The Myth that Actors Are Different
So why should actors be looked upon as any different from anyone who works for someone else to pay the bills and earn a living?
When corporations and large single ownerships began to monopolize the American Theater Circuit, it was only natural that a move toward solidarity and unionization would follow. So it is, that we have actors unions, unions undergoing a major change in definition, structure and potentially mission, entering the twenty-first century.
So it is that we are on the eve of a possible merger between the Screen Actors Guild and AFTRA, with the potential of other unions joining in the future.
On Actors, Acting, Business and the Future
If you are interested in earning even part of your living working in the entertainment industry, specifically as an actor or performing talent, you need to take the time to learn about the craft, study the craft and get a handle on what in the musical “Mame” is referred to as “this business called show.
Looking at acting as a profession means agreeing that as an actor, you are in business for your self. You are an independent contractor going from job to job and task to task.
Thinking of acting as a business is a stretch for many actors, but a necessity to put food on the table.
Actors need to learn early that if they intend to earn even part of their living with their talents, they need to organize their lives as a business. There are considerations such as marketing, financing, production and distribution, just as there would be in any business. Photographs, audio and videotapes, training, networking and selling your talents and services are vital for your future success. They are the tools of your trade. Investment of time, money and compassion are needed to succeed in show business. There may be magic, but it is necessary to eat and make a living while creating and enjoying the benefits of that magic.
Understanding the craft of acting, how to market you as an actor, and of the ever-changing market place and distribution systems, may be essential to modern financial success in a very ancient profession.
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Labor Unions for Actors
Labor unions, born of the struggles of the nineteenth century, continue to face changes in management, economics, technology and public opinion. The pace may be increasing exponentially. One group, professional working actors are faced with the impact of technology, decentralization and the rapid growth of the number of qualified professional performers.
There are many performance unions, but three unions directly affect actors wishing to work in commercials, television and motion pictures.
The first is Equity, which has jurisdiction over live theater and works closely with the two electronic and film unions. While Actors Equity membership is not required to work in film or television, however those casting often perceive an actors membership in the stage or “legitimate theater” union as an asset when making casting decisions. It is necessary to move to a market with and active professional theater community and Equity casting to earn membership into the union. Becoming Equity is a major commitment and will end your flexibility to do community theater (allowed by the other two unions).
The Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists share jurisdiction in television and with commercials and work jointly to negotiate film and other contracts. The differences betweens these unions are explained in the glossary that follows, however at this time there is strong movement toward consolidation to minimize the differences and draw clear and unified lines as to contract jurisdiction entering the digital “info-tainment” age.
Actors have seen increasing challenges in making a living while pursuing their craft, their art form, and their professions.
The entertainment and information industries are merging, under the control or umbrella of as few as six major international corporations as of the end of 2002. The line between reality and theater is blurred, with an accountant’s pen often deciding which vision of reality or art is presented to the mass audience. In recent years the Screen Actors Guild and AFTRA has been faced with the shift by employers (who were themselves creative producers of product, entertainment and art), to a world with a half dozen corporate entities controlling most of the worlds information and entertainment, utilizing the concepts of accounting and stock value to make decisions more often than story or social value.
The methods, compensation and ability of actors to earn a living using their craft are evolving, often to the disadvantage of the working actor. Actors face the reality of a decrease in potential earnings, known as salary compression. Producers are in a position to offer roles at union scale to experience and sometimes “name” actors and to cripple the union in their efforts to make significant inroads in the areas of salary and benefits. New Media, an umbrella term for all of the new technologies which have evolved over the past ten to fifteen years (including the cable industry as we know it), often falls outside of or at the fringe of contracts with minimal compensation for the use of talent.
On Actors, Acting and Union
Being an actor is perhaps one of the most difficult ways to actually make a living. While there are actors who have forged full time careers in theater, commercials and convention work in cities coast to coast, the vast majority of work lies in Hollywood and New York City.
It may take one or several hundred non-paid auditions to land one day's work. An actor may work dozens of days a year or none at all. Then too, there are the expensive classes necessary to keep up their skills; the cost of professional photographs, video and audiotape, of postage and time spent marketing themselves to potential employers.
