Figuring the Factors

userpic=theatre_ticketsThis morning, as I was getting ready to write up last night’s show at the Colony, my mind was swirling about mathematics and theatre. I was thinking about tiers and when shows could go to contract; about discussions I had had with Barbera Beckley before the show about audiences and what they could and would pay. I was thinking about the whole AEA kerfuffle, and I’ve realized that we may have it wrong — and a lot of this is because we keep trying to build things on dependent factors without data. Before I could tackle my writeup, I had to get this out of my head.

I’ve seen a number of proposals for tiering, and most are based on show budget. I think — to some degree — that’s wrong. You can’t determine whether you can pay the actors from budget alone. The budget of a three-actor show is very different than a show like Candide with a large ensemble. This got me thinking about what are the independent factors that might go into whether a show had the potential to earn sufficient funds to cover the rent and pay the actors. If you can look at shows and work out the factors from the existing data, you can come up — mathematically — with a good algorithm that might permit adequate tiering. I’ll note that by “pay the actors”, I mean all actors. If you treat any actor as an employee, you need to treat all of them as an employee. Pay rates might differ based on various factors, but some can’t be volunteer and some employees.

So let’s think a bit about common factors and whether they are independent. Here are some that come to my head:

  • Theatre Rental. Independent and Fixed. Your rental cost is based on time, location, and quality of the facility.  Cheap facilities make it easier to pay actors; shows in expensive locations make it harder.
  • Number of Actors. The number of actors in a show has a direct bearing on operating costs. This should capture the total costs that vary based on actors — not only what you pay them, but their costumes, sound, makeup, wigs — things that vary based on more or less actors.
  • Musical or Play? This is the play vs. musical distinction. Musicals have increased operating costs due to musicians; they also tend to have a better draws as audiences tend to go to musicals.
  • New or Old? This is another significant factor in a show. New and unique shows may draw better for audiences looking for something new; on the other hand, they may be more difficult to promote because the show is not as well known.
  • Star Power. I don’t just mean actor-power here. Having a “well-known” somewhere in the credits — be it the director, an actor, the playwright — may draw the audiences in. For example, I can feel confident if I go to a local musical Nick directs that it will be well worth seeing.
  • Creative Cost. This is the fixed creative cost — the budget for the fixed aspects of the show such as set, lighting, and publicity.  This would include both the costs of the creative team (people) as well as the cost of materials (set) and equipment rental (lights). This might be where budget based tiering could come into play.
  • Number of Seats. I was thinking about average ticket price as a factor — but it is dependent. Number of seats is a different factor. It is independent of the show, yet a key determinate of how much you make.

There are two additional factors that come into play: Length of Run and Ticket Price. I’m not yet sure about these and the impact on paying the actors. The length of run is clearly a factor under control of the producer. They help cover the fixed one-time costs, they help a little on fixed recurring costs (such as rental), and they have no effect on salaries (number of performances per week is a better factor on that). Ticket price should be set on cost in order that you can pay the actors appropriately. The problem is that sometime that needed ticket price is more than the audience can bear. This isn’t Broadway where you can name any price. The other factors must be such that the audience will be willing to pay it. We can’t quantify “willingness to pay”, but we can know that anticipated average per-patron income, taking into account comp, discount, promotional, and full price sales based on data, and we can determine that by company and community. We can then determine, based on that number and the factors above, the amount that actors can be paid.

It is important to note the factors that do not appear in the above. Membership companies? Makes no difference. Self-produced? Not a factor in and of itself. Both go to the creative costs, if anything. Budgets also don’t quite come into play fully because they are a product of the factors above. Note that I said “fully” into play. The budget can increase costs — fancier sets, more publicity — but doesn’t always translate into income.

As for what to pay the actors — that’s a can of worm I’m not going to tackle. I do believe that if you treat one actor as an employee you should treat them all — AEA or not — as employees. You can’t mix volunteers and employees in the same job; that’s the law. There’s also a distinction between exempt and non-exempt employees. The discussion to date has been simplistic, thinking actors are non-exempt employees. Non-exempt employees are typically hourly; there are requirements for breaks and lunch hours and overtime and such. Exempt employees — think white-collar professionals such as doctors, lawyers, and yes, computer scientists — have a fixed salary. They have different rules for overtime and breaks and such. I would tend to think actors would be non-exempt, meaning you could have a fixed salary for a fixed task. It is something that should be explored. I do believe there are factors that should go into actor pay once you are beyond the employee / volunteer distinction — that’s where union status, experience, “draw”, and other performance based factors can come into play.

As I’ve written before — I’m just an audience member (and a computer scientist and a mathematician). I can help identify what might be the factors that come into play, but I can’t plug in the numbers. What is clear, however, is that budget is not the sole simplistic factor. Being able to pay the actors at one budget level for a particular play doesn’t mean that for a different play, with different draw and number of actors, that budget will permit the same pay.

One of my favorite podcasts is Freakonomics. They emphasize that decisions must be made on hard data. The Los Angeles needs to determine the true independent factors for its productions — at any size theatre. What needs to be determined next is what values of those factors would permit appropriate levels of actor pay? This is what should go into the tiering discussion.

But… but…

The above is a pure mathematical approach. It is what we should pay the actors if we assume we are doing this based solely on profit and income and such. That’s the bean counter in me. But, as I’ve learned from this discussion, many LA actors don’t do this for the money. They do this for the challenge and the experience and the need to feed the soul. These are intangible forms of payment that offset dollars for many (not all; I’m sure there are mercenaries out there). The payment via intangibles is also independent of membership companies — but it does say that a given production has — as an additional factor — some intangible factor that comes into play that captures this. It would relate to the meatiness of the roles, the value of working with a particular creative or actor or company, the “payment to the soul”.

I don’t know how to address this; I don’t believe that I — a 30 year cybersecurity professional — could solve this nut. But I did want to share my musings on all the factors in the hope that someone might be able to piece them together algorithmically, and figure out a way to have that algorithm balance the “soul payment” vs. the “wallet payment” aspects as well.

Thoughts? What do you see as the key independent factors that we are forgetting to discuss?