There has been a lot of discussion lately about the issue of actors trying to “make it.” And by “make it,” I mean “try to get by even when they’re working at the top of the local food chain.” Many people, including this woman from Philadelphia (who ultimately decided to give up acting) and the TC Arts Junkie ((who wonders if we really are being exploited at all) have covered this topic in a more serious way, talking about their own personal experiences trying to make a living doing this.
It’s a very serious discussion that has finally begun to happen, and I think it’s an important one. It’s a discussion that, for me, began over many, many happy hours with fellow actors, and many chats during the “hurryupandwait” part of various film shoots I’ve been on. I think it’s a discussion that needs to keep happening, or nothing will ever change.
If I were going to write my first Minnesota Playlist article in the form of an NPR Intelligence Squared debate, the premise would be this:
Debate: Accepting unpaid or very low paid theater and film work degrades the industry as a whole and continues to degrade actor pay to the point that we are paying for the privilege of working.
Then, I would have opposing sides argue for and against the motion. But to make it more interesting, I would force them to battle American Gladiator-style with Nerf bats on a balance beam while trying to make their points. Also, I think they would each have a bottle of Bacardi 151 strapped to their torso with duct tape and every time either one of them says the words “actor,” “pay,” or “work,” they must drink for 10 seconds through a bendy straw. (Please feel free to play along at home – I’ve highlighted these words for ease of play!)
Arguing against the motion: Me (I guess)
“Actors need to pay their dues like anyone else. Why do actors feel that they should be exempt from putting in their time? Why do they feel that they are entitled to a career in theatre or film, or a certain level of pay just because they went to school? Schooling does not guarantee talent, and life is not fair. Actors need to learn to take what they get and if they’re not getting paid work, well, perhaps that’s because they’re not as talented or hard working as other actors.”
(Ouch! This drinking game - I mean, debate could get ugly fast!)
Arguing for the motion: Myself
That’s just ludicrous! This industry is increasingly becoming one where you only have the freedom to donate your time and “pay your dues” if you are either independently wealthy or are lucky enough to have parents paying for your schooling and living expenses. Why do you think all your friends have gone back to school to be nurses or accountants?
Since the 1990s, film production in Minnesota has been on a steady decline, and film production across the country has suffered as projects move to Canada (or even to countries like Hungary) where production costs are lower. Just like in other industries, our work is being outsourced to other nations and the strength of the unions has steadily declined. More people are going Fi-Core* and Minnesota’s status as a “right-to-work” state means that films that actually do come here don’t have to pay extras. Instead, civilian extras vie for the privilege to work long hours in the hopes of meeting someone famous or saying they were in a movie, and trained actors ‘work’ as extras in the hopes of getting noticed, or getting bumped up to a featured role.
In the theater, things probably haven’t changed quite as drastically overall, but the decline of the unions has meant that becoming Equity in this town is almost a death sentence for your career, unless you want to travel constantly, move to New York, or have a job as a server, temp, teacher or 9 to 5 office drone on the side. I’m not saying this is the case for everyone who gets their Equity card in this town, but it IS what people talk about, and it IS the debate that goes through the mind of every actor who is considering joining. The union is seen as both an honor and a curse.
Arguing against the motion: Me (again)
Oh, BOO HOO! You have to move to New York. Please tell me how awful it would be to live in the center of the universe with Oprah, Donald Trump and the Statue of Liberty…
Arguing for the motion: Myself
…on an actor’s wages, in a one bedroom apartment, with your wife and two kids, and the cat litter in the bathtub, because there’s nowhere else to put it!** What I’m saying is that we shouldn’t have to. We need to all band together in order to stop this downward spiral. That’s what unions did in the first place. People agreed to only work under certain conditions, for certain hours and pay… and that maybe children shouldn’t operate heavy machinery. I think maybe we all need a reminder that being a professional means that at a certain point, once you have some experience, you don’t work for free anymore. Even if it’s for a friend, a student production, or whatever, you should get something – an honorarium, a stipend – acknowledging that you are a professional.
Arguing against the motion and quite drunk at this point: Me
And how the hell are you going to convince them to do THAT? HA! You know that if an actor stops working for more than a month, they wind up crying into a pint of Ben and Jerrys while binge-watching Doctor Who on Netflix and sobbing on the phone to friends about how they suck and they’ll never work again.
Sssshut up. I never did that.
Okay, so it was Breaking Bad.
Just accept that you are a commodity. Like socks or toilet paper, you are one of many, and if someone thinks that the socks at Target are too expensive, they can always go to Walmart. Or the Dollar Store. Someone will always be willing to give their socks away for free.
Never mind. It was just an analogy.
I am not a sock! We just can’t give up. This is what we all love to do. It’s what we chose to pursue and put our time and energy and five years of college and additional training and an infinity of tech weeks and hundreds of hours pressing redial on two phones to get a general audition, and I am not going to give up, and I’m not going to let everyone else give up! My whole point… I think… is that we need to start this conversation, and we need to keep this conversation going, about how to keep this a profession and not a hobby.
It took you THAT LONG to make that point?
You suck. I’m going to go watch 15 hours of Orange is the New Black. I hope you didn’t eat all of my Americone Dream again.
*For those who don’t know what Fi-Core is, it means that a union member gives up their union card and all rights and privileges of the union, but continues to pay dues in exchange for the right to work both union and non-union jobs. I have heard that really all they give up is voting rights, but the SAG/AFTRA website is pretty clear on their feelings about Financial Core, i.e. “You are a terrible, terrible person.”
**True story from a New York actor I met who was in town working for a few months