EAST HADDAM – A posting for seasonal jobs at Goodspeed Opera House with pay starting at just minimum wage sparked an outpouring of anger by Goodspeed staff and industry professionals last week.
The online advertisement brought in nearly 100 mostly negative comments, many from theater professionals, as well as a protest backstage by production staff during a performance of the musical 42nd Street.
Crew members wore name tags with their job titles, wages and hours backstage.
“Wardrobe Apprentice. Min. Wage $14.50 hour weeks,” read Grace Locklin’s name tag. Locklin said her last day of work was Sunday, and after reading online comments berating Goodspeed for inadequate pay, she felt comfortable taking a stand.
“Ridiculous pay for such a big theater company,” wrote one commenter, a self-described production coordinator.
“These aren’t jobs, these are artists supplementing your budget with their time,” posted an art director.
“Pure 100% exploitation is exactly what this is. Godspeed has no shame and it’s downright disgusting,” complained a fashion designer.
Locklin said that after she read the comments, she reached out to other production staff. According to Locklin, about 10 members of staff participated in the backstage protest.
“The actors were kind of shocked when they saw the apprentices’ name tags,” said Locklin. “But their mouths would literally drop when they saw that our production assistant was making $14 an hour, because that’s a joke.”
Wages for production positions like props artisan, first hand, wig and makeup stylist ranged from $15 to $17 an hour with a minimum of three years experience, and apprentice positions preferred one to three years of experience, paying minimum wage – and include a housing supplement.
Locklin said that her experience with Goodspeed, which had been highly recommended by former coworkers after more than five years in theater, had not met her expectations coming into the apprenticeship.
According to Locklin, the housing provision was inadequate and there was no training for apprentices. She described her room in the 13-bedroom house as the size of a closet, and her work days as longer than promised.
Asked about the complaints, top management at Goodspeed said they were making pay a priority, but also took aim at the outside commenters.
“I don’t mean to sound callous or dismissive of the comments and concerns that people on social media have shared, but I don’t answer to those people,” said Artistic Director Donna Lynn Hilton. “I’m responsible for the staff at Goodspeed Musicals, and my first priority has to always be doing as much as I possibly can for the people here at Goodspeed.”
Locklin said that Hilton emailed staff and scheduled a meeting for last Tuesday to discuss the matter. According to Locklin, 15 crew members showed up again wearing their name tags.
Hilton told CT Examiner that it was a productive conversation, and that she respected and shared their concerns.
“For the past few months, and like our entire industry, we have been actively working to address pay issues and working conditions,” Hilton said. “We will continue to work together with our staff to make this the sustainable and humane workplace that we all want it to be.”
Many of the comments on social media took aim at the apprenticeships. Some said that, given the minimum experience, the minimum wage was not enough. Others questioned whether housing was included.
Hilton said that in the past, Goodspeed did charge for housing at an adjusted market rate. But she said that, as of 2022, no one making minimum wage would pay for housing.
Managing Director David Byrd clarified that the work experience could include college productions. He said the administration knew that they needed to address the confusion and were making adjustments to the job postings.
“Even though our institution has been [around for] 60 years, we’re still learning,” Byrd said. “And that’s not a bad thing.”
Hilton also said that she and Byrd had inherited a pay equity challenge at Goodspeed that they’ve made a priority.
“I don’t think a week goes by that we are not having a conversation about how we lift the employees at the bottom of our pay scale,” Hilton said.
In addition to providing housing for minimum wage workers, Hilton said that all seasonal employees had access to health benefits, vacation time and sick time.
Irene Hatch, a former costume design assistant for Goodspeed, who was the first to comment on Facebook said that given the theater’s high standing, they should have better pay.
“They really need to be an industry leader in this area,” Hatch said. “They are an industry leader in so many other ways – longevity, huge history of sending shows to Broadway, excellent quality of work from their underpaid tech staff, dedicated season ticket holders, etc.”
Asked about the pressures of staffing and pay in Connecticut theater, Michael Barker, managing director of Westport Country Playhouse, said that his theater’s pay and benefits differed from Goodspeed’s because the Westport production staff was unionized.
“I would be very surprised if our rates in those positions were not higher than Goodspeed’s just because we have this union arrangement that is long standing,” said Barker.
But Barker came to the defense of the new leadership at Goodspeed, who he said were working to solve the problem, and didn’t deserve the treatment online.
“This is what happens when stuff gets on Facebook. It sort of depersonalizes a very personal industry,” Barker said. “No one’s doing this to make a million dollars. People are doing it because they love it.”