Arkady Spivak is the Artistic Producer of Talk is Free Theatre, a company you may recall for some remarkable shows.
I remember tiny perfect shows like their adaptation of Candide, Parkdale Peter Pan or Dani Girl. I can’t forget bigger more complex shows such as Bulgakov’s Moliere, their co-productions of Assassins or The Wedding Party. These are among the very best shows I saw in the past decade.
I saw on TIFT’s website that they’re doing a pilot project of a basic income guarantee (or BIG) for artists.
Universal basic income is an idea that’s in the air. Andrew Yang ran for President in the USA, proposing that everyone over the age of 18 get a universal basic income of $1,000 per month, in response to worker displacement driven by technological automation. While he lost the nomination for the Democrats, his ideas got lots of attention. But it’s not new. In the 1930s there was a political party in Canada called “Social Credit” who had similar ideas, that all citizens should be paid a dividend as capital and technology replace labour in production. They were elected for the first time in the 1930s in Alberta. With the discovery of oil perhaps they no longer needed to offer the dividend, but the party would also win elections in Quebec & British Columbia. If you’re curious you could read more about a variety of basic income experiments in the world, and parties (usually in opposition, sometimes a tiny minority) seeking to advance the idea in countries all over the world.
Which brings us to Talk is Free Theatre (you can see more on their website).
The TIFT Artist BIG Project is a pilot project designed to offer a number of Artists (approximately 20) a minimum annual income guarantee each year, for a three-year period. The income would be earned through the Artist being engaged on various and separate projects with TIFT throughout the year, as determined by TIFT’s Artistic Producer (“AP”) and the individual Artist together. The BIG Project is NOT full-time and is NOT employment. Rather, TIFT would guarantee that the Artist is able to earn enough in fees from the separate independent contracts with TIFT each year to at least equal the minimum annual income guarantee. One of the goals of the BIG Project is the exploration of a new operating system, through action research, that would offer artists and theatre companies a more sustainable and effective paradigm in which to create theatre.
I wanted to discuss this with Arkady.
Barczablog:I am recording. I have a new phone. I tested it with some Wagner
ARKADY: If it’s good for Wagner it’s good for me.
Barczablog: So please speak clearly & feel free to be Wagnerian.
ARKADY: That has never been an issue for me.
Barczablog: I read about Talk is Free Theatre Artists Basic Income Guarantee pilot project on your website. Talk about it in your own words.
ARKADY: Sure. Yes. So this is not an idea we developed just because of COVID, just now. This has been kicking around for about a year and a half. Where it started, about a year and a half ago we launched a sort of study or enquiry, about professional artists (particularly those who are either in mid-career or approaching mid-career) as a support system. All of the artists who are around, might be 40, 41, years old, and ask “do we have a kid or not?” , “Do we have to live with the industry” Because as you know it’s a counter-intuitive thing to family life. You know, you’re not at home, you have to work at night.
Barczablog: And it may be different for a woman than for a man.
ARKADY: Especially for women, but you know not exclusively because there are same sex male couples who are adopting kids, it becomes the same thing. But for women, the biological clock is what it is, you cannot change it. If you’re 50 you’re less likely to have a child, than if you’re 40. We’ve been noticing these things…
We’ve done a deep questionnaire to the ensemble membership of TIFT. What’s needed, what are your barriers, that sort of thing.
There were five actions plans that came out. All of them but this one (that we’re talking about) were instantly implemented because they didn’t require study. So things like paid child-care, giving artists a child-care allowance. So you don’t need a study.
Barczablog: so parenthetically can I ask you to summarize what those other things are that you already did?
2-Shortening rehearsal day: instead of eight hours making it five hours, working 10:00-3:00 so mothers / fathers / caregivers can run home to daycare before the school is over.
3-And work five days a week instead of six days a week, and to compensate for that we just have to add another week of rehearsal which is not necessarily the worst case or the worst thing for creating art: to give it more gestation.
And those were the main things.
And one of those things became that: the reason that people become reluctant to adopt the lifestyle at 41 or 42 if they want to stay in the profession, they’ve worked for over two decades to achieve a certain positioning in the industry, where someone can hire them without an audition and that kind of stuff.
And why would you let go of that? After you’ve everything you were building towards. And you know it’s sort of counter-intuitive and the thing is the fear that, the moment you give up a part somebody else will play it and your career spirals out of control.
