but then again you’re in that same situation of, um, (laughs), you know somebody is doing the unpaid labor. Well it’s, and it’s so hidden, you know like, as a consumer, unless you are, like, seeking out information about the garment industry, it’s really hidden. And, like, you know, you don’t think about those sorts of things unless you follow news sources that cover that. And it’s really not, like, your standard news source. And I feel it’s the same, um, thing in theatre where, like, as an audience member or as a donor or a foundation, like, do they know what labor issues are happening within the theatre industry, or like the pay inequities or just the low rates of pay that, um, you know. You think about, like, you know, big theatres in Chicago, for instance, that pay, you know, $500 for an assistant. And these are like the big theatres. (Laughs)
E: And like I would be amazed if, um, if people seeing those shows thought that. You know I think there’s this image that, like, theatre artists are making lots of money, we’re really successful. The theatres are big fancy buildings. There’s kind of like a glamour to being an artist. And, um, you know, I think there’s this image that, um, you know, designers who are working at Steppenwolf or the Goodman or, you know, whatever theatre you wanna pick are, um, you know, making a good amount of money and being successful, and it’s just not really true in that way.
J: I know, I remember hearing that, I think, Willamstown Theatre Festival, which is very well known, pays their designers, like, $1000 per show.
E: Yeah, it’s nuts.
E: I mean, it’s just, you know, did you know about, like, the normal pay rates like this when you were in college, or-
E: Was it, was it ever talked about?
J: We never talked about it. And I think that’s the other part is that like it’s not something that is actually discussed. Because we don’t, we never talked about the politics of it. We never talked about, um, gender inequities. We never talked about race inequities. Like that just never was something that came up, uh or, I think that something that people were cognizant of having a conversation about. I think that’s changing, um, because that was also awhile ago and people are, I think, more aware now than they used to be, um-
E: Yeah, yeah, I-
J: But yeah, no, that wasn’t something we ever talked about. No one ever told us not to take an unpaid internship. In fact, they had sent all of us to Williamstown. I didn’t do it, but a lot of my friends did. Yeah.
E: Yeah, yeah, I mean I was told, um, to like always, if you were offered a job, always take it, because you never who’s gonna be working there that will, like, lead you to the next thing. Which is just, like, terrible advice.
J: So, that’s actually like, that’s part of the problem, right? Because we work in an industry that, uh, all of our work or, like, a lot of our work is based on word of mouth. So, like, it feels like you can’t stand up for yourself because you risk burning bridges, but when having-
J: -like, ground to stand on, or like morals, or like a, how do, I don’t even know how to put it, like a, like an ethos to stand by. And it feels like hard to sometimes fight for yourself, because if you fight for yourself you suddenly become, especially when you’re a woman or person of color, like you become the angry person in the room who’s then fighting for things and being petty and asking about money. But I feel like as costume designers we also handle our own budgets, so we’re always dealing with money, we’re always talking to producers about money.
J: We’re always the women haggling over money. (Laughs)
E: (Laughs) Yeah, that’s so true. And also like, you know, this is a, um, collaborative field and we’re also often working with people who we like or friends of ours. And I felt like on, um, you know some negotiations that have been very contentious over, you know, there was a show that I did that, um, all the other designers were offered 2000 and I was offered 1500. And all the other designers had labor support and I did not. And, um, you know I felt like I had to pick one, either ask for money or ask for labor support. So I asked for the money. And it was an incredibly contentious negotiation over $500. And, um, it lasted weeks and they threatened me with legal action and it was just, it was awful. And it was on a show that I deeply cared about. I was friends with many of the other designers on the team and, um, you know, there was a point where I was like I might walk away from this show, you know, two weeks before it opens, having done no, nothing with the costumes. And, you know, really screwing them over in a way that I did not want to do. But because I was not going to do the design for less than the other designers were offered. And you know, it’s like a very difficult spot to be in. But then also we’re working with people we care about, working with people we wanna work with again, um, it just, it’s really difficult. And also no one should be put in that situation, right? Like this, this should be so apparent and clear to everybody that, um, you know pay equity is important and, um, numbers matter and how we value work matters. Um, but just the way that’s it’s, um, you know, and it’s, it’s done to the people who are easy, like it’s done to people who they can get away with the easiest, right. So it’s like who’s marginalized, who can’t negotiate for themselves, like, that’s who gets less money. And, um, you know, we don’t often see it because we don’t see contracts before we sign ours. And I was lucky on that one that I knew the other designers and had asked them before I signed mine. Um but, you know, it shouldn’t be up to luck. It shouldn’t be, you know, labor that you have to do on your own to find out. It should be all out there in the open.
