Friday, January 9, 2004

Nobody’s doing it: What if you wanted to make a living as an actor in Southern Maine?

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Maine’s theaters and theater audiences depend, more than anything else, on the willingness of good actors to work for little or no pay. Without the actors, there would be no costumes or sets to design, no targets to aim lights at, no need even for stages.

No Maine-based stage actor is doing what non-actors might call "making it," at least financially speaking. "No matter where you live, it’s very hard to do. It’s the holy grail," says Caitlin Shetterly, who returned to Maine from New York about a year ago. She has done some acting work and is starting the Winter Harbor Theater Company, but relies mainly on her income as a freelance writer and radio journalist.

Even New York, she points out, is a hard place to make a living as an actor.

Lisa Muller-Jones has acted in San Francisco and Chicago. "I rarely got paid at all because it’s so competitive," she says. "I actually make more money here than I did there," though she attributes some of that to her increased scheduling flexibility here, running her own graphic design business.

"Being my own boss, I get to set my own hours," making her flexible for rehearsals on nights and weekends. "It’s probably the only way that I can do what I do," Muller-Jones says.

If she had a restaurant job, she’d have to give up the lucrative Friday and Saturday evening shifts to perform — after giving up weeknights to rehearse.

Christine Louise Marshall is dealing with just that. "What is living and working in the performing arts in Maine to me?" she emails. "It’s having three nearly full-time jobs, two part-time regular gigs, and any number (about three right now) of freelance one-timers (this is not counting the one I totally blew off last week because of the pipes freezing in my mother’s house, which I manage for my family . . . oop, there’s another job I forgot about.) . . . [Maine’s energetic and creative] people are maybe the real reason why I live and work here, although all the jobs put together only serve to keep me almost out of debt."

Perhaps the best shot for actors to make money in Maine is in community theaters, which draw huge audiences paying as much as $20 a ticket. They are cast almost entirely locally, and use large numbers of performers. And how much do those actors get paid, working hard in front of some of the largest theater crowds the state offers? Nothing. The irony is cruel for performers in struggling "serious" productions.

Several people are making livings doing "only theater," but none of them is a full-time actor. "Mostly, I think, those who are frequently onstage here teach or are involved with a theater in an administrative capacity," emails Muriel Kenderdine, who relies on retirement income and a job as a church keyboardist to make her ends meet.

Nancy Brown is on the "theater-only" track, teaching classes part-time at the Children’s Theater of Maine and adding costume design, set design, and stage management to her acting mix.

Even so, "it could stand to be supplemented by something else," she says. It has only been a few months, and already, "it’s been very hard."

"I don’t have very much luxury money," and could use a part-time job "just for the extras," those expenses beyond rent, food, and monthly bills. Like, say, going to the theater.

Daniel Noel agrees. Now 50 and a member of the Actors Equity union since 1978, he says, "I live hand to mouth. I could be totally destitute tomorrow, and I probably will be, after I pay all my bills."

In fact, it may be his Equity membership that’s hurting him. Equity rules are meant to protect actors from low-paying, exploitative theater managers. But when low-paying (though good-hearted) theater companies are all that exist, there’s no work for him.

What Equity work does come to Maine — at Portland Stage, Maine State Music Theater, the Theater at Monmouth, and the Public Theatre — is doled out only after national casting calls and auditions, again because of Equity rules.

"I can’t perform in any of the other theaters" except as a benefit, Noel said. If they wanted him, Maine’s small companies would have to pay him a minimum of $175 a week, including rehearsal weeks, as a "guest artist."

Compare that with how Shetterly describes her fledgling company’s compensation: They pay for tea and coffee, bottled water, flowers, and sometimes small stipends. "It felt like we were saying to them, even though it was a small amount, that we valued their work."

Or even that at Mad Horse, a long-established non-Equity theater company: "Everyone gets paid," says Muller-Jones. "It’s still a labor of love." So much so that "all of the actors that I know have another job."

The small compensation isn’t their fault. The donor pool is small, and audiences are, too. With low ticket prices — aimed at removing one excuse people use for not going to theater — the actors find themselves at the end of the line, waiting for what money is left after paying for rights to a play, set and costume pieces, renting space, insurance, and printing and mailing costs for promo pieces and programs.

Yet even with the pittance they get for their work, Noel still eyes small-company actors longingly. "I’m so jealous" of actors at Mad Horse, Good Theater, and others, "because they can work." He usually performs a couple of times a year at Portland Stage, in their Little Festival of the Unexpected and From Away play festivals, and in A Christmas Carol.

"I want to work in the community," but can’t. The reason? Equity. "Your union, that’s supposed to be helping you, and it’s holding you back," Noel said. "That’s ridiculous."

All the same, he hasn’t ever thought about leaving the union. The benefits — including health insurance, networking contacts, and recognition as a "serious" actor in larger markets — are too important.

He has had to work with producers to get around Equity rules. If they want him to perform on the cheap, it has to involve reading from a book — not a play — or must benefit some charitable organization.

Other Equity actors he knows have moved on to TV or film. Those still on stage in Maine get by with the same old tricks as the state’s non-Equity actors: They record audiobooks, appear in tiny films, do voice-over work for businesses, and travel to Boston or New York to pick up extra work.

Is there a way to fix this? Short of upping theater ticket prices — which could result in reduced audience numbers across the board — some local actors are already dreaming of ways they can make local work for themselves and others.

"Portland’s got the reputation now of being a workshop city," says Noel, where playwrights could come to collaborate with actors on plays-in-progress.

Shetterly sees Maine as a place that could be a "hotbed of theater beginnings," where budding directors and producers can "explore an idea without the kind of overhead you’d have in New York."

Muller-Jones and Marshall have done murder-mystery theme events for private gatherings.

Many actors here are growing and changing as actors and people, taking less money as a "leg up," while at the same time paying Southern Maine’s high rents. They are not whiners. All of them knew theater wasn’t a money-making business when they got into it, and stay in for love of the craft.

"There’s a long history of actors taking roles for less money because they really believe in the work," says Shetterly. But believing in food and heat and a roof don’t make them real.

"The actors that are doing their job should be compensated for that," Shetterly says. "It’s not an easy job — it’s a hard job. It’s a physical job, it’s an emotional job." Paying or compensating someone "says that you value their time and that it’s important to you."

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