Gradually and Then All at Once, Racial and Labor Reckoning at the Flea Theater

The Flea pays up. Photo: Google Maps

On Thursday, June 18, the Flea Theater announced that it would start paying its resident non-Equity company, the Bats. To some, this might have seemed like an administrative adjustment, easily overlooked, largely unrelated to the shock waves of change spreading through the body politic. But the theater community reeled. Article after article has been written about labor issues at the Flea; for more than a decade, observers and critics and funders have chafed at the theater’s practice of treating its non-union actors as volunteer staff, asked to contribute Bat Hours (administrative or technical service) as well as artistic work. Suddenly, though, the immovable object moved — dynamited out of the way by a public letter that ex-Bat Bryn Carter posted on Instagram.

Carter’s letter to the Flea was spurred by the theater’s response to the Black Lives Matter protests. The administrators’ public statement of solidarity struck her as “dishonest,” given her own experiences at the theater as a “young Black female artist.” After the letter had been widely read, she said she had also noticed media coverage of the Flea’s various pandemic-related charitable efforts, none of which mentioned nonpayment of the Bats. “These conversations are not meant for behind closed doors any longer,” she wrote. Carter laid out her concerns in three areas: labor concerns, racism (both explicit and not), and her own frustrations around the production Scraps. And it was this braid that proved strong enough to effect change. Complaints about wages over the years have led to incremental improvements, like increased performance stipends, and there were already discussions between the staff and the Resident Artists Collective, which had come into being after a Bat exodus in the 2019 season. (Its acronym is RVAC, in which the V stood for Volunteer, an aspect the group no longer wants to emphasize.) But once Carter publicly and explicitly linked the work issues to race, a reluctant machine suddenly shifted into motion.

What’s happening at the Flea might be a portent for the rest of our nonprofit theater. At small companies in New York and elsewhere, employment is barely compensated, dependent on artists willing to work for pennies — or less. It’s a business that pays in hope (art, the big break, fulfillment) and extracts its costs in pain (precarity, sacrifice, toil). During the pandemic shutdown, one side of that equation has disappeared: There’s nothing concrete to look forward to. Suddenly artists have the time to try to set the indignities right. And also … the Flea is New York writ small. Both have put real estate ahead of people. Watching the Flea wrench itself into alignment with its stated ideals — publicly, painfully goaded by a leaderless collective — is an inspiration for those who want New York and the nation to do the same.

Like all the other well-known Off Broadway theaters, the Flea has been scrappy, then plucky, and now wealthy, each phase bringing its own existential dangers. When it was founded in 1996 by Mac Wellman, Kyle Chepulis, Jim Simpson, and Sigourney Weaver, it wasn’t meant to live long. Fleas only survive for three months, and the Flea was supposed to last for only five years — an implosion-model experiment in smash-and-grab theatrical production. With Simpson as artistic director and a company of unpaid Bats (“a person would have to be bats to work Off–Off Broadway”) ready to fling themselves into the fray, the Flea’s eclectic programming was often adventurous and transgressive. But almost right on that five-year mark, the Twin Towers fell and the theater’s constitutive understanding of itself changed.

Its home on White Street in Tribeca was only blocks away, and the theater moved swiftly to present Anne Nelson’s elegiac ode to fallen firefighters, The Guys, that December. Here was theater in the ancient sense: as an auditorium for civic grief. The show, which starred Weaver and Bill Murray, was hugely successful. Fourteen thousand people came, the grubby little Flea started to seem more like a Responsible Member of Society, and that paradigm of the theater as a temporary speck (and “downtown irritant”) was superseded by the idea that it was an institution of substance. Then, in 2017, the Flea opened a $21 million purpose-built performing-arts center in Tribeca, with three comfortably appointed houses. Creating “joyful hell in a small space” no longer needed somewhere quite so small. Simpson moved on, so the old Flea guard was chiefly represented by the producing director Carol Ostrow, who has been with the Flea since 2001. And Niegel Smith was hired as the new artistic director — the only Black artistic director at a theatrical organization this size in New York.

But as the Flea grew up, the replenishable Bats stayed the same age. They won an Obie for 1999’s Benten Kozo, but even when celebrated, they were a collective, not individuals. Even as I’ve seen various Bats gain prominence — playwright Kate Benson, actors Bobby Moreno and Ugo Chukwu — there’s not even a list of former Bats on the theater’s own website. In a model built on recognition instead of remuneration, the Flea made the Bats seem interchangeable, replaceable, uncountable. If you compare the Flea model with, say, a New York theater degree, which might cost $60,000 a year, you might think that being a Bat was a bargain. In the early days in particular, no one at the “top” was getting rich; the system wasn’t extractive, nor was it malicious exploitation. But the late-’90s system grew more and more out of phase with the institution’s increasing solidity. At some invisible tipping point — perhaps the moment the Flea moved into its handsome new space — the volunteer structure tilted decisively into the wrong.

