Thursday, October 09, 2014

On Doing FREE Theatre: to be  or  not  to  be

A  colleague  recently  informed  me  they  were  done  with  doing "free" theatre.
After numerous  starring  roles  in  well  received  productions  they  had  come  to  the  conclusion  that  it  was  all just  not  worth it.  The  implication, of  course, in  their  statement  was   that  it  wasn't  worth  it  for FREE. Days  earlier  I had  noted a  lament   in another  blog  by a noted  monologist  on the loss of  artists  in  the  paying  theatre  to jobs  of  greater security.  He  lamented  after  years  of a  formidable  career  on  the  West  coast  in  regional  theatres,  an actress  was  hanging  up her  proverbial "toe-shoes" and  seeking a  more  secure  nest  for  her   future. So....they were  being  paid  in  Seattle.  Just  not  paid  enough.  It didn't  make  headlines.

I am questioning the  put down of "free theatre" when it is  used as a   phrase to disparagingly refer to   theatre activity  that  is inferred  to be   less credible because  there  was  no remuneration. If  there is  no  remuneration  it  normally  means  the  endeavor  is  working  around  the  personal and  professional  schedules  of  all involved. There  is a  shared  sacrifice  and  committment  and  those  who  have  done  many  projects  of  this  kind  and  are  asked  back  again  and  again  by  different  companies  take  their  work  and  commitment   just  as  seriously  as  a performer  making  a  salary.  Their  efforts  and  the  recognition  of  them  can  often  be  just as  high  if  producers  have  taken  funds  and channelled  them  into  the resource  of  hiring  a  publicist  for a  production,  generating  more  publicity  for  actors  for a  project ,  which arguably  is  more  valuable  to  young  actors  than a $250  paycheck  which  the  government  would  tax  and   which  would  diminish  their  potential  return  from an unemployment  claim  rather  than  improve  it .

When  is  paying  an  actor or  actress  actually  doing   them a   gross  disservice because  the pay actually under values  them? Major  stars  regularly  do  projects  of  merit  for a  fraction  of  what  they  would  ordinarily  demand. Why  are  less  established  actors  rlegated  to  lesser  status  for  making   the  same  choice  for  the  same reasons?

 Concurrently, if  we  stick  with  monetary  valuation  to  judge  opportunities, it  begs the  question: So is $250/week theatre not as good as $500/week, which is  twice  as  bad  as $1200 per  week  which  isn't  nearly  as   valid   as a $1000/ day  television  or  movie , all of  which pales in comparison  to a $40,000/year  of a  commercial that shoots in one day?

I think the  first  question  actors  should  ask themselves  when  getting  involved  with  theatre or  film  on any  level at  any  point  in  their  lives  is,  is it  credible? Do  the  players  and  artists  involved  have a script, idea or  play worth  giving  some of  your  life and   vision to? But or  most  of  us , myself  included, when  the  price is right,  the  need to  consider such question  is often  enough  completely  overlooked, whereas  we  scrutinize projects  with less  remuneration with a  weighty  eye.

It's a question of survival, obviously its a priority.

But  it can be  used  as a sole marker  for  success. And  the  reality  is , once  you  are  paid, if  you're  not  being  paid  by  people  who  are  within a  circle  of  recognition , it  often makes  no  difference.
if  your  project  hasn't  at  least  received   some other  media attention.

To be paid  or  not also  sometimes has  greater  cultural implications. In  New York independent theatre if you are  an actor  of color , it is  expected  you should  be  paid  for your  time  in an  endeavor  or  it  is not considered  to  be  worthy  of  your  time. Not  long  ago I  met  with a playwright  of  color  writing plays  about  the  African  American experience  who  could  not  pay  for a  theatre  because  paying  her  actors a  salary  came  first in  her  budget.  It hearkens  back  to  an  idea  that  has  echoes  of  slavery  - working  without  pay - and  is looked  down  upon. In leading  a  company  that  has  espoused  color  blind casting , we've  come  face  to  face  on  several occasions  that if  you weren't  paying  a regular stipend  for a  production  to  actors  then  the  actors of  color  were  going  to  have a  hard  time
justifying  their  participation, regardless  of  whatever  outside  support  systems  they  may have  discovered  to  maintain  their  lives  at  the  time. The  message  is  clear : you  don't  work  for  free. You  put  value  on  your  participation and  that  value will come to you

To be  fair, economic snobbery in the theatre comes from the top down and the  bottom up.

It  brings into question  the hierarchy and class of  the  paying  theatre in  the  American theatre and  the  age  old  question  of  how  does  it  corrupt or  enhance   the  artistic  output and  professional  standing . I  would  propose being offered  pay  has  nothing  to  do with whether  or  not  the work is actually  good, since  the  offer  of  pay  normally  comes  before  the  work is  created  and  only very  few  of  the  most  elite  collaborators  in  our  business  are  entitled  to  a  share  of  the  profits  if  a  work  is  actually  successful.  It has  to  do  with  who  is  involved in  producing  the  project  and  how  much  money  they  would  like  to  make  with  the  project. Since  it  has  to  do with  how  much  money  they  want  or  hope  to make ,  it  has  everything  to  do  with  how  much  money  they are  willing  to  leverage.  In order  to make  back money on  their  investment  , in america, producers  traditionally  charge  patrons, the  higher  the  investemtn  the  higher  the  ticket  price  ,  the  more  a  producer  stands to make  as  profit  the more  her  or  his  collaborators  can insist  on  as  compensation  for  your  efforts.   Our  trade unions in the  theatre  would  have  you  believe  that  union memberships is a  stamp  of  quality or  excellence in  craft    and  at  one  time  in our  industry  that  may have been a  fair  statement  but  at  this  time  in  the  performing  arts  industry, union membership is a reflection of  previous  economic  engagement  with  producers. So an actor  may  be  in  the  union and  be  mediocre. The  union is a  function  of  the  economy  not  a  function  of the  craft  or  the  status  high  or  low  of  an artist. The  union  would have  you  believe  otherwise, it's understandable  as  that  is  what  they are  selling  to  producers  but  in  the  theatre  especially  most  producers  are  employing  the  union  as  much  for  their own  convenience.

Likewise, how  much  you are  paid   has nothing  to  do  with  whether  a project  will  enhance  your  career.  The  reputation  of  the  institution and  collaborating  artists is as  much a  factor as  any  other.
How  do  you  get a  reputation? Simple, be  seen  with  others   who  have a  favorable  one . Or  have  one  at  all.  Again, not  an issue  of  the  paycheck, but  the  company  you  keep.

I  spent  the  first   ten  years  of  my  life in New York,  giving  greater  and  lesser  weight  to opportunities  based on  the  paycheck  that  could  be attached. I passed  actors  along  the   way, of  great  quality, who  had   found  "survival  jobs"  to  pay  the  rent   so  they  could  invest  in  opportunities  based  on  artistic  merit. Over  time I  saw (amongst  the  best  of  them) their  reputations  rise and  they  went  onto  prosperous careers. The  operative  word  was  over  time. It  took along  time.

There  isn't  a  substitute  for patience  in  our  industry Nor, unfortunately, is  there much of a paycheck.
But  I would  suggest  that  the  vast  amount  of  money and  talent  in our  industry  is  left  on  the  table and  never  collected  by  others  who  leave  the  field  seeking   other  more  reasonable  opportunities.
The  investment  is tremendous and  without  it , the theatre and  perfroming  arts  in  America   as we  know  them  would  certainly  suffer.