Show Them the Money

“Now is the time,” says Diane Brunet-Garcia, and everyone at the table nods. It’s a small group, just four of us, but we agree: Jacksonville artists need to be paid for the work they do.

Brunet-Garcia, Lisa Goodrich and Joshua Taylor are speaking with Folio Weekly about the STAGE Fund. “It’s really hard to stay here if you can’t make a living,” noted Brunet-Garcia. And that’s true; here in Jacksonville, this city by the river, with so many sunny days we take them for granted, we have trouble as a community valuing here that which we often travel to other locales for.

We also have trouble retaining extraordinarily talented people. The city does have those who are deeply committed and deeply informed about their craft, yet for those who seek to make a living in their métier, it is often possible only in another market. Here, passion projects are regularly supported by day jobs. And there’s only so much a person can give away.

The STAGE Fund is an attempt to respond to this reality. By providing actors, directors, techs and designers with a stipend, the organization hopes—in the short run—to pay people for their work. In the long run, the goal is to help change the culture in Jacksonville.

So what does that mean? Roughly, it means saying “no to the culture of free,” said Brunet-Garcia.

STAGE is an acronym for Sustaining Theatre Artists to Grow Excellence. This acknowledgement is important because Goodrich, Taylor and Brunet-Garcia collectively note that here in NEFLa, there’s been an ongoing conversation within the arts community about free labor and working for “exposure.” For at least 10 years or so, there have been cycles of commentary revolving around what artists give to their community and what the community should give back. The three, in addition to many of the leaders in the theater scene, discussed what support would look like. Again and again, it came back to funding.

Goodrich, Brunet-Garcia and Alicia Somers are the three principles of the STAGE Fund, but in our conversation (Somers was unavailable), they are quick to credit actors, directors, producers and some long-time theater supporters for their contributions to the final Fund product. About five years ago, interested parties began chatting.

“We brought together some theater executive directors, some actors, some producers, everybody we thought might have an opinion,” explained Brunet-Garcia. “We said, ‘Look, this is not a partisan thing.’ We are not saying ‘Take down the community theater model,’ [we’re saying] ‘Let’s have a dialogue.’”

Finally, after years of planning and research, they decided to “just launch the thing.”

The Fund partnered with The 5 & Dime, A Theatre Company, because the people at the nonprofit were “consistently doing the highest quality work,” said Goodrich. “Really excellent talent comes through the 5 & Dime. These are highly trained people who treat it as a profession. They’re here in Jacksonville because they love the quality of life, and they want to live here and [the city] just doesn’t support their art, so they have other full-time jobs, but they seek out the theaters that are producing excellent work.”

“That’s the paradigm we are trying to shift. How do you keep excellent actors and theater artists in this town? [By trying] to find a way that, over time, they can make a living,” said Goodrich. “We knew that when we launched the STAGE Fund, we were not going to go out there with a living wage for every actor that crosses the boards, but it was a place to start.”

The three are quick to acknowledge that theirs is not the first attempt to pay theater folk, just the most recent. Too, they clearly state that they’re in the pilot phase, with things still to work out.

Goodrich takes care to address the idea of community theater. “We don’t want every community theater to go away from their model, but we think there are some in this city that are ready for this [next more professional step].” Also, as of press time, the research the STAGE Fund has done suggests that other than the Alhambra Theatre and Stage Aurora under Darryl Reuben Hall, the Fund is the only organization paying theater professionals in the Jacksonville area.

Taylor, who works for the STAGE Fund in the capacity of “vice president of everything,” and is a key member of the theater scene as an actor, notes that while he’s been paid for performing, it was because of a partnership outside the theater. Much more common, he explained, are gifts: chocolate popcorn, coffee mugs, tickets. “They say that the applause is the ultimate payment an actor gets in Jacksonville … which is a motto that needs to be broken,” he said.

Goodrich interjects, “It’s like telling visual artists to donate a bunch of work for the exposure.” Then Taylor reinforces the point. “You devalue the work of everyone else when you give work away for free.”

Because the Fund is meant to serve the theater community, its architects had to figure out how best to distribute the monies. “When we started, we thought that there were going to be several ways [to] apply, but when we talked to the 5 & Dime—and Lee Hamby was pivotal in this discussion—it was determined that the 5 & Dime founders preferred a model where every person who works at the theater would get something.”

Since the STAGE Fund launched in 2018, 93 people in 144 positions have been paid for their work. In its first year, the Fund paid out about $25,000. A 2008 study suggested that for every arts dollar put into a local economy, the return was five-fold. In 2015, in Florida, the economic impact was $4.68 billion.

In learning how to best serve the community, the Fund founders noticed that many people did not know that a portion of the ticket price in area theaters did not go to paying the actors. “Nearly everybody we talked to—general audience members—had no idea,” said Goodrich. Though to be fair, interjected Taylor, “This information is often available in the program, or noted during a curtain speech.”