If your labor valuation is cracked, toxicity follows. Over the last several weeks, there has been a great airing and accounting of troubles at the Flea. Many of the issues arose during the 2018–’19 Color Brave season, which Smith and Ostrow said would “go beyond color-conscious.” Was it liberating to have a season all about race and color? Or did it make the theater feel like a market for Black suffering? Opinions among the Bats differ. RVAC has been joined by the recently formed Black Artists Coalition (BAC), which has taken the lead on pressuring the organization. Even within BAC, there’s varied opinion on how the race issues and work issues intertwine. Niccolo Aeed (a resident writer for the Serials series) says, “It’s not an explicitly racist dimension.” He sees the nonpayment of actors as the root and the anti-Black tension as the branch. “If you have to forgo paying work, it prevents diversity,” he says. “It assumes you have enough wealth or privilege, and that’s the dimension I’ve seen more than the racism.” (The same argument applied to improv venues like Upright Citizens Brigade, which also didn’t pay performers and faced internal pressures over inclusion. UCB has closed its New York theater.)

The ex-Bat Selamawit Worku, on the other hand, felt there were more overt forces in play. She spoke with me about discomfort she experienced with another actor while working on Thomas Bradshaw’s Southern Promises, after which she left the company. Bradshaw’s play involves nudity and extreme vulnerability on the part of the actors — Worku will only say she complained about “creepy behavior” that made her feel unsafe. She felt unsupported (she was recently stunned to find the actor is still a Bat), and she believes that, had she been a white actress, she would have received different treatment. “Generally speaking, the reports are out there that show Black, POC, and LGBTQIA individuals don’t speak up or complain about mistreatment of any kind, because we are not properly supported. We are put in very vulnerable situations afterwards and worried about our careers or well-being,” she says.

Carter agrees that the weight of vulnerability — Bats could be dismissed or disciplined for missing meetings held during the hours when people were working their survival jobs — fell heavily. “There’s this sense that you have no clout in the industry, she says, “that ‘we are here to teach you and elevate you, and therefore any and all behavior you’re expected to stomach.’” That oppressive attitude, Carter feels, established the conditions for abusive behavior. “You are slowly, over time, convincing a bunch of people that they shouldn’t be allowed to advocate for themselves — and that is amplified when there’s racism involved, but it has also involved sexism, it also involves sexual harassment, it also involves physical safety in the space.” She, like other Black Flea artists, mentioned that Ostrow had particular problems in communicating with Bats. Some said plainly they felt she was racist. The administration takes these concerns seriously. Ostrow declined to speak with me — she wanted Smith to speak for the theater — but she did confirm through the theater’s publicist that she and the rest of the staff have done diversity and inclusion training. She also confirmed that she is taking extra measures: After complaints reached her (I heard from resident artists about hair-touching, mistaking Bats for each other, and condescension), she engaged a personal anti-racism coach.

After Carter’s letter, the Flea called a Monday listening session, says Dolores Pereira, an organizer inside the BAC, and the coalition commandeered it. “We decided to take our power back,” she says. “We reclaimed our time.” Bats and resident artists past and present had already communicated a host of issues: microaggressions, harassment concerns inadequately met, and the Color Brave season dedicated to Black work that wound up prioritizing trauma. (Says Aeed, “I didn’t really like my name being associated with a theater that was proclaiming diversity but also showing this traumatic shit.”) At that meeting, though, the Black artists stated that they weren’t happy with the response to Carter’s post, that they felt rushed, and that they would be in touch. “It was one of the most inspiring things ever,” says Smith, proudly. A week later, on June 16, they presented a letter which described a culture of intimidation and stated their demands. Importantly, they also made it public. Two days later, Smith and Ostrow released the Flea’s statement. They accepted “full responsibility” for the “intersection of racism, sexism, and pay inequity.” All artists would henceforth be paid. And, perhaps most importantly, resident artists would be given some kind of presence on the board.

According to artistic director Smith, a strategic plan to get artists paid has been around for about a year and a half. “This is where we failed ourselves as an institution,” he says. They were about to embark on a fundraising stage dedicated to sustaining artists, but … “we didn’t tell the artists.” Despite the pain of much of the last few weeks, Smith is deeply grateful to have been “called out and called in.” On the phone, he sounds in awe of the BAC’s organizing power and joyful that the artists were able to push them to accelerate toward being “the Flea we all really wanted to be.” He has been taking long walks, reading the letters and testimonials again and again. “The best advice I’ve gotten recently,” he says, is “don’t listen to respond; listen to understand.” And he believes that lasting, deep changes will come from the fact that “artists are going to be included at all levels of leadership,” he says. “It’s one thing being asked to participate. It’s another thing to be given the opportunity to say, ‘This is what I’m participating in.’” The statement itself is necessarily short on details. “It’s a beginning announcement,” stresses Smith. So the conversation goes forward: Various Bat and resident-artist working groups are presenting their findings to the Flea on July 2 so that negotiations can proceed.

“I want to be clear,” says Pereira. “This is all fueled by our love for the Flea. So much good has come from the Flea. We love it so fiercely — that’s why we’re working so hard.” Instead of throwing up its hands, the administration is willing to collaborate on profound changes to its power structure. And all those bone-hard facts about the Flea that seemed so impossible to change have, thanks to the heat of Carter’s public statement and the BAC’s own efforts, turned suddenly malleable. The whole project might collapse — we’re in the middle of ten national crises at once. But at least here’s an actual example of how calls for accountability can lead to genuine forward movement, even as the industry is on indefinite pause. No work will, if we’re lucky, lead to better work: It was putting down their daily labors that let the Bats take up the instruments of change.

A Racial and Labor Reckoning at the Flea Theater