Shut Up and Starve
Are Chicago actors underpaid? Well, duh. But can they complain about it in print? Earlier this summer well-regarded actor Jay Whittaker leveled with Tribune reporter Sid Smith about the economic reality of a full-time thespian in Chicago--even one who has relatively steady work with the city's best theaters. In Smith's piece, "Chicago Theater's Unsung Heroes," four other actors spoke about general experiences: taking commercial jobs to supplement theater earnings, depending on spouses to be the breadwinners, watching a colleague greet the birth of a child with financial despair. But Whittaker, who's recently divorced, got more specific, offering himself up as an example: "I'm living in a tiny box. I have no furniture and I just barely survive. Let board members and others who go to the theater realize how little we get paid. We work for theaters with $12 million budgets, and we pinch pennies." For his part in Chicago Shakespeare Theater's six-hour production of both parts of Henry IV, Whittaker told Smith, "I got $600 a week, which, after taxes is $500. My rent's $600, my car payment's $250, and after insurance and utility bills, there's not a lot left for food. I could get rid of my car, but that's an agonizing choice for a working actor. Do I keep it to drive to auditions in the suburbs? Or do I put food in my belly?"
The day after the article ran, Whittaker says, he got a call from CST's executive director, Criss Henderson, who said board members had been calling him, angry about the article. Henderson argued that CST gives more money to actors than any other theater in the city because its runs are longer, Whittaker says, but "I kept saying, the point is, even if the run is longer, we're not making enough each week to pay our bills." Whittaker, who's been in nine CST productions over the last six years, says Henderson then "made it sound like he was doing us a favor by hiring us. I said, 'That's not true--you hire us because we're the best, and that makes your theater look good.' And he said, 'If you believe those things, you should never work here again.'"
Henderson, whose compensation is about $250,000, according to tax forms, maintains Whittaker misstated the amount of money CST paid him for Henry IV, and that he's made "much more on other projects at our theater." (Actors' Equity confirms $600 was the minimum for Henry IV; Whittaker says he was actually paid $650.) The reason he called Whittaker, Henderson says, was to make sure he understood that "as a theater we've always been very focused on providing as much compensation for actors as possible." Henderson says he also wanted to share the results of a recent Theatre Communications Group study that shows CST, with its large casts, provides "more than twice the workweeks of Goodman and almost 30 percent more than Steppenwolf." In addition, he says, "This survey shows that we spend a higher percentage of our budget on actors and actors' fringe benefits than any other theater in Chicago and more than most of the major regional theaters in the country."
Besides salary, Henderson notes, CST pays health insurance for Equity actors ($143 a week) and an additional amount (8 percent of salary) for pensions. As for Whittaker's future at CST, Henderson claims what he said was, "'I hope the next time we offer you a role--and I'm sure we will--if you can't do it, you'll let us know.' Because to work for us, to sign a contract and take on a project, and then go out and talk to the press about how horrible we are doesn't really make any sense. It's nothing we forced him to do. We're so proud of the Henry IVs"--which traveled to England's Royal Shakespeare Company--"bringing this A-list of actors to the RSC. I would've hoped Jay would be proud to be counted among those actors and would've appreciated the opportunity."
Whittaker, currently performing at at Door County's Peninsula Players, will be at Goodman and Court this season, and is thinking about moving to New York after that. He says his intention in the interview with Smith wasn't to attack a specific theater, but to make the point that actors--all Chicago actors--deserve a little more money, enough to survive. "I was watching this video," he says, "and an actress was talking about doing a Broadway show in the late 40s or 50s. She was making $700 a week. I'm making $600 a week and this is 2006, more than 50 years later. It's unbelievable how little money we make. That's the point I've been trying to get across.
"The one element you can't do theater without is an actor. You can do it without a script. You don't need lights, you don't need a set, you don't even need a theater. The one thing you have to have is the actor, and we're literally taking the smallest piece of the pie."
Director John McNaughton, whose career was launched when a pair of south-side video distributors handed him $100,000 to make a standard-issue horror film and he came up with Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, says his Chicago roots are the inspiration for his darkly offbeat vision. Growing up among the street gangs in Roseland made for an "extreme childhood," he says. "I was 13 the first time I had a gun stuck in my face." The director, whose other credits include Eric Bogosian's Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, Mad Dog and Glory, and a handful of episodes of Homicide: Life on the Streets, has spent most of his career working in Los Angeles, but he keeps a home in Bucktown, and it's here, at the annual Rhinoceros Theater Festival, that he's making his live theater debut, directing an eight-performance run of Tennessee Speaks in Tongues for You. (The play is written by Robert Tsarov, who's also working with McNaughton on a potential serial-killer-in-love sequel to Henry.) McNaughton says he's been itching to try theater and has enjoyed the rehearsal process, "but I keep wanting to go in for a close-up." . . . William Schopf says he was at a turning point when he closed his West Lake gallery for a summer break. "I wanted to take it to another level," he says (translation: sell more art), "but I knew I wasn't the one to do it." He'll reopen the space this weekend as Packer Schopf Gallery, with curator Aron Packer providing day-to-day management and a more commercial eye. . . . ComedySportz is opening in the studio theater at Chicago Center for the Performing Arts this weekend, but the move is only temporary. By the end of January the company plans to be out of there and in its new home above the Ann Sather restaurant on Belmont. Managing director Greg Werstler says Sportz has a ten-year renewable lease for the "space" and is in the permit-seeking stage of a half-million-dollar renovation that'll create a 147-seat theater, lobby, and offices. He's also working on acquiring a liquor license--anybody know the alderman? . . . Legendary Chicago theater supporter Hope Abelson was supposed to be in the audience for Dorian at Bailiwick last Sunday. Abelson, 95, died September 1, but her presence was palpable as grandson Jamie Abelson danced through the final performance in the title role.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Liz Lauren.