Not paying actors is a tale as old as time. True, neither total annual salary nor the pay for any particular project should define the life and work of an actor, but not paying actors at all, or paying them very, very little, is something that needs to change. This article is the tip of the iceberg, the opening of a complex topic, one whose discussion time has come.
The arts as a whole has long been a grey area when it comes to what is considered fair pay and legal. I am an actor. I think when it comes to how actors are treated as professionals, we must examine what our rights are, or what they ought to be.
Consider how, for example, the acting world has been rocked by #MeToo. Until this year, the “casting couch” was a well-known cliché, mostly referred to in jokes. Until #MeToo, no one took seriously the very serious and chronic sexual predation that went along with the rest of the professional territory. No one thought exposing this pernicious tradition would bring about change. Yet, #MeToo has brought change.
So, too, the discussion of unfair or nonexistent wages for actors is an area that many people, in and out of the industry, do not take seriously enough. They tend to associate unfair or nonexistent wages with women and minorities, teachers and artists. It’s also not hard to verify the truth of these associations. Women earn, on average, 19.5% less than men. Data on minority employment indicates that Hispanic women, on average, earn 54% of what white men earn. Teachers earn, on average, $38,000 a year. Figures for theater actors is worse — and skewed because of the very few who actually work on Broadway. For thousands of American actors, $12,000 in income is a banner year. That means a “working actor” made $1,000 a month doing their work. That’s it.
At age 23, I joined my union, Actors’ Equity Association (AEA), after performing under a LORT D contract in Phoenix, AZ. A few months earlier, I graduated from The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London, where I’d written a master’s thesis on the rise of the American theater in conjunction with the rise of class warfare in the post-World War I era. After Phoenix, I returned to LA where, having recently analyzed America’s unspoken class distinctions, I was struck by the inequities of LA’s 99-seat code.
My experience as a professional actor has always been rooted in AEA Guidelines. Under its 99-seat code, I discovered there was plenty of acting work for me, almost all of it unpaid. The code was subject of much debate. One LA theater producer told me that, under the code, I was a volunteer, like the volunteer work she did for local politics. It was my choice whether to volunteer or not. She claimed that because there was no financial support for LA theater, my union was destroying the livelihood of producers — even ruining LA theater by trying to enforce minimum wage standards. I knew an actor who claimed that working for a lesser wage was conducive to her acting career because it left her with more flexibility to do film work, which pays vastly more.
The most recent change to the 99-seat code in LA, in 2016, came at the end of a very long and very public fight with a union that ostensibly serves and protects my interests. Also in 2016, I attended the Stage Raw Awards — co-nominated (with Dash Pepin) for supporting male performance. Attendees were all abuzz about the “cruelty” of new rules that required union theaters to pay actors a minimum wage. The theme of the night was “A Wake and Sing” — a funeral for the 99-seat code. I tried to engage some debate on this, and I was confronted with responses like “When did it become all about making money?” The host of the evening, French Stewart, received rousing applause when he said, “We will be back as a church with a liquor license!”
After these experiences, I relocated to the Bay Area, where I was confronted with another issue: a substantial class gap between theaters. There, in the shadow of two juggernauts — American Conservatory Theatre and Berkeley Rep — a lot of theaters feel more comfortable with a kind of amateur status; many Bay Area actors, especially those under 35, are afraid to join AEA for fear of not being employed. The choice here is clear: work almost-free or stand by your principles and don’t work. The result is that many actors are willing to work for kind of a compromised pay; a few AEA actors are legally unable to work for free; and a slew of theaters hold talented performers to professional standards without compensating them.
AEA exists to protect actors. It has been essential in creating a platform for actors to succeed. Due to the unusual nature of the theater industry, however, AEA doesn’t operate like other unions. In fact, the majority of performing arts groups do not operate entirely under the safe umbrella of a union; those companies that are union are need not always employ union members exclusively. In nonprofit theater, for example, some actors may belong to a union, but others may not; some union actors may receive pay that ranges from a stipend to minimum wage, but nonunion actors may receive only a “gas stipend” that barely covers parking. It’s clearly beneficial for theaters to hire as few union actors as possible, even as they try to maintain prestige as a union shop.
AEA also allows union shops to adjust their contracts based on such factors as operating budgets, demographics, region and competing industries. How does this protect the actor? It doesn’t. It allows theaters to skirt regular-wage practices under the guise of offering more “work,” poorly paid or unpaid as they may be. And that is the problem.
Everybody wants to support “local art,” but does supporting it mean we should allow arts organizations to operate outside the regulations of other nonprofits? We have established that an industry that hires artists based, in part, on their physical appearance, or their ability to demonstrate sexual chemistry with a stranger, must be governed by clear, strict, legally enforceable boundaries that legitimizes the process and protects the artists. Can we establish that theaters must support actors with a minimum wage, union or not? This is not just about business practices. This is about basic human rights.
The ignorant, the cheap and the crass may argue that the reason some actors are paid so little or not at all is because live theater is dead. The argument is false. Nothing substitutes for the immediacy of live performance and audiences know it. The show isn’t dead. But the players are being starved.
A play is not a play without actors. Why are actors, then, underpaid or unpaid? Theaters pay rent, energy, staff and a thousand other things, but without actors they have no play. As actors, our passion leads us to the stage for very little, or for free. And we, collectively, let theaters get away with it.
For an actor to demand fair wages is taboo: there will always be someone willing to work for little or for free. This cutthroat approach favors the theater, which knows they can keep their actors grateful for the opportunity to be unpaid or underpaid to follow their passion. Why are Shakespeare’s poor players not Odets’ strikers? If you underpay actors, do they not starve? Some of us may fight for the rights of others but never question our own right to a fair living wage.
If we want to make change in mold of #MeToo, we need at least four things to happen:
- We must force theaters — and unions, including AEA — to restructure. They need a vision based on artist sustainability. They must break the cycle of how everything has always been done.
- We must force theaters — and unions, including AEA — to value actors as employees who deserve minimum wage or better. No more stipends. No more gas money.
- We must force theaters — and unions, including AEA — to shift priorities so that day-to-day operations focus on where compensation for employees, including actors, will come from, just like any other functioning business.
- Actors must give a damn about their working conditions and be brave enough to speak out and advocate for themselves and for their fellow artists.
Let’s not accept the financial struggles of artists as the norm. Let’s open our eyes to the fact that there is much progress to be made.