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So, I work in theatre. There are usually two responses to this: excitement and annoyance/pity.
Excitement: "Whoa! You're an actor? How many famous people have you worked with?" "Oh really? That's so cool! I used to be into that!"
Annoyance/Pity: "Really? Okay, but what's your real job?" "So you just sing and dance for a living? Why don't you get a real job?" And my personal favorite: "What sort of money do you make? It can't be a lot."
You are correct, random annoyed/pity person. I don't make a lot of money. It's a labor of love, most definitely. However, I am one who fights for fair wages for everyone in this business, and here is why: People who work in this business get taken advantage of SO easily.
Storytime. A few friends of mine were recently involved in a production. A regional premiere, I believe. Anyway, it was a relatively new production company, and all roles were paid. Somewhat risky for a new business, but okay! We actors do love to get paid for what we do. Now, after the show closed, there was a bit of an eruption. I found out that the leads promised a stipend for their performance. The ensemble was to get a percentage off of the tickets that they sold. That they, themselves, sold. The leads were promised that as well, a percentage of the tickets that they sold, but they were also promised a firm stipend.
Oddly enough, the leads were only given the money they made off of ticket sales. No stipend amount was added. I became furious upon hearing this news, until I was told that it wasn't in their contract. It had been a verbal agreement. (Side note: a verbal agreement is viewed as a firm contract in a court of law. I checked with many lawyer friends.) So the leads made as much as the ensemble did, in some cases less, based on how many tickets they sold.
Now let us discuss why this sort of contract is bullshit. First and foremost, you, a production company, have hired a cast of actors. What they do is in their name. Actors. They act. That is what you're paying them to do. However, when their contract states that they will make money only off of the amount of tickets they sell for the company, you are not paying them as actors. At all. You are paying them as marketing personnel.
"But wait!" You cry. "They are acting, and getting paid. So it's a win-win all around!" No, I'm sorry, shitty theatre company. It is not. Here's why: Their pay is based off of how many tickets they sell. Period. That is what their contract states. So, what you have are actors working voluntarily, and instead, for all intents and purposes, working as your ticket office for pay.
While you might think that is fine and dandy, you are not treating these people professionally. No, instead, you are treating them like the rest of the world treats them. "Go act as a hobby. Get a real job. We pay people for real jobs." Most of these actors have had formal training. Years of it. In theatre. Less than half of them, I guarantee you, are also trained in marketing and sales. So why are you paying people with no experience in sales to do sales work for you? In what world does that make sense?
"Hold on, though. Marketing 101. Word of mouth is the best form of advertising!" Did I say not to tell your actors to talk up the show? Of course your actors are going to talk up their show! Especially if they're proud of it! The thing is, that's beside the point. You are still in the wrong, because you aren't paying them for the job you hired them to do.
"Okay. But showbiz is tough. They should feel lucky to be getting any money at all." Okay, fuck you, because that is EXACTLY the mentality that got us here. Thinking that we should be thankful that we get pennies for hours of hard work. Oh, trust me, we are thankful, because that was just enough (hopefully) to pay our bills. What? Bills? Yes, actors are real people, and have things like apartments, houses, phones, internet... All things that require money. But it is people like the ones that make the above statement that allow the world to treat us like we don't matter.
Look, none of us are in this to get rich. Not the real working actors, anyway, because we know how hard it is. We know that money just isn't there a lot of the time. But that does NOT mean that we deserve to be treated less than any other working professional out in the world. To offer a contract to an actor that states "We want to hire you as an actor, and your pay will come from the tickets you sell" is exactly the same as hiring a plumber and saying "Hey! Come on in, I have some leaky pipes. Also, My house needs rewired, so I need you to do that, too. And I only plan to pay you for the wiring. So do a good job, there. Thanks." Would that plumber stay and take that shit? No, of course not! So why should we?
And it's not just the actors, this goes to anyone who works in the biz. Make sure that you are being treated fairly in the contracts that you offer. And make sure that you are paid for everything that you do. (I was offered to write, direct, and perform in a show, and when I insisted that I be paid fairly for all three jobs, suddenly there was an issue. And I refused to work for less. Luckily, another job offer came right up, and I went for it.) Don't sell yourself short, guys. We're better than that, and we deserve better.