“I had come from Atlanta as a non-union actor,” said Brunet-Garcia about her relocation to Jacksonville. When she arrived in the city, and began doing (volunteer) work for the Cultural Council as a board member [both she and Goodrich are previous board members], she went out and interviewed local theater troupes.

She said that when she asked about plans to eventually pay actors, her question was greeted as near-heresy. That’s why for her, a huge part of what the Fund aims to do doesn’t involve money, it involves raising awareness about how a thriving theater scene can lift a community, from the fiscal to the ephemeral. And, as the Fund grows, so, too, will its ability to help other professional-leaning theaters.

In a casual morning meeting, artists Jenn Peek and Frank E. Sanabria talk about what a powerful thing it is to feel a sense of belonging to an artistic community. “What’s great is that we feel like a part of this, and as it grows, we grow,” said Peek.

Cross-discipline polymaths, the duo are frequent collaborators. They work together so often, some friends call them FrankenJen (get it?). One aspect of their regular work includes set design and similar projects for The 5 & Dime. They agree that performance and theater arts are deeply important. Both are quick to point out that what the STAGE Fund offers is more than simple payment. “It’s a sense of validation,” said Peek.

They acknowledge that the money enables them to carve out time to participate in this thing they love. When asked about the wider implications of the program, Peek said, “The STAGE Fund is putting it out there saying, ‘These people are worthy of compensation’ and also getting more people involved, in the form of patronage and donors.”

The Fund has also helped them think in professional terms about all of the work they do. That’s important, because Peek and Sanabria, like so many artists, are building their lives through multiple revenue streams, including lots of freelance and teaching work. “I’m a little more brave about asking about compensation now,” admitted Peek.

Additionally, both artists are students who have been recognized by their schools for academic and artistic excellence. In short, they’re the sort of people who make their communities richer because they’re almost always working on something that has the capacity to touch multiple lives. Sanabria, who’s designed sets for Players by the Sea in Jax Beach, and does sound design for Phase Eight Theatre Company, reflected, “It shows the people of Jacksonville that the theater scene here is worth paying for, it has value, and it’s more than clumsy entertainment. It’s the birth of something.” He then added, “That work—it just feels good.”

Toward the end of our chat, as we begin reflecting on personal practices, goals and upcoming projects (one of Peek’s sculptures has been chosen for exhibition in Hemming Park starting in mid-June), the sculptor says that for her, the STAGE Fund—and to a wider extent being a part of the theater and art community—is part of her mission to help other folks feel “welcome, safe and accepted here.”

Brian Niece and Jason Woods are both beneficiaries of the Stage Fund. Recently, Woods received a surprise stipend from the Fund in support of his show, Peter Pan: A Staged Reading at Theatre Jacksonville (see our Feb. 5 feature). Woods took the minimal idea of a staged reading and made it something else entirely. There were costumes, props, original songs and at least one dance. He mounted the show as a benefit for the theater, but he asked a lot of himself and the cast and crew.

When he received a payment he wasn’t expecting, Woods stated in an email to Folio Weekly: “At the close, STAGE Fund gave me the opportunity to express a token of tangible value to my cast and crew. The joy of the cast during the project was evident, but the gift from STAGE Fund elicited such surprise and gratitude, affirming the cast and crew in a way that is rarely accomplished in Jacksonville. I believe STAGE Fund is the catalyst people will still be talking about in 20 years as the spark that started a fire, one that helps to elevate excellence in theater arts, the deeper engagement of theater audiences, and a more rewarding path for artists in Jacksonville.”

Niece is rapidly gaining a reputation as one of NEFLa’s most compelling actors. His turn as Uncle Peck in How I Learned to Drive was uncomfortable and seductive. Of the impact the Fund could have, he said, “Jacksonville, as far as structure and organization, is about 15 to 20 years behind Nashville [where he led a professional company], but there is a professional quality here. Without something like the STAGE Fund, the professionals will leave […]. I want to see young people with love, ambition and courage do it here.”

There’s much more that could be unpacked in terms of art’s fiscal impact and implications for growth. While those things are important in terms of budgetary planning and conversations with City Hall/Cultural Council (tourism dollars), they don’t get at what art does. Compelling art in any form has the potential to activate a heart, because it can be simultaneously a place of greater safety and a pulpit requiring unimaginable bravery. It is an incredibly powerful gift, to have places where communities can go to witness the kinds of works folks might otherwise travel to see. And if, in the process of making great art, a good city comes out of it, well, isn’t that a nice coincidence?

Goodrich summed it up most succinctly. “Every society through history is measured on its arts and looks to its arts to define the society.” The question is: How do we want to be defined?

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