In late June, The New York Times published an article comprised of a series of interviews with actors working on The Flea Theater’s recently closed production The Mysteries. The interview questions focus on how the actors managed to get by working a forty-hour work week at the theater without pay, whether it be by taking a night job at a bar, unemployment, or getting a gig with Google on the side. What it didn’t do, however, is really delve into the one question that I desperately want to ask; though it mentioned how actors are required to volunteer on top of their acting duties, it never did more than glance at the real “why” involved. Why would these actors be willing to work for free in a company where everyone else is getting paid? Why is their artistic work so undervalued financially when compared with that of a director or playwright or technician? It’s important to note that this isn’t community or independent theater. The Flea operates on a million dollar budget and is set to open a new multi-million dollar space. Nor is the Flea the only theater that operates in this sort of manner—Theatre for a New Audience (TFANA) just opened a mammoth sixty million dollar center in Fort Greene, and pays their nonunion actors $125 a week for over forty hours of work. It’s one thing to be working with smaller companies where nobody is making any money, but why do actors accept this sort of un-or-barely-paid work at organizations where everybody else is making at least a living wage?
The most obviously alluring aspect of a job like this is the opportunity for actors to be seen by industry insiders with the hopes of making a name for themselves, which will help their chances of booking jobs in the future. I spoke with Stephanie Bunch, a nonunion actor who just finished her MFA at Brooklyn College, on the subject. She recently had a significant speaking role in TFANA’s production of The Killer starring Michael Shannon. When I asked if she would return to TFANA or work for free at The Flea, Ms. Bunch replied that she would, “If I considered myself to be reaping benefits, if I knew a lot of the industry would see my work or I would make connections to and with more experienced artists.” That’s another common refrain that comes up in this discussion—the chance to work alongside fantastic actors and with award-winning directors is worth the financial hardship that comes along with working long hours for little to no pay. In other words, the artistic merits or the learning opportunities make up for the downsides of the job. Ms. Bunch also said she believes all actors should be paid, but in the long run she believes that experience can often be more valuable long term than financial reward. All of this ties into the concept of “paying your dues:” the thought that young artists of all stripes must go through a period of difficulty and often abject poverty before they are allowed to succeed. We glorify this notion in print and conversation. Pieces like that article in The New York Times serve to legitimize and emphasize this process as a positive—or at least necessary—part of the profession. Several of the actors profiled in the article mentioned that the exposure of working for a prestigious theater will be worthwhile for them in the long run, despite what difficulties it causes in the present.
I wonder if that’s really true. Of course, it’s impossible to measure the intangible benefits that often come with the territory of working alongside more experienced actors and directors. However, from a logical standpoint, we can consider that the number of paid work weeks reported by Actors’ Equity was steadily declining as recently as 2012. And while the number of weeks worked by union members finally grew in 2013, overall actor earnings fell due to “a shift of employment to lower-paying contracts.” So we have more and more actors joining the ranks of the nonunion performer—The Flea boasts of having over a thousand actors audition every year to join their ensemble of nonunion unpaid actors known as “The Bats”—and fewer jobs available for already established actors. It’s just hard to imagine that “exposure” can really make up for the economic reality of the situation. The math just doesn’t add up.
“Paying your dues”—it’s a pervasive refrain, and one that clearly lives deeply within us; it has gotten under our skin and through our veins. I can’t help but think that it’s a lie. The concept of “paying dues” implies a sort of social contract that’s simply no longer present, if it ever was. We pay our union dues or federal taxes with the understanding that while it won’t come directly back to us, we’re paying in to a system that will eventually benefit the group at large. This system of theatrical dues paying comes back to benefit only a very small percentage of the population buying in. Are there those who appear in nonunion productions, get noticed, get hired and then make a living acting? Of course. But that won’t ever be the norm. I think the thing most fascinating to me—and prevalent not just among young actors, but also directors, playwrights, designers, everybody—is that we know this. We know that logically, most of us can’t succeed. We all manage, myself included, to convince ourselves that we’ll be the ones who do make it, that we’ll be the ones to make a living, and these companies are able to capitalize on this mindset. As long as young artists are led to believe that it’s okay to be exploited in the hope of future gains, however unlikely they might actually be, they’ll continue to be exploited. There’s no easy solution, but we have to start from somewhere. For me, that somewhere is here: recognizing that there’s value to this theoretical social contract, and that exploitation thinly veiled as “paying dues” serves only to malign and mislead those upon who the profession will need to lean on most heavily in the future.