“please sir, can i have some more?”
Look, I get it. We share something intangible onstage. With and of ourselves, with our fellow actors and with the audience. What happens when the house lights go down and the stage lights come up, that shifting anticipation in the room; for those of us on stage, our senses heighten, our breath lifts and we come alive.
Actors are the most beautiful people I’ve ever known. Striking, clever, curious. Hilarious and maddening. Deeply sensitive and brash. Fucking weird and, a little dark, to be honest. Maybe that’s why we run around chasing the light all our lives.
Actors are fun! Most of us are poor but we have a gay old time. Rehearsal halls, dressing rooms and green rooms brim with laughter. We love to laugh, play and pile on jokes. Actors share. We share tea, whiskey and cake. We share about our children and our partners. We share raised eyebrows and hushed gossip, “…but you didn’t hear that from me.” We share stories so funny you will scream with laughter. We share flashes of our broken hearts. We perform but we also witness, and we are grateful for it all. The camaraderie is real. Shows come and go but the joy remains.
All this to say, I understand why you feel inclined to follow this path. I really do. But there is a cost to the joy and the magic.
The cost is your life.
Your real life traded for a life on stage. Job security, livable wages, financial stability, benefits, vacation pay, sick days, bereavement leave- these do not exist within our industry. (And don’t @ me about the Equity benefits, they are pathetic). Your weekly paycheque will not have the required taxes deducted, meaning your net pay is not really your net pay. Take that sad amount and see it reduced by another 15%.
Rent, mortgage (ha!), utilities, car insurance, gas, parking, groceries, child care, clothing, medication, miscellaneous. It all gets spread too thin. This is a treacherous-ass industry and the majority of you simply will not make enough money to be able to survive. Let alone in a city as expensive as Vancouver. This shit is not for the feint of heart.
Enter the joe job, the side hustle, the gig economy: nanny during the day and run off to rehearsal at night, rehearsals during the day and bus/serve or bartend into the wee hours of the morning. Catering, background work, retail, teaching, crying in the bathroom- we’ve all been there.
We accept it as part of the package but, why do you need a job so that you can afford to do your job? At this point it feels more like an expensive hobby.
Of course, not everyone is a struggling hobo. Here are the exceptions to the rule:
• Your partner has a steady income and covers the majority of your living expenses, thanks Daddy Warbucks!
• Your mummy and daddy subsidize your income, thanks Daddy Warbucks!
• You are lucky in opportunity and rich in preparation, you are consistently employed in this industry. Get it, girl. *snaps*
When I look around to see who is still givin’er, they either fall into the above mentioned categories OR they are single and live incredibly modest lives.
Now, let’s talk about time. How many hundreds of hours have we spent in the corners of rehearsal halls, or cranky and tired in the wings during tech, or running lines backstage and on transit and in bed. How many hundreds of hours of unpaid prep-work do we do to practise, rehearse, refine, perfect, drill. We’ve all missed important life events due to rehearsal or the run of a show. I’ve cried backstage while being texted photos of a dear one’s wedding. Barfed in the aptly named vom and still made my entrance. We’ve all pushed through illness and injury because “the show must go on.” Ah, that old toxic chestnut. There’s the rub. There’s the cost. You deserve the space to live your life. To show up and be present at important life events. To rest and heal when your body and your mind are not well. These are not unreasonable expectations.
In my twenties, I had the time. I could afford the risk of this industry; multiple jobs, constant hustle, exhaustion and joy- a badge of pride for the theatre artist. Now I am no longer in my twenties. Now I am a mother (a different kind of exhaustion and joy). Opportunities I would eagerly have said yes to in the past, I must now weigh against what the cost will be. Childcare and transportation are now weighed against the offered “Artist’s Fee”. More often than not, I can’t afford to do it. I would be losing money if I accepted the work. Workshops are the absolute worst in terms of compensation.
I love workshopping new plays. Getting in before the foundation has been poured, combing through what’s on offer and seeing how our voices and insights shift the course of the story. It’s incredible. And I have had to decline this work that I love because the pay is garbage. A four hour workshop, under the CAEA terms, after deductions you are walking away with a little over $50. FIFTY CANADIAN DOLLARS. That’s $12.50 an hour. My babysitter makes $17. If you are doing a workshop at BMO and you pop into the JJ Bean, that barista is making a better rate than you (and they probably have benefits!). The sad, sad jokes write themselves.
I knew. I knew what I was signing up for, or at least I thought I did. In this cautionary tale I am both Goldilocks and the three bears, both Hansel and the wicked witch. I thought I knew the cost but the truth is, you see time differently in your twenties than in your thirties and beyond. Life will push on, your priorities will shift and it’s up to you to create a stable foundation for yourself. Is it possible to achieve this in an industry where the plates are always shifting?
If this sounds grim to you, it’s because it is. But hey, you’ve got a gleam in your eye and a swell bottle in your totebag, strap on your blundstones and see what lays ahead!
For real though, I’m not saying this to bum you out. Please do not misconstrue this as me telling you not to follow your dreams. I would never dare. I am, however, encouraging you to question your dreams. Do they align with your goals for the future? Will they allow you to have the kind of life you have imagined for yourself? For your family?
Are you willing to give everything to an industry that promises you nothing?
Actors are forever chasing. Some moment, some glory, some sweet affirmation that YES, I am seen. I am heard. I am loved. That chase can be fun and full of wonder. But if one day you realize that the chase is no longer fun, and that it is no longer serving you: it’s ok to stop.
The truth is, you already have everything you will ever need. You are enough. And you always have been.
Here’s some more unsolicited advice from your Aunty Sereana:
• Your teachers/profs don’t know everything. It’s ok – and encouraged- to question them. If they try to bully you, I give you my permission to CALL THEIR ASS OUT. They should know better and, honestly, your tuition pays their salary *shrug*
• Once you’re out in the jungle the above advice applies to your directors. They do not know everything (the best ones will admit it). There is no “whipping boy” clause in your contract so do NOT accept garbage behaviour from some sweating ego with coffee breath.
• Running your ass ragged so that you can survive is not normal, healthy or something to be celebrated. This industry and this city makes it seem like it is but, it’s not.
• You don’t have to do/see everything. Stay home, drink tea, do a puzzle, watch twerk videos. REST is important and, in an industry where the average rehearsal schedule is 8 hour days at 6 days a week, rest is something that is NOT valued in this industry.
• Honestly, it’s just a play.