Even though you may be reading these pearls of wisdom in late May, the pearls are falling during another period marked by massive mindless violence. I wonder at the amount of mindless violence that has become a part of our world, our society, and our culture. I wonder if the amount of death just becomes a part of the picture so that we barely see it. As artists we have our production to get up on the boards, so we don't have time or energy to more than anyone else – shake our heads sadly and get on with it.
It also seems that this old world has long been plagued with violence and death. Which mindless act shall we stop for? This one? How about that one? How about these two? And in the face of death, we need to laugh. We need to laugh. We need to honor the dead, but we need to get on with living. It's a lesson that's worth relearning pretty regularly these days, and a lesson we're asked to relearn pretty regularly these days.
The business of learning acting can be fraught with peril. There's a certain amount of studio work that one can do, but eventually an actor has to act. In some kind of show. In public. Not the easiest place to test your classroom skills – in bright lights with a public eyeing your every move and testing your every word. Yet, student actors find the gumption to get up and do the work, and another batch of young artists starts to get tempered in the fire of public observation and judgments.
What should we expect of the student actor? As a teacher, more than anything I want the actor to learn. A student's task should be about learning. Personally I believe that a student learns more from doing as high quality work as possible and that the student should be challenged in the process of creating that high quality. Ultimately, as a teacher, my fundamental question of success comes down to this: "What did you learn?" If the audience finds entertainment, emotion, intellectual challenge – so much the better. The audience can be taught as well. But, as a teacher, my primary interest is in teaching my students.
Outside the school auditorium the questions of quality, success, labor, and payment shift into other places. Appropriately, students pay for education. Outside of education, actors should not have to pay to work. Often, though, we know that actors greatly subsidize the theatre of the USA.
We know that in many places actors with a minimum of six years of training in higher education do not get paid a base salary appropriate to their education. These actors are underemployed. In other professions there exists a certain base-level of compensation for a person trained with a graduate degree in their field. Even the public health official in the most rural locations expects a base salary commensurate to the training. Yet we do not think of actors this way.
This is what I ask of people to do who read this column. If you are a producer, in next year's budget add an income line for the compensation the actors are not being paid. What should that amount be? Take a look at similar professionals with similar amounts of training and experience. If you have an actor with an MFA and three years of performing experience, what would the equivalent salary be for someone working with a graduate degree working as a CPA in you area? A public defender? A public health official? Etc. You'll begin to see the range of salary expected in your area for a trained, experienced professional. The difference between that range and what you pay your actors is an in-kind contribution of the actors to the well-being of your enterprise. Acknowledge that contribution.
If you are an actor, talk with the producing organization about budgeting this contributed labor as income. Talk with the producers about adding the cast collectively to the donors list in the program.
I think it would be beneficial for boards of trustees to see with some clarity the contributions of the workers in their enterprise. I think it would be useful for the public to understand that trained and experienced actors (and their families) effectively subsidize their own work.
Honest accounting never hurt anyone.