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The Outraged Actor Needs to Grow Up

By Robert Bethune

ART TIMES March 2007

The Chicago Tribune recently ran a very good article on what actors get paid. In succinct summary, the conclusion was: not much. Very few actors, even Equity professionals, actually make enough money directly from performing live drama to make a decent living.

Some theater people read this and reacted with outrage. The fundamental thought process behind that emotion seems to run like this:

Theater is a great art form. It makes powerful and valuable contributions to humanity. For this reason, it is worthy of support. I love it and I want to do it full-time, and to do that I need to make at least a living wage at it. But the economics of the live-theater industry make this impossible for all but a very few. That situation is outrageous and somebody must be to blame for it.

Robert Frost once wrote of “the trial by market all things must come to.” The fundamental reality is this: there is not enough demand out there for what the live-drama industry produces to create a sufficient monetary flow to support very many decently paid actors. Since a great many people, often rather talented ones, would rather act than eat well, the industry is able to recruit performers at rates of compensation that on average are below subsistence. The industry is far more successful at this, due to the addictive nature of acting, than it is at attracting long-term repeat customers for the product it provides.

It is a psychological fact about theater artists that many of us feel that the public should support whatever we wish to produce. The only test of quality many of us know how to apply is personal satisfaction. If I think my work is good, than it is—regardless of the response it garners from a cold and indifferent world. If that response is disappointing, I, the artist, refuse to consider the possibility that perhaps my work isn’t as good as I think it is. The lack of response to it is entirely the fault of something or someone else—usually the Philistines in the seats, or so I take them to be.

A major factor contributing to this is the enduring myth of the artist as rebel, as renegade, as perpetual outsider. That myth got started in the romanticism of the 19th century and took a deep, deep hold on the culture, particularly among artists themselves. It allows one to see oneself as a deeply dynamic, heroic, extraordinary person, important precisely because one is scorned, rejected, reviled, one who knows what the public should get far, far, better than the public itself can ever know, because one is so fundamentally better, more talented, more perceptive, more responsive, more expressive than the lowly public can ever even understand, let alone be.

That myth has been an important factor in the development of a rather small number of major artists. Due to their success, a very large number of artists jumped to the conclusion that it applied to them as well. The upshot of that has been the production of large amounts of work with one fundamental factor in common—the work is done with little or no regard to any lack of general appeal.

Fine. If one, as an artist, decides to produce work that does not have general appeal, then please don’t become outraged when your work does not garner general support. You have sowed, you have reaped, don’t be shocked that you reaped what you sowed. If you cannot find a way to satisfy your soul while also satisfying your audience, then you must make a choice between the audience and your soul. When you make that choice, you need to bear in mind that your soul does not pay as well as your audience, and you need to be able to accept that fact, live with it, and find contentment in it. Resenting the world because it does not welcome you with open arms, that it does not value you at your own estimation, is childish. Only our mothers and fathers will praise us for any work we choose to do, and even they should not do so once we are no longer children.

To return to the financial note on which I started: that portion of the performing arts industry devoted to the production of live drama is in serious decline, and has been for many years. One critic recently noted that 2006 was a good year in his area because no live theaters closed their doors—hardly an encouraging thought. There is only one group of people responsible for halting and reversing this decline. That is the group of people who work in this segment of the industry. They will either bite the bullet and start finding ways to satisfy the audience while satisfying themselves, or they will find themselves doing what they do without the remuneration they desire. That is “the trial by market that all things must come to,” and that trial must be faced, and above all, the results of that trial must be respected. If not, we are merely fooling ourselves, and our industry, into further decline.

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