For Actors, Pay-to-Audition Remains Industry Standard

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ticket stubs and cashWhen was the last time you paid to interview for a job? What about paying for the possibility of interviewing for a job? Never, I’m guessing. But for actors, paying for the possibility of auditions is common, though the perpetrators of such schemes would never use such frank language to describe it. Instead, they call them “workshops” or “casting workshops.” And while some of these “workshops” do provide valuable professional insight, others are simply pay-to-audition schemes. Often marketed and advertised as educational opportunities, even the most legitimate workshops typically list an instructor’s current work and projects. The implication is that by participating in a workshop, actors may increase their chances of landing representation or booking roles.

Many companies, including One on One and Actors Connection, offer workshops for actors, and, to be sure, they do create courses legitimately focused on the craft of acting and the particulars of auditioning. The issue is when actors are required to pay for an audition in order to participate in a workshop. The issue becomes still more complicated when an actor, once accepted, must pay additional “member dues.” Members may then be asked to pay yet a third time to participate, for example, in a casting workshop. These companies, then, really function as forums for middlemen that actors must pay to gain access to yet other middlemen — like agents, casting directors and their assistants.

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How many times do I have to pay? /via
How many times do I have to pay? /via

How does this system — actors paying middlemen simply to audition for roles — continue to operate? Is their passion for acting so deep, and their outlook so bleak, that they will do anything to gain an advantage? The dynamic in so much art, especially for performers, has long been “work for free.” But for years now the dynamic has shifted to “pay to work.” Or more accurately, “pay for the possibility of work.”

In some cases, the industry itself has pushed to ban pay-to-audition workshops. Due to an epidemic of them in Los Angeles, in 2009 the Screen Actors Guild successfully pressured the California legislature to pass The Krekorian Talent Scam Prevention Act. The law requires casting workshops in that state to use specific language in marketing and advertising, to have clear educational content, and to avoid the implication that actors are auditioning for projects or representation.

I recently interviewed an actor who attended a workshop outside of California and talked to me about his experience. Because this is a very contentious issue, and to protect the actor from possible industry reprisals, I agreed to keep his/her identity anonymous.

Describe the workshop you attended. How long was it? What was the cost?
There was a 10- to 15-minute Q-and-A where the person discussed how he became an agent. Then he took three or four questions from the 30 or so actors and singers in the room. Then everyone got one or two minutes to do his or her monologue or song with no feedback. It was $20 to $30.

What instruction or educational benefit did you receive?
No educational benefit for me, personally.

Would you consider this workshop an educational experience or a “pay to audition” situation?
It depends on the workshop. This one felt very much like paying to audition. By contrast, I did a workshop with David Vaccari from Telsey + Company at Paul Michael’s The Network, who was fantastic — a lot of useful feedback. Vaccari did what The Network called a “three-week workshop,” but what others might call three workshops that each take place a week apart, assigning sides based on one’s resume and headshot, and then, after the first workshop, assigning sides based on performance. After each read, we were given feedback and offered the opportunity to do it again. After each workshop, we were sent a tape of our performance to review before the next workshop. That other workshop did no such thing.

That first workshop — would you consider that the norm, or do most offer more instruction and valuable feedback?
Whether or not you’re getting feedback from the casting director or agent, it’s pretty common knowledge that you’re paying to get into the room with an industry member you’re interested in. It’s definitely not an acting class. There’s rarely focus on technique and the art of acting. The closest it comes to an acting class is focusing more on logistics. Do you look into the camera or not? Can you read off the page or should the sides be memorized?…

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Are you aware that workshops with the qualities you describe are illegal in California, denounced by SAG-AFTRA, and discouraged by the CSA (Casting Society of America)?
I was not aware.

Actors Equity Association has no publications that I’ve found on the issue — and these workshops are not illegal in New York. What action, if any, would you like to see from Equity or state or city government on this issue?
I’m not surprised. A lot of us are nonunion so it wouldn’t necessarily matter. AEA and SAG-AFTRA should be more aware of the different companies offering these workshops and make regular visits to make sure they’re offering what they say they’re offering. Agents who participate in pay-to-audition scams should be thrown out of the union.

How is this practice impacting you and the art and industry as a whole?
My income from acting shouldn’t be my secondary income, but with how much actors get paid (or not get paid), my day job becomes my primary income. When I’m making so little money from my acting work, how is it fair to charge me to try to succeed in the craft I’m so passionate about? They’re capitalizing on the passion of the artist, making them fork over what is sometimes hundreds of dollars because they know that we want so badly to get ahead in the business that we will spend what some of us make in a week to get into the same room with a casting director or agent whose roster is completely full in the first place.

In fact, about that first workshop, the person is now holding a very similar one in L.A. This time for free. The implication being that if it charged participants it might violate the law and the CSA guidelines.

There are a myriad of moral and legal considerations when approaching this situation. There are even some people in the business who oppose the legislation regulating pay-to-audition workshops. However, the actor and blogger Ben Whitehair sums up the situation clearly:

The issue here, though, is that if anyone in a field is allowed to pay for a job interview, the playing field suddenly becomes very lopsided, and unfairly so… Restricting this practice does not come from a motivation of restricting choice, but rather to protect large portions of the population as well as attempting to have as level a playing field as possible.

Whitehair is absolutely correct. Pay-to-audition schemes not only drain the already-strained pockets of performers, they alter a performer’s relationship to their work. Merit, talent, even networking become less important than an actor’s ability to pay for access. It changes the dynamic and role of an agent and casting director. Instead of relying solely on a percentage of a client’s earnings or pay from a production when roles are filled, agents and casting directors can and do also earn money from these workshops. The incentive to search for bookable talent is heavily reduced. It is also worth noting that when pay-to-audition workshops are held by agents, participants are, in fact, hoping to get representation. They are not even paying to interview for a job but paying to interview for the possibility of something down the line. The dubious nature of these workshops will be debated ad nauseum. Yet if this situation were present in any other industry, I doubt that it would be allowed. Within the industry and our society at large, it is often considered appropriate for artists to receive no pay for their work. It appears that it is now considered appropriate for artists to pay for their work as well.