J: In all of that, did you ever talk to the other designers to help stand with you in negotiations for this company?
E: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So I, this was a, um, the second production of this show. And the first production of that show, I had just, it wasn’t like a bad negotiation, it just took me awhile to get them to add a sentence to the contract that I needed and so it was just, like, an ongoing thing. And so I was just like this time around, would everybody wait to sign contracts until we all have the language we need? And they were like, yeah, sounds great. So when the contracts came through, people were really, um, transparent and forward with, like, here’s what’s in my contract. And that’s when I realized, because other people were like, oh I’m getting 2000 or whatever. Um that’s when I realized mine was less and, um, everybody agreed to not sign their contract until I had mine. And um I didn’t get to the point where I had to tell the producer that no one else had signed their contract for that reason, that if I didn’t sign mine that like, you know, it was a bigger problem than just me, but, um, you know that was, um, really helpful to have in my back pocket. And also to know that the other designers understood and supported what was happening and um were there, you know, if I needed to pull that card out. Um and I know other designers have done that too. I don’t know if you’ve ever been in that situation, but I’ve heard of that, that similar sort of like mini-union.
J: Yeah, I think for me more often what has happened is pay transparency. So like really just talking very openly about what’s in our contract. If we are getting assistant help or like what the labor, assistant labor is like. Or even things down to, like, per diem and, like, our reimbursements or, um, how much we’re getting paid. And you don’t have to know the person, the other designers on the team, to even say something, right? Like you can just send them an email, like if you know who the other people are, you can just reach out to them and ask them how much they’re getting paid, what their contract looks like. And people are often so willing to share, they’re just afraid of reaching out and sometimes talking to people that we don’t know about money first, right.
E: Sure. I feel like, though, that often I don’t know who’s on the team until I’ve signed the contract. And that really affects my ability to find out what they’re being paid and then to know if my contract is fair. I, um, I did this thing this summer where I emailed every, um, theatre in Chicago that’s part of the League of Chicago Theatres to see if they’d talk to me about pay equity and, um, about a third of them responded. So I did I think just under 50, um, interviews with, um, the leadership from theatre companies of all sizes. And one thing that I learned from those interviews is that they also, like, don’t really know how to, like, gauge labor and what the numbers should be. And they’re just kind of going off what they think the norms are. And, like, not necessarily having much confidence in how they decide the pay numbers. And that was, like, hugely eye-opening, right? But also that’s like a really easy thing to fix, you know? It’s kind of like the best scenario. (Laughs) Because, you know they want to know what’s right and they want to do it right, they just don’t know. And what we’re going off is, like, the norms of the industry, and like norms in quotes, you know? And, um, all we have to do is say, like, these norms are not normal. They’re not equitable, they’re not fair, they’re biased in all sorts of ways. Here’s what we need to be doing and, um, and then we can actually, you know, people, I, I really think, you know, doing the interviews really changed my views of, like, how theatre companies operate and like their role in this system and, um, how complicit they are. And I really think that most people that are running theatre companies wanna do it right and just don’t really know how and are just doing it the way it’s always been done. And not thinking about it and not thinking about the implications or how it affects individual people.
J: Yup, that’s really unfortunate and I hope that maybe listening to this conversation will help them think about that a little harder. Elsa, can you tell me a little bit more, what’s this work with On Our Team? Can you tell me a little bit more about that?