Actor Paul Napier, whose credits include portraying the original Mr. Goodwrench, and who remains active on both the SAG and AFTRA boards of directors, tells of his children being asked by their teacher what their father did for a living. Their response was “audition”.
Casting Director and producer Donn Finn says of actors, “They are not acting for a living, they are acting for their craft. What they are doing for a living, besides waiting tables and taking 'day jobs', is auditioning. You might as well call them auditioners”. Finn went on to point out that each actor "should think of themselves as their own little corporation," and part of the requirements to be a successful corporation is to join and participate in one or more professional actors unions. Finn is a casting partner in the office of Mali Finn Casting and is a professor in the Department of Theatre and Dance at California State University in Fullerton. Recent casting credits include: Eight Mile, Phonebooth, Titanic, LA Confidential, Wonder Boys and The Matrix I,II, and III.
Longtime SAG Board member Joe Ruskin, whose career includes appearances on the original "Star Trek" and many other television and film projects, states that, “Actors live in fear of rejection each and every day. If they are successful they fear it will end, if they are struggling they fear they will have to do something else for a living and give up a very important part of themselves”.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics provide this description of the profession of acting:
Acting demands patience and total commitment, because there are often long periods of unemployment between jobs. While under contract, actors are frequently required to work long hours and travel. For stage actors, flawless performances require tedious memorizing of lines and repetitive rehearsals, and in television, actors must deliver a good performance with very little preparation. Actors need stamina to withstand hours under hot lights, heavy costumes and make-up, physically demanding tasks, long, irregular schedules, and the adverse weather and living conditions that may exist on location shoots. And actors face the constant anxiety of intermittent employment and regular rejections when auditioning for work. Yet in spite of these discouragements, the “passion to play,” as Shakespeare called it, still motivates many to make acting a professional career.
Actors deserve a voice
Actors need to consider not only membership in one union, or even all performance unions, but also the overall market place in which they compete. There are estimates of four to as many as ten times that number of qualified non-union actors available in the same talent pool. Many times that number consider themselves “actors” and are free to compete for roles in the overall talent marketing. The standing joke in Los Angeles is that every waiter, store clerk, cop or even doctor is really an actor waiting for their break, writers who have yet to have scripts purchased or producers looking for financing.
Actors make judgments and can be called on the carpet when they voice their opinions or present their art in ways that many in the public may disagree with. This is the nature of art, to mirror, to reflect, to comment on and to challenge the world around us.
When on the set the hours are usually long, schedule less than ideal and locations uncomfortable and sometime dangerous. Depending on the production team, actors can be made to feel like cattle or like kings and queens. The environment changes from one job to the next.
And then there is the lack of work. Mel Gibson, already a star, did not sleep the evening prior to the start of the filming of Lethal Weapon because of apprehension at not having been on a set for well over a year.
Actors may classify themselves as a social group, or into smaller sub-sets based on the specifics of how often they perform as actors (full time, part time, occasional, "wanna-be," community theater, hobbyist, has been).
Hollywood, and with it Greater Los Angeles, may be looked upon as a company town for the movie and entertainment industries and the 42nd Street / Broadway Great White Way area of New York a part of that city's identity and chemistry. Actors play a key role in each of these company or trade settlements and how they make their livings effect the social interaction of these communities.
By virtue of the demands of the craft, of the need to study and to observe, working or long-time actors tend to be educated, articulate and well read, defying a social stereotype presented in contemporary media.
Acting is a key part of the larger social world of the entertainment industry, mass communications and leisure aspects of society as a whole.
We depend on each other.
Do not forget, if your quest to be an artist, that you are dependant on your fellow artists, on the other trade unionist who work in this industry and on the support of others for your own success and well being.
Screen Actors Guild National Director of Education, former Performers Alliance founder Todd Amore, having spent 17 years of his life as a full time actor, spoke to a Nevada Branch membership meeting in May, 2003. He shared the findings of Screen Actors Guild historian Valerie Yaros. Rule One, which now states that union talent does not work nonunion, once spoke of an still echoes anther statement: that union actors work with, for and are in solidarity with their fellow performers, no mater what stature or place in the industry.
Keep that in mind.