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Labourer or Business Owner?

December 11, 2012

As a member of both American and British Equity, I’m privy to an in-depth comparison at the different ways that unions fight for performers’ rights in a capitalist and in a socialist society. (Ok, I agree there is debate about whether or not the UK is truly socialist. I also understand the argument that the UK is much smaller than the US and some systems are easier to implement with a smaller population.) But the bottom line is that the UK and the US do have different mindsets on labor/labour rights and the way that performers fit into the classic definition of “laborer/labourer.”

I like to brag that when I worked in London and Edinburgh I never worked on a show that didn’t pay me something. It seemed that theatre companies placed a certain value in the actual performance job being done, and so they tried as hard as possible to pay for that performance. Sometimes, it was a very small stipend. Sometimes, it was a profit-share agreement, where performers and producers split the box office takings after expenses (which often amounted to very little, too.) But the point is, no British theatre producer ever expected me to perform for free. And I believe that stemmed, in part, from the European/British mindset that performing is a job and every person working a job deserves compensation for the job. It also speaks to the respect for each and every performer, no matter how small the production, because, it’s believed, that actors are working for the good of the production as a whole and performance art as a whole. They are, in fact, a worker in the industry of theatre, just like a worker in the industry of say, auto manufacturing.

These are values, I think, that are missing in the US. Here, I find that theatre companies are all too aware that actors are in huge supply in relation to demand. Actors are hungry for any kind of performance opportunity and of course the elusive “exposure” that comes from being on stage. So the monetary value is not placed on the actual job being done in the moment… but in fact in the possible jobs it could lead to. It’s a much more capitalistic and individualistic way of looking at performance. Here, it’s believed, each actor is in it for him/herself, rather than for the good of the production and the art as a whole. Henceforth, a performance by an actor can be seen NOT solely as a job done in the moment, but instead, as a stepping stone in the individual actor’s career. In that sense, the actor himself is not a laborer deserving of compensation, but a instead, the actor is a self-employed business-owner, building a reputation and client-base through loss-leader output (ie, free performance work…. ie, The Showcase Code.)

This topic was brought into focus for me when I received British Equity’s magazine in the mail this week. The union is currently putting together their official position on low-pay/no-pay theatre companies in the UK and strictly advocates for actors to be considered labourers owed, at least, the basic minimum wage, unless they are agreed to be part of the production team through a profit-share agreement. Basically, there is no such thing at the “Showcase Code” in British Equity. You are either a paid labourer or an actor/producer who gets part of the profits.

I think you can tell from this blog which system I think is better (not only for actors’ bank accounts, but frankly for theatre in general.) I believe that placing monetary value in each and every performance in and of itself, regardless of what might come next for your career, leads to a more robust theatre community. But I’m also open to read your arguments for capitalist theatre. Please feel free to comment below. I’d love to talk more about this.

And finally, I realized that in the spirit of socialism, I should share the British Equity magazine with you, not only so you can read up on their positions, but also so you can get a sense of what is happening in theatre elsewhere. I get this magazine a few times a year, so I’ll keep you updated through The Green Room Blog on what’s happening in British Equity. You can check it out yourself here, in a PDF download:

Peace, Bread and Work Comrades,
The Granted Actor

Tara Sig
(P.S. I’m not really a communist, but you have to admit, they had some good ideas…but very drab clothing.)

3 Comments leave one →
  1. California Triple-Threat permalink
    December 11, 2012 1:31 pm

    I really think its terrible how many projects think its okay to pay actors with “experience”. What other profession would think it okay to not pay their laborers? But also, I’ve worked on some shows that weren’t worth the (tiny) paychecks because the overall experience was so negative. I am usually not able to work on shows that don’t pay, but I DO always want to work with people who appreciate my time and performance. That’s an emotional paycheck I can’t live without.

  2. December 11, 2012 3:47 pm

    A really interesting post, definitely something to think about. Thanks for sharing!


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