Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Worth Less or Worthless?

If I had to define an actor, and I am not trying to generalize, but I would have to define them as: a person who volunteers a lot. I was listening to a CBC program (Ontario Today) the other week, and the discussion revolved around grunt-work/internship/unpaid jobs that exist in many businesses. So,  it's not just actors who slave away for free! Many different career paths begin with an un-paying position. But my question remains-- when is it time for the individual, willingly working their buts off for free, to get paid? It's the transition period between gaining experience and being experienced that gets a little fuzzy.

The structure of the performance community is built in a way that does not allow an individual artist to gain experience that will lead to a paid gig. The beauty *cough trouble cough* with acting is that we either: A) take on these "learning opportunities" in hopes that we gain a valuable credit that will look great on a résumé and connect us with the right people. In turn, these "right people" will remember us for future union/paying-projects, and will call us so that we too can be a paying/union performer OR B) by doing these non-paying productions, we are scouted by the most amazing talent agent/casting director/manager who will sign us and help us achieve fame and fortune (or maybe just reoccurring work?). What happens when these two (most likely) options do not occur? Well...If you land a role in a non-union, non-paying production that's great, it's amazing and it will probably, most definitely lead to more non-union, non-paying productions. But, unlike other businesses, these "internships" that actors throw themselves at (not to sound desperate) often do not turn into a paying opportunity. So, as I previously mentioned, this volunteer/learning experience that the actor takes on, is not usually in hopes of getting paid...but rather in hopes of getting paid for a different role, with a different company in the future. Meaning, if I were to start out as an intern, let’s say in a commercial real estate office-- if this works as the acting world does-- it would actually only be a temporary internship that would hopefully lead to opportunities with other companies and not the one that I have put all my energy and effort into for the past three months. A little bizarre, wouldn’t you say?

The catch 22 of this business (and yes I have yet to read this novel, but I will!), is that in order to be union you need union experience, but in order to get union experience, you pretty much have to be union. (Yes I realize that this is not always the case, that there is a ratio that allows union productions to accept a certain percentage of non-union performers/ you can also just get cast and buy-in to the union), all I am saying is that this catch leads individuals to accept non-union, non-paying/volunteer roles. In consequence, this reoccuring acceptance of the non-union, non-paying roles allows many productions to hire actors on a volunteer basis (whether or not they have a high production budget) while leaving the rest of their money (or no money) to pay for other (more important?) things such as the venue, the crew, the set etc. Don't get me wrong without these things the production wouldn't go up-- but just something to think about-- rarely does a venue allow someone to use it for free, so why should we? As actors, as workers, as individuals aren't we worth more than that?

I am not saying that it is criminal to put up art for art’s sake. This is wonderful and it keeps are community growing and expanding and failing and succeeding. And while some of us can afford to be this kind of artist, there are some of us who love the art/business, but also want to make a career out of it. In a crazy way, we are killing our own artistic industry by trying to make art for free. It's like the kid who learns how to play three chords on his guitar, says he can play guitar and runs to the local bar asking if he could play for the sake of playing (aka for free) leaving the actual guitarists and musicians little opportunity to make money off of their craft and forcing them to follow suite and play for free. Yes, perhaps no one is forcing the musicians to do this, but that's like saying they don't have to be an artist...well you don't have to be a lawyer but we all have our callings.

Another good example of this is that during the 2012 Olympics there was a huge buzz about the fact that bands were asked to play at the Olympic ceremonies for free. It was considered a volunteer gig-- while the architects, the designers, the ushers etc would be paid. (In the end the bands did get paid). Why are the musicians worth less? And even if that was not the intention-- why is it then that the artists are considered last? As well (something that was mentioned during the Q program on CBC radio with Jian Ghomeshi earlier this year), benefit concerts rarely pay their artists to appear on/during their program—it is expected that they perform for free. While this is something that many of us will agree should happen— because in dire times our people need to pull together and do all we can for one another-- I believe this should be on the basis that everyone involved is doing this for free, not just the artist. I am also not saying that artists should never volunteer, either. But artists should be treated like any other respected professional, and it should be their choice to donate their time and art.

In the end...I am a hypocrite. I mean, I have signed on to countless productions where I am either acting in or choreographing for a non-paying position in order to build up my résumé for experience. Yet, each day as I check mandy.com, equity E drive, the face book exchange group, TAPA Blog or any other place I can think of, I get more and more irritated when every single (yes I am exaggerating) position is non-paying. I can understand the schools that are in need of actors for teaching purposes and have no budget. But what about the rest of the countless non-paying productions that hundreds of actors apply for everyday? Are there to many non-paying productions being produced? I don't think that all non-union, non-paying productions should stop because that would take away a lot of amazing work that has been produced (although it might help to stop a lot of the not-so-great stuff) but, let’s face it, even fringe (in an ideal world) is profit share. I just don't think enough projects are completely thought out and are doing the best they can for themselves and for those involved. If we all took a little more time to plan and to fundraise so that we could have a well-worked script and a budget that can support artists, perhaps we might find that the non-union work being produced is all around better because individuals have invested more into them. As an actor I would like to do art for art's sake...but I also need to live-- and so do you! I guess, all I want to tell you is...you are worth something, so demand more for yourself!

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