E: I, I wrote An Equal Call for Support in Theatrical Design, um, very much on my own, having only had, like, little conversations with other designers, but not having a big network of designers that were in my circle. Unless I had, um, assisted somebody or had somebody assist me, I didn’t really know many costume designers and, um, I’m also not in the union so there’s, you know, that extra kind of, like, isolation within the industry. And so, um, I wrote that not knowing that the union was, um, forming a costume committee in Chicago about these same issues. And so, um, once that essay came out I was connected with the costume designers who were, um, organizing that. And, um, you know it’s Jenny Mattis and Christine Pasquale and Janice Patel and a bunch of others, um, and um, so there was this kind of movement to have collective action, um, around these issues of, um, labor support. That kind of felt like the first step for a lot of us, you know, and then pay equity is, you know, the second part of it. Um, and, so um, you know, we had monthly meetings and, you know, there was action going on there, um, which really made some changes in Chicago. And then um, I was kind of, uh, how should I, I don’t know. You know, like, working individually you can accomplish some things, but if you have a group and an organization that’s not a single person you can accomplish other things. And so, um, Christine Pasquale and Theresa Hamm and Bob Coon were all kind of also doing things individually and speaking out individually and, um, it felt like forming a group we could do things that we weren’t able to do individually. And so, um, the first thing we did was, um, we had a, um, a letter petition for the League of Chicago Theatres to require clear rates of pay on their job board. Which I had asked for, you know, just like me emailing them in the past and not gotten a response because, you know, they didn’t know me. (Laughs) You know, um, but then when you have a group it’s not just like, you know, Elsa doing this or, you know, whoever doing this. And so we had like 700 people sign the letter and it was instant. You know, we sent the letter to the League, they made the change, you know, within a week. It was, um, just made things, made that action much easier. And so, um, we’ve been, um, you know, the, the pandemic really interrupted it, as it’s interrupted a lot of things, but we’re working on, um, creating pay equity standards so that theatre companies can kind of sign on to this list of standards. Say we’ll do these things, we’ll be transparent with our pay, we’ll um, you know, have a, um, pay equity audit so we know, you know, where we need to have areas of growth. These sorts of things that companies can sign onto pretty easily that also, um, kind of have a road map to, like, making better decisions and, um, establishing a pay equity policy. Um and so, you know, having something like that that companies can sign onto, um, to kind of keep the conversation going and actually, um, encourage companies to have action and give them some steps. Cause, um, the other thing that came out of these interviews this summer is that theatre companies don’t really know what to do and they want to be told what to do and how to do it. And, um, I feel like as a, as a group, we can, we can do that for them.
J: Great. Yeah, so I was just going to ask you, what are some of the other ways that together we can combat this? So for example, like, I know for me, even in my personal practice, um, especially when I work as an assistant, what I often do is that they tell me what the fee is and then I break it down into manhours, or person-hours. Um, of like if the fee is $2000 and my hourly rate is $20 an hour which, for like New York City, um, if you look at what other assistants are making and other technicians are making is already on the low end, I’d be like, ok, that’s about 100 hours worth of work. 100 hours worth of work is, um, two and a half weeks. So you have me for two and a half weeks as a shopper, as an assistant doing what you need me to do. And then once I hit those hundred hours, I’m going to tap out. I’m going to say I don’t work anymore unless I get paid hourly-
J: -or there’s additional compensation. And for me that has been very successful, like especially with the designers and the producers that I’ve worked with. Because once I found that once I break it down into hours, people understand the value of the amount of money that they’re offering. But that’s how I’ve personally done it. So I’d be curious to hear any other strategies that you have in order to help combat all of this.
