Elsa Hiltner advocates for transparency in theater design salaries | Performing Arts Feature | Chicago Reader

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Elsa Hiltner advocates for transparency in theater design salaries

A crowdsourced spreadsheet pulls back the curtain on who makes what at theaters across the country.

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Elsa Hiltner - JOEL MAISONET
  • Joel Maisonet
  • Elsa Hiltner

This past week, Theatre Communications Group (TCG) announced that its job search engine, ARTSEARCH, would not only be free of cost to all users, but would additionally require all prospective employers to list a salary range for all postings. This announcement comes on the heels of seismic changes within the theater industry aimed at dismantling inequity and financial exploitation. 

It is common practice for a job seeker to respond to a posting for a seemingly full-time or contract paid position, only to discover upon receiving a “job” offer that the position is unpaid, paid in “exposure,” or paid at a stipend rate that averages out to far less than minimum wage. And once they finally snag coveted jobs at top theaters, they are often appalled to discover that the wages aren’t much better, resulting in a culture of shame and secrecy. Who wants to admit that their expensive MFA in directing earned them a plum position at the top theater in the city, only to earn less than a mid-level manager at the local McDonald’s? 

Most frequently, calls for pay equity have centered on the most visible members of the industry—actors, directors, playwrights, and arts administrators—but have often ignored a large group of critical theatermakers working diligently in the shadows: designers and technicians. Enter: Elsa Hiltner.

A freelance costume designer and wardrobe stylist with over 16 years of experience in the industry in Chicago and beyond, Hiltner is also an advocate for pay and labor equity for designers and technicians, author of the viral essay on HowlRound, “A Call for Equal Support in Theatrical Design,” and creator of the Theatrical Designer Pay Resource spreadsheet, which began to collect and track rates of pay from designers nationally in order to demystify the process and create one of the first repositories of hard data. 

“So much of the arts coverage focuses on the product and not the process,” says Hiltner, who knew she wanted to be a costume designer beginning in high school. “I have always loved arts, people, personalities, and history, so costume design was a pretty natural merging of those things.”

Hiltner earned her BA in costume design from Western Washington University in Washington state. “It was an ultra liberal arts school and I really liked the program there, but there was really very little conversation about the business side and the labor side of things.” Throughout her career she has designed at numerous Chicago theaters including Steppenwolf, Silk Road Rising, Windy City Playhouse, Teatro Vista, Lifeline, and American Blues Theater, and finally received the business education she had been missing. 

When she moved to Chicago, her rent increased and Hiltner quickly learned that she had to wear many different hats in order to survive. She quickly snagged part- and full-time jobs within the industry while continuing to freelance in the evenings. When she had her first child, she began freelancing full time to accommodate childcare. Three years ago she started working in development for Collaboraction, where she is a company member, while also designing costumes. Hiltner also does commercial wardrobe styling, which unsurprisingly pays far better than theater. 

For most of her career she worked in a vacuum without other designers to commiserate with. But once her HowlRound article went viral, she discovered that the unionized costume designers of United Scenic Artists of America had just formed a costume committee, and she connected with them to compare notes. Says Hiltner, “If you’re having a hard time negotiating a contract for labor support or pay, your circumstances can seem very individual. Everyone is dealing with the same or very similar issues.”

One of the common roadblocks to pay negotiations is that theater budgets are often made in such a way where certain line items are fixed, such as rent, utilities, and materials. Dollars for artist labor are the last line item to be allocated and unfortunately also the most malleable. Hiltner once experienced a contentious contract negotiation over being offered $1,500 for a show where other designers were offered $2,000. “This particular negotiation lasted about two weeks and they threatened me with legal action. This was over $500.” 

Frustratingly, if raw materials such as paint go over budget, the money is usually immediately found. Says Hiltner, “It just feels like the money is treated differently when it’s going to individual artists rather than a tangible, visual thing that is seen by the audience.” Part of what makes everything so challenging is that there isn’t an accepted standard as to how fees are established. Few theaters are transparent about their process and can’t explain why they choose arbitrary hourly or flat fees other than the vague metric of “experience.”

