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The Working Actor

Fees to Meet You

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Fees to Meet You
Dear Michael:
What did casting directors learn from John Weidman and Stephen Sondheim's musical play Assassins, that brilliant play that hints anyone can be president if they want to be and states in song that "everybody's got the right to be happy"? Casting directors, especially those who deal with musical theater, have taken the liberty to view themselves as teachers. And being in the position they are, and with the flourishing of pay-to-be-seen industries (there are now five such enterprises in NYC), the task of marketing their teaching services—not casting services—is already taken care of. We, the desperate actors who believe being in their classes will lead to our career progress, are ready to open our wallets, to the delight of the networking enterprises and, of course, casting personnel themselves.

Like a germ seeking a comfortable place from which to draw bodily funds, the casting director notices a colleague who has already found a good place from which to encourage wallet opening. She comes from another casting office, and, well, "If she teaches Acting in Song, why should I not offer such a class?" Next, casting director needs to come up with a new title. Let's go a bit more dry and formal: Musical Theatre Audition Technique.

Thus operates the mind of that casting director: "The actors who I saw at the EPA today—while I was playing with my BlackBerry, falling asleep, not intending to cast anyone anyway—why don't I wake up a little bit and send them all a collective email about my class, How to Get That Callback? Am I being a bit tacky? Nah. No actor in his right mind is going to write back and say, 'I wish not to receive emails of this kind from you in the future. I think this is a disgusting abuse of your position.' Nah, they won't dare. So let me get back to updating my address book here." One of those networking places now sends text messages to alert actors when the coming month's schedule is online. That, in addition to emails, of course.

If you glance at Playbill.com, in "Jobs"—the section that should presumably present employment opportunities to its visitors—you will see that some musical directors and choreographers now teach classes that promise to provide the skills needed to succeed in this chorus call or that dance call. But should I open my wallet and pay $85? Or perhaps save the money and look into a different method of attaining the promised result?

I wish all of us actors would make a collective decision not to open ourselves in any way to classes taught by CDs or practitioners involved with a specific production. Classes and ongoing training is important, but we must not seek that training from theater business people, who have a hidden agenda and have little to no interest in the artistic aspect of the work, but rather in the HD aspect of their upcoming flat-screen TV purchase.
—J.M.
New York, NY


Dear J.M.:
I have for years been a vocal opponent of the pay-to-make-showbiz-contacts racket. Not only is it illegal to charge a fee for a job interview; I think it's beneath an actor's dignity to pay such a fee by participating in such so-called "workshops." The very fact that the hosts of such events aren't able call them what they really are without legal repercussions should be enough of a red flag to let us know there's something shady going on.

Yes, let there be no doubt: Paying people for meetings can lead to work. Sometimes it does. But is it right? And in our desperation, have we entirely stopped caring about what's right? Are there no hoops we're not willing to jump through? I've heard this illegal racket called a "necessary evil." And yet plenty of professional actors, myself included, have had solid careers virtually workshop-free. Clearly, this particular evil is not a necessary one. What's more, I don't happen to think that most of those who charge actors money for meetings have very high opinions of the actors who agree to pay. Early in my career, I was at one of the very few "workshops" I ever took. The casting director, recognizing an actor in the class, asked him, "What are you doing here? You're a good actor."

I want so much for us actors—we marvelous, colorful, fascinating folks—to think more of ourselves. We in our profession do an incredible thing: We replicate human behavior. We make fabrications appear real. We take a writer's words and make them sound like they're ours. We are practitioners of an ancient, sacred, magical art that—if we do it well—cheers, enlightens, moves, teaches, lifts, or at least entertains those who experience it. I believe, if anything, people should pay to meet us.

Instead, we collectively elevate those who guard the employment gates to a lofty status near that of the ancient Greek gods while diminishing our own status to that of beggars. We bring our sacrifices to the base of the mountain and back away, hoping not to be struck by a bolt of lightning. We pay money to flatter them and hear their opinions about what we do.

Now, I do need to add this: Some of these folks really are good teachers. I'm talking about seasoned show business pros who are truly able to help actors build their skills. Their classes are usually ongoing, as opposed to one-nighters, and the students are there to learn. Nothing wrong with those at all. In fact, take them. You'll learn something. Any workshop that can honestly (I mean honestly, now) be called an educational experience is worth taking. A paid pre-audition with a musical director or choreographer is not.

I share your frustration and anger at the fact that actors are being routinely bilked out of hard-earned funds. I hate that people are capitalizing on actors' desire to be seen. And yet what makes it a tricky issue is that some of these classes offer worthy opportunities to learn, and it falls to us to figure out the difference.

But this is an advice column. And if there's any advice to be given in response to your very appropriate rant, it's this: Stay away from those things. You may not be able to stop other actors from demeaning themselves in this way, but you can remedy your own anger by making it a strict policy, as I did long ago, to refuse to participate.

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