E: Yeah, I think that’s great. I mean, um, I think that, um, more producers should break things down hourly. (Laughs) You know we have this, like, weird fee-based system, um, and um, it’s just, it’s, it’s like perfect for inequity, you know? (Laughs) But I think, um, it’s important that it’s not just costume designers, um, working for labor equity and pay equity, that we have, um, anybody can do this if they’re involved in theatre. If you are just a patron of theatre, you can, you know, call the company and ask them do they have a pay equity policy? How do they break down fees? Um, you know, board members should definitely be doing this when they see annual budgets. They should be asking, um, you know how does the executive pay relate to, you know, the lowest paid person, um, within the company? Or, um, how different artists are paid in relationship to each other. Um, and I think, um, you know, um, every company should have clear rates of pay on all job postings. There should never be based on experience. There should never be, you know, my, my favorite is the there is pay. Like, what? What does that even mean, you know? Like just this idea that we don’t have to pay, I mean that’s like the underlying message behind that, is that, like, the pay is like a bonus!
E: Like oh, there’s pay! No.
J: I feel like the one that I’ve seen online that has been really helpful is the clear, uh, wage posting, right? Because now I think on several Facebook groups like there’s, there’s a clear wage posting, so you have to put the pay range in order to be able to post the job that you’re putting up.
E: Yeah, yeah. And that’s so important because all you have to do is ask for that and it’s, um, it’s huge for, you know, having people see, like, you know I, I was the, um, costume shop manager at, um, one of the larger theatres in Chicago and, uh, this was in 2007. I was paid $12 an hour. And their entry level, like, marketing positions, like the marketing assistant or something like this, or the development assistant, you know, entry-level office-
E: -was 15 an hour. And I, I learned that from a job posting, right? And I’m like wait a minute, I’m down here in the basement running the entire shop, managing wardrobe, like, you know, doing all of the drafting and the stitching and the dyeing and, like, wig maintenance, and like, you know, the whole thing. Um, and you know, those- (Laughs) Like, $12 an hour? Um, but, you know, I did not know that until, um, I saw that job posting, right. Because you don’t know these things unless you see them. And, um, yeah, so I think, um, artists talking about pay with each other’s really important. I think sometimes there’s this feeling of, like, trying to, um, exude success and look like you’re, you know, making it and not struggling. And we’re all struggling, (laughs), you know I mean there’s very few of us who are not. Um, so talking about pay within each other is really important. Um, if you’re hiring an assistant and negotiating that fee for, you know, the assistant, with the, you know, production company or whatever it is, you know, making sure that that assistant is going to be paid equitably and, you know, at a living wage rate is really important. Um, and that, you know, just having other designers talk about, you know, like, oh, ok, I’m getting, you know, an ME. What’s the costume designer getting? You know, I would love to see more scenic and lighting designers in particular asking, like, what support does the, you know, the video designer get? Or the composer or the props designer. You know, it’s not just costume design that’s, um, facing these issues, although, um, you know, we kind of have them compounded in a few different ways. But there’s lots of other designers that are not being paid equitably either.
J: Elsa, can you tell us more about the work you’re doing and where can we find that information?
E: Um so you can go to onourteam.org and there’s, um, lots of links to different actions and resources and, um, things there. Um, I also have a, um, theatrical designer pay resource that, um, you can reference. And it’s through my website, which is elsahiltner.com. And you can see, um, it’s uh, crowdsourced pay data from across, um, the USA for designers. Um, you can also submit your own pay data if you, um, are a designer and, um, I’ll upload it, um, in that document. But you can search by, you know, region, uh, state, city, that kind of thing. And, um, I also have a Patreon, um, where I put, you know, things I’m working on writing, updates on, um, you know interviewing companies, and getting, um, some eq, pay equity action, so there’s that too.
J: Great! Thank you so much.
E: Yeah, thank you.
(transition music plays)
J: Moving on, let’s meet Jessa-Raye Court from Costume Professionals for Wage Equity.
Ok, so what is Costume Professionals for Wage Equity?
