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The Working Actor

The Morality of Leaving Non-Equity Jobs for Better Pay

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The Morality of Leaving Non-Equity Jobs for Better Pay
Out on Bail

Dear Michael:

Here's one for you: A producer offers an actor nonunion summer theater work to begin in late June, which the actor accepts via email in early spring. Four weeks later, a better opportunity comes along for the actor, so he bails on the first job and the small-scale producer has to scramble to replace the actor since all the combined audition events have passed. What is your opinion regarding the expectations for both parties?

Confused in Connecticut, Westport, Conn.

Dear Confused:
Great question. As usual, there's more than one perspective.

Most producers -- particularly producers of lower-paying theater -- understand that actors must occasionally opt out of gigs they've accepted when a considerably more lucrative or career-forwarding opportunity arises. Indeed, some Equity contracts stipulate an "out" for "more remunerative work." Of course, since non-Equity contracts have no such boilerplates, these situations have to be handled individually each time they arise, and while it may be inconvenient for the producer, actors are generally considered justified in bowing out for a better gig until rehearsals are in the home stretch.

But bailing at the last minute, thereby placing an unfair strain on producers, is ethically questionable and just plain ugly. There's an unwritten protocol that says we shouldn't screw people over like that. Still, actors sometimes do. I think it's very bad form, but I'll also say that it took me some years to reach the philosophy that sometimes there are more important things than career opportunities. Young actors can get so obsessed with climbing the ladder that they occasionally abandon their own sense of ethics and personal responsibility. Only now, in my old age, have I realized that I can follow my own code, and that sometimes, if I stop, breathe, and think about what I really want to do -- who I want to be -- I end up opting to honor a commitment rather than take the sexier offer, because that's the kind of professional I want to be. Mostly, though, it depends on whether there's time for producers to replace me.

I don't entirely blame actors who make the other choice. Opportunities are few and far between for us. Opportunities that move us up the ladder are even rarer. So if we're doing dinner theater and get an offer to do a Broadway show, naturally we're going to want to change plans, even if it means a last-minute casting nightmare for someone else.

I happen to think the best way to approach this situation is with honest communication, collaboration, and mutual respect. Often, if actors explain such a dilemma to producers and graciously request to be released, the producers will respond with "Of course. You can't pass up an opportunity like that." I've even helped find my replacements, so as not to leave anyone in the lurch.

I've also just bailed, showing no regard for the people who were good enough to hire me first. And I have to say, I hate the way that feels, and I'll never do it again.

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