Wednesday, December 6, 2023
News, analysis and commentary by UBC Journalism students

Luis Bellassai, in UBC’s Theatre Design and Production, works on the set of “Much Ado About Nothing,” which opens November 8

Financial pressure forces local theatre workers to jump ship to Hollywood North

The pay that theatre offers is noticeably lower than the film industry

By Leah Siegel , in Culture Feature story , on October 25, 2018

The high cost of living in Vancouver hasn’t just affected retail and tech companies, which often struggle to find employees. Many theatres in the metropolitan area are feeling the pressure and are at risk of losing crucial employees as a result.

Many such workers say that job employment opportunities in Hollywood North, the moniker for Vancouver’s film industry, have upstaged those in local theatres due to higher wages and steadier work.

The pay that theatre offers is noticeably lower than the film industry. There are more than 8,000 people working in the two types of production in British Columbia, according to membership numbers of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees.

University of British Columbia students Gemma Harris and Sam Lam work on props for the upcoming production of “Much Ado About Nothing.”

While a skilled technician can earn $30 an hour on a movie set, the same technician working on a play can earn as little as $18 an hour — less than Vancouver’s living wage, as determined by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. 

This is not by design. As production electrician Patrick Smith put it: “Theatres don’t say, ‘I don’t want to pay people more.’ They say, ‘I wish we could pay people more.’”

Local theatres at all levels are stretched thin.

“They’re struggling,” said Phillip Schulze, a freelance designer and technician. “They’ll pay an assistant stage manager more so that they’ll do costumes on top of their own work. They’ll pay a stage manager more to run the light or sound boards, so they don’t have to pay an extra technician. Those compromises are happening all the time.”

Financial pressure has frustrated some workers into leaving theatre altogether. Smith, who received training in technical theatre, has noticed this attrition.

“Out of the 15 people I graduated with,” he said, “I can think of three of us that are still working in theatre nearly 15 years later.”

In contrast, the film industry’s exponential growth has created a problem for some film-production companies. Oriana Garber, a veteran costumer who has worked for over 20 years in film, says the industry’s success has created high worker demand.

“The door’s open to anyone now. It’s not hard to get in because it’s so busy,” she said. “In my department, you don’t even have to know how to sew. If you’re a friend of a friend, they bring you in because they need help.”

Despite the greener pastures of Hollywood North, Smith is happy to have found meaningful work in live theatre.

“It’s a lot more collaborative,” Smith said. “Whenever I’ve worked on theatre, I’ve always felt a much better sense of community.”

Garber, meanwhile, isn’t optimistic. “I really don’t see things changing, unless something dramatic happens.”