Jessa-Raye: It’s a group of people that came together from the, I think we’re almost all from the costume world. I think that there’s a couple outliers that are sort of, like, you know involved in theatre and sort of interested in the wage equity part. Because it does, you know, obviously there’s more than just, um, you know costume professionals having issues with wage equity in theatre and performing arts. Um, but it’s a group of people that came together, uh, about a year and a half ago. It will be two years in May, whatever that is, a year and a half. And we came together to sort of start talking about the issues with I guess it’s non-union theatre in New York and, and beyond. Um, at first we, we thought we would keep it to sort of North America, um, but we started letting, you know, people from around the world in because it, it seems to be a, a global issue, um, you know in some parts of the world more than others. But we seem to get a lot of people from the UK. Um and so we came together and it’s sort of, you know, addressing issues that the union would, would address for some of us. But because not all of us are in a union, it doesn’t make sense for all of us to be in a union. You know, if you’re in, in a rural area and you have, like, one or two theatres that you can work with, like, why would you join the union in New York? Um, and, and to sort of talk about advocating for wage equity and how, how we can sort of attack the situation with, um, with good results, you know. And how, and how to be sort of effective and not, you know, we can all be angry but we can’t bring that anger to the table when we’re negotiating. So I think that that’s sort of been the backbone of, of our mission from the beginning, is how to be effective, um, in negotiating. How to, and how to sort of show that there’s a larger group that all feel the same way. It’s not just like one person. Because I think that for so long, a lot of us felt that we were sort of speaking for ourselves and sort of alone, you know. And to have some sort of group and some sort of, uh, sounding board to come to, you know, on Facebook, um, was really the goal and really where it came from. Um, Genevieve started it and got the other three of us, Elizabeth Wiseler, uh, Jeannette Alts, and myself all together and we, and we sort of helmed it, I guess but, uh, we certainly don’t want to be the voices for other people. We want to sort of teach people and get people to use their own voices.
J: So tell me a little bit more about the work that you guys do together at CPfWE.
JR: Uh we (laughs) we write a lot of letters, um, and we, and we talk about stuff that happens on Facebook a lot. Like for instance, I don’t know if you’ve caught, um, what’s happening with The Flea Theater right now. Um if you haven’t, check into it. It’s very, um, you know disheartening, but it’s also heartening in a lot of ways. It’s um, you know the residents of The Flea Theater who were unpaid got, um, I’m gonna use air quotes, let go the other day, um, because they, they had a list of things that, I guess they were demands, but they didn’t- They just sounded like, like things that should happen anyway. Um, I don’t have it in front of me, I just have a couple notes in front of me, but, um, looking it up and really looking at their statement, they released a, a statement the other day, I think it was the day before yesterday, um, you know talking about what’s been happening and, and their, um, negotiation situation and the lack thereof of negotiation. And the fact that people don’t really wanna listen. And the fact that, you know, The Flea Theater, if you look into it even in a cursory fashion, you find out that they have tons of money. They have, they have real estate holdings, they have, you know, good investors, they have good, um, fundraisers and, and you know, people that support them. And there’s absolutely a way to pay everybody equitably from their income. But instead, they’d rather not. (Laughs) Who knows why and who knows, you know, we can all guess but like we, you know, we, we really, you can’t assume anything but, um, you know it’s really… So we talked about that for awhile and like how, you know, that would, that would sort of, um, how it affects us. I mean, you know, just because we only work in costumes, or we work in costumes, it doesn’t mean that what, what’s happening at The Flea doesn’t affect us. You know, they’re all writers and directors and I think it’s mostly writers and directors, I think, are the residents at The Flea-
J: -and actors.
JR: Because I sort of feel like if, if the people that are producing the scripts and the actual, like, raw content that we then sort of, you know, flesh out aren’t being treated with respect and dignity and, you know, equitable wages, how, how are we ever going to expect that, you know? I think it’s a really, it’s an uphill battle but, um, you know, we, we have some really good tactics to sort of deal with, um, that inequity. And that sort of attitude towards you don’t matter and, you know, I can do that. And, you know, because everybody gets dressed in the, you know, in the morning quote-unquote. In the afternoon, maybe, if you’re working at night. But, you know, everybody gets dressed, so everybody thinks that they know what we do. And I think that that’s-
J: So, yeah. So when you guys are writing letters, who are you writing these letters to and what are the letters about?
