Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Looking Ahead

Tomorrow is my last day of finals at BoCo, so I can focus entirely on Uncle Vanya after that, which is great.
It's strange, but I've realized that after Uncle Vanya, I won't be acting on stage for quite a while: I got a gig writing comedy scripts for a charity event that has forced me to drop out of two shows I was really looking forward to working on this winter: one with a really great company that I've always wanted to work with, and another with my own company, ASP, in the early Spring, Troilus and Cressida.

I'm very sad I won't be able to work on those shows.  Usually I can do all or both, but it was one of those things where the dates all fell on the EXACT same weekend.  If I could have done all three, I would have, but between the plays, the writing and my class schedule I had to choose one or the other.  So it came down to which of the projects was more interesting, and which project I could actually afford to do.

But ALL the projects were interesting to me (and I feel lucky to have such a problem, actually), so it came down to what paid more.  And the sad truth is, stage acting is always going to come in last in the arena of payment.  Actors make no money.  None.  When you see a group of actors on stage, performing, know that they are doing it because they love it, and are passionate about it.  Small theatres (where I do almost all my work) cannot afford to pay actors a living wage.  It's just a sad truth.
For example, ASP pays it's Union actors around $400 a week (plus health and pension), and that is one of the highest salaries for Equity actors in Boston at a mid-size level.  (The ART, Huntington, Shear Madness and (I imagine) Emerson Stage would be in another category). 

But you don't have to be a genius to figure out the math: even if you worked the entire year at $400/ week, that would be $19,200 for the year (BEFORE taxes!), putting you well below the poverty level.  Obviously, unless you are independently wealthy, actors need other jobs in order to do things like eat and pay their rent.  This means we typically work two or three OTHER jobs, as well as act, one on top of another.  Whoever said actors were lazy? 

At ASP, our company is made up almost entirely of teachers, so the rehearsal/performance schedules are built to accommodate our teaching schedules.  It's just one way that the company tries to support its actors.

The one incentive to working onstage is earning what we actors call "Health Weeks", and they are VERY important. 

Most union actors get their health insurance thru the Union.  But in order to do that, you must work AT LEAST 20 weeks out of the year under a Union contract (ie, in rehearsal or performance of a play).
If you don't get all 20 weeks, you lose your health insurance.
That's really scary.

This year will be the first time I will not have earned enough weeks to qualify for my health insurance.  (Including Uncle Vanya, I have worked 12 weeks, which means I qualify for 6 months of coverage, but after that, if I haven't made up an additional 20 weeks of work, I will lose it.  At least that's how I understand it.)

So, actors are always in a mad scramble to earn their health weeks.  We need to be in a show: ANY show, or else we are screwed.

But here's the thing: now that I'm full time at BoCo, I get my health insurance thru them.  So, technically, I don't NEED to make the 20 weeks any more.  So, without the spectre of losing my health insurance, my choices have opened up in a certain way.  I was able to direct The Balcony, for example, (which offered no health weeks at all) and to take this writing gig (ditto). 

So, I don't have to make choices based on my health weeks any more.  And since that has happened, I have sadly found myself acting less and less, because I'm either too busy, or I just can't afford it.  (Of course, there's also the question of someone actually wanting to HIRE me as an actor, which is another conundrum altogether!) 

And I've found that I actually can be very passionate about other, non-acting projects, like directing and playwriting and teaching.  So while I miss acting, I find that now I have more time to do other things, like write plays. 

The other thing is: acting is freaking EXHAUSTING.  So, if I'm going to be in a play, I want to REALLY be into it, and not because I need 8 more health weeks.

And really, when you think about it: it's kind of disturbing and shameful, this situation with health weeks.  After all, if you're really ill, you CAN'T perform in a play.  It's impossible.  You HAVE to be healthy in order to do it.  (Dr. Footlights only works to a certain extent). 

But if you're not healthy, you lose your insurance, when you need it most.  I remember that one of the main reasons Stafford wanted to do Mortal Terror (besides the fact that he needed something to focus on besides beating cancer, and that he enjoyed being in the play) was to earn more health weeks.  Because he needed them, badly.

Bear in mind that all this based on the plight of UNION actors.  Non-Union actors are in another boat entirely.  They are paid even LESS, and receive NO health or pension benefits at all.  Think about how many small, non-union theatre companies there are in Boston alone and your head starts to spin.

I'm not sure why our health care system is the way it is.  It makes no sense to me. Health care should be available to everyone, especially in a country as affluent as this one.  To force sick people to work in order to get health care. 

It's barbaric.

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