Why Pay For Summer Shakespeare?

Recently, Bag&Baggage received a question about the difference between our work and the work of other companies in the region who are also doing outdoor summer Shakespeare. A number of these other companies offer their work for free, or at a “pay what you will” ticket price, and the question we received was this: Why would anyone want to pay $18 a ticket for a Bag&Baggage show when they can go to see some other company for free?

Having not seen any of the other outdoor Shakespeare shows going on this season around Portland, I’m not really able to discuss, specifically, what makes B&B’s work different from the free “amateur” or “semi-professional” shows currently being performed around the region. All I can speak to is the way we approach our work and why we think it is valuable enough to pay for.

First, we are required by our board of directors, our mission/vision statement and our articles of incorporation to pay all of our artists a “competitive wage” for the industry in our area (and by “artists” we mean actors, designers and stage management). We do this by looking at what other companies are offering for similar work in the Portland metro area and base our wage scale accordingly. For summer Shakespeare, we found that few companies in the area were offering a specific wage but rather were offering various shared-risk payment options (a cut of the take, etc) or no pay at all.

That is not a payment option our Board will allow, so, instead, we decided to offer a wage comparable to what an actor in Portland would get paid for any other show, indoors or out. We know that the wages we pay our actors is well above the average in the region, and we have an iron-clad commitment to paying a competitive wage to all of our staff. As a result of offering a competitively high guaranteed wage, we simply cannot do “free” performances as we need to ensure a specific level of income to pay our actors and crew.

Second, at Bag&Baggage, we require all of our actors to meet some specific training and experience requirements before casting them. Those include, at minimum, a terminal degree in theatre from an accredited 4 year institution (this is base line and is a requirement to get an audition). Above that, we require at minimum one previous professional Shakespeare, experience in outdoor theatre, or an advanced degree in theatre. We have a number of cast members with MFAs, and all others have significant previous professional and/or outdoor theatre performance experience. As a company, we do not feel that we can require this level of experience and training without offering a guaranteed and competitive wage. Again, as a result, we must charge a regular ticket price to ensure we meet these guaranteed wages. I am absolutely certain that many (if not all!) of our colleagues have similarly high standards for their actors, I just can’t comment on those requirements specifically as I don’t know what/how they cast.

Third, we do work with a voice and acting coach for all outdoor shows. All of our performers are put through a rigorous training regiment that, we think, helps prepare them for the challenges of outdoor performance. This includes a series of group workshops, individual coaching and training sessions, and dedicated time during rehearsals (often an hour of a 4 hour block) to work on voice, breath, diction and projection. Again, not knowing what our colleagues do, I can’t comment on their preparatory work, I just know that B&B is rigorous and demanding in our training and development of the voice for outdoor work.

Fourth, we think outdoor Shakespeare is as challenging, as difficult, as expensive, as demanding and as thrilling and exciting as anything that can be produced indoors. In fact, we think outdoor work is harder! As a result, we believe that all outdoor performances, particularly Shakespeare, should be treated the same as any other type or style of performance for a professional company. B&B charges $20 or more for most of our indoor work and, to be honest, I personally feel that offering our work at a reduced or free rate devalues that work.

Let me be clear: that is my opinion of our work and has nothing at all to do with the value or price of any other outdoor performance. From my perspective, and the perspective of our board, offering our work at a “free” ticket price gives the impression that our work is of an amateur quality, or not as valuable or as professional as our other shows.

I also believe, very strongly, that all theatre companies must be allowed to make their own decisions about programming, actors, training, marketing and ticket price and fully support the choices of our colleagues across the region. It is not our choice, but that doesn’t make it wrong.

Outdoor Shakespeare is a staple of summer cultural offerings across the world. I am delighted that there are a wide range of options for the citizens of the Portland Metro area, and am proud that Bag&Baggage is the only provider of this unique art form in Hillsboro and in the whole of Washington County. We are working hard to make our shows as high quality as they can be and, for us, that means guaranteeing a high wage for our artists, and, in return, charging admission. I hope you will support our efforts by joining us for the last two weekends of Romeo and Juliet!

Scott Palmer