Excerpt, E-letter to C

The following is a response to an open question on a listserv I picked up on. C asked what the standard arrangements for non-union actor pay in Portland are. Lots of people responded on the tax end of things, and no one publicly responded more specifically, understandably. I didn't either; the following was sent directly to her, as I suspect others have done. (I doubt the wisdom of broadcasting what we're being paid, as it may engender bitterness/envy/revision to the detriment of us all.)

(I post here because A. it's useful in tracking the trending of my own thinking on the matter, as it has developed over recent years; B. this is my sandbox; and C. I much doubt how widely Polyform is read these days. Which suits me just fine.)


Dear C,

First, THANK YOU for teaching high-school theatre. You rock, you're deeply needed and deeply appreciated, the arts in the schools being what they are.

Taxes aside, I have yet to discern a working 'standard pay rate' in non-union theatre in this town. This is, incidentally, one of the strongest arguments for pursuing a union career.

The most I've ever been paid for a theatre gig in Portland is $3000, for a six week run and a four week rehearsal period. The least is, of course, nothing. Small-medium theatres are being generous if they can afford to pay $500 for a comparable time commitment. That covers everything from staged readings to full on performances, run crew to solo work. If your students want to work primarily in the Portland area, they should expect dependence on a day job at least for the time being, until they sort out whether to move elsewhere or pursue Equity or not.

I have my own reasons for not pursuing an Equity card, and it is by no means the correct choice for everyone. But not pursuing union status means very specific trade-offs: in what to expect in terms of pay, but also professionalism, artistic integrity, intentionality, relationships, family, etc., etc. Race and gender also inevitably play--and should play--very important roles in this, which is ultimately a personal decision.

For your students who are devoted to theatre as an avocation--that is, as something yet more meaningful than a day job, with higher standards and a deep commitment to growth and survival--I advocate as broad a meaning for that avocation as possible. That is, be as open and accepting of developing your art backstage as on-, and, at least initially, push your boundaries and your comfort zones as much as you can. Maybe that means you need to be the annoying emo kid with the two hour monologue show for awhile. With time, everyone learns what is beyond the pale, and what is absolutely unacceptable, and those are necessary lessons that can only be learned the hard way.

Then, once they do accrue that experience (which they may well already have), absolutely do not compromise on those learned lessons. For some people, that means getting paid a certain minimum, or never taking off their clothes onstage, or never commuting past the West Hills, etc., etc. These instincts are every bit as valuable and necessary as our onstage performance instincts. They keep us healthy and sane.

My last suggestion is to find and support a day job that is healthy and engaged and engaging with the rest of the world, whether theatre or non-theatre. Your identity as a citizen of the world can only be reinforced by as vibrant and sustaining a day-job as possible, to complement your position as a theatre artist. Now, clearly, oftentimes this ideal is impossible, but it's meant to be a moving target, a constant process to discover and perfect one's conscience and integrity in all respects, not just the onstage bits. The healthier the private person is, the heathier the artist will be. This can translate in multiple ways for every individual; for me, working at non-profits and government jobs in addictions recovery and emergency services has been my bag. For others, it's making comfortable wages in the service industry, or plugging through med school, or finding a sugar daddy, or whatever. There's no judgment in this that's relevant, other than your own.

I say all of this because it's an inherently co-dependent and unhealthy thing, to be committed as an actor and nothing else, and then to face the inevitable dry spell, when the work is scarce, or unfulfilling even if plentiful, and to find one's passions limited and constrained because nothing else in your daily world supports you in a meaningful way. In my experience, while the money is important, facing yourself with integrity is all the more so, and should be. But we should remember that, unless you choose to, you don't have to answer to anyone else for these personal choices. I say that for myself as much as anything.

So that went a bit beyond the terms of your question, but I do still think these are important and interrelated points to make.



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