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Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Economics of Acting

There's been an article circulating the internets entitled Ten Things Theatres Need To Do Right Now To Save Themselves by Brendan Kiley. This blog post is not about the list of ten things, however. We've all read the article (if you haven't, do it) and had some reflection on the concepts within. However, my reading of this article inspired a completely unrelated train of thought on a really important topic.

How much is our work worth?

Point 9 reads:
Expect poverty. Theater is a drowning man, and its unions—in their current state—are anvils disguised as life preservers. Theater might drown without its unions, but it will certainly drown with them. And actors have to jettison the living-wage argument. Nobody deserves a living wage for having talent and a mountain of grad-school debt. Sorry.

So let's talk about this... And I warn you readers, that I'm going to be doing my best to discuss this point as an artist and not as a Libertarian Socialist... That would be a rant for another blog.

I'm not sure how many actors feel entitled to anything simply "for having talent and a mountain of grad-school debt." Have you ever heard that argument? I certainly haven't. What we do have are artists and actors who wish they could work for a living wage. There's a big difference here. The statement as written seems to imply that demanding a living wage is symptomatic of some sort of entitlement culture. Moreover, most actors I know don't have grad school debt. Most actors I know don't even have grad school degrees. But you know what I have? Undergraduate debt. I have a ridiculous amount of debt from a four year school, which I sought to attend based on the information I was drilled with as a child that "Education is the key to success" and that getting a college education would increase my value of my labor.

Evidently, the invisible hand has decided otherwise. There was once a time when you could support an entire family with a single income source without a college degree. Now, having a Bachelor's from a prestigious, private college can't stop you from working retail and temp jobs to make ends meet. How many underemployed law school grads are out there, while we're at it?

The fact is, no one class of person is entitled any sort of wage. However, can't we consider the idea that anyone willing to work hard is entitled to a "living wage"? Since when did this become an unreasonable demand? Yes, I believe I am entitled to a living wage, as a 40+ hour a week worker with two jobs (three, if you count theatre/film). Just as I believe a janitor, fruit picker or Wall Street executive is entitled to a living wage.

Fuck the invisible hand. We are constantly being told that our labor is worth only as much as we are willing to work, and that we have choice. No one forces us to be working poor, working class, we can lift ourselves by the bootstraps, all that crap. The fact is that our labor is worth more than we're willing to work for and we need to have higher standards. The choice between being evicted and working shitty job you hate IS NOT A CHOICE. Liberty depends upon the power to choose, and a rock and a hard place is not a choice.

I'm not saying I want to be wealthy. But we've accepted that certain careers are known to be low end. And that's the way it is, and if you don't like it, get a different job. "You don't have to work, you know." It's the same for a waiter. It's the same for an actor.

Imagine a world without waiters? That would kinda suck now, wouldn't it? Now imagine a world without actors? How boring would that be... We'd all have to start reading again... ::shudder::

So the logic implies that if you are willing to work for nothing, then that's what your labor is worth. By that logic, actors who love the work that they do should be paid nothing. Eventually, there'd be some people who left that labor force, but many would stay. Why are there some actor jobs and day jobs that pay and some that don't? Because we have some standards and some things we aren't willing to compromise. And that's a good thing.

So Mr. Kiley, while I really enjoy your article and think everyone should read it...

Don't preach about living wages. That my friend, is an insult to workers of all classes and occupations. Maybe there's an argument to be made, but that is not a very good one. "Expect poverty"? Who doesn't do that? Name me one serious actor who thinks they're going to make good money doing what we're doing.

But I refuse to accept poverty.



  1. Relevant: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=youtube_gdata_player&v=T0W59PDwFNM

    Replace the words choir or vocal ensemble with theater and this video probably describes most of us.

  2. Haha... Oh man... that was almost painful to watch.

  3. It's ironic that Kiley's understanding of economics is such that he doesn't quite grasp that in order for theatre artists to pull off most of his other suggestions, they're going to need living wages-- if not from their art-jobs then at least from their day jobs.

  4. Yeah, as you know, Kenny, I am not a huge fan of that article and I think in general its points seem sort of geared toward theatre always remaining a hobby and never being considered a profession. Number 9 being the most blatant example therein.


  5. Does anyone else feel that the article in question parrots David Mamet somewhat ala True and False/Theater, drop/stay out of Grad School, etc? I don't completely agree with either author though both have their points, and Mamet argues idealistically for theater artists producing their own work for the joy of it, often at a loss or minimal gain, and I like the idea of that model. But I agree we shouldn't be complacent with starvation. Power to the people!

  6. I'm not sure how things are in Seattle where Kiley is writing from, but it seems to me that with the resource sharing of the Small Theatre Alliance of Boston that we are seeing productions going up #3 "fast, dirty, and often" (by "dirty" I presume he means "dirt cheap") and a couple of the member companies have already begun to distinguish themselves critically as a result.

    #4 "Getting them young" well, that is a trick? There are always going to be young people who love theatre and there will always be young people who love making theatre. But what do you do to get young folk who aren't theatre nerds l to see it as a viable entertainment option? (Making it cheap does help.) There's a revival of interest in burlesque going on a decade now that's seen as an extension of the rock scene but it's not really translated as a gateway form into theatre... and I think that when you start creating plays for the "young adult audience" you end up with a product which really isn't that satisfying to anyone over 30 or to anyone who sees more than five plays a year.