JR: You know we, we started off and we wrote some letters to, ooh, I can’t remember exactly who it was. But we have a, we have a template now based on the first few letters that we wrote out to the, uh, artistic director, I believe, and the boards. Because those are the people that are really, you know, able to enact change. Um and so now we have a template and what we do is we sort of push, we don’t really push, equity isn’t just about how much money you’re making, right? It’s not like, here, you owe me for a month and this is how much it’s gonna take to own me for a month. It’s like, ok, well you have $250. What does that mean? What does that get you? You know, in terms of tempering expectations. And we’ve actually made a lot of headway with sending letters and sort of opening people’s minds up to, to how that works. And, and, you know, no you don’t get me full time. And you know for, for x amount of money, you, you don’t get me full time and I’m not gonna answer my phone every time you call and you don’t get 15 fittings and you don’t get to change your mind at the last minute. And, you know, I might not be there for every second of tech. We might have to, like, really schedule me into tech and, like, really focus on the costumes when I’m there, because I won’t be there the whole time. You know there’s all sorts of bargaining chips and, like, you know if you’re the designer, for instance, maybe you’re not building the show. That’s a novel concept to some people. Um, there’s all, there’s all sorts of bargaining, bargaining chips, like bargaining aspects to, uh, you know a situation. And sort of thinking about what, because we all know what each individual, um, role is supposed to do and what we actually do. So bringing that to the table and saying listen, I’m only supposed to be building the costumes, I’m not supposed to be taking care of them. I’m not supposed to be, you know, fixing them during the run of the show. I’m only building the costumes. This is what this means. You know, or designing the costumes. Or I’m the wardrobe person, no, I’m not doing props. Like all of that stuff, and making sure that expectations are written out and, uh, everybody understands what’s happening. And if somebody asks you to do something that, um, that doesn’t make sense to your role, making sure that you talk about it. Because I think a lot of times we just say oh, ok. You know, like I know I did, especially when I was 20 years old. I would do anything, you know. Um.
J: So it’s something that I’ve actually seen recently in a show I’m working on right now actually, um, is a collaborator’s agreement. And I wonder if that’s something that you guys would be interested in or, like, have talked about. Because it’s actually been really useful and it sets up ground rules. For example, if someone sends a text after 10pm that’s work-related, or an email after 10pm, that that person doesn’t have to respond to that until the next morning, because that’s an unreasonable ask.
JR: We would like-
J: Or that like, this isn’t in the scope of my job, and like this is what I should do. And having everyone on the team sign it and agree to it.
JR: Yeah, I think that that’s great and I, I would love to see the one that you’re working with, because it seems like it’s working for you. Um, you know, we haven’t really discussed that. We’ve discussed, like, sort of, you know having everything in writing, but we haven’t talked about a collabor- coll- collaborator’s agreement specifically that I can remember. (Laughs) Um-
J: Yeah, it’s really fascinating. It has some, like, even like care practices and things about, like, uh… And this is something that comes up often now, like touching people and how much you can and should or should not touch someone. Um, yeah, and the, and the really good example, which was no, uh, no sticking body parts in other people’s orifices. For example, like sticking your fingers in someone else’s mouth or your, like, the general, like act of, like, doing that is something that we, no one should be doing. And like having that spelled out in such a lovely and clear way was, like, so refreshing to see. Yeah, this just happened this past week for me so, like, it’s fresh in my mind right now. (Laughs)
JR: And that’s for, for the whole company to sign?
J: Yeah. So everyone, actors, the creative team, everyone reads it together. Like we all take, like we all went around in a circle and each person read like a, a paragraph or like a line of it. And at the end of it, we talked about, like, whether we agreed with the things or if we wanted to change or add some things. And then we all signed it at the end together. I did a workshop here in Singapore that talked about, uh, care practices in theatre and the performing arts and how we can care for our collaborators and each other. And actually so both my director, myself, one of our dramaturgs, and one of our performers, um, were all in this workshop together. And so I think some of that came out of that as well.
