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The Working Actor

Should Actors Tolerate Un­professionalism?

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Should Actors Tolerate Un­professionalism?
Photo Source: Thomas Pitilli

Dear Michael:
I’m writing to you in great frustration and distress. I was blessed and honored to be cast in an Off-Off-Broadway show a month after graduating from drama school. It’s a wonderful one-act ensemble piece by a renowned American playwright. The process has been a nightmare. Two of the actors haven’t been showing up for rehearsals. What’s worse, the director doesn’t seem to mind. We’ve only done a couple of read-throughs, and we open in nine days! All we hear is “Great job.” Clearly, this guy has no freaking idea what he’s talking about.

All I want is to learn and be a better actor. But I’m not learning anything (besides avoiding this theater company in the future), not growing artistically, not enjoying this, not getting paid, so why am I doing it? I haven’t signed any contracts, so technically, I’m free to go. But I want to play. And I need the credit. But I also don’t want to be associated with bad work, and it cannot be good if the actors haven’t rehearsed or gotten any direction.
When is the time to just walk off?

—WALKING IN CIRCLES

Dear Walking:
I totally get your dedication, as well as your understandable frustration. But let’s start by eliminating a few things you don’t need to worry about.
First, a bad production probably isn’t going to reflect on you. It may not exactly launch your career, but it’s very unlikely to hurt it. Most people will never see this production, and even those who do probably won’t blame you for its flaws.

Second—and I speak from experience on this one—don’t waste any energy on other people’s deplorable work habits. It’s not your job to teach them or to understand what brings about their unprofessionalism. Those thoughts will just eat away at you. Life’s too short, and you won’t change anyone. Just do your gig, and try to resist judgment. Time will sort them out.

Finally...stay or go? A case can be made for either choice. If you’re completely miserable and can’t change that, you shouldn’t hesitate to leave. The consequences won’t be severe (these folks probably aren’t going anywhere in this business), so don’t worry about that. But if you leave, don’t tell them why. Come up with an external reason, and don’t get caught in that lie. Your critique would only fall on deaf ears and make you look like a jerk.

Conversely, you could regroup a bit, take a new approach, and realize that this experience, while disappointing, is nevertheless an experience. That’s the choice that gets my vote. There are great lessons to be had at this early stage of your career. Learning to keep your head in the midst of insanity is a handy skill in our business. So if you can hang in there, you’ll have a professional credit and some experience with real-world challenges to show for it, and most people will never know whether the show was good or bad.

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