“Experience is a very problematic term for me” says Hiltner, who further notes, “Who is given experience often goes along the lines of race, gender, sexual orientation. A company will say they are going to pay the unionized designers the union minimum, but the nonunionized ones, we will pay the lower rate.” 

Further complicating the process, the amount of work for the fee can vary wildly depending on details, such as what period in history a director decides to set the play. Additionally, roles such as costume design, which have historically been dominated by women, often face barriers that male-dominated design categories do not. 

For example, the role of a costume designer typically includes reading the script, analyzing the script, going to meetings, conducting research, attending preliminary meetings about design concepts, drawing sketches and perhaps a second round of sketches after receiving feedback, and then potentially making patterns, building the garments, and conducting fittings if there is not a costume shop. The majority of Chicago theaters do not have costume shops or costume labor support.

In contrast for the traditionally male role of set designer, after the design and concept phase (sketching, drafting, modeling), they can typically hand the work off to a technical director, team of carpenters, set painter, and properties designer. Quips Hiltner, “Costume designers are doing multiple jobs for the same—if you’re lucky—fee.” Properties designers, video designers, and composers are also often expected to build the product, and in the case of composers, they often have to play the music as well as compose it for the same fee.  

The founders of On Our Team - COURTESY ELSA HILTNER
  • Courtesy Elsa Hiltner
  • The founders of On Our Team

Hiltner feels that the solution to all of this is transparency—“having a community and culture in place that allows these conversations to happen without individual artists getting blamed, being called difficult to work with, having offers rescinded, not being called back, all the things that happen currently when artists attempt to negotiate on their own behalf.” Some companies are beginning to offer transparent equal designer fees across the board, like Collaboraction, which pays everyone $18 per hour. 

The spreadsheet Hiltner created in 2017 to break the stigma of talking about money is gaining momentum. Just in the last month or so it has received a flurry of submissions, and theatermakers from other cities have begun collecting their own data and sending it to Hiltner in bulk. She recently added a column for executive pay from publicly available 990 tax reports, which has illuminated some interesting takeaways; for example, the range of designer pay between organizations is large and not necessarily tied to operating budget. Says Hiltner, “You can have fees that are pretty similar [between smaller organizations] and operating budgets that are ten times the size.”

The demographics of who has participated in the spreadsheet reveal additional truths. The costume designers and lighting designers who are voluntarily participating in the spreadsheet are predominantly women and BIPOC as compared to the industry at large. Hiltner reflects, “That speaks to who benefits from pay transparency and pay equity.” She hopes to continue to receive even more data and begin to track and analyze changes over time. Of course the pandemic has created a hopefully temporary hiccup in that plan. 

Hiltner recognizes that actors also suffer from pay equity within the same production. “I expect that directors between shows do as well.” She notes that her spreadsheet isn’t the only one, with others across the nation starting similar Google sheets tracking pay for actors, stage managers, and other positions. She hopes to merge them all together someday. In January 2020, Hiltner joined fellow designers Bob Kuhn, Christine Pascual, and Theresa Ham to form On Our Team, an organization dedicated to “creating a united front in requiring equitable pay and support for theatrical designers.”

“It’s really good for companies,” says Hiltner. “All the science shows that people who are paid equitably, where there is pay transparency, people work harder when those things are in place. The product is better, you retain employees better, these are things that will be visible to the audience and make a difference for the company’s bottom line, if you want to go to capitalist school terms.” 

As theater productions struggle with the limitations of Zoom, one cannot help but notice that productions with the more sophisticated lighting, sets, and costumes have the ability to transform the online experience into something more cinematically stunning. Hopefully more theaters realize the power of this advantage and pay designers accordingly. 

Says Hiltner, “One thing that I love about the theater industry is that we all care enough about it to hold it accountable.”  v

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