So we realized –and I put a little committee of artists together—that the best way to ensure the lifestyle is to promise people work. To promise them an income.
Because even for self-employed there was a government program. It is very difficult to decipher but it is possible. And it may have to be that the work adjusts itself to the lifestyle needs of an artist as opposed to the converse. ….But at any rate something was needed. And that’s when I came up with the idea of financial guarantee.
And then I said this is going to have to be a pilot project. And we got busy with tours and programming and all this stuff.
And then COVID happens.
And then we see the very first thing that happens is that everybody was thinking of contracts. And whereas after a certain healing & rebalancing other professions could make their own luck within theatres. So playwrights can in fact seek a commission from a theatre, because we can develop new work. Nothing stops us from developing new work. Or they could get a grant to develop new work, as an individual artist. And they could do professional development.
But an actor can do none of those things. The only thing an actor can do is be hired by a theatre and speak the material, the words given to them by a playwright. And they’re effectively shut out from all of the training programs. Most do not accept applications from actors partially because there are so many, and because –no offense—it’s very difficult to determine who is professional who is not, as an actor: for the purposes of an arts council. And so there is a huge degree of unfairness. So I started planning figuring out what we can do.
And so what this is, is a financial guarantee, a contract that there will be contracts, nothing more.
Successful applicants to the program will be offered a minimum financial guarantee per year. The minimum will be $10K per year. They could go higher. It really depends on how many will apply. If an artist is a mainstay in the company and they’ve earned an average of $25K a year over the past 3 years, we would probably look at the average per year. If they’ve been making $25-27,000 a year and we offer them $10,000: that’s kind of a slap in the face.
And this will be about 25% of the general work we offer to artists every year. So the premise is this. You are put on a financial guarantee, for three years. Then when it’s time to program the season I meet with a chosen person. And we discuss what work is interesting for them, given the career aspirations, what makes sense given the lifestyle marrying all those ideas creatively in professional decisions, because it’s difficult to separate them. And we come up with a program. They say “I always want to play Hamlet” and I say “well I see you more as a Claudius” and so we negotiate a work program. It is actor-centric but it’s not exclusively for actors.
And what sort of evolution they need from this program. And so then we decide what it is (the program). And when it is. It follows the same benefit of European rep system without surrendering to the shortcomings of it. And the shortcomings are that an actor has no artistic control. And they really work for an institution, you know? It’s considered their work ethic where their work opportunities are tied to the institutionalized vision or institutionalized legacy of this or that organization.
I’m a Moscow Arts Theatre actor. Fine…This is what it really is. It basically looks at and it still has the feeling of an ensemble & working together over a long period of time. But it looks at people as individual institutions that are working together, sort of like a European Union of actors.
Barczablog: it sounds like you’re doing several things at the same time. Not exactly a company, or a collective. I read what you described in the invitation. There are escape clauses built in.
ARKADY That’s right.
Barczablog: You’re trying to make the artists feel safe. You don’t want to box them in, always playing the same type of part.
ARKADY Well yes. This is not what we’ve been doing historically. We’ve never used people in the same light before, that’s number 1. I always operate on the “what is the scariest possible but rational proposition” for that person. Second of all an actor can always say “no I’m not doing it”. And then I’m on the hook financially, right? If we don’t come to an agreement on what you should do for year 1 or year 2 or 3, then I have to pay you out.
Barczablog: How many will it be?
ARKADY It will be approximately 20 we think, right now.
Barczablog: it’s a governance question & also an artistic question. You are not a tyrant, in my experience. In some artistic endeavors, especially if you go back 50 years, the AD was more tyrannical. We’ve seen a change to something more collaborative, co-operative, where the leader is facilitating rather than commanding. Do you expect to have a co-operative relationship among the artists, and they would be speaking amongst each other, and offering suggestions to one another. It wouldn’t just be the job of the artistic director.
ARKADY you’re 100% right. And the only way to run a successful theatre company is to keep everyone busy doing what they want to be doing. There is no other recipe to a productive & safe workplace in my view.
Barczablog: what if they start to see opportunities. What if Joe Blow, who has never played King Lear before, and they notice he would be great if he did x or y or z. They get ideas for adaptations & directions to go in. Maybe a dumb example I gave but you know what I’m driving at.
