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Photo © Kevin Thom

Photo © Kevin Thom

There are some fascinating and important discussions going on on the internets right now. One that’s very close to our hearts is artists getting paid what they’re worth.

A few years ago, I was talking with someone* in the improv community who expressed shock, even disdain for how much Second City paid its teachers. Not because it paid them too little, mind you, but because it paid them well.

I tried to process what I’d just heard. “Why the fuck wouldn’t they pay their instructors a decent wage?” I thought.

Was improv really held in such low regard – even by improvisers – that it wasn’t worth paying for?

After all, we’re talking about something that makes people feel good, helps them both professionally and personally, and dramatically changes lives. If improv were a pill, Big Pharma would be making billions off of it.

The line between art and commerce can be a murky one, as this open letter to Oprah reveals. In it, the author (a hula hoop performer named Revolva) talks about this whole notion of working for free, or very little.

I’m a big fan of “do what you love, and the money will follow.” And if you write or act or sing or dance or paint because it gives you joy, great. It’s when others profit from what you’re doing and don’t give something back that things can turn sour.

There’s a big difference between inviting friends to perform in your show at The Bishop & Belcher (now with hot and cold buffet!), and asking total strangers to do what they do professionally, for free.

A couple of years ago Standards & Practices did a St Patrick’s Day show. They wanted some Irish step dancers to open for them, so they called up a dance school, who suggested two of their students. Like most improvisers, S&P don’t have deep pockets, but they pooled together and offered the dancers $100 for five minutes.

The night of the show, the girls danced their hearts out. One of them played the fiddle at the same time, like something out of Riverdance. It was electrifying, the audience was thrilled, the dancers were happy, and S&P felt it was money well spent.

And that’s something I’ve noticed: it’s often struggling artists who make sure other artists get paid – perhaps because they’ve done so many “freebies” themselves.

They’re the ones who put $20 in the Pay What You Can jar. Or who donate to festivals and fundraisers, even if they get nothing in return. Not because they’re rich, but because they know that art makes us all richer.

Need a nice poster for your show? Throw your improviser buddy who does graphic design a few bucks.

Want to mix things up by hiring a stand-up to host? Ask them what their rate is; don’t just assume they’ll do it for beer.

It’s about respect for each other, and each other’s skills.

That’s why I’m hoping Revolva’s post won’t just get shared, but will shake things up, and help give more talented artists their due.

In the meantime – aside from teaching – doing improv will probably never pay a king’s ransom. And as long as no one’s taking advantage of performers, that’s fine. We do it because we love it, because it’s a privilege, and because it’s one of the few places you can fail in public, and laugh about it.

That, to me, is priceless.

*(I should point out that person is the only one who’s expressed such a view to me. It was their stature and tenure in the community that gave me pause.)

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  1. November 21, 2014

    AMEN!

  2. November 21, 2014

    Great piece. I hear this argument happening all around me and it’s amazing how devalued art (re: cultural currency) has become.

    • November 21, 2014

      Agreed. We’re all for doing passion projects, but this has gone on for too long, and it goes far beyond art. Unpaid internships that are little more than slave labour are all too common (and illegal).

  3. November 21, 2014

    This is so true.

  4. Linda Julia Paolucci #
    November 23, 2014

    Second City classes are not cheap, but they are worth it. They get the best improvisers in the city to teach and I be rather annoyed if they didn’t compensate them properly. Whoever said they were paid too much was a dink.

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