Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Sunday Read: Op-ed - What do we want actors to do?

What do we owe?
Should actors expect poverty?
by Stuart Munro

At the end of July, Tony award winner Daisy Eagan tweeted the following: “I have a job interview tomorrow for a temp job packaging human breast milk. I also have a Tony award.” There are many things to read into this, and I suspect she meant it more tongue-in-cheek than anything else. “Look at me! I’m an award-winning actress applying for this bizarre job. Life is weird, no?” However, my first reaction was something a bit different. To me, Ms. Eagan was saying, “Look at me! I’m an award-winning actress! I deserve better than this shit!” I was immediately reminded of an article written by Brendan Kiley nearly four years ago for Seattle’s The Stranger: “Ten Things Theatres Need to Do Right Now to Save Themselves.” Mr. Kiley has a lot of good ideas, though I find his tone a bit acerbic. The one point I don’t agree with, and the point that brings me back to Ms. Eagan, is his ninth: that actors should expect poverty. But if I don’t agree with this point, then what should actors expect? What do we, as a society, owe to our artists?

“No one,” Mr. Kiley says, “deserves a living wage for having talent and a mountain of grad-school debt. Sorry.”

Mr. Kiley’s assumed reasoning seems pretty sound. Theatre is expensive, ticket sales account for only a tiny portion of a theatre’s revenue, and companies are typically dependant on government grants and private sponsorship. If theatre companies were to reduce the wages of their actors, ticket prices could drop, more people would theoretically attend, and profits could potentially rise. But the reason he gives is something a bit different than this. “No one,” Mr. Kiley says, “deserves a living wage for having talent and a mountain of grad-school debt. Sorry.” I’ll even agree with that. But his argument begins to fall apart as soon as the conversation shifts from anyone who’s ever gone to theatre school, to actors being hired by companies. We’re no longer talking about artists with debt, we’re talking about highly trained professionals being hired for their particular, often unique, skill-set and abilities.

“But hang on,” I hear you saying. “Actors only work a couple of hours a day. Why should they make a living wage off that?” Well that’s sometimes true. For the sake of this argument, let’s ignore repertory companies and actors who are working on two or more shows at a time and just deal with the folks who are doing eight shows a week. The truth is there are actors out there who are able to hold part-time jobs while they perform. But for many others, acting is exhausting, and working a second job while performing is a near impossibility. By forcing actors to accept that their craft can’t sustain them, actors will turn to other trades and the talent pool is reduced. Eventually, companies will begin to suffer from this; as they have fewer talented actors to hire and the quality of their productions decrease, patrons will have a harder time justifying spending their money on shows that don’t meet their expectations. This is obviously a worst-case scenario, but it is not hard to see the slippery slope that could follow from reducing an actor’s wage to below the living line.

But there is another side here, and that’s the one suggested by Daisy Eagan’s tweet. Like all professionals, Ms. Eagan trained and worked hard to win her Tony award (even if she was only eleven years old at the time). Time has gone by, and Ms. Eagan has gone to school for, according to Wikipedia, psychology and creative writing. And yet, 12 years later, she is reminding us that she has a Tony Award and bemoaning the fact she may need to take on a menial job. This is where my sympathy runs out. Like all professions, theatre companies want the best people working for them, and that means actors must constantly keep their skills honed. The actor who doesn’t loses the opportunity to work, but that is their responsibility. And like any other profession, those who can’t make it are forced to consider other options. There is no shame in this.

To choose the life of an artist is to choose a difficult future full of uncertainty. For many the struggle is not worth it and they opt to pursue other options. We shouldn’t judge those who do this (hell, I’m one of them). But when actors, 12 years after the fact, remind us they’ve won an award and suggest the world is being unfair to them, they give those actors who relentlessly pursue their craft a bad name. It’s no surprise the likes of Brendan Kiley think these skilled professionals are being overpaid.

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