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An Ethical Dilemma

An Ethical Dilemma

Dear Michael:

I am a newcomer to Los Angeles and have auditioned for and joined one of the casting workshops where you sign up to meet agents and casting directors. I have gotten called in for a couple of co-star roles from one of the meetings, so I'm pleased with the results.

However, I wondered how these workshops were perceived in the business. Since I'm new, I felt it was an expedient way to get myself out there quickly. Some actors have said they would never do it because they don't think it's right to pay for auditions. I don't agree, because you're actually paying for three hours of this casting director's or agent's time and their expertise and advice.

What's your take on this?

— A New York Transplant in the Valley

Los Angeles, Calif.

Dear Transplant:

Ooh, you've hit a hot-button issue, one that always seems to stir up debate. You wanted my take, so here it is: There is no question that actors sometimes get work from these workshops. But should we do them? That's another question entirely, and it's a question with many answers. So congratulations, Transplant, you got yourself a whole column.

I've spent years pondering this complex issue, and my answer to whether or not actors should attend casting director workshops is this: It depends. The dividing line between yes and no has to do with several things: who's teaching, your reasons for attending, and your personal sense of — now don't be shocked — ethics.

If you're interested in educating yourself and learning more about auditioning, and you want to take a class to improve that skill, then the very best person you could possibly study with would be a seasoned, established casting director. Someone who has spent years watching actors come in and out of the office to audition may well have a lot to impart on that subject. For the class to be worthwhile, however, the casting director must also be a good instructor.

Let's look at those qualifications carefully before we move on. For the workshop to be an educational experience, the person teaching must have expertise on the subject and a talent for teaching, and the students must be there to learn. Under those circumstances, I believe it is perfectly fine to pay to attend a casting director workshop. It's money well spent.

But if your teacher is the second-assistant casting assistant who got into casting last week because he or she couldn't make it as an actor, and who has nothing more informative to tell you than whether his or her office reads post cards from actors and whether he or she liked your scene, then I think we all know you're not really in a class.

I used the extreme example for clarity, but even some very experienced guest teachers aren't always there to teach. Some are there for the supplemental income you're providing. Some are there looking for new faces. Still, if there's no instruction, then it's not a class and it's not a workshop. It's called that, for legal reasons, but let's not kid ourselves. You're paying to meet someone who might someday be able to give you work, and that's where things get a bit shady.

Indeed, anytime something has to be called something else "for legal reasons," it ought to give one pause.

Casting directors are paid to find talent. That's the job description. So it's not ethical for them to turn around and charge talent to be seen. That's called "double dipping" — getting paid twice for the same job. Some claim they don't have enough time to meet new actors, so after-hours workshops are a necessity.

Hold on a second. Let's think about that: They only have time to meet new actors if the actors are paying them? Why not just stay late at the office?

On our side of the transaction, if nothing is being taught or learned, then we are in essence paying to be interviewed for possible future work. And that's a violation of Screen Actors Guild rules. And even if it weren't, I wish actors would think better of themselves than to pay a casting person to consider them.

Now, many readers may be saying, "But Michael, I've gotten work from these things." I know. And young starlets in the old days of Hollywood sometimes got work from having sex with film producers. I'm not saying casting director workshops are as unethical as that. But I am absolutely saying their effectiveness doesn't prove that they're right for you. Do the ends justify the means at any cost?

As for how actors who take workshops are perceived in the business, I'm sure there are many opinions. I think actors who pay purely to meet contacts are viewed as young in their careers and perhaps a bit needier, though I doubt anyone's reputation is permanently besmirched.

Still, here's a quick story worth noting: Early in my career, I attended one of these workshops. The casting director recognized one of the other actors in attendance. "What are you doing here?" she asked. "You're a good actor."

Another actor I know attended a workshop in which she and fellow students were kept waiting for an hour while the guest casting associate went to the gym. That doesn't indicate much respect, does it?

To be fair, there are certainly other worthy viewpoints. For example, one friend of mine sees it this way: "To me, it's always worth going to these things. Even if the teacher sucks, I'm getting practice. It's like my audition gym." Another friend says, "I can't afford to be ethical. With no agent, this is the only way I can get seen."

What should you do? Well, if the workshop offers educational potential, take it. If it offers only a chance to make a contact, then you have an ethical dilemma. If, like me, you're bothered by this pay-to-meet arrangement, then I urge you to be faithful to your principles and decline that workshop, regardless of the potential for future employment. If, on the other hand, you feel there's an effective system in place that allows you to make contacts you wouldn't make otherwise and you feel fine about paying for that opportunity, then there's your choice.

And that's the bottom line here. You have to decide. What makes this such a compelling issue, though challenging and hotly debated, is that it requires us, as actors, to consider things like dignity and ethics — topics that aren't considered nearly often enough in our business.

Michael Kostroff is a series regular on HBO's The Wire and the author of the book "Letters From Backstage: The Adventures of a Touring Stage Actor," available online and at bookstores.

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