JR: Amazing. Um, yeah, I mean you’ve been talking a little bit about, um, personal, like, care and, and keeping up. And you know I think that so many people think that just paying people is important. And I think that, you know, we were talking a lot last night about, um, what pay equity means and what equity means and what we mean by equity. And it’s beyond that, it’s like pay equity is important but like, you know, talking about, you know, the, the management of expectations. Like the labor equity. Like if you’re hired as the designer, you’re hired as the designer. Like you’re not building costumes, you’re not running the show, you’re not doing the laundry, you’re designing the show. Like, and so many times, I feel like, you know somebody’s like ok, will you come design my show? And I’m like yeah. And then they get mad when you’re like not doing the laundry or not building the show or not doing whatever.
J: Which is always confusing. It’s always confusing because the set designers don’t have to build props. And the light, I don’t see many lighting designers getting on a genie. I mean, yes they’re onstage and yes they’re guiding focus and they’re doing things, but they’re not actually touching the lights. And why is it that costume designers are always touching the costumes? Like why are we always doing all the technicians’ work as well? Like how did we end up doing all the double duty? And it’s because actually because labor equity is the issue.
JR: It’s labor equity, but it goes beyond that, and I think it really comes down to the fact that, you know, wardrobe people, the wardrobe department and the costume department comes out of women’s work. You know, regardless of your gender or whatever nowadays, the fact of the matter is that this works comes from what’s, what’s generally assumed to be women’s work. Sewing and laundry and design and you know all that stuff, and, and-
J: It’s domestic.
JR: It’s all domestic. It’s all, you know, floofy sort of and it’s all, you know, we know that it’s not. And we know that we bleed on the costumes and we know that it’s like a lot of, like, you know cerebral work. And, and you have to have like this insane library in your head, regardless of how much research you’re doing. But you know the greater public doesn’t see that. And doesn’t really underst-
J: And it’s also the, yeah, and it’s also the perception of the value of the labor, right?
J: And um this idea that oh if my mother can do it, you know, it’s really easy to do it. Or like my mother’s been doing this so it should be easy for anyone else to be able to do this. And no one really thinks about how much skill it requires.
JR: Absolutely. And I think that there’s also that whole, um, that whole situation of, you know, I can do it too. Like, oh I can go buy my own clothes. Oh I, I’ve made a pillow before, it can’t be that hard, you know. And it’s, and it’s, they don’t even know that it’s insulting. You know, like, people just don’t understand, they’re like- I hate it. My, my number one pet peeve when I was working in shops was referring to the shop as a sweatshop. I’m like no. It’s not. No.
JR: Anyway, um, but, uh I think, I think that, you know, bringing things to the table and communication is key. And I think for so long we’ve been sort of groomed to not communicate and just take what we’re given and take what’s, what’s offered. And not sort of push back and not, um, even try to negotiate. Um, but Elizabeth I think will sort of elaborate on this next week, maybe, but we were talking about the pay equity, the labor equity, and health equity. And I think that that’s sort of, um, ties into what we were talking about. But it’s not just, it’s not just like your work environment. I mean that’s like important, like, you have to make sure that you have everything you need to work appropriately. But at the same time, like, are they calling you after 10pm? You know and that’s what I loved about what you brought up, you know. That’s important to have, like, you time. Like you can’t expect somebody to just be on 24 hours, especially if you’re not gonna pay them a ton of money. Like they might, they 100% have another job. You know, who can pay their rent in New York City for $250 for a month? I mean, come on.
JR: So you’re not on call and you’re not, you’re not at their beck and call. Like if they call you after 10pm and they’re like you have to come in tomorrow at 7am and do this thing before rehearsal, like, no.
J: I remember, oh, what was I- It was a show at Columbia. So, like, first of all NYU students weren’t allowed to get paid for shows at Columbia. Like specifically, only NYU students weren’t allowed to get paid to do shows at Columbia. And I was working on this show and I got, I cleared my entire day because it was my partner’s birthday, um, and I wanted to make sure I spent an entire day with him. Like it was also the end of grad school. I wanted to make sure that, you know, that day was just about him, because so many of the days before that weren’t.
