“Hey, I’ve got a ‘What if…'”

Little Women - one of my all-time favorite productions. And, yes, I would do it again for free!

I am a part-time actor who, like most of the rest of the part-timers, wishes she could be a full-time actor.  It’s an awesome thing to discover that one thing you truly love to do – that thing that you love to do so much that you would even do it for free…which brings me to this post.

Paid acting jobs are not an easy thing to come by.  I have a great agent who stays on the ball, and I submit to various casting calls every week.  She also sends out a newsletter about once a week that is full of opportunities that have been sent her way, but with which she is not directly involved.  I also get a newsletter from the local actors’ career center, S.T.A.G.E., as well as another popular DFW area actors’ newsletter called The Column.  All of these newsletter are filled with a variety of acting opportunities from stage to screen, with 95% of these opportunities having one big thing in common.  No pay.

Squier Art & Design

Now most, if not all, of these non-paying projects will have no trouble finding actors aplenty to fill their needs.  Like I said earlier, most actors, myself included, love what they do so much that they are willing to do it for free.  But today, I got to thinking…

What if we just stopped working for free?

What if “great experience,” “footage for your demo reel” and “drinks and snacks provided” was no longer enough?

We just filed our 2009 taxes today, and let’s just say that, as an actor, I managed to bring home a bit more than you start off with in Monopoly, but no where near enough to win the game.  According to K. Callan‘s Book “How To Sell Yourself As An Actor” (6th Edition, 2008), 39.5% of Screen Actors Guild members earn between $1 and $3,000, and 27.5% earn nothing at all.  So, I actually did pretty well in comparison.

But you can’t call that a living.  It’s really a crazy balancing act to pull off.  In order to afford food, shelter and basic necessities, most actors have to have another job.  But making a go as an actor requires you to have complete schedule flexibility to be able to go wherever, whenever for whatever audition or call-back, sometimes with less than a 24-hour notice.

Many actors, myself included, have gone to college and gotten undergraduate or graduate degrees in Theatre or Acting, or something similar.  How many other professions that hire degreed individuals can you think of that expect their qualified employees to work for free?  If a nurse or a teacher contribute their skills to a project or institution for no charge at all, it’s viewed as charitable, noble, even philanthropic, as it should be.  To be quite honest with you, if, over the years, I manage to make enough money as an actor to recover the cost of my schooling, it will be a goal well-met.

So, I ask you again, “What if we just stopped working for free?”

I did my very first show at The Ritz Theatre!

Well, I can come up with a handful of negatives right away.  Community theatre, where so many people first get bitten by “the bug,” would suffer a great deal.  Granted, there are some community theatres that manage to pay actors a small stipend – maybe enough to cover gas back and forth to rehearsals – but there are many that are just trying to keep the doors open and the electricity bills paid.  It would be a devastating blow to so many small town theatres if the love of the craft were no longer enough to compel actors to donate their time and energy to making magic on the stage.

Then, there are the small indy film productions.  Most great directors got their start  in much humbler beginnings, and with less grandiose productions than, say, Indiana Jones or Avatar.  My husband is a wonderful director/producer.  I would jump for joy if he decided to helm an independent production and was able to assemble an all volunteer cast and crew.  There are already so many other costs involved in making an indy project.

For actors who chose to not invest the time and money in a classical education, non-paying jobs offer great on-the-job training experiences, in most cases.  You learn something new with each and every project.  These individuals would likely have a more difficult time landing paid jobs when competing with others who already have the experience and resume to back up their more fully developed talents.

Rat's Art

With these negatives, however, I could also see a few positives.  There would be more paid acting projectsavailable to us would-be working actors, which would be a  HUGE blessing.   If you have had difficulty finding a job in this economy, then you have had a small taste about what it is really like trying to make a living as an actor.  Sure, jobs are out there, but the hiring pool is deep and wide.  I’ve read that 90% of an actor’s job is looking for a job, and I’d have to say that my own experience is reflective of that.

Quirk Abilities

I also can’t help but wonder if the overall quality of work would improve.  I have witnessed absolutely phenomenal performances, both in live theatre and on film, and I have also seen performances that were so bad it took all of my willpower to not run out the door, or turn off the television.  It is in these later instances when I have often begged the question, “How did that person manage to get cast in this production?”  Well, was it a paid job?  You’re probably not going to get Anthony Hopkins to audition for “My Senior Year Film Project.”

I know actors are at the bottom of the totem pole.  I get that, I’ve accepted that,  and I have no problem knowing where I stand.  I’m not saying that actors should or should not stop working for free.

I’m just wondering, “What if?”

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