Friday, May 27, 2005

The Play's the Thing...

...that'll find the arts crowd hoist by their own petard:

Midsize theater groups facing fines from state
By not classifying actors, others as employees, companies have avoided hefty salary payments, taxes

Shakespeare won't be on the playbill when Kent Phillips finishes plans for his theater group's next season. Instead of a 15-player production of the Bard's "Richard II," he is looking into a two-man show by Noel Coward.

Phillips, interim director of the Tacoma Actors Guild and managing director of Bellevue Civic Theater, didn't pull his Shakespeare plans for artistic purposes. He was reacting to news that the state has been auditing other theater companies and fining them for paying actors honorariums and stipends rather than treating them as full-fledged employees.

...."I'd rather be safe than sorry," Phillips said. And dropping from a 15-person to a two-actor show in Tacoma, with a similar reduction in Bellevue, would cover his company's extra costs for the season if the entire industry must change how it pays for its art.

At least three theater companies in the region say they are facing fines from the state Employment Security Department. And dozens of others -- along with the broader arts community -- are worrying about what the change could mean.

"This is one that could have a real detrimental effect, not just in Seattle but across the state. And it might not just be theater companies, it might be all kinds of venues," said Gretchen Johnston, executive director of the Washington State Arts Alliance, a non-profit advocacy group that will start examining the issue at a meeting today.

"The implications are far beyond the theater community. It will cost everyone more," said Karen Zeller Lane, executive director of Theater Puget Sound, who said other theaters have faced audits as well. "You look at musicians. Dancers. Festivals. ... What about the church soloist?" she said.

Similar issues at symphony orchestras in Oregon over the past few years have caused music festivals to be canceled or cut back, according to the Statesman Journal in Salem.

At issue is the practice among small and midsize theaters to treat some actors, technicians and designers as independent contractors rather than as employees. Theater directors say paying a fixed payment or weekly stipend is a way to honor and at least slightly subsidize their creative work -- and provide a stepping stone to higher-paid Equity jobs -- without completely breaking the bank for community non-profits.

Now, they say, the state is telling them that workers should be classified as employees, meaning they should pay an hourly salary of at least minimum wage, plus contribute to the state's unemployment and workers' compensation funds.

Welcome to the Employer Clubhouse, friends.

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