Saturday, February 02, 2013

On actors, expectations, and fears

Actors are held to certain expectations.  A few of the big ones are:

Show up on time.

Be prepared.  (Know your lines, know your blocking.)

Turn off the electronic devices and cut the chit-chat.  Rehearsal requires focus.

Be a team player.  Don't direct/boss around other actors.  Do work hard for the show's success.

If there is a code of ethics for the actor, those are in it.

On the flip side, actors also deserve certain considerations.  A safe place to do the work, access to a bathroom, reasonable time and accommodation, things like that.  Usually, actors want the show to go on and will put up with tough circumstances if they feel, at least, like there is some mutual respect.  (On an independent film shoot, I had to change out of my clothes and into a costume outdoors early on a cold morning -- I didn't mind that much because I knew the people I was working for, knew what had happened, and sucked it up.)

That can be abused, however.

Coming off the stage in my current show, heading towards the dressing room to doff my sweaty costume, someone said, "Don't take your costumes off."


"They're going to shoot some video."

They who?  What?  Presumably, this had something to do with the young fellow who was videotaping our play.   The theatre was filled with patrons, socializing and greeting one another; a couple of the actors had gone out, still in costume, to greet friends.

Details on what we were doing and how soon were scanty, no one I asked seemed to know.  It was getting close to 10:30 and there was an hour's drive between me, my son with a temperature of 101, and bed.   Several minutes later there did not appear to be much progress and so I began stripping my costume.  You know how these things go: as soon as I did that, the message came back that we were going to assemble on the stage.  My irritation was visible but I sucked it up.  The shoot was disorganized and silly but it was soon over.

In a private message, I followed up with the director and producer.  Acknowledged  that I had been visibly annoyed and explained all I really wanted was a little notice and discussion about something like that.  (It was presented as a command, immediately following a performance.)  It was short, polite, ended with some humor.  Quiet innocuous and reasonable.

Sadly, the response (from my director) was unkind.  First claiming that I had been told (nope).  Then belittling what I was concerned about.  ("It was only three minutes!"  Which, besides being false, is not the point.)  And then, an essay about how the video was for a family member stationed in Afghanistan followed by a summary of all the tragedies in the director's family.  Wow.  (Read: "I'm now going to make you feel like shit for speaking up.")

A lot of actors, eager to be cast and to work anywhere they can, get accustomed to the idea that actors are low in status and that anything goes.  I remember working on an Equity show in Boston in 2001 -- a show under the jurisdiction of the actor's union, mind you -- in which an actor who was asked to ride a small bicycle in a fast, tight circle on a raked stage fell off and sustained a serious injury.  I saw her lying on the ground, in pain.  And she was apologizing.  Even with union membership, the actor was terrified that this accident meant she would not get cast again.  She was weeping and apologizing while she waited, on the floor, for an ambulance.  In 2001.  She spent the next several weeks of her life in a wheelchair.

Things are much better for actors now than they were 100 years ago (when Actors Equity was founded) but there is still some residual fear of reprisal that prompts actors to put up with things they really shouldn't, or to be silent when they need not.

My director is not a bad person.  But this was out of line.  Denial, belittling, and shaming an actor for asking appropriate questions are not unheard of -- but they are not okay.   If you, the actor, are doing your job and holding yourself to a high standard, you have the right to speak up (politely) and ask questions or express concerns related to the work.  That's true in amateur theatre (where you are a volunteer helping the theatre make money, after all).  It's true in semi- and professional theatre as well.  It's true on a film set.

You are an actor, you are doing your job, and you matter.

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