J: And I got this blistering email about where are the receipts. And then multiple calls from the producer about how I hadn’t turned in the receipts yet. And I had told him, I was like, hey, like, I’ll get it to you tomorrow. Today is, today is a me day. This is a specific time that I’ve set aside. I can’t do this right now, I’m outside. I don’t have access to any of it. I won’t be able to get it to you until tomorrow. And he just let loose on me. And I just remember, like, wow, ok, like I, this is not, this doesn’t make me happy, like I was not going to have a celebratory day with my partner. I had given up a lot of my time for free to do this show and now was having some time for us. And he just like let loose. And I was like, this is terrible, and not ok. And I hung up on him. And then I turned off my phone and came back to it the next day to these, like, terrible emails. And I was just like this is terrible. Like why would you do this to someone?
JR: And I think, you know I can only imagine that that was a few years ago, right? You know, before-
J: Two years ago.
JR: Ok, so it was like right before CPfWE started.
JR: So, but there was no, so you didn’t have us. (Laughs)
J: No I didn’t, but I-
JR: And like, if we had been around and you’d been aware of us, um, you know that’s the kind of person and that’s the kind of situation where we’re happy to step in or, you know, steer you to our templates and be like, listen, write a, write a letter. And we can, we can all, um, you know, sort of rally behind you and say this is not how, how you operate. And this is not what you get for no money, little money, you know. You know, she needs to be able to say and you need to be able to say, I can’t do that right now. And just because he wants you to, doesn’t mean that he gets it.
J: Tell us a little bit about the new pay transparency initiative that you guys have going.
JR: Well we’re working on a postcard, uh, a postcard initiative, um, and we’re gonna do a phone bank. So, you know, look for that and, and um, the other thing we wanted to sort of touch on with membership is that if you’re a member, great. And if you’re not a member, don’t invite people. Have people apply themselves. Um, we don’t necessarily accept membership from people that are invited. If you’re, if somebody’s having, I had somebody have some issues doing it and so I invited them and immediately accepted them. But if you’re having problems and you have to do it, just text us and be like hey, I had to invite this person because they were having issues. Because otherwise we end up with a bunch of, you know, bots.
J: Is there, I think, you know, Shayna always remind me to do this. Is there anything else you guys would like to share or blast on our podcast today?
JR: Um, I think that the, the forthcoming postcard and phone banking, um, is really the big thing, and keep your eyes open. And you know keep on engaging on the, on the Facebook group and, um, you know if you’re having any issues- it’s been a little quiet right now because not a lot of people are working. But if, you know, if you wanna talk about what, what the conversation seems to be now is like how to move forward and how to build a better future, which I think is a really good place to start. And it’s a really good attitude to sort of have, um, rather than like going at people, be like, hey, this was not working for me before we stopped working. How can we make this better moving forward? You know, and especially keeping in mind that a lot of places are struggling for money, you know, talk about, you know, um, all the things we talked about before and see where that lands you. You know, because I think opening up a line of communication, rather than, you know, yelling at people and telling them that they’re wrong is really, seems to be the more fruitful option.
J: Great. So hey, thank you so much for today, Jessa!
JR: Absolutely! Anytime.
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J: That’s about it for this week’s Dirty Laundry. We hope you learned more about the concept of feminized labor and what can be done to make sure that costume professionals achieve pay and labor equity in theatre. Before we go, I’d like to say thanks again to our incredible guests Porsche McGovern, Elsa Hiltner, and Jessa-Raye Court. Links to their social media and all the resources they’ve mentioned here are available in our episode description and at our website dirtylaundrythepodcast.com. Dirty Laundry is committed to compensating our guests for their time and emotional labor. To support us, please visit our website and donate. You can also find us on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter @dirtylaundry.thepodcast or email us at [email protected] Dirty Laundry: Unpacking The Costume Closet is produced by Johanna Pan and Shayna O’Neill, with music by Jay Ong and audio engineering by Justin Sabe.
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