Is It a Hobby or a Job? | On Culture | Chicago Reader

Is It a Hobby or a Job? 

A Lyric Opera actor pushing for better wages gets the cold shoulder from his union.

Frank Stachyra has been a Lyric Opera supernumerary for 24 years. The supers are cast members who neither sing nor speak, and they don't get paid either, except for a stipend so small it barely covers parking. It's volunteer work, and Stachyra, who figures he's been in as many as 80 productions, loves it. Three years ago, after retiring from his law practice, he also began to work at Lyric as an actor. Actors at Lyric don't usually talk or sing, but their roles--which might involve hoisting a diva or swordplay--are more demanding and require more of a time commitment. Last season, while working one of those gigs, Stachyra and some other actors fell into a conversation about their wages. At Lyric, where luxe is the byword and the operating budget runs more than $50 million a year, an actor's gross pay is $422 per week. Take-home, after taxes and union dues, is maybe $100 less.

Stachyra, who started out as a prosecutor and spent a good part of his career litigating on behalf of workers with lung disease caused by asbestos or silica dust, knows an inequity when he sees one. In Chicago, he says, where the cost of everything is high, "$422 per week is not a decent living wage." Actors contract for one opera at a time, usually for a total of ten weeks, and spend the first six weeks or so in rehearsal. Their base weekly pay covers 35 hours, but during rehearsals, when schedules change frequently, they're on call 12 hours a day. Stachyra says you can't really work another job during that time or plan your life more than about 24 hours in advance.

The actors, like many other Lyric employees, are represented by the American Guild of Musical Artists, and Lyric's four-year AGMA contract was expiring last spring, at the end of the season. Talking among themselves, the actors "thought maybe something could be done" about their pay, Stachyra says, before a new contract was signed at the start of the next season. But most were too concerned about repercussions to do anything about it. When Stachyra got notice of a union members' meeting last March to air suggestions for upcoming negotiations with the Lyric, he wrote a contract proposal recommending that actors get 60 percent of the hourly rate Lyric pays experienced dancers. That would boost the actors' pay to $914 per week. The day before the meeting he sent his proposal to a union official and the union's attorney.

The response at the meeting was "generally negative," he says. Even before he began to speak, he was cautioned that "We don't want to talk about money." Ignoring that, he says, "I made a very emphatic pitch that this is not a decent wage." Crediting AGMA for doing a "wonderful" thing by getting health insurance for actors ten years ago, when they joined the union, he argued that it was now time for the next step. There were no other actors at the meeting, and the officials and members who were there made remarks like "You'll get less work" and "It's not going to happen." Stachyra was disheartened. "I felt I did not get the support of my union, and I couldn't understand why." According to him, subsequent communications with AGMA only reinforced his impression that the most the union would get the actors would be something like a 5 percent increase. It'd be easy to drop the whole thing at Starbucks.

One of the arguments lobbed at Stachyra's proposal is that Lyric is already paying actors more than most Chicago theaters do, especially for nonspeaking parts. "My answer to that is it's not a response to the question of whether it's a living wage," he says. "Does the fact that someone else is making less than a decent salary justify it? I don't think it's right that a union that has the power to get a living wage [for its members] isn't doing that." And, Stachyra notes, we're not talking about a struggling little storefront. "Lyric is a world-class institution; it's disappointing to think that it would be paying anyone in its employ less than an amount that would allow that person to have a reasonably decent standard of living." As for the strain it might put on Lyric's budget, Stachyra calculates that there are so few actor roles that his proposal would increase the company budget this year, when there are only nine actor parts, by one-fifteenth of one percent. Even in a boom season for actors--at most about 40 roles, he says--it would add significantly less than one percent.

After getting the cold shoulder from AGMA officials, Stachyra says, he decided to approach the membership directly. Union bylaws stipulate that after the negotiating committee reaches an agreement with Lyric and before the national board approves it, the contract must be submitted to "members affected." Stachyra wanted to ask the general membership--including soloists and directors as well as dancers, choristers, and production staff--to vote down any contract that doesn't include a living wage for all. But the union wouldn't provide contact information or even a definition of who qualifies to vote. Stachyra says he found that appalling--"essentially undemocratic and lacking transparency."

AGMA executive director Alan Gordon says the union doesn't give members' names and addresses to anyone, and adds that acting at the Lyric is not a full-time professional career. "Nobody has a job to support themselves as an actor in an opera," Gordon says. "It's thought of as something fun to do. . . . Most of the people who do it have other careers." Lyric general director William Mason, noting that AGMA negotiated this rate for the actors, suggests that it compares favorably to what local theaters pay for nonspeaking roles. "The minute [Lyric actors] speak," he says, "they go into a different category and are paid $1,378.50 a week."

By Labor Day weekend, Stachyra says, he was left with only one option: the Internet. His Web site--livingwageatlyric.net--spells out his argument and provides union members and opera patrons links for communicating their opinions to the powers that be. Stachyra--who's been hooked on opera since his first supernumerary role, when he shared the stage with Pavarotti--says he's devoted to Lyric and grateful to everyone who's allowed him to participate in its productions. "It's one of the happiest places I can be," he says. But the Web site is "for anyone who might ask the questions I've asked: 'Is the actor pay a decent living wage?' And if not, 'Why would a world-class institution like Lyric Opera not pay a decent living wage to anyone they employ--whether it's artists or clerical staff or anyone else?'"

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