Theater Workers Demand an End to Grueling Work Conditions

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Photo Source: Oleksandr Nagaiets/

Actor Rachel Spencer Hewitt was once in a show at a well-paying regional theater. Unfortunately, the money she was making wasn’t enough to support her family. “Between groceries for my two kids, childcare, [and] tech week, I had $9,” Hewitt recalls. This was after spending 12 hours a day in rehearsals, which meant she couldn’t tend to her children and that the cost of childcare ate up most of her take-home pay. “I just wept in the dressing room.” 

That experience and others like it led Hewitt to co-found the Parent Artist Advocacy League (PAAL). The group advocates for more humane working conditions in theater, such as eliminating what are known as “10 out of 12” technical rehearsals and instituting a five-day work week during the rehearsal period. To Hewitt, theater’s demanding labor conditions are part of why there is an equity issue in the field. 

“The majority of folks who have shared with us that they made the choice to step away from the theater to care for their family have been folks in historically marginalized genders. Women, transgender folks, nonbinary folks, [and] people who already faced discrimination are not willing to compromise their families,” explains Hewitt. 

The actor is not alone in her fight for better labor conditions. Recently, a growing number of theater workers—not all of them parents—have been raising their voices about the need for a better work-life balance. They’re asking for the elimination of 12 to 16–hour days, as well as the six-day rehearsal week.

“Ten out of 12” refers to the industry practice of holding technical rehearsals—which take place the week before the first preview performance—when all the technical elements of a show (set, lights, sound, etc.) come together onstage for the first time. Ten hours of work are allotted for the day, plus two hours of break time for actors. 

No More 10 Out of 12s is a newly formed group that has been collecting testimonials from theater workers around the country. “I’ve driven home falling asleep at the wheel, windows down, slapping my face to get home at night on local shows where I still might have a 40-minute drive home at 1 a.m. after notes,” wrote one lighting designer. 

Another theater worker revealed: “A 16-plus-hour day might sound absurd, but it was my lived experience when in tech for a new musical during undergrad, when [stage managers] averaged 17–18 hours in the building for [10 out of 12s]. On average, I find a 15 to 16–hour day to be the norm for a scheduled 10 [out of] 12.”

According to Tony-winning costume and set designer Clint Ramos, who is one of the artists behind the No More 10 Out of 12s campaign, during rehearsals he would regularly leave the theater at 1 a.m., only to come back at 8 a.m. “It’s bad,” he says simply. “That’s not even an eight-hour rest turnaround.” 

For “Slave Play” on Broadway, which Ramos worked on and which is returning to Broadway in November, there were no 10 out of 12s. Ramos doesn’t see them as a necessity for putting together a great show. “It affirms and institutionalizes this whole mindset of scarcity. We’re being told there isn’t enough time to do the work,” says Ramos. 

No More 10 Out of 12s and PAAL are also advocating for five-day rehearsal weeks. Rehearsals can take anywhere from three weeks to more than a month, and longer still if it’s a more technically complex show like a new musical. During the rehearsal period, everyone works six days a week.  

“When we create healthy workers, we create healthy work, and part of that is just giving everybody a chance to actually recuperate and recover for two days,” says Ramos. “If you only get one day off a week, you’re actually not resting, because you’re doing everything that you’re supposed to do—all of your errands—and by the time the day is over, you’re just wiped.” 

No More 10 Out of 12s and PAAL are encouraging both producers and theaters to institute better workplace conditions. Large theaters such as New York City’s Public Theater, Cambridge’s American Repertory Theatre, and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival have already eliminated 10 out of 12s. Second Stage Theater has also eliminated 10 out of 12s for Broadway and Off-Broadway productions.

“Second Stage Theater has eliminated all 10 out of 12 rehearsals for all productions in both their Broadway and Off-Broadway theaters,” Khady Kamara, Second Stage’s executive director, tells Backstage. “As we enter [planning] for next season, we are actively looking at ways to continue to refine the rehearsal structure for our acting companies and crews.” 

Fewer theaters have committed to a five-day rehearsal schedule, but Detroit Public Theatre is one of them. The theater, co-led by playwright Dominique Morisseau, has never done 10 out of 12s and has always had a five-day rehearsal schedule.  

“We do not feel that the artistic product has suffered at all from these practices,” says DPT producing artistic director Courtney Burkett. “We feel like it’s created a more inclusive and welcoming environment that’s hospitable to everyone’s humanity. There’s still a lot of intensity; there’s still a lot of really hard work. But the artistic product, I think, benefits from looking at the big picture of how it’s done. We don’t have to do it the way it’s always been done.”

The current conversations around labor conditions in the theater directly coincide with what has been happening in Hollywood, where IATSE (the television and film labor union) nearly went on strike because of long hours on set and not being given two full rest days a week. These conversations also coincide with the pandemic, which has led many people across industries to leave their jobs, advocate for fewer workdays, and prioritize their personal lives and well-being. 

“I think it’s really critical,” says Tony-winning director Bartlett Sher, whose “To Kill a Mockingbird” did not have 10 out of 12s when it reopened on Broadway this fall. “I absolutely think that there’s a lot of exhaustion and tiredness, and a huge amount of content that people are requiring. And we can’t make [workers] do it.” 

Sher has also been pushing for five-day rehearsal weeks for the shows he’s currently working on, such as “Intimate Apparel” at Lincoln Center. “Mockingbird” is also currently doing seven performances a week instead of the usual eight. Says Sher, “It’s healthier, and everyone’s better. They have time for their families and to get stuff done.” 

Though the current campaign around working conditions has been concentrated on convincing individual producers to institute better practices in their productions, Hewitt thinks it’s also important for unions such as Actors’ Equity Association and IATSE to come together to create new contracts and establish a new norm for the industry. 

​​I think that it could be collaborative,” she says. “At PAAL, we have a principle of: Every support conversation needs to center those with the greatest need—because when you center the people with the greatest need and they receive support, it will have a ripple effect on the other groups connected to that practice.”

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