New York is one crazy place. I recently submitted myself for a non-paying gig and could not get an audition slot. Yes, you heard that correctly: the show was unpaid, but the competition to work for no money is so steep that they didn’t have time to see everyone. And we’re not even talking about competition for a role, we’re only talking about competition to get in the door. It’s a madhouse.

Recently, though, I was lucky enough to not only get in the door but to actually book a national children’s theatre tour. In fact, I’m writing this on the road – we’re currently driving through scenic West Virginia. Hour five and counting. Oy.

Luckily for me, the company I’m touring with treats its actors pretty well. We’re entitled to a decent weekly pay and per diem, overtime, and even rest invasion, or extra compensation for any hour worked that encroaches on the required 12-hour break between the time you arrive at your hotel for the night and the time you have to be at the van and ready the next morning. Touring can be difficult and exhausting, but this company has really done everything in its power to make things manageable for its actors.

This should be the norm, but unfortunately, it’s not. Every actor in the city is clamouring for a chance to perform, and many are willing to accept less than ideal working conditions to get that chance. It’s a city full of scabs. But, honestly, who can blame an actor for taking work? After spending four years and thousands of dollars on training, and busting your butt at a thankless day job, any role seems like a miracle.

There are some opportunities that seem too good to be true – showcases throughout the city that promise an audience full of agents and other theatre professionals scouting new talent. All you have to do is sell or buy a certain number of tickets (and, in some cases, pay your accompanist), and you will get to sing or do a monologue for these industry insiders.  Now, I don’t want to completely knock these showcases. They give actors a chance to practise their craft in front of an audience, and they also make decent quality video recordings of the performances, which are a life saver when it comes to submissions. And, while I don’t personally know anyone who has landed an agent from this type of performance, I would assume that someone, somewhere down the line has got work from this type of performance opportunity, or no one would do it. I can’t help but wonder, though – if the performers are the ones selling the tickets, who is inviting the agents and casting directors? Won’t it just be an audience full of the actors’ friends?

Theatres everywhere are struggling, and I understand the need to cut corners just to keep companies alive. But it does seem unfair to take advantage of actors who are just anxious for a chance to flex their creative muscles. Still, we actors don’t always help ourselves. It sometimes feels as though we push down our asking price by taking any job that comes our way, regardless of how terrible the contract might be. It’s difficult to say, and at its core it’s probably just a very vicious cycle that can only be solved by more money going into the arts, either through patronage or governmental support. Because, in order to survive, theatres need to make money, and actors need to act. Unfortunately, actors also need to eat and pay their bills. These are the pesky facts of life.

Image by Monica Reida.

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