Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Labor of Love

An exercise in well-written journalism is on display in the 2013 May/June issue of The Harvard Magazine. Nell Porter Brown's Leading Man focuses on established film and stage actor, Nick Wyman, and his fight to "expand opportunities" for entry-level aspiring actors and professional actors. 

Wyman has been part of the theatrical labor of love game since first graduating from Harvard in '72 with 15 broadway credits, regional appearances, commercials and film roles including the part of terrorist Mathius Targo in Die Hard With A Vengeance. Receiving his AEA card from a traveling production of Grease, Wyman has remained active in the union and became AEA president in 2010. 

A post Wyman does not receive any compensation for, but is as committed to the position as much he would on a stage or film role. "I realized the people making the decision had a direct impact on my life and livelihood." Wyman states in the article. "I am enough of a control freak that I wanted to be part of that decision." 

In Western New York, union actors find little to no work within a season, and so lack the incentive or look outside the area for work. Although the region boasts of having 22 professional theater companies, a scan of the production programs will show a lack of AEA actors, stage managers or directors. 

Semi-professionals and amateurs will often find a check at the end of a nine-week commitment that barely scratches an one-week, minimum-wage-job, paycheck. Although some companies will compensation near-union wages, and the allure of working at an established WNY theater for $1,000 may entice most actors in this region, when one considers the amount of unpaid rehearsal time, transportation costs, lost hours from the "real" job, the reflective scale of labor to pay is skewed as well. 

For the region AEA has setup a special appearance agreement that pay is based on a particular company's "tier" (One to Four) structured on box-office revenue:

Base on these tiers, these are standard salary configurations:

If an AEA actor is called into a Tier One theater, a company then would pay $1,392 for 7 weeks of employment. Additional cost would come in the form of whether or not the company has a payroll service and/or includes health care into the deal. 

Sounds respectful?

The $174/week is less than the $181.25/week an individual working a minimum wage job at 25 hours/week. The $226/week at the Tier Two company can be compared to the 30 hours/week minimum wage paycheck of $217. 

This would explain why an AEA actor wouldn't find the incentive or turn down work in a Tier One or Two theater company. Work at a higher tier company makes more economic sense and if a Tier Four company is bringing in an union actor, chances are this would be for a major role worth the creative challenge and economics. 

Western New York theater is not a region saturated with AEA actors. Those who carry a "card" and are in demand will find work at the higher Tier companies. What the region has is a deep pool of semi-professional and amateur actors who are just as talented but lack the union label. If a company is faced with making a decision between hiring an AEA actor at $2,500 or bring in an non-union actor at $1,500, the latter choice is a matter of economics and, truthfully, a "no brainer". 

What this economic imbalance means is that companies with deep pockets can offer in-demand, semi-professional actors contracts that are $1,000 below equity scale (and will not pay for rehearsal), offer $700, for rehearsal and entire production, to actors in secondary roles, then give $400, same schedule, to gleeful out-of-college and amateur actors for ensemble work. 

The pecking order fallout continues. 

Semi-professionals and amateur actors then chose to take roles for $700 over a chance to play a major role in a company that can only pay $300 per show leaving companies to cast those who are either truly committed to their craft but have great day jobs, or unproven, unknown talent established companies won't risk the investment on. 

In the article Leading Man, Nick Wyman understands the "economic difficulties and downward pressures" facing companies and the AEA as both strive to find a decent working wage. He also understands that companies are in the awkward position of now having to field commercially accessible works to remain  financially viable. These companies are generating profit but creative new works are being ignored. In the process, more emphasis is placed on profit and not opportunity. "The rich get richer and the poor go out of business." Wyman states in the article. 

I recently spoke with an young actor about taking roles for a company that doesn't pay as well as the established theaters. The actor informed me that although the roles presented in the past were challenging (and through recognition brought other opportunities) the pay was not worth the time and commitment involved. 

It was about money. Fair enough. 

Later in the month I saw this actor doing a local TV commercial, and knew the pay for doing this spot and perhaps others was a lucrative opportunity overshadowing any creative, craftsmanship. 

It was about money. 

In the theater business there is a fine-line between the work being a labor of love and receiving compensation for craft. The idea that in Western New York theater there is this salary cap which companies measure for value, and the remaining pay-scale is based on illusion, has to be reevaluated. 

If the AEA operates in Western New York Theaters, then all theaters should adhere to the union pay-scale based on the tier system. All actors should then demand to be paid fair wage otherwise refuse to work in that particular theater. Unfortunately, going back to Wyman, the commercial companies would remain rich and those who seek to bring originality to stage would go out of business leaving several talented non-union actors less opportunities to follow their craft. 

The other option would be for tier one and two companies to agree to set a unified pay-scale for non-union actors. This would allow continuation of opportunities, wage-friendly scales to counter the downward pressures facing theater, and the elimination of mercenary actors only looking for the best paycheck not challenge. 

Theater is a labor of love, and those in the business do it because there are no other choices as best described by Wyman in the article, Leading Man, "We do this because we are junkies. We have to. We've gotten a taste of this in elementary or high school when we were on stage and people laughed, applauded or cried, or that most of precious audience moments: utter, breath-holding silence."

This is theater, but if an actor can skillfully provide all what Wyman says then a reward should be given. The challenge for Western New York theaters is to start agreeing on what this reward should amount to. 

In the end such an agreement can only strengthen the theatrical community and continue to provide opportunities to both union and non-union actors, stage managers and designers.