ARKADY you mean artists talking to each other?
Barczablog: and actually thinking about projects that they might do together.
ARKADY: Oh I will actually encourage that. Because for me to produce something, I don’t want to call it ”check-marks it ticks off” …but how many priorities does it take care of at the same time..? And if I have a project that seven of my absolutely cherished actors are useful to, then feel useful for, it immediately gets staged. I will ask them to cluster together. And meet each other and go for coffee. And pitch projects. I will counter offer them something. I mean if somebody gives me a feel that the work is not quite risky enough, not quite forward thinking enough, for complacent, that’s never going to be upper-most in my mind. So you know it is an artistic discussion, an artist participates in what it is that they want to say. And part of the program the very purpose of it is to ask people to take on other artistic functions and challenges.
Barczablog: How far can that go? Are you saying actors to become musicians or directors or writers?
ARKADY Well… musicians have to go to school for a long time. It needs to be something that is a professional contribution, not a hobby. It could be an actor who has appeared in musicals doing a classical text. It could be within their own profession. It could also be, what I like to do is to go to an actor, and say “why don’t you make your professional directing debut”. And we sometimes have one or two of those in a given year. Because I don’t run a million dollar organization.
Barczablog What about front office functions…
ARKADY If someone wants to go into administration I will let them. If they have $2000 still un-used, …I’m not going to ask them to clean toilets.
Barczablog But maybe the website.
ARKADY Exactly. It has to be self-interested. What I hope it does, is to actually bring artists to a bigger presence within the organization and how it’s governed. If you tell me you want to undertake marketing? I am more interested in hiring an actor to do marketing than a marketing professional. Will I ask you to do that? Not necessary. I’m doing quite fine. First of all in COVID one doesn’t have to market. Anything is a hit.
I will also say that this program is not for everyone. You really have to be actively interested. This is an action research project, meaning that we are learning and we are creating in this paradigm, with this new system, hopefully duplicate-able as we go. We have done some research a lot of thinking for it, but you know you can never prevent yourself, and that is why those webinars are important because they will help inform this through questions people ask. At the end of the day, what is here is that it’s not the only system with which we have a relationship with actors. There is still the conventional way.
Barczablog: so would it be fair to say your pilot is going to be a certain percentage of TIFT and if it catches fire it might grow and even become the entire company?
ARKADY I don’t think it should become the entire company. I sort of look at it as a Highway 401. There is an express lane & a collector lane. You choose which one you want. You can be totally stuck for three hours in either one of them, OR you get through in like six seconds. So my point is that it’s not for everyone. Some people just want to work, they want to show up for work and do the best they can. And they will have to go through a conventional process. And it is also possible and will happen that an actor who is not on that program will end up making more money than the artist who is. It’s just that they’re not part of the cohort that is looking to change the world.
Barczablog And of course every year will be different year. Different people, different chemistry & opportunities.
ARKADY Of course. And if you’re in the three year program as you see there are three uptown opportunities first of all you can forego one year entirely if you know your schedule, if you’re going to be doing a series on television, you can also apply to extend the terms of the program, extend the financial guarantee over a longer period of time, which is technically what I would do first before I say no to the year. You can always say no later on. And if you realize it’s not giving you any satisfaction (professional or whatever) there is nothing in it for you, ….
Barczablog You’re communicating with your participants, did you also expect to talk to unions about this?
ARKADY I didn’t, but there is nothing in it, all the contracts still have to be negotiated relative to each artist.
Barczablog so you don’t see any problem…
ARKADY In order for you to earn this money you still have to be signed on to an Equity contract or designers contract, musician, etc. You’re not getting any money on the side. You still have to work it.
Barczablog Okay. So guaranteed annual income. It’s been proposed in many places. There was a candidate in the American election, there are countries who have tried this, and discussed here too. During the pandemic artists are hurting, having lost gigs & income. This was something you were developing anyway?
You did a survey… how long ago did you start?
ARKADY we started about a year and a half ago but this idea has been kicking around. The pandemic made it all the more necessary. It’s a coincidence. I hope it only goes to show how important that is.
Barczablog: Your survey: how many artists?
ARKADY the survey went out to 103 people on our mailing list: people who had done at least one thing with us in the last 5 years.
Barczablog: How many responses did you get back?
ARKADY There were 27 replies. People didn’t identify themselves by name but people identified themselves by gender & age etc
Barczablog: I can see this applying to many different disciplines: theatre, or dance, or opera or musicals. Do you see this as an important experiment that could be adopted elsewhere?
ARKADY I hope so.
Barczablog: Are you leaning heavily on govt support, or the city of Barrie?
ARKADY As an operation, if you’re talking about the company overall then absolutely because what we do is risky artistic projects, risky ancillary initiatives like this, and until they’re proven successful I cannot really go and get a sponsor. So the government generally speaking is much more certainly through arts councils, there is more support for risk work.
And I have a feeling even without this project there will be a better situation for the actors going forward. Because we actually now had to fight for something. Which as a country we’ve never had, on our own premises. We had war & had to send troops, but we never had to defend our land (well it’s not “our land”…), but our place. Number 1
And number 2, the way I consoled my colleagues, was “well you lost contracts”…. But everyone lost contracts. And you know, so… there is that.
Barczablog: I notice in the proposal, you have a preference for Barrie artists. If people have worked for TIFT before, you want to find local sponsors as well. Do you see this as a community building exercise?
ARKADY I see it as an arts community building not a geographic one. And that particular clause you’re referring to says you have to have previous work experience in the city, as opposed to have residence here. Or be from here.
The thinking behind that is, …and by the way, not every contract will have to be fulfilled in Barrie. It is for all of Canadian artists. You just have to be legally allowed to work in Canada. But you can be anywhere in Canada, or live in UK….
Barczablog Okay Let me frame this around my own experience. I’m a Canadian Opera Company subscriber. They cancelled the last 2 shows of the last season, the first 2 shows of this season. And I just heard that the 4 operas in the 20-21 season are also cancelled. Do you see yourself working in a virtual arena for the next little while?
ARKADY Absolutely not. I think theatre is all about gathering. We’ve just programmed the entire September, outside performances, including a very big NAC project they’ve commissioned us to do, so I’ve squeezed in two-months-worth of programming that just closed on Saturday into the month of September. I don’t think theatre belongs online (and it’s not about whether it’s Stratford or whatever) I’m very glad for Zoom, for the conferences I can now do, the meetings you don’t have to get dressed, you can do a lot, it’s very effective. In terms of the actual content? what is actually important is the gathering itself more so than the story. I am perfectly happy to wait until we can meet again. OR Nobody says theatre has to have at least 50 -100 people. I am happy to do it for an audience of 1!
So you know, once this program is up and running, the idea is, instead of going to an artist and saying “can you give me 6 or 7 weeks of your time, we’re going to rehearse this particular thing and maybe tour it afterwards what is interesting we will work on more projects over a longer span. So I will throw ten projects into rehearsal. We will work one week at a time…., until it’s safe. And Moscow Theatre is where I grew up, and you start working on something without even knowing when the opening night will be. Because everybody is paid for by government. Every schedule was compiled monthly. And you would commit a month before, based on when it was felt it was going to be ready.
Barczablog: is there anything you want to tell me that you didn’t tell me yet?
ARKADY We are not going to answer every question. In fact I want questions to come out.
Barczablog your illustration with the Moscow Theatre was good because it shows that it can’t be always about making money or earning back the investment. Some theatre is experimental and that’s very exciting. And you don’t know what’s going to happen. That’s what art is. It’s propositional.
ARKADY At the same time, raising revenues for my programs is 90% of what I do. I am more of a business man than a curator. But at the same time it’s not about commercial reality. It’s the business reality against a very specific artistic vision. Right? Because art has to be underneath everything. And anything can get away and deserves to be seen the question is, to develop an innovative business formula for that art, not as a reality in & of itself. We should not be afraid to commit to something instinctively & use the business sense to validate it.
Barczablog: so as a last question, you have the dates etc on the website & the deadline right?
ARKADY Yes the deadline to submit is Oct 23rd at 5 pm EST . Then our hope is to let successful applicants know by the end of November. I have a feeling it will be much quicker than that. Because there are internal reasons for that. I have to start programming season, I can’t wait until December. I want to give the evolution more time.
Barczablog: I’ll be interested to see how it unfolds. Thanks Arkady!
For further information go to Talk